Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Turning down command

At Thomas E. Ricks's blog he has something from an USMC Col. that should ring true to many - a "seeing the elephant" moment.
I have a strong operational background -- have done all the "right" things -- deployed my ass off -- been to all the schools (2 masters degrees, though as you read below -- I'm not a fan of the degrees) -- and more importantly for your post, I am getting ready to fill out my O6 command preference selection for the board that convenes in July.

I know a number of great warriors that have dropped their papers and walked. Either turned down command or requested to not be considered. Family, money, and deployments had little to do with it. In all cases, families were strong and wives supported the obvious grind to be expected with command and further promotion. In a nutshell it is simple -- every single one of them simply reached the tipping point in terms of disgust with what they saw in our system (DOD). These aren't a bunch of knuckle-heads I'm talking about -- these were officers that shocked a lot of people by walking away from it. One of your respondents made a comment about how important command is for Marines, and that's very true. However, for most of us the motivator that keeps us going is knowing that we make a difference -- leadership is so very critical, much more so then most realize.
ave seen half a dozen O5/O6's either turn down command (one a guaranteed stepping stone to O7) or request they not be considered by the board (since they already made a decision to retire). In every case -- every case -- deployments, civilian pay, and family considerations were not the PRIMARY influence.

After years of dedicated service, doing the right thing, leading warriors who joined for all the right reasons, attending all the required PME schools, executing the "mandatory" b-billet tours, you now find yourself as one of "they" (at HHQ). Imagine the surprise to discover there is no magic happening behind the green door. All those years assuming that the GO/FOs were working their asses off to refine/tune regional/theater/strategic paths that make sense of what
subordinate commands/units are executing -- well, hang on -- not so fast. All that "strategic stuff" you learned at Top Level School was really cool in the classroom, but... here's what you more often hear: "... we'll get to that cool stuff later after we iron out & synchronize our social calendars" (and "why in the hell do I only have one secretary when the GO/FO across the hall has three? -- shit me a point paper on that one").

No bitterness -- just plain surprise. So, 24+ years into it -- closely reaching that mystical point where you think you really can help make a difference -- and you get slapped in the face with the emperors' not wearing clothes. Tom, you've asked the right question before -- why aren't more of these folks getting fired?

Truth is -- most of these O5/O6's are turning down command because they've spent their entire professional lives making a difference and having an impact. The reality is (as I contemplate my own cmd selection form) -- some of the NGOs out there are contributing more to a better end then our own organization. Wouldn't it make more sense to play on that team vice carrying some of these whacko's on my back?

Bottom-line, Tom, you do a great job pointing out the O5/O6 commanders that are being booted (as they deserve) -- but we're doing a piss-poor job getting rid of the dead weight above that level; as long as that continues... a lot of good senior officers will continue to bail out. I didn't spend all this time to join a damn social club or spend an hour counting who has more secretaries. I've got about 2 weeks to make a decision and although command is the greatest job in the military, I'm not sure it's worth more of my time.
Your experience may differ.


Butch said...

The major drawback to making O5 is spending more time around O6es and above.

UltimaRatioRegis said...

Amen.  The longer you are in and the higher you go, the more time you are forced to be around those you don't care to be around, and the less time you get to be around those you joined to be around. 

Did not submit for command screening four years in a row.  HQMC asked why.  I don't think they liked my answer. 

Navy Admirals?  Set an upper limit that the number can be no more than 66% of the total hulls in commission.  Not including USNS.

Marine Generals?  Go from the 80+ back to 50.

MR T's Haircut said...

<span>YEP.  Nailed it.  Pretty much why I have decided to go home also. I found my equipoise years ago, and I think I was more effective when I was younger, hungrier and yes maybe even more junior.  </span>
<span>Promotion and longetivity : I found myself higher up the fat ladies dress... the view... well similiar to the analogy of the Emporer... 
That is when I knew it was time to go, money, rank, assignments be damned!</span>

Anonymous said...

Assuming I'm welcome to post.

What took this guy so long?  I saw this philosophy entrenched at the highest levels in 1988 after just 5 years in the business.  With the exception of CAPT Franklin D. Julian, my CO, I could have eaten a handful of yeast and puked a better 06 than what we got on the staff.

CDR K said...

I made a similar decision almost as soon as I put on O-5...just waiting for the retirement eligibility to kick in...

seattlefire said...

I'd include the USNS ships.  There are plenty of Flag Officers at MSC.

virgil xenophon said...

My observation about the USAF in the 60s, early 70s, was that it was a total crapshoot. No logic or merit whatsoever--equal numbers of outstanding officers and total misfits promoted/riffed alike. No way to run a railroad--which is why I walked before I ended up as a senior O-4 with a wife, six kids and a station-wagon with a tail-gate that swings both ways slowly drinking myself to death tortured by what I saw but unalterably attached to the system hoping for O-5 so as not to start all over again at mid-life with no pension. (I watched EXACTLY this kind of person as a real-life object lesson)

YNSN said...

Alright, I am going to give the 'oblivious to it all' Enlisted opinion....

So, it stops being about the guy's under you when you start going up for O5/O6 Command?

Whatever happened to being that one little bit of good in a system?  How can there really be that much shock to someone who's spent a career in the military?  Hell, I knew it was 60% crap through and through when I came in. 

Is that the difference between most officers and those who become like John Boyd?  Boyd stayed.

You know what, your troops still need you even when you're up there in Command.   I still need you when you make Flag.   Men can deploy time and time again, but all of a sudden you get a crap senior boss and it's quitting time?  Oh, and Hell, welcome to the club, when you're at the E-level, you can end up with multiple levels of crap leaders... Crappy LPO, weak CPO, absentee LCPO, Clueless DIVO and mean DH.  Is there something I do not get to see that can top that?

Stop looking at your peers at that time and start looking at your subordinates, no matter how few, and make sure they don't turn out like your peers/boss.  Otherwise you're just as much the problem as anything else.

I'll apologize up front of anything I said that is way off base due to things I haven't expierenced.  But, that is just how I see it, and am only saying what I have to have my misconceptions corrected.

Barco Sin Vela II said...

YNSN; Well put.

C-dore 14 said...

Frank Julian...now there's a name I haven't heard in awhile.

Grandpa Bluewater said...

YNSN: "Bullseye".

Rest o' youse guys: KWITCHERBELLYAYKIN

Illegitimi non carborundum.

Stay. Defend the right. Dread naught. Make sure they know you passed through.

If you made O6, you are truly lucky and possibly good. It isn't like you aren't going to be shown the door within the next 10 years one way or another.

Now spit out the tea, here's the mouthguard, get back in that ring and start punchin'.

You will never get a better job or a cooler title.

DeltaBravo said...

And if you clear the deck for the kind that count secretaries, who is looking out for the real Navy/USMC?  We need some good guys to stay!

Byron said...

I was inclined not to opine, since I'm not a service member and this is a rather specific topic. On the other hand, this old broke-down shipfitter sort of thought the same thing as you, Granpa. If you think things are broke up the chain of command, man up, get to work, fix it.

DeltaBravo said...

Not being a vet or in uniform never stops me from opining!  ;)

Stuff like this is universal.  Wherever you find people you find this kind of thing.  I understand fully the urge not to bang one's head against a brick wall.  Especially after a whole career of watching one's back and front.  But when good people leave (civilian or military endeavors) it makes it easier for the bastiges to grind everyone else down.

UltimaRatioRegis said...

<span>Sorry Grandpa and YNSN,  
You portray people who have given 20-30 years of their lives to the service as "quitters" when they make a conscious decision to no longer make the sacrifices because they cannot any longer justify them to either themselves or their families.   
And frankly gentlemen, that is a load of horsesh*t.  The senior command climate in many places (though thankfully not all) is such that personally influencing the action and caring for your junior Marines is no longer the focus.  In fact, taking command at that level at times is a very conscious decision to do and say things you know not to be in the best interest of those junior folks because it is the "Boss's focus".   
Only so much of that can be tolerated.  When success in command is defined by things other than technical and tactical ability, developing junior leaders, consistent excellence, and preparing to the maximum extent possible your unit for combat, then you have lost the best of the commanders.  
In my case on the reserve side, more and more is asked in between drill periods the more senior one gets.  Understandable.  It turns 50-60 hour weeks into 75-80 hour weeks.  Fine.  KNow it going in.   
But when that extra dedication is to accomplish peripheral, meaningless, politically driven objectives instead of planning and training for war, then no, YNSN and Grampa, it is no longer about the junior people.  The focus is entirely upward, and that is not something good leaders are willing to countenance.   
The idea that the chain of command can be "fixed" by those at the bottom or mid-way up is pie in the sky.  The phrase one will hear often (as I have) is "thank you, and I appreciate your candor".  Which is code for "your chances of getting promoted just dropped significantly".   
Nonsense such as writing white papers about secretarial staffing, or advancing the personal agendas of others over what is really important?  Those things must get fixed from the top.  And when they persist, those good leaders who have spent all their adult lives trying to make a difference will not be long on patience.  
I thank my lucky stars that the Marine Corps has a General Conway and a SgtMaj Kent.  They LEAD.  It means such things are the exception and not the rule.  But that has not always been the case, and will not always be.   
Hold those GO/FO's responsible for the good or lousy command climate they set, and don't put it on the shoulders of those who decide against putting up with the latter.</span>

Anonymous said...

I'm going to (shocker) agree with URR on something. The concept of "changing an organization from the bottom up" is, as he says, incredibly naive. In my very short time in I've already had to do 2 or 3 things I didn't really agree with because the choices were either do it myself and provide some top cover for my people or don't do it, get my ass chewed by my commander and therefore lose influence I could've used later to help out my guys, and whatever it was still ends up occurring regardless of what I do, because I'm just a butter bar.

Sure, you can argue that this is different because I'm low on the totem pole, but it's no different the higher up you get...it's just a different scope. Instead of being a Lt in a flight getting told by a Major in a SQ to do something, you're the major in the SQ getting told by a Col or one star to do something. As a Major in that situation you've got just as much of a (lack of) choice as the Lt does in his situation.

I don't give a rat's ass about getting promoted, or about prestige, etc. I care about making a difference and taking care of my guys. However, like I've just shown, through circumstances completely out of an officer's control, this can become impossible, and I don't blame them for punching out when that occurs. I'd do the exact same thing.

Boyd brings up an interesting point, but it's important to remember that a) the only reason he stayed in for as long as he did is that he had some top cover with some serious brass...yes, he pissed a lot of people off, but he also had a lot of friends in influential places. He was definitely NOT some lone individual tilting at windmills with absolutely no cover from above; and b) he did his most important work (Destruction and Creation, Patterns of Conflict, the O-O-D-A Loop) AFTER he got out. So using him as a counter example in this situation probably isn't the best choice.

This is USAF Mike, btw...trouble getting logged in.

Jay said...

There are two Flag Officers at MSC.  COMSC & the Deputy.  A handful of SES, between MSC HQ & MSFSC.  Two Admirals for 100+ ships (I think our website says 112 -- but not all of those are always activated) and I won't count the MARAD ones that come to our OPCON when activated for DoD missions.

Now you can start to split hairs -- who is under which fleet, etc...but we do all right for a lean organization.

I concur with Grandpa & YNSN. 

Maybe I have just been lucky in my career (even when working as a staff Officer sometimes) -- but no one has played bs games wrt who has how many secreteries, etc. that I am aware of.  We may have gotten wrapped around the axle on other details -- but they were mainly how to support the warfighter better, or how to get good info to the SES/Flags so they can make the right decisions.

UltimaRatioRegis said...

"<span>We may have gotten wrapped around the axle on other details -- but they were mainly how to support the warfighter better, or how to get good info to the SES/Flags so they can make the right decisions."</span>

If that were universally the case, nobody worthwhile would turn down command.  But they are.  And if they are for the reasons stated, don't blame them for not "fixing" something broken by Officers senior to them.

Grandpa Bluewater said...


I hate to be the one to break it to you, but one's chances of promotion drop to "improbable" the minute you make O6.   None the less, O6's do not rate a pity party.  They all have the option of honorable retirement, which if truly honorable ('nother subject, not here applicable) means no apology necessary.

The subject was Command.  Major command. In what's left of my mind, at least. To me that doesn't mean a large steel desk (LSD).  If cube rat is your best offer, well, I wouldn't take it, not matter how you pretty it up with "deputy commander for headquarters heated alertness beverage delivery".  Command with an idiot for an ISIC? Kind of like jungle rot. If you stay in the line for any length of time, you'll put up with some of it. They too pass on.

The troops know. The troops watch. The troops take heart from those who are still on their feet and doing the right things for the right reasons. You forget the power of your personal example, for good or ill.  Despair is a sin, because the Lord ALWAYS has work worth doing for the faithful, and he is in charge, not some Detailer. Is this your calling? Only you and He know. Some days, just Him, just like Mama told you.

Quitters? At this level there are no quitters (apologies to Tom Hanks/Penny Marshal). 

Just retirees and soon to be retirees. From here on in "the old saw about "life is like a piano, what you get out of it depends on how you play it" has real teeth. You might do great and get orders to "home".

 Which might be what you were being prepared for, all these years; i.e., the place all your leadership, skill and compassion are required the most. Life doesn't end when the funny tailored coat with the odd embroidery/costume jewelry hangs in closet permanently and the seabag contents go to the Goodwill, which is the common destiny of us and those like us. The blinders come off with that dress blue coat, too. (also a 'nother subject, me, I'm still half dazzle blind, but maybe that's just the onset of cataracts).

But I digress. As old men do. 

Let's just put it another way....

Buck up, me hearties.  You can do it, and nobody else is going to anyway. Now up, up, and at 'em! (I liked the Rocky allusion better, maybe because I'm kind of stuck in the Burgess Merideth part these days. Youse guys, you're beat up and cut up, and got more rounds behind you than ahead of you, but that don't mean you can't land a lights out punch.  Never let 'em forget it, either)


MR T's Haircut said...

And when I can no longer look my Department in the eye and with a straight face, because of the crap I have to filter, is another indicator it is time to go home... I have to sell used cars a time or two and make it seem as my idea.. it comes with the paycheck.. it does jade you after a while.</span>

UltimaRatioRegis said...

Thanks for the news, Gramps. Been doing this a while, 28 years beginning of next month.

But I take issue with the idea that you think anyone was asking for a "pity party".  Or that talking about such choices to be made is "bellyaching".  The issue addressed was why good people, sometimes the best of them, would choose not to take command.  And the points raised merit serious discussion.

And you're damned right the troops see.  They see whether you become a solution to the problem or upon taking command become part of it.

The sports analogies are nice, but only go so far in the real world.  And unlike Stallone, I have plenty of rounds behind me. 

Again, the comments in Ricks' blog were about making a difference, not necessarily about command.  And if the only difference you are able to make is whether or nor your boss gets promoted or a plum assignment, as the Colonel at Tom Ricks' blog said, it is time to move on. 

MR T's Haircut said...

URR, for some reason , I doubt you play for fruit salad or ladder position... just like I dont!

UltimaRatioRegis said...

You got that right, MTH.  The day I get into the place, command billet or otherwise, where that becomes the biggest game, is the day I regret staying.

Grandpa Bluewater said...


I think we differ because of my well known sunny and optimistic disposition.

Mostly, we are in agreement. I think it's called Gresham's Law (The bad drives out the good).  I suspect it went on in Belasarius's Army.  I know it goes on in every Seaman Gang, about shipping over, at least.  

Only the individual can answer if he can hang on until the SOB upstairs moves on, or if it's time to make like the three little pigs, and go out in the world and seek your fortune. Methinks as a reserve, you might know something about the piggy thing, too.  No bed of roses there, Ja?

Rats, weasels, wolves, a guy could get down on mammalians.

And I was speaking about the character in the story, not the lack thereof in the actor. 

But enough of my silly notions, I will now lurk a bit and enjoy the commentary.


DM05 said...

That's a really-think-about-what-it-means post. As young enlisted, always thought, follow the leaders - the folks in Khaki...they know best. Many times they did, at least 'bout the day to day and no Sh1t people development. Become an "O", hey there will be time to change things "when". It never happens, or the moments are few and incremental, and it's a disappointment to many of us. Looking behind the GO/FO green door is not pretty. Get rid of the deadwood, shrink staffs, or who has more secretaries will continue unabated, as it has for years...As guest said, this has existed since '80's and before. Carry on, those of you in the tactical leadership billets.

UltimaRatioRegis said...

<span>True, that, about life outside a uniform.  There is stupidity aplenty, but the Business Model tends to weed ruthlessly (unless you're "too big to fail").  
Of course, we in uniform have a vehicle for weeding ruthlessly as well.  Except the result is lives lost, and not folded businesses.  Lending additional gravity toward the Colonel's remarks. 
Not a comment, BTW, on Stallone's character one way or the other.  Simply meant that I have a bit of ring time in my travels, like Burgess Meredith (who boxed at Amherst) but unlike the Italian Stallion.</span>

Anonymous said...

Julian was my very first ship CO.  A great man.  Paul Stanton, when he found out I'd worked for him and admired him said, "you liked working for old spine ripper?"  I gather he had something of a rep on the east coast. 

Curtis said...

Knew guys like this long ago.  LCDR command was viewed as terminal and career suicide largely because they were NRF commands that had been thoroughly shorted on maintenance $ for the last umpteen years.
Turning down CDR command was terminal.  The 06 board uses the CO selection boards as reason enough to deny promotion for those not screened for command.

Redeye80 said...

<p><span>Nothing new here, we are probably more vocal than in the past but it is the same of staff.<span>  </span>I had several contemporaries get out after successful O-5 commands because they didn’t see the value in going further.<span>  </span>The politics were too hard.<span>  </span>Of course, this was all pre 9-11.</span>
</p><p><span>It wasn’t that long ago, the catch phrase was “O-6 at 26.”<span>  </span>Meaning most didn’t see any reason to go past 26 years as the pay was maxed out and the difference in retirement pay would be made up by the awaiting civilian job.<span>  </span>It would be interesting to see the actual numbers.<span>  </span>The services have them but it would take an act of congress to get them.<span>  </span>I believe numbers really don’t paint a pretty photo.</span>
</p><p><span><span>I find it interesting, the author stresses the departures wasn’t out family consideration or pay or deployments.<span>  </span>But in my experience, my friends admitted later it was all about the family, pay and deployments.<span>  </span>No one ever says that on active duty, nor should they. <span> </span>As an O-6, you have sipped if not drank the Kool-Aid.<span>  </span>As an O-6 you have a duty to speak the party line regardless of your feelings.<span>  </span>If they don’t match, excellent, there’s the door. <span> </span>Does this mean we lose good people? Yup! Does it suck? Yup! Personally, I have a problem with O-6 bitching about his seniors to an O-4 in writing.<span>  </span>At the bar, in private conversation, OK but in writing not so good.<span>  </span></span></span>
</p><p><span>The only hope is we get a few in the door who are more concerned about Marines rather than who has what type of staff car.<span>  </span>I had a friend, who years ago worked in the GOMO (General Officer Matters Office), the stories he told were pretty much fall inline as to who has what and how come I don’t have it.</span></p>

USAF Mike said...

Damn, my commenet from earlier in the day got eaten...I'll try to recreate it...

Holy crap, I'm about to agree with URR about something. 

The "change things from the inside/lower levels" is naive at best, as URR stated.  In my very short time in the military, there's already been 2 or 3 things I've had to do that I didn't like (regarding my people, not me personally obviously)...my choice was either do what I was told and maybe be able to provide some cover for my guys in the process, or not do it, get my ass chewed by my commander and lose some possible influence that I could later use to help out my guys, and have whatever was going to happen wind up happening anyway.

Sure, you can argue that this is because I'm low on the totem pole, but that doesn't change the higher up you get.  Now I'm an Lt in a flight getting told by a Major at a SQ.  But that Major at the SQ gets told by a Colonel up at Group, and so on.  So yeah, once you hit the point at which you aren't making a difference, staying on AD in hopes of "changing things" is a fools errand.

Regarding John Boyd, that's an interesting point, but two things are important to remember when discussing Boyd: a) the only reason he stayed in as long as he did was that he had several protectors with a lot of brass providing top cover.  Yes, he pissed off a lot of people, but he also had a lot of supporters, albeit non-vocal ones.  He would've HYT'd/been passed over for promotion too many times if it hadn't been for one of his high placed supporters stepping in and ensuring a (well deserved) promotion/good OPR/whatever.  He was definitely NOT some lone warrior tilting at bureaucratic windmills.  B) Boyd did hist most important work (Destruction and Creation, Pattersn of Conflict, and the O-O-D-A Loop) AFTER he got out.  So Boyd may not be the best example.

I could give a shit about promotion and prestige; I care about the mission, making a difference, and my guys.  Once I reach the point in my career at which I feel that these things are no longer what my efforts are being directed towards, I have no doubt I'll punch out.  Unfortunately, I'm (some would say cynical, I say realistic) enough to realize that this is probably going to be far before I would hope it to be.

Redeye80 said...

I believe the Boyd in the article was referring to Chuck Boyd, retired USAF General.

BTW isn't an Air Force Officer talking about John Boyd like mutiny or heresy?

USAF Mike said...

I dunno about the article, but YNSN specifically referred to "John Boyd" in his comment, which is what I was addressing.

And Boyd actually gets some respect in the USAF these days...granted, it's usually in teaching a bastardized version of the O-O-D-A Loop or commenting on how Boyd "influenced" Warden (not sure if that's really the right word to use...Warden got some of his ideas from Boyd, but I don't think Boyd would've been cool with his air power centric view on things).  It's not the best, but at least it's better than the treatment he got in the last years of his life, or the really respectful (not so much) no show the USAF gave him at his funeral.

But then again, this wouldn't be the first time I've been accused of mutiny or heresy when it comes to USAF doctrine/groupthink, so...(gave a brief at PME on why the JSF program is a disaster and going to be the death of tacair in the U.S. military).

Anonymous said...

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Anonymous said...

There comes the point where it's your duty to promulgate policies and command decisions that you feel you can't support but that you can't change and aren't free to comment in front of your  subordinates either. For me this hit home when I was tasked to find volunteers for the brainchild of some idiotic senior officer who did not realize that his conceived op would equate to a suicide mission. "Saleur de la Peur" came to mind. The worst was that the junior enlisted were actually "hungry" to go and did not see the sheer criminal idiocy of the thing. Luckily there was a politically easier way of fulfilling the requirement which in itself is also disgusting but didn't directly endanger my troops. But there are many like instances were it may not be immediately a matter of life and limb but ultimately will be.