Second Co-Honorable Mention, Vincent Astor Memorial Leadership Essay Contest
Leaders must be able to stand behind their convictions—even if they differ from the majority. We must encourage this thoughtful dissent.
In his excellent and provocative 1983 book Planning a Tragedy, author Larry Berman relates the painful tribulations of National Security Council member George Ball during the Johnson administration's late 1960s deliberations on continuing the unpopular Vietnam War. During the long process of deciding how to—or if they even should—further prosecute the war, Ball emerged as the sole consistent and articulate voice for abandoning the conflict. His voice was impassioned, his facts absolute, and his argument compelling against continuing the Pentagon's failing war. But over those weeks, Ball's voice gradually was leveraged, and he eventually was outshouted by the dramatic and dynamic overtures of Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and the other Johnson hawks. So deliberate, cunning, and premeditated was their effort to marginalize and humiliate Ball, that when the President finally called for the Council members to cast their votes on the record, Ball succumbed and voted to continue America's effort in the most divisive conflict of our century.
That the decision made by those men led to the deaths of so many Americans should serve to remind us forever of the importance of the dissenter. Had Ball held the line and used his position to articulate the importance of his views to an ambivalent President, history may have been quite different. But he did not. Overwhelmed by dominating personalities and a stoic culture, he abandoned his convictions.
As a Corps we share the same problems that riddled the National Security Council in those desperate days. Culturally, we fear dissent. We build codified articles to prevent its inception and proliferation. We use rank, position, and tenure to further isolate and minimize those who would argue. That is dangerous. Institutionally, despite praising our mavericks—we breed sheep.
That is not to imply that we don't recognize our shortcomings. And—in the 1990s especially—we have been committed verbally to developing young leaders' minds, to fostering thought, and to nurturing the antithesis to every thesis as a safeguard against group think and stagnant behavior. But it is not working; it is time that we made our practices match our advertising.
But how? Is it too daunting a task to imbue in our young leaders the principles of dissent? Can a military built on the sacred traditions of discipline and obedience afford to embrace those who would teach and promote dissent? Isn't that a recipe for disaster?
Teaching and promoting dissent is not the same as cultivating chaos, anarchy, and disobedience. In fact, training young leaders to question—and then execute—is no more formidable a task then turning them into Marines in the first place. Simply establish a standard and then train to it. A look at the Socratic method—upon which our Western models of learning are based—is useful. Socrates, hailed as a preeminent Western teacher (and leader), encouraged discussion, dissent, and application of the principles of learned debate, and he got good results. Credited with not only establishing the baseline of our thinking process (which has endured for hundreds of years), he also produced some renowned students (in today's vernacular, "junior leaders"), including a young man named Plato. "But he wasn't a military leader!" the critics cry, and they argue that therefore application of his principles is not relevant.
But the Socratic method is as applicable to military leaders as it is to philosophers. The fusion of the thesis (or the "plan" offered by a senior) when combined with the antithesis (the "suggestion" offered by a junior to modify "the plan") resulted in the synthesis for students of Socrates and followers of the principles outlined in his Dialogues. For them, it resulted in philosophies that were closer to the ultimate truth. For us, the application results in better plans that are better executed by Marines who feel that they have a stake in the planning.
Dissent Is Not Disobedience
Those who equate dissent with disobedience miss the point. Many of our master tacticians embrace our mavericks at the Officers Club, but spend the next week ensuring that the next Chesty Puller does not grow up under their leadership. We need to recognize this as a weakness and accept that those mavericks are as essential to our heritage today as they were in years gone by. In fact, they are our lifeblood. But instead, we punish and reform those who think outside the box. Why was it that Commandant of the Marine Corps General C. C. Krulak constantly defended himself against critics who maintain he was building a "Baptist Landing Team"? Perhaps because Marines who offer opinions in print, in a professional forum, are investigated for criminal wrongdoing and their careers are finished. Perhaps because Headquarters issues directives on everything from barracks furniture to the proper wearing of the baseball hat. Perhaps because we are force-fed a "values" program. We are left with a generation of leaders who weigh repercussions above results. Our end result is a white, Republican, Christian leadership corps that wears solid-color polo shirts and khakis to every function not requiring a uniform.
We run the risk of becoming so narrow minded that we not only chase out inspirational leaders, but also become alienated from society. The great consequence of the universal military service in the middle part of this century was that we included a tremendous cross-section of society. The draft insulated us from the dangerous outgrowths of similarity. Today that is not true. We no longer have liberal representation. We no longer have Ivy League representation. As we continue to draw from a smaller segment of society, we must ensure that we do not adopt an exclusionary viewpoint. When senior Department of Defense officials label our organization "extremist" and we are not able to maintain a racial and gender balance that reflects society, we should become concerned that these danger signs may be a product of the culture we have created.
How can we fix it? It is not that difficult. Leadership boils down to encouraging and cultivating the individual in the crowd to raise his hand and articulate the thought that everyone is thinking. We pay lip service to that concept now much the way that we "preach maneuver and fight the Somme" in our tactics problems. We need to enliven our leadership doctrine and mindsets. Adding President Kennedy's Profiles in Courage to our leadership reading list would be a good start. Accepting chaos means fomenting debate and encouraging open and critical thinking. Leaders who profess to accept the fog of war need to realize that the fog is here in peace as well. That fog means realizing and accepting that outside the box should not be outside the Corps.
Puller, Butler, Boyington, and scores of others are remembered and revered by generations for the "take no prisoners" attitude of their convictions, for their swagger in demeanor and action, and for their steadfast refusal to tolerate—or obey—the orders of those less capable than they, regardless of rank. But our peacetime Marine Corps has lost the meaning that these warriors sought to imbue in our souls, and replaced it with mandatory deference to the ideas of those senior to us on all occasions. We can turn that tide if we start now.
Each July, all plebes who enter the U.S. Naval Academy are issued the Midshipman's Bible, Reef Points, which they will carry for their tenure in Annapolis. It is a book of essential knowledge and facts designed to shape the minds of these young officers. Vice Admiral William Mack's remarks on departing from the Academy feature prominently in the book's leadership section. He articulates the need to "determine to hear all arguments and opinions, no matter how extreme, and, above all, to preserve and protect those who voice them." George Ball never was a midshipman and never was issued Admiral Mack's remarks; he never took that important lesson to heart. If he had, perhaps today we would have a smaller wall at 21st and Constitution Avenue in Washington, D.C.
But we cannot fix that. What we can do is ensure that the next generation of decision makers we produce is better prepared than he was to deal with the weight of conviction.
Captain Burdette is a student at Amphibious Warfare School. Before AWS, he served as Head Recorder, Commandant’s Awards Board.