By Maj. Crispin Burke
Best Defense guest columnist
An article in the New York Times the other day examined the West Point class of 2014,
which faces the dubious distinction of being the first class in nearly a dozen
years to enter a peacetime army.
daunting experience for a new lieutenant to lead soldiers twice their age, even
more so to do it as a as a "slick sleeve" -- the derogatory term given to soldiers
who lack the distinctive "combat patch" on their right shoulder. Let me offer
the Class of 2014 two pieces of advice.
take a few lessons from West Point's Class of 1976. Believe it or not, I bet that
even brand new 2nd Lt. Ray Odierno probably had the same fears that you did. His
class joined their platoons shortly after the nation had concluded what was, at
that time, the longest war in its history. They survived their time as platoon
leader -- just as you all will -- and they all went on to serve our country
well when we inevitably found ourselves in wars again in Grenada, Panama, the
Persian Gulf, Somalia, the Balkans, Iraq, and even today in Afghanistan.
while the Class of '76 went on to achieve great things in wartime, their
greatest contribution was in rebuilding a badly battered Army. That's something
that you'll be doing over the next few years, though fortunately, our Army is
hardly in the terrible shape it was in then.
lieutenants had to crack down on indiscipline, including criminal behavior and
drug abuse -- which has been on the rise as of late in today's Army,
unfortunately. They had to rethink the roles of women in our armed forces. Most
importantly, they had to make tough decisions as to whom to keep and whom to
let go. It'll be more important now than ever to counsel your soldiers regularly. Do it in writing. Get to know their goals, and give them a plan to
achieve them. Learn to use the resources the Army has in place to aid those who
truly need help -- such as those who are struggling with PTSD. But ultimately,
learn how to give candid advice to those soldiers who simply won't make it
through the drawdown, and empower them with the resources they need to be successful
as veterans. (Hint: If you're uncertain how to counsel a platoon sergeant with
20 years of service and three combat deployments, ask around at PlatoonLeader.army.mil.)
Second, read and write. Do it often.
beings have, for better or worse, been fighting wars for the better part of
five thousand years -- there's very little you'll encounter in modern war which
someone hasn't lived through already.
instance, I recently had the opportunity to finish a book about the Duke of
during the Peninsular Campaign during the Napoleonic Wars. You may think
there's little we can learn from the Napoleonic Wars in the era of drones and
cyberwar -- but you'd be mistaken. Indeed, the Iron Duke had many of the same experiences,
and headaches, two hundred years ago as our commanders today. Wellington
operated as part of a joint force with the Royal Navy, fighting a hybrid war
alongside Spanish insurgents, and, during the course of the campaign, he was to
find that his greatest enemies weren't the French, but rather, a hidebound army
bureaucracy and disgruntled officers who vented their frustration through press
don't stop at history. Start reading through some of the publications at the
Center for Army Lessons Learned (CALL). While our Army has been amassing vast
combat experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, it's become painfully apparent that some skills have atrophied, and that we've accumulated some
bad habits. Twelve years of being wedded to massive forward operating bases
will do that. We've made vast strides in computer technology, no doubt, but
you'll have to consider how you may fight without computers. Could you command
without PowerPoint slides and fragmentary orders emailed to you every hour? I would argue we can't.
up to you to teach soldiers to un-learn many bad habits, while learning new
ones. Be sure to do your peers a favor -- write down your observations and send
them to CALL. Not only will it help your peers, but you'll learn something when
you go through the process of composing your thoughts, putting them to paper,
and going through the publishing process. This will help you later, whether you
choose to stay in the Army, or if you go into the civilian world.
thing I'll say about reading is that you need to be wary of those who claim
they know what the next war will be
like. They are almost always laughably wrong, as Colonel Keith Nightingale
wrote on this blog recently. We thought we'd never do counterinsurgency (after Vietnam), or
nation-building (after the Balkans) again. Look where we are now. We thought
airborne operations were an anachronism. Look at Mali. Never say never.
ready to learn. Get ready to make mistakes. Get ready to learn from those
mistakes. The Army's going to be doing a lot of great, new things over the next
West Point Class of 2014, thanks for your decision to serve, and I look forward
to seeing you in our units.
Major Crispin J. Burke is a U.S.
Army officer stationed at Fort Bragg, N.C. He spent his entire platoon leader
time and some of his company command time as a "slick sleeve" as well. His
views are his own and do not represent those of the Department of Defense.