The Best Defense

Follow the yellow brick road

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.

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The Best Defense

4 tips for that departing Marine: How to push your ideas and survive in the Corps

By Brett Friedman
Best Defense staying in correspondent

On Friday, you posted one lieutenant's view on how the Marine Corps views new ideas. If I could, I would like to make a quick rejoinder. It's unfortunate that this Marine's experience has convinced him that the Marine Corps, as an institution, does not value new or challenging ideas. Unfortunately, this perception does not match reality. I have found the Marine Corps to be extremely tolerant of ideas both new and critical.

I have been writing publicly about military issues since I was a first lieutenant in 2007, when I wrote an article in the Marine Corps Gazette that was extremely critical of the training package providing to Military Transition Teams deploying to Iraq. Despite its critical nature, my chain of command was congratulatory when the article was published. Advisor Training Group, the target of those criticisms, even offered me a position on their staff based on the article. A later article that was critical of the methods used to train artillery scout observers in the fleet was subsequently assigned to students at the Expeditionary Warfare School. This post on the Marine Corps Gazette blog, where I am now a regular blogger, was both extremely critical of the Marine Corps and widely circulated. Still, I received nothing but laudatory feedback from both within the Marine Corps and without.

I say this not to brag but to make the point that if a Marine is both critical and tactful, there is no danger to expressing new ideas. In fact, there are benefits to doing so. Many of my articles have drawn favorable e-mails from high-ranking Marines, including some that work directly for the commandant. The Marine Corps Gazette even hosts an annual writing contest that rewards the author who best challenges established doctrine or concepts with $3,000. The reality of the modern Marine Corps is that we have fostered an extremely healthy environment for challenging and fresh ideas.

It's unfortunate that the lieutenant feels that his ideas have been ignored, but for anyone else out there who still wants to voice their ideas, here are my tips for doing so in the Marine Corps.

1) "Kiss the Corps:" When I first started writing, a senior Marine told me that every time I wrote about the Marine Corps I needed to "kiss the Corps." Start your criticism out with a paragraph extolling the Corps's virtue to establish yourself as a true believer, then fire away. If your readers perceive you as someone who is disgruntled and angry at the institution, they'll stop reading. Make sure they know you criticize out of love rather than hate and they'll listen.

2) Know your stuff: Marines value tactical and technical proficiency. If you make bad assumptions or factual errors about your subject matter, the rest will be ignored. Every writer makes a mistake at some point, but mitigate it as much as possible. The lieutenant's post has an example. He apparently expects more than tactical direction from a battalion. A battalion is a tactical organization through and through, so the lieutenant's assumptions about where the battalion should be focused may be off. A battalion should absolutely discuss strategy and operations, but that discussion is more appropriate for the commander's PME sessions than the AAR.

3) Courage and commitment: Marines are quite fond of our core values of honor, courage, and commitment. Courage and commitment are relevant for the Marine writer; they're your words on the page, use your name. Marines will respect you for doing so even if they disagree with your ideas.

4) Tact: It's a Marine Corps leadership trait for a reason. Above all, avoid ad hominem attacks against anyone, not just senior leaders. Don't just complain, offer solutions.

Stick with those rules, and keep writing, and people will eventually start listening.

Captain Brett Friedman, USMC is currently a student at the Expeditionary Warfare School in Quantico, VA. He blogs at the Marine Corps Gazette blog and Grand Blog Tarkin.

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