We prepare ourselves for fear, suffering, and death—as the price we may pay for success. We try to ready ourselves for a host of leadership challenges, some quite emotional and complex. We prepare ourselves to overcome daunting obstacles to get the job done and look after our people. But do we prepare ourselves for the either—or moment when we cannot do both at the same time?
There is one leadership dilemma we seldom, if ever, discuss. Possibly the hardest thing any of us will ever have to do is to reconcile the conflict between caring deeply and sincerely about our Marines—loving them—and being able to face up to their likely sacrifice if the mission requires it. I believe that few of us are ready for the searing emotional experience of having to look into the eyes of people we care for and send them to probable or certain death.
Marine Corps leaders routinely make efforts and sacrifices that are undreamed of in most organizations. This calling requires both an iron determination to see the group succeed and a powerful sense of responsibility and concern for our followers. To pit two such urgent imperatives against each other is to bring about a wrenching internal struggle with powerful emotional aftereffects. To remain effective, we need to prepare ourselves and our subordinate leaders for such internalized conflict, as we do for other combat stresses.
During 12 years as both a noncommissioned officer and an officer, I have spent many hours in leadership classes analyzing and studying fear, grief, depression, and fatigue. Some sessions have faced squarely the difficult subjects of killing and dying, but never has a guided discussion or reading given more than passing mention to the need to sacrifice lives entrusted to my care. Yet this conflict may require more thought and preparation than any other issue. The actions we aretalking about are very hard to reconcile with values that we hold most deeply. To bring about the death of a comrade to whom we are bonded by loyalty and deep concern cuts across the grain of our cultural heritage.
Under any circumstances, service in combat makes us overcome several emotional barriers. We were brought up to believe that killing other than in self-defense is wrong. We were taught to fight fair and to view others with compassionand empathy. In the military community, however, we come to accept the fact that we may have to kill people; in fact, we are taught to do so unfairly and in cold blood . We may be uncomfortable about breaking the ingrained rules of our upbringing, but we can see the necessity.
If anything, we have even stronger feelings about loyalty. Our culture puts a high value on not letting our friends and family down. Any group that works together sharing stress and danger forms strong emotional bonds. In an alien environment where people must depend on each other to survive, the ties grow even stronger. Veterans describe intense combat friendships as being unlike any others in their lives. Between senior and subordinate, the two-way flow of responsibility and trust must be equally selfless.
The combat leader also feels the stirrings of the Western ideal of heroic leadership—through shared risk and self-sacrifice. We are taught to lead from the front. To do otherwise feels wrong, even when it is necessary. At times, however, circumstances may require a combat leader to sacrifice followers for the success or survival of the unit, while preserving himself. A leader who follows his heart and shares every risk will not survive to continue leading; one who refuses to spend the lives of others will be unable to function in war; one who does not care deeply enough to be torn by the conflicting demands of leadership will not be able to inspire or take proper care of his people. Some professions require that their members treat people as expendable means to an end; others call for a great amount of caring and loyalty. Only the profession of arms demands both at once.
In my interviews with the selection boards that chose me for promotion to the noncommissioned officer ranks (and later for commissioning), never was I asked how I would feel about sending men into a situation where I knew they would be killed. And as a member of several selection boards for potential non-commissioned officers and officers, I have never asked that hard question myself, nor have I heard others ask it.
By late in the first day of the battle of Shiloh, in 1862, General Ulysses S. Grant's army had lost thousands of men and was on the brink of defeat. Grant surveyed' the field, retired to his tent, and cried bitterly for the troops who had died following his orders. Then he composed himself and ordered a counterattack, knowing that more would die—but also knowing that it had to be done.
Captain Lew Walt, later to be Commandant of the Marine Corps, commanded a company of Marines on Guadalcanal. Facing a Japanese night assault, he ordered his men to hold their positions at all costs. He knew the consequences of his order. Men who looked to him for guidance would suffer and die so that the line would hold. The company stopped the Japanese attack, which could have overrun the entire defensive perimeter. Morning found Captain Walt cradling a dying rifleman in his arms, tenderly reassuring him that he had done well and that his captain was proud of him. He grieved for his beloved Marines, then went on doing his job.
Resolving the conflict between the mission and human lives demands tremendous strength and will. Some are neither able nor willing. Others can get the job done but are not strong enough to survive the aftermath. Our Corps and our Marines need leaders who can face all the trials of command without breaking. To honor their trust in us, we should prepare for this as we do for killing enemies or for our own suffering or dying. We must search our hearts to be sure we can and will do whatever may be needed, no matter what the cost to our own feelings and peace of mind. We should think about this, ask questions of those who have been there. As with other problems of leadership, we would benefit from guided readings and discussions on this subject. Having thought the issue through might make the difference between functioning on the battlefield and leaving our Marines leaderless at a crucial moment.
If we examine our expectations from our own commanders, we find that we do not expect them to keep us alive under all circumstances. We expect them not to waste us—not to throw our lives away recklessly—and this is exactly what our Marines deserve from us. Their lives are riding on our professional competence and emotional maturity.
At The Basic School, combat leadership panels now discuss the problem ofsending the Marines we care for into harm's way. All of us should be doing the same, wherever we are, from fire team leader on up.
We can pursue this line of thought through individual initiative, and some do. Still, many of us spend most of our time thinking about the day-to-day demands of our current duties and give little thought to hypothetical future situations unless it is demanded. We tend to avoid dwelling on subjects that make us uneasy. Without impetus and guidance, few could attain the insights we need.
Talking about sending people to their deaths will arouse argument and intensity of feelings in ways that few leadership discussion topics do. Such discussion is likely to frighten some and disturb many. These days, when so many seem to enter military service for reasons unrelated to fighting and dying, it may cost the Marine Corps some potential recruits or officer candidates. But it is better to sense reality early than it is to flinch when the time comes to face reality head-on.
Captain Finley graduated from the Command and Control Systems Course at Quantico in May 1991; he is currently serving as the information systems management officer for the 7th Marine Expeditionary Brigade at Twentynine Palms, California.