Never Above, Always Beside

By Sergeant Daniel Glisson, U.S. Marine Corps

A day in the barracks. As you argued with another Marine, it turned into a fight. You yelled and struck, and in a flash it was over. Seconds later, there was a shaking of hands and a hug. The love between brothers that no one else will ever understand.

That was when you taught me honor.

Months later, in Marjah, Afghanistan. The first time I ever stepped outside into the unknown abyss. Into only the known of danger and torture, where the only thing we had was each other completely surrounded by pain. As you stepped outside, you turned to us with a smile and said, “Here we go.”

That was when you taught me courage.

Soon after. When the scorching sun cooked what lay on the ground, and the beings that walked about. As I was many meters away. A Marine laid on a rooftop made from mud, bleeding. Without hesitation you went to him. Without a beating heart you saved your brother.

That was the day you taught me commitment.

That was the day when I could only aspire to reach the values you taught us.

Lance Corporal Joshua Twigg, U.S. Marine Corps, was killed in action on 2 September 2010, the day that he ran onto a rooftop to save another Marine. Walter Winchell once wrote that in a marriage one must be “never above you, never below you, always beside you.” Leadership in combat is far more personal and intimate than marriage. When a Marine says “never above” it refers to the love all infantrymen have for each other regardless of rank or billet, officer or enlisted. Even though it is clear who is in charge, real Marines would give themselves in entirety for another. If you hold yourself above someone, or think of yourself as more valuable, you would not sacrifice yourself for them. A round from a machine gun went through Lance Corporal Twigg’s heart as he ascended the stairwell. After being shot he still made it to the lieutenant and jumped off the rooftop carrying him.

Lance Corporal Twigg epitomized “never above,” just as Corporal John C. Bishop did. Corporal Bishop told me several times, “I have never met a man worth his own weight who would hold himself above another.” Bishop was an experienced corporal, with a bit more than four years in the Marine Corps at the time. His first deployment, one of several, was the push into Fallujah, Iraq, our most kinetic engagement of the century. But he never held it over you, and never claimed to be a better man or Marine because of it. The man was the embodiment of silent professionalism, and unless you asked him about his experience you’d never know. Corporal Bishop was killed in action 8 September 2010. I will always remember how he taught me you must be a good man before you can be a good Marine. I later passed that on to the recruits of Parris Island whom I helped to develop and train.

Marines Don’t Fight for Glory

Napoleon so ignorantly declared that “a soldier will fight long and hard for a bit of colored ribbon.” He was wrong. A leader will inspire, not manipulate. The truth is, warriors won’t fight for any amount of colored cloth or shiny metal, but they will gladly and without hesitation die for each other. The love among them drives them to accomplish amazing feats that could be described only as miracles, except unlike miracles, they occur over and over. Shiny medals and badges will never make a person great, or make them a leader.

A leader never seeks glory. Glory must be distinguished from pride, because if you do your job well, you should be proud. Glory invites attention-seeking behavior that often is seen as: “Look at me; I am so great.”

Leaders understand that Marines don’t fight for glory: they fight for other Marines. The greatest warriors I have ever met never boasted or bragged. They rarely talked about themselves. A sergeant once told me that “the empty ammo can rattles the loudest.” The best combat-experienced leaders I have met were followed not because of their experience, but because of their values. I generally did not even know about their combat experience until further on in our professional relationship. I have served with a few horrible leaders with vast combat experience. These failed leaders cited all the things they had done, but it never made them better people or better leaders.

Combat experience, in itself, has little to do with great leadership. A particular staff noncommissioned officer I knew—who had never deployed outside the United States—proved to be the very embodiment of leadership. The Marines in his section at the time were very experienced noncommissioned officers, most of whom had several tremendously kinetic combat deployments. Those Marines would have followed him in a bayonet rush into hell, not because he was a staff sergeant, but because he was a leader.

Undeniable Truths

During World War I, Major John Whittlesey’s battalion of 554 men followed him into the Argonne Forest after being cut off from the rest of the 77th Infantry Division. With the odds stacked against them, they fought valiantly and successfully repelled the Germans. Only 194 of those men were able to walk out of the forest. Major Whittlesey’s leadership resulted in victory in a battle no one thought could be won. For this he was awarded the Medal of Honor.

Unable to handle the loss of his men, Major Whittlesey later killed himself on 26 November 1921 on a ship en route to Havana. He experienced in full measure the unbearable yet undeniable truth about leadership, which is that your Marines and Sailors will die, and it is your own orders that sent them to their deaths. However strong or experienced people may be, we must never allow them to forget they are human, especially the leaders themselves.

Leadership has many aspects. It can’t be reduced to a few words, or even captured in one essay. I don’t think our language has the capacity to define leadership. Even through all my Marine training, the core concept behind leadership never dawned on me. When I finally realized what true leadership is, it came at a great cost. These are things that Marines such as John Bishop and Joshua Twigg taught me.

Give All of Yourself

Expect your Marines to do the same. Love your Marines genuinely, correct their deficiencies, and hold them accountable for their mistakes. Foster their development both as men and Marines, both professionally and morally. Never hold yourself above anyone or believe your value is greater. Speak with humility, and never justify or qualify yourself by citing previous endeavors. Walk courageously into the arms of death, and embrace the unknown with a smile and no hesitation. Bleed beside your Marines; your blood is no different. Accept that Marines die, and when they do, teach your Marines how to accept it by standing tall and remaining strong, while embracing and acknowledging your own humanity. You must be ethical, educated, and moral before you can be a leader. Genuinely care about the well-being of your Marines, even more so than your own.

Remember you are never above, but you are always beside, your Marines.


Sergeant Glisson joined the Marine Corps in 2009. He deployed with 2nd Battalion 9th Marines to Marjah and Sangin, Afghanistan, in 2010 and 2011. He currently serves with 3rd Battalion 2nd Marines deployed to Camp Schwab, Okinawa, Japan.

 

 
 

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