Mastering “the Word”

Michael McBride
Posted: Jun 23, 2007 1:00 PM
Mastering “the Word”

The daily functioning of Marine Officer’s Candidates School (OCS) is hinged on “the Word.”

“The Word” is the culmination of instructions that guides the conduct of the next event. It includes uniform, time, method of transportation (usually the Shoe Leather Express, or individual buses), other equipment, such as rifles/packs/etc., and any special instructions. Much of OCS, after push-ups and bends-and-muthas, is spent waiting for the Word.

The Word has its pre-determined pathway. The Company Commander reviews the training schedule and expresses any special instructions to the Company Executive Officer. The XO distills those instructions into a language most Candidates should be capable of understanding. (This is often a challenge, for the stress of OCS easily scrambles the nimble minds of college juniors and sends errant neurons rebounding inside 250 helmets). The Candidate Company Commander processes the Word, as he understands it, and passes it on to the Candidate Platoon Commanders, who in turn pass it on to their 40 or so Candidates, all hungry for the next set of instructions.

While nearly linear in its design, and efficient looking on paper, this system is often simply a higher form of the game “telephone.” Typically (in my experience), by the time the Word reached the last man of the last squad, having been impacted at each level by the neuroses of Candidate leadership, all afraid of getting the Word wrong, the Word was a garbled mess. Invariably one of the six Candidate Platoon Commanders would get some minute detail of the uniform wrong, and that platoon could make a sore thumb blend in at formation.

Then it would come, in waves. All the platoons would be sent scrambling into the barracks to undergo yet another uniform and equipment inspection, after a new, clarifying Word was issued. For those on the upper floors the scramble to get 160 Candidates up the stairs ensured that no platoon would make the impossible three minute deadline set by the company staff.

Invariably, the new, clarifying Word would have confused at least one platoon, and after falling back out on the deck outside, all 240 Candidates would be sent back in the building, up the stairs, with more, new, clarifying Word on what the uniform and equipment would be.

Bayonet on the deuce gear. Bayonet off the deuce gear. One canteen. Two canteens. Poncho, no liner. Liner, no poncho. First aid kit. Soft covers, no helmet. Helmets no soft covers. Helmets and soft covers. Mathematically it could go on for some time. And it often did.

We called it “Put your canteen on you war belt, take it off.” It could be sang to the tune of “If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands,” and it often was, and with great sophomoric fervor.

This mocking was a by-product of the staff’s inability to translate simple instructions into coherent and uniform action. It reflects the frustration that those on the end of the whip feel when simple things bog down, or fail to be executed properly. The mocking signaled a lack of confidence in the leadership abilities of the staff, and the constant changing of the Word, further eroded that already weak confidence. After ten or twelve times up and down the barracks stairs in one morning, a change of Candidate leadership was often a welcomed event.

Sometimes a change of Candidate leadership made it better, sometimes it got worse.

I remember little of the details of OCS, except the funny parts, many unprintable here, but I clearly remember the negative effects that confused, or countermanding leadership can have on unit morale. I am sure most of the rest of those who graduated didn’t forget either. Such it likely is with every batch of Candidates. Yet I still cringe every time I witness bewildered or muddled leadership. I marvel at the obliviousness of such leadership and their inability to grasp the fallout of their actions. They fail to recognize that confused messaging reverberates amongst the troops like taiko drums in a steel shed.

As it was again this week with the Pentagon leadership. On Monday the acting Secretary of the Army Pete Geren left the door open for longer tours in Iraq,

“"It's too early to look into the next year, but for the Army we have to begin to plan,” Geren told the Senate Armed Services Committee. "We have to look into our options."”

Hmmm. “Put your canteen on your war belt,…”

Followed by Secretary of Defense Gates who changes the Word a day later,

Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Thursday he does not anticipate extending U.S. troop deployments in Iraq beyond 15 months, calling the idea a "worst-case scenario."

“…take it off.”

Aside from the disturbing disconnect between the SOD and the SOA, and their inability to firm up the Word, I am disturbed by the lack of coherent staff action within the Pentagon in formulating a manpower plan that supports our actions in Iraq out into the future; a future according to General Patreaus that may be as long as a decade. It is a disconnect that erodes the confidence of the troops and breeds the worst kind mockery and dark humor. It fosters a downward spiral of morale that ultimately echoes service and DOD wide.

Extending tour lengths or not extending them is no long term plan for ultimate success, or relief for our troops. The Pentagon needs to present to the President and Congress long term force structures that are committed to the idea of “taking care of our troops.” This includes spreading the burden across a larger number of troops, and trying to negate the long term effects of extended combat tours. Ultimately this means increasing the size of our ground components.

This increase in force structure should be wrapped around the idea that we need to balance the exposure of our troops to the long term effects of combat with our expectation of the ultimate length of the mission. To date the Army is guilty of trying to skim by OIF II with the force structure that they entered the war with. To still be at first base with force structure four years later, reeks of ineptitude and/or indifference.

How about DOD and DOA getting their messaging on the same track? And that message should be that we acknowledge that we will be engaged globally to a great extent out into the future and that we need a force structure to support such action. And that those force structure requests will be adequate and responsive. And that we will take our best data regarding the long term well-being of our troops and apply that data to our force structure development plans. We need to think ahead, for once.

Plainly put, DOD needs to get a workable plan together and firm up the Word, in order to re-establish the confidence of the troops in their leadership.

Anything less a Candidate could accomplish.