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Friday, February 19, 2010

Command Presence, or The Other Battle

This is Steven Petrick Posting.

Back in 1979 I ordered a squad leader to take his men and assault an enemy position. It was his squad, so I expected, as an NCO, that he would do his job. At the time I was in a huddle with the squad leader, the six other men of his squad, and my radio operator.

Imagine my shock when the squad leader refused.

The obvious solution was to relieve the squad leader, appointing the next ranking NCO as the leader and having him conduct the assault.

But as I looked into the eyes of the men, I had a sinking feeling that if I did so, they would rally around the Squad Leader and refuse to advance.

My choices seemed to be to simply fail to make the attack, or to call my then superior and simply announce that the circumstances had changed and an attack was no longer possible. After all, the only people who would know the truth would be the eight other men with me. What could possibly be the consequences? (Well, obviously I would have no chance of gaining or holding their respect for my rank, much less my person, and equally obviously the tale would spread.) I could even tell the men that I had decided to listen to the squad leader's advice in order to save my own face. (There was pretty much no chance they would believe it, and I would also be branded a liar.)

This was mutiny, plain and simple. I had been kept in the dark that the Squad Leader had been telling his men that we needed to avoid the enemy because if they caught us, they would physically abuse us. The result was that the men were afraid, and this mutiny was the consequence.

For a few seconds the problem turned over in my mind. I will not claim my solution was the right one, only that somehow it worked.

I rose to my feet so that I could look down on the men from my commanding five feet, eight and a half inches, said just two words loaded with meaning, turned, and began walking towards the enemy position.

The two words? Simply: "Let's go."

By those words I did, in fact, relieve the squad leader and announced that I was now the squad leader, because I could not trust anyone else in the squad, and that whether the men did their jobs or not, the enemy would be attacked even if I had to do it myself.

As I began moving towards the enemy at a steady pace, not looking back, things happened. I did not see these events (as noted, I never looked back once I started forward), but learned of them afterward from various individuals.

The Radio Operator, as frightened as the rest, found himself forced to rise and follow me, because he had been a radio operator for a few years, and had learned that no matter what else, wherever the officer went, the radio had to go.

A few steps more, and the most junior member of the squad, the man with the least attachment to the squad as a group and the squad leader as his immediate leader, and the most recent graduate from basic training, rose and followed the radio operator.

At that point, the other five members of the squad, perhaps driven by the example of the first two, perhaps realizing that the invitation to participate in a mutiny by their squad leader would not work if there were other witnesses to verify a story of mutiny the lieutenant might tell, all rose and joined the advance. This left the squad leader, suddenly finding himself alone.

Alone, the squad leader, after reportedly looking around in shock after the rest of the men left him, suddenly had to dash forward and join the advance himself. He had lost the support of his men and needed to appear as if the attack had been his idea all along.

The assault was a smashing success as I recounted earlier, and this is why I refer to this incident as "the other battle". It was a fight I should not have had, should not have had to win in order to do what I saw as our duty.

On the plus side, the success of that night's action changed the members of that squad, at least for the rest of the exercise. From that point, flushed with their success, they were aggressive in the pursuit of the enemy and did in the presence of the enemy whatever their Lieutenant asked of them. Among their accomplishments in that exercise would eventually be the capture of a complete 4.2 inch Mortar with vehicle and crew, which enabled their Lieutenant to report the location of the then "missing" battalion of the enemy (it had been deployed and was in combat, and we were the first to discover and report that information).

Thus, the title "command presence". I could not tell you for certain, but perhaps that night I had it, since I converted eight fearful soldiers into an attack, a squad of lambs into a squad of lions (albeit only for a training exercise).

My only regret is that for various reasons I was never able to formally, and permanently, relieve the NCO from duty, although I tried. Partly my failure was the mistake of being the junior officer in the battalion when it was tasked to provide an officer to the post, and my relative inexperience was deemed to make me the most expendable. Which was silly as I was the junior officer only by virtue of my name beginning with "P", as two other officers had joined the battalion from the same IOBC course on the same day, but they were technically senior to me by virtue of the alphabet.