Small Wars Journal

A Letter to Junior Officers

Thu, 02/20/2014 - 4:00pm

Recently several lieutenants have written me to share their fears and anxieties about their own particular development as the tectonic plates of the Army and budgets continue to shift.  In their eyes, their experience as a junior officer will be characterized by garrison administration, episodic training events, and canceled rotations to the National Training Center.  Their fear is that by the time they make it to company command and beyond, they will not possess the necessary tools required of them to be effective commanders.  They won't be ready.

I do my best in my correspondence to not only give them a space to vent, but to also offer them words of encouragement about the future.  I usually redirect the conversation towards the idea of being a military professional.  Without echoing the definitions of Huntington or Janowitz, I would like to take this opportunity to address some of the junior officers who might be feeling the same anxieties and fears as those with whom I’ve come into contact with lately.

Being a military professional does not mean waiting for the system to develop you.  It means taking charge of your own development and seeking out opportunities to make yourself a better leader.  It is our responsibility to those that we might lead in future assignments to be prepared when the time comes, regardless of the opportunities that are presented to us by the military.   In an ideal world, we would have unlimited training budgets, the perfect balance of field time and family time, and all officers would feel like they are fully prepared for the next level of leadership. We must come to terms with reality and although lacking hands-on practical experience, we must turn to history and other professional literature to develop and mature our own understanding of the profession of arms.

History is ripe with examples of military leaders who have faced similar difficulties, but they compensated for their lack of experience with a practice of self-study.  Generals George Patton and Dwight Eisenhower as well as the majority of the leaders in the Second World War spent their formative years developing in an environment characterized by the following passage:

“It is terribly difficult for military men to keep their methods adapted to rapidly changing times. Between wars the military business slumps. Our people lose interest. Congress concerns itself with cutting the Army than with building it up. And the troops…find a large part of their time and energy taken up with caring for buildings, grounds, and other impedimenta. In view of all the inertias to be overcome, and in view of the fact that our lives and honor are not in peril from outside aggression, it is not likely that our Army is going to be kept to an up-to-the-minute state of preparedness.” -William E. Lassiter, 1929

I encourage young officers to read Roger H. Nye’s book, The Patton Mind: The Professional Development of an Extraordinary Leader, (a very quick read) to see how George Patton approached his personal growth as an officer.  Also, read Robert Carroll’s The Making of a Leader: Dwight D. Eisenhower, an article in Military Review, which describes the career path of a young officer who missed out on combat experience in World War I.  Both of these pieces may provide inspiration to those struggling right now as many units adjust to garrison life.  They also give us insight as to how these leaders prepared themselves for their future roles in combat.

More recently, General (ret) Paul K. Van Riper’s essay, The Relevance of History to the Military Profession: An American Marine’s View, describes how reading prepared him for leadership roles in combat and in garrison, and how returning to previously read material at different stages in his career helped him in making sense of his experiences.

In addition to the works mentioned above, The Maneuver Leader Self-Study Program is an excellent starting point for younger members of the profession.  There you can find books, articles, podcasts, videos, and discussion threads that serve as a guide to navigating the wealth of material available in bookstores and on the internet.  It was developed by LTG(sel) H.R. McMaster, who has used his knowledge of the past to not only prepare himself for combat, but also to prepare the Army for its future challenges.

Globalization, rapid-advances in information and communication technology, the rise of ethnic nationalism, the diffusion of military technologies to non-state actors, and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction has complicated the current landscape.  The future is uncertain.  None of us know, much like the young lieutenants and captains during the interwar period, when we might be called upon to lead our nation’s men and women in conflict.  We owe it to our Soldiers and our nation to begin preparing our minds now, so that when the day comes we are ready.


John Milner

Mon, 02/02/2015 - 8:21pm

You should have the benefit of good company commander advice. Unfortunately they are few and far between
As a junior officer, your first two years will probably be in excess capacity. Don't let that deter you. You chose your career branch for a reason, give it a chance. You will be given additional duty assignments. Treat this as real work and excel at everything. Prove yourself. Don't stand by because you have it easy and let your skills rot. Take a page from George Patton and volunteer for those two tough assignments (PT Officer, and Weapons Qualification OIC). If you don't, fear will destroy you. Either position will make you the most valuable asset in the company. As an excess officer, platoon leader, or XO, spend time with your company commander to map out your future. If you don't care, he may not care, and you will be forfeiting good advice. Your first six years in the service are your most important formative years; you will either learn and reinforce good skills, or bad ones. Last, take a page from the Eisenhower playbook and become a valuable trainer in your unit, both in the classroom and in the field. Either one of these three skills should assure your future for command time.
The above senerio will look like a very, very hard road to hoe for most readers. That's because you lack experience, and what I wrote is your worst nightmare. It may look good for OCS graduates, but even they are usually E-3 and E-4 in their former ranks and will be timid. Don't let that deter you. Throw yourself into whatever work you are given right away and overcome fear. Don't discipline NCO's, and look to the enlisted side to assess the quality of the unit. After a year, you will know if you are being treated fairly by your OER. If you really excel, write down your accomplishments (date, place, event, your role) and tell your boss three months out. Behind closed doors, give him a copy. Finally, never elevate training matters above the head of your company commander; you are the responsible leader. That's life as excess.
You may think this is way too hard. However, you are creating opportunity for yourself. Don't be a loser. You will follow my advice if you love wearing the uniform and if that rank means a great deal to you. I hope that that's the case.

Interested Observer

Fri, 02/21/2014 - 11:09am

My experience is different than that of Mark Adams. I served in the 1980s; I left the Army in 1989. Of my contemporaries (ROTC and AOBC classmates) the officers who served after their obligation were by-and-large great young leaders. They were people who studied their craft and were always looking for innovative ways to train their soldiers and develop themselves. They were the officers who were “called” to serve.

Many of them served admirably, without prior combat experience, as company and battalion commanders in Desert Storm. Some of them became Special Forces officers. They stayed in through the 90s and the GWOT and some are still serving. The ones with whom I’ve stayed in touch who have had successful careers (two General Officers and myriad 0-5s and 0-6s) are officers who developed themselves as warriors while serving as peacetime Lieutenants, Captains, and Majors.

Was there more money for training available in the 80s? Yes. However, I believe the officers I am discussing would have done everything they could without that money to prepare themselves, and their soldiers, to serve the nation. Indeed, they worked as hard on their craft off-duty as they did during the day.

I think there will always be a cadre of dedicated officers and NCOs who are called to serve and who are very good at what they do but continuously strive to be better.

My experience is anecdotal; but I think Joe Byerly is right.

Mark Adams

Fri, 02/21/2014 - 4:51am

With respect to Joe Byerly (whoever he is) I suggest he has missed the point.

It is the period between wars when the practical soldiers leave the service - rather than spend their time watching their troops clean and repaint garrisons - and the 'garrison types" again come to the fore.

No military - I have ever heard of - has managed the period between wars effectively to ensure that their forces were ready for action when the time came again.

It of course can be done but never in the case of the US where the homeland is never threatened with invasion therefore just goes through the motions between wars.

The best advice to those young officers who dread the coming period of peacetime soldiering is to get out as soon as they can, remain on the reserve and get promoted so they will be in a position to command men in battle when the next war comes when the garra-toopers find 100,000 'good' reasons why they can't deploy on operations.

It is counterproductive to encourage your warrior officers to stay in the service during peacetime... you will lose them anyway eventually... and permanently.