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Note: Hat tip to Thomas Ricks at The Best Defense for facilitating this important discussion – what follows is a response to an original essay published here on War Council. Mr. Ricks was kind enough to grant permission to post here as well…so enjoy!
By Captain Jordan Blashek, USMC
Best Defense guest respondent
Captain Jesse Sladek is the type of leader I would want as a commanding officer. ‘Just giving a damn’ goes a long way in leadership, and Captain Sladek clearly does. The learning curve for a new infantry officer is steep, and there is no substitute for a good company commander to mentor him through the first few months.
That said, I don’t find Sladek’s “69 TTPs” particularly useful. They range from insightful (#61: Often commanders … are not tracking the same reality as you), to obvious (#51: Lead from the front), to uselessly vague (#57: Be aggressive). The majority are lessons every infantry officer should have taken away from the schoolhouse.
The real problem though is that they were written as a list without explanations for why each one is important. To give the simplest example, #2 says to “wake up before 0500 five out of seven days a week.” Why? What does that have to do with leadership? The answer might be that a good leader should be the first to arrive and the last to leave every day because it demonstrates dedication and earns loyalty. Or perhaps, if your subordinates consistently see you arriving after them, they will assume you were sleeping while they were working. But waking up at 0500 just for the sake of getting up early is senseless.
Here’s a more serious example: TTP #65 says, “70% now is better than 100% an hour from now.” But is this always true? The reason it might be true is that in combat there is a trade-off between time and certainty. When making decisions, platoon leaders will never have the amount of certainty they want due to the fog of war. There is risk in acting without enough information, but there is also risk in waiting too long because the enemy is maneuvering too. Since the enemy operates in the same environment of uncertainty, we can gain an advantage by acting more quickly than him if we have enough information. New platoon leaders should think about how they will know when 70 percent is enough. This requires critical thought, a nuanced mind, and the ability to ask the right questions to the right people both in training and in combat.
I appreciate Captain Sladek’s effort to pass on good information. I just would prefer fewer TTPs with better explanations for why they are good practices. Just like in a mission statement, the intent — or the reason why — is always the most important part of any task. Lists are great for not forgetting things, but they’re less effective when it comes to learning valuable lessons or thinking critically. In fact, the military already has far too many lists that feed the uncritical bureaucratic mentality that Major Matthew Cavanaugh so eloquently decries in his inaugural post on Warcouncil.org.
So rather than trying to remember 69 different TTPs, I would suggest that 2nd lieutenants focus on just one: “Think deeply about your job and figure out the why behind everything.” Everything else is secondary. The best infantry officers are those who possess a certain mindset developed by thinking deeply about their job, their leadership style, and the challenges they will face in combat. Adopting hundreds of tried TTPs will help you as you develop, but it’s the ability to face the confusion of the modern battlefield that matters in the end. That requires a nuanced mind capable of critical thought and the humility to ask the right questions. Such character and maturity required for this can’t be assembled from a checklist of TTPs.
Captain Jordan Blashek is an infantry officer in the U.S. Marine Corps. He served as a weapons platoon commander and company executive officer in 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines, deploying in 2011 to Southeast Asia and the Horn of Africa on the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit. In 2013, he deployed to Helmand Province, Afghanistan, as an advisor to the Afghan National Army’s 215 Corps. He graduated from Princeton University in 2009 with a bachelor’s degree in international affairs.