By Capt. John Byron, USN (Ret.)
Best Defense department of maritime affairs
When I was a baby-duck ensign in my first ship, the Gun Boss, a grizzled lieutenant commander, offered me these words of wisdom on career success in my new profession as a Navy line officer:
Be a successful shipboard department head as a lieutenant, a successful executive officer as a lieutenant commander, and a successful commanding officer as a commander...and you will make captain.
In this succinct capture of the traditional road to senior rank, my friend outlined the essence of two parallel pathways an officer must follow, ticking off the gates to pass through in assignments and in progression up the ranks. Within the Navy, this surface-navy description also holds true for submariners and aviators, and there are comparable paths to be followed for staff corps and restricted line.
Running alongside these two there's a third path as well, of professional gates peculiar to the warfare or staff specialty. A submariner, for example, needs graduate sub school, nuclear power school, and prototype; qualify as a diving officer, an engineer of the watch, and an officer of the deck; qualify in submarines and earn his (and now her -- wow, three of them) dolphins; pass the two-day engineer's exam at Navy Nuclear Reactors; complete submarine command quals; get through Prospective Executive Officer and Prospective Commanding Officer schools; and not screw up at Nuclear Power PCO School ("Charm School").
These three paths made up of parallel and intertwined assignment, promotion, and professional gates define career success for Navy line officers.
Point One: The rest of the Navy and the other military services have comparable three-thread career paths with their own gates that officers must go through to reach full success. There are many nuances, some individual exceptions, more or less flexibility, but in general there's a pattern here that's pretty much unwavering and unavoidable.
Point Two: This is highly competitive at each gate on each of the three pathways; the services have far fewer loaves and fishes than there are people in the crowd.
Point Three: If you miss a gate, you're probably screwed.
Point Four (and the reason for writing this): Command is just one of the gates. Which is to say that command, highly visible and properly viewed as perhaps the most important job an officer can hold, is but one of a series of steps and stops in which success is mandatory and failure may occur. So yes, command is important...but the individual's performance and a service's ability to train, educate, and evaluate its people are measured at myriad points continuously throughout a career.
Point Five: If a military service or one of its specialties fails to demand accountability against proper standards at every one of these gates, well, shame on them for failing the nation. Pretty much the point of Tom's book, that.
Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008.