Small Wars Journal

What I Have Learned With Bullets

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What I Have Learned With Bullets

Keith Nightingale      

I was cleaning out my accumulated files and I came across a series of notes regarding officers and leadership accumulated through the years.  Having commanded four rifle companies, three Airborne/Ranger battalions and two Airborne/Ranger brigades, several in combat between 1965 and 1993, I saw a lot, did a lot and tried to remember.  This article is for those who wish the knowledge, hopefully without the pain.

Officers in Combat

  • Do what you are trained to do.  Sounds simple but it’s hard when bullets fly.  Just do it.  Do not think.  Thinking at this stage is deadly for your troops. You will fight as you train.  You will not get magically better when you deploy.  Bad units are always bad-the enemy tells you that.
  • There is no luxury of self-indulgence.  Be with the troops.  Lead.  Do not order.
  • In a small moment in time, you are God.  Take the care associated with the responsibility.
  • Be calm.  Fear is contagious and calm inoculates.
  • Use all the toys and tools you have or can demand.  Nothing is more expensive than a soldier.
  • Expect the unexpected. Reverse the process and surprise the bad guys.
  • Be flexible.  Combat demands it.  Everything changes all the time.  Open minds dominate the battlefield.
  • Initiative is the Sword of Excalibur.  Do not fear.  Trust your training and your instincts.  Use it and use it always.  Teach and inculcate the subordinates to use it more than you.  Fear not. It will work.
  • Inform and communicate up and down-always.  Human interaction is the elixir of life on the battlefield.
  • Think from the enemy viewpoint-that is the only perspective that really counts.
  • Remember-there is a huge machine behind you.  Task it ruthlessly.
  • Do what you think right and want to do, not what you think you must do. If you succeed, no one will notice how you got there, but you will get the credit.  Fail and you won’t care.
  • Don’t try to be loved.  Just try hard and lead always.  All else follows.
  • Remember your basic human values.  If you forget them or allow others to forget them, you forfeit your purpose and why we exist as a nation.

Things That Count

  • Casevac.  Troop impressions of its management are as powerful as any bullet.
  • Water, food and ammo.  It’s not rocket science.  Maslow is hard at work here.
  • Sleep. Tired troops give the bad guys the edge. Especially the leaders.
  • Combined arms.  Anything is cheaper and better than a soldier.  Use it. It’s free.
  • Reporting precision.  Initial combat reporting is always bad and always wrong.  Help your boss make correct informed decisions.
  • Mail.  Close to sexual gratification in isolation.  Be the organizational pimp.
  • Accomplishing the mission.  Do everything above and this will automatically follow.

Stuff To Work On Before Engagement     

  • NCO roles and responsibilities. NCO’s make things happen.  Officers watch.  NEVER mess with this.
  • Concept and employment of clear measurable standards in all unit tasks. This is a CORE necessity. If you do not inculcate this, you WILL fail.
  • All weapons and all roles cross trained all the time.  There is no guarantee of unit integrity when the battle is joined. Every soldier must be capable of doing every job.
  • Marksmanship and bullet control.  Every round a hit.  Spray and pray is for people who do not routinely get shot at.  Assume if you don’t have it, you won’t get it. That is usually true.
  • When something is FU, stop it. Discuss it-bottom up. Restart. Reinforce success.  Minimize failure.
  • Uniformity-packing, wearing, doing.  It’s a mental thing and symbolic of the unit quality.
  • Delegation as a constant mantra in all things.  Be lazy and observe. Practice this routinely.  In combat you can manage yourself and maybe the radio operator.
  • Physical fitness.  Lead and make others follow. The core of every quality unit.
  • Communication skills.  Up and down.  Talk to your troops frequently-informally. Do not lecture-listen, watch, discuss.  They want to know the Why from you.  They will figure out the How.
  • Read history.  A lot of good stuff there that can save your lives.  Plagiarize frequently.
  • Get and stay involved.  Get dirty.  Be seen. Bullshit.  Enjoy your people.  It is a short tour. 

About the Author(s)

COL Nightingale is a retired Army Colonel who served two tours in Vietnam with Airborne and Ranger (American and Vietnamese) units. He commanded airborne battalions in both the 509th Parachute Infantry Regiment and the 82nd Airborne Division. He later commanded both the 1/75th Rangers and the 1st Ranger Training Brigade.

Comments

"...Be lazy and observe. Practice this routinely.  In combat you can manage yourself and maybe the radio operator."

"...Talk to your troops frequently-informally. Do not lecture-listen, watch, discuss.  They want to know the Why from you.  They will figure out the How."

"...Get and stay involved.  Get dirty.  Be seen. Bullshit.  Enjoy your people.  It is a short tour."

Thanks for sharing, sir. I appreciated reading these notes.  The three excerpts above are things that have become undervalued, at least during my experience. I think they are gold, and lay the foundation for most everything else as far as leader credibility.

Ed