about the universe forum commander Shop Now Commanders Circle
Product List FAQs home Links Contact Us

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Where Does Command Presence Come From

This is Steven Petrick posting.

There is something called "command presence." You often find this in reading about famous people in military history, although it also seems to apply in other realms, such as business and politics. It is one of those things that some people simply seem to have, and in some cases some people can be taught to have it, or at least to act as if someone in authority over them has it.

I am myself unsure what exactly it is, and on any given day I would not consider myself to have it, but there are those odd moments when it would seem that I (to borrow a phrase) "stepped up."

You can find in out blogs a discussion of a time when I and two friends were accosted by nine gentlemen who sought redress of the economic imbalance by transferring the contents of our pockets to their pockets. In the press of that moment, I seemed to have some "command presence." I will not revisit it here.

In another case I was put in charge of a firing range for machineguns in Korea. It was early Summer and conditions were already very dry. Thus as part of the range a detachment had to be set down behind the impact berm to deal with any brush fires that a tracer round might set.

At one point at the end of a round of firing I noted that a .50 tracer had rebounded off the berm and flown to the left, landing among the brush on the hillside and igniting a fire. So I casually picked up the radio handset, contacted the detachment and asked the Sergeant in charge if he thought they could handle the fire. The Sergeant assured me that he could. Still, as officer in charge I decided to send reinforcements.

Having dispatched the reinforcements I turned my attention to machinegun that had jammed in this last round of firing, no longer concerned about the fire. The Sergeant had assured me the fire could be dealt with, and with the reinforcements all should be well.

Of course, it was not.

While I was preoccupied with trying to figure out what was wrong with the weapon one of the other soldiers tapped me on the shoulder saying "sir." I looked up inquiringly, and he simply pointed in the direction of the hillside, which I now noted was a mass of flames.

Things happened very quickly from that point. I was aware that if the fire crested the hill, it would sweep down on the South Korean village on the other side. In short order I attempted radio contact with the Sergeant in charge of the fire detail, and got no response, ordered someone to contact the fire department on post, call company to alert the commander to the situation (he would then call battalion if he thought it necessary), divided my current "command" into a new detachment to go fight the fire and a security detachment to remain with the guns and the ammunition, led them to the truck and was charging towards the fire. A fast choice having been made as to where "I" needed to be to place my "command influence." The critical tasks being to protect the guns from theft (it would be bad to put out the fire only to find someone had seen all the soldiers leave the guns sitting on the range and steal them, unlikely but possible, which was why I needed a detachment to secure them), or take charge of fighting the fire. I decided the latter was the critical element (that South Korea village, if hit by a wall of fire started by U.S. soldiers, would be making a lot of damage claims, not to mention people who might be injured or even killed). That fear of the fire reaching the village was why I could not wait for the fire truck to arrive.

Driving forward we passed the vehicle that had been taken by the first detachment, obviously where they had stopped and dismounted, but there was no one in sight, and still no radio contact with the initial force.

Getting as close to the flames as we could, I dismounted my new force and led them in a wild rush up the side of the hill. This worked better than I could have hoped as the men wound up spread out behind me in a "fighting line" on the flank of the fire. This allowed me to call on the men to start fighting the fire, blocking it from spreading further, and one man had passed me and was trying to stop its final advance to the top of the hill.

Things got desperate for a bit. Then out of the smoke and encroaching dark a voice, one of my soldiers, cried out that it was hopeless and we should get out.

From somewhere I found the voice to call out, telling my men to stand their ground that we almost had it under control. Almost immediately after that the wind blew what seemed a solid sheet of flame into my face (did not quite burn me, but it got very warm), knocking me back for a second, but I pushed back in, and then it was over. Suddenly the fire was out all along the line.

The "Command Presence." In the midst of this, with one man suddenly fanning incipient panic and calling for a retreat, the group as a whole held their ground because I had ordered them too. They could not see me (I could not see them, so I am pretty sure they could not see me). I was, at that juncture, just a voice and a tone of command. They all stayed that extra minute on the line that stopped the fire because the officer had commanded it be done in the face of a real, remorseless, and unfeeling enemy.

Did the command presence come from me, or from their having been trained to obey?

The fire truck arrived after the fire had been put out and stayed to suppress hotspots to keep the fire from reigniting, and I made contact with my two missing detachment who, fortunately for me, had all been on the fire's opposite flank as it had been advancing up the side of the hill, so we had hit both its flanks simultaneously.