I believe in our noncommissioned officers (NCOs). I know what they are capable of because I have seen it firsthand, time and again. As a young Marine, I spent my formative years in the counterinsurgency phase of the Iraq War. This was an era of distributed and decentralized operations in which infantry squads were the primary unit of action. These squads, led by sergeants, corporals, and, at times, savvy lance corporals routinely engaged in firefights with enemy forces, located improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and weapons caches, were hit by IEDs, and evacuated wounded Marines. They did these things with skill and daring, and their performance in this war shines brightly in the history of the Marine Corps. NCOs truly are the backbone of the Marine Corps and they were our center of gravity in the Iraq and Afghan campaigns.
However, some officers, while giving lip service to the abilities of the NCOs, micromanage them and prevent them from realizing their true potential—at their own peril. The NCOs are a force multiplier, they bring out the strength of our units. So, when a unit appears dysfunctional, it is likely this is a unit in which the authority and abilities of the NCOs are stifled. In such units, the NCO is the missing link in the chain of effective leadership.
I witnessed this firsthand as a junior enlisted Marine and an NCO. Our unit had a cadre of very proficient NCOs with impressive combat experience. Yet, our chain of command rarely consulted the NCOs, whether to explain the intent of a directive or to receive feedback. This was a lost opportunity—not only for the company’s leadership, but for the Marines.
After achieving the rank of sergeant, I left active duty only to return five years later as a second lieutenant. And so, I also witnessed the results of this phenomenon as a junior officer. I arrived to a platoon without any sergeants. The three rifle squad leaders being corporals, and weak corporals at that. These were the only NCOs in the platoon; the rest of the Marines were mostly lance corporals with a few privates first class. However, my corporals were NCOs in title only. They did not act like NCOs. They did not see themselves as anything more than lance corporals with an extra chevron and a blood stripe, and neither did the actual lance corporals. This was because unit leaders let the lance corporals view them as peers. They were on a first name basis with their subordinates and they had little respect for themselves, their rank, or their billet. Neither did the lance corporals.
I found myself having to play the role of sergeant again, which I did not want to do because some of the worst officers I have seen were prior enlisted guys that went back to being NCOs. They became the disciplinarians, and lost sight of the bigger picture because they were constantly involved in things that their NCOs should have been doing. Fortunately, I did not have to do this for long before a sergeant arrived fresh from drill instructor duty. He came in like a wrecking ball and snapped the Marines back into shape. It was not pretty at first, but it was what the unit needed to reinstill respect for those who wore the “hard stripes.” I got other NCOs from other duty stations and grew more from our own ranks and we succeeded in fostering a culture in which NCOs were respected. It would have been nice had it been that way when I showed up to that platoon, though. Our work-up would have gone much smoother, but through trial and error, we got to where we needed to be as a unit. And I am still proud of that platoon.
I like to contrast this experience with my next platoon, an 81-mm mortar platoon. Almost immediately, the NCOs of the mortar platoon restored my faith in the NCO corps. These NCOs were professionals. They knew their jobs and held themselves and their Marines to high standards. To quote T.R. Fehrenbach, the sergeants “behaved the way good sergeants had behaved since the time of Caesar, expecting no nonsense, allowing none.”1 The corporals were highly competent as well. The NCOs of this platoon never ceased to impress me and I will remain proud of them until I hang up my uniform for good.
Being an 81-mm mortar platoon commander is like being the captain of a ship. A ship has different departments that all must function smoothly to make the ship go. There’s the engine room, electrical division, hydraulic division, navigators who chart the ship’s course, sailors that pilot the ship, etc. If any single division or department does not function properly the ship will not go anywhere. Likewise, one man cannot run all the departments simultaneously. Anyone who tries will fail. A ship’s operations must be decentralized. The captain must trust his department heads and their subordinate leaders.
The mortar platoon was like this as well, with the three legs of the indirect fire triangle. First, there are the forward observers (FOs) who are out far ahead of the platoon, where they identify targets and tell the rest of the platoon where to shoot and are only in communication by radio. Then there is the fire direction center (FDC) that receives the observers’ calls for fire and calculates the firing data that will be applied to the guns. Finally, there is the gunline, who receive the data from the FDC and apply it to the gunsights before firing rounds.
Just like a ship’s captain, I could not be in each leg of this triangle simultaneously and do everything on my own. I had to trust the Marines down range, the Marines talking on the radios, the Marines plotting firing data, and the Marines manipulating the guns. I had to trust that the NCOs had trained them well and were supervising them properly. So, I did, and everything worked exceptionally well.
Even more remarkable, we were generally one rank below the authorized rank for the key billets. An 81-mm mortar platoon rates a gunnery sergeant for a platoon sergeant and we had a staff sergeant. It rates staff sergeants as its two section leaders and we had sergeants in those billets. It rates sergeants as both of its FDC chiefs, to which we had corporals. Finally, the 81-mm platoon rates sergeants as gun squad leaders and several of these key subordinate leaders were corporals. Despite these shortfalls, these Marines always performed excellently and never disappointed. Quite impressively, some could switch around between FO, FDC, and gunline billets, and did so. They went where the platoon felt they were needed to train the new joins. These Marines were completely capable of the giant responsibilities with which they were entrusted. I respected and trusted them so much that if any of my corporal FDC chiefs came to me with an issue they had my complete and undivided attention. Many of the issues they brought up warranted the attention of the company commander and I dutifully conveyed the message. We were decentralized because we had to be, and that’s the way it should be.
I have seen it both ways. I have seen a unit in which the NCOs were absent and one in which they were instrumental. It worked much, much better the second way. NCOs who are properly engaged take ownership of not only their job, but of their Marines’ jobs as well. These NCOs become territorial, take pride in their charge, and ensure their subunit’s work is of the highest quality. There are a lot of details when it comes to leadership and the more troops one has beneath them the more details they have to track. NCOs who are treated professionally will act professionally. Professional NCOs take care of the small details so officers can focus on the larger tasks. Anyone who finds themselves in a troubled unit should first look to see how the NCOs are employed. It is plain to see how a poorly performing unit can be improved by unleashing the NCOs and allowing them to operate at their fullest potential. In such units, NCOs are the missing link between mission accomplishment and failure, life and death, and victory and defeat.
1. T. R. Fehrenbach, This Kind of War (New York: Bantam Books, 1991), 182.