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The current wars are lieutenants’ and captains’ wars

Posted by John Reed on

It’s a lieutenant’s and captain’s war

The U.S. military branches have officers whose ranks range from lieutenant to four-star general. (“Ensign” to “admiral” in the Navy—they always have to be different—it’s a stepchild, sibling rivalry thing)

But different ranks are like different size aircraft. The fact that we have generals does not mean that every military action should be run by a general, anymore than the fact that we have C-17s (huge Air Force planes) means we should use a C-17 for every military flight mission.

C-17s just sit there silently when they are not needed. Unfortunately, generals do not. They want to boss people around—justify their existence—seem to be as important to everything that goes on as their rank suggests.

This has been a problem since Vietnam. Our enemies did not attack us in large-unit actions then or since.

Colonels and generals are in charge of very large units containing thousands or tens of thousands of troops. Wikipedia has an article about the different size military units and the ranks of their commanders at

Do our enemies in Afghanistan or Iraq attack us in units that size?

No. They attack us with fire team- (2 to 5 guys) or squad-size (10 guys) units. What is the appropriate size unit for us to respond with? Squads or platoons (40 guys)—with support from air, armor (tanks), and artillery units as needed.

What ranks command squads and platoons? Sergeants and lieutenants. Captains are company (four platoons) commanders. Company commanders assign platoons to their missions and reinforce them with their other platoons as needed.

Shut up
So what do majors, lieutenant colonels, colonels, and generals do when a squad or platoon is engaged in a firefight? What they ought to do is shut up and let the lieutenants and captains do their jobs. They should be available in case troops from other companies are needed for the fight. But being available means staying near the phone, not using it to call the lieutenant or captain in the firefight for situation reports and to interfere with or micromanage the lieutanent or captain on the scene.

The problem is that few officers above the rank of lieutenant or captain seem capable of shutting up and letting their subordinates do their jobs. They did not trudge through chickenshit for 35 years to stand around doing nothing when there is glory to be had.

News flash for the colonels and generals. These are not your wars. Indeed, there has not been a war for you guys since Korea. You are now support troops. The fact that your predecessors in those ranks had great fun in Korea and before moving divisions and battalions around on a map does not mean that you are now entitled to bother platoon leaders and company commanders in small firefights just because nothing as exciting is going on at your headquarters. Leave them alone. Make sure, without bothering them, that they have all the men, materiel, and support they need. Otherwise, shut up and stay out of it.

Best job in the Army
It is often said in the Army that the best job is company commander. When I first heard that, I laughed and said that the Army did not have any good jobs at all because of all the bureaucracy. Then I became a company commander. It was only a school brigade, advanced individual training company. That meant my men were in schools run by people I had no association with during business hours. It also meant that I had an extraordinary number of men—400—which is normally the size of a battalion—and no subordinate officers (platoon leaders) other than the company executive officer. But I had to admit that it was a great job. I really enjoyed it. My roommate and my mother told me it changed my personality. For one thing, I started anticipating their need for direction after hours and giving them orders. (In a company, you spend all day every day surrounded by men who are constantly looking to you for direction. In time, you anticipate it and give the direction before it is sought just to impove efficiency. In retrospect, I probably should have made an effort to encourage them to make more of their own decisions.)

Unfortunately, my battalion commander and brigade commander were bored with their jobs—managing company commanders and battalion commanders respectively—from buildings some distance away from the companies—so they had nothing better to do than bother me about how my troops wanted their Unit Fund money (about $200 a month as I recall) spent and whether I attended “command performance” parties hosted by the various colonels and generals (I refused to spend the money contrary to the wishes of the troopsand the pertinent regulations which said the wishes of the troops determine and I refused to attend the parties). So they replaced me.

There probably was nothing that could have persuaded me to remain in the Army for a career, but the closest they could have come would have been to make me a company commander and guarantee I could keep the job and do it without interference or micromanaging from above until I retired.

In the post-Korean War U.S. military, the only jobs that can be like those depicted in Hollywood war movies are the jobs of captains and lower ranks. Unfortunately, in today’s U.S. military, the guys above captain are bored with their waiting-for-World-War-II-in-Europe-to-return jobs, which causes them to ruin the jobs of the captains and below by trying to micromanage them “from the 50th floor.”

I just heard a comment from a guy who attended a class for all the new, one-star U.S. officers from all branches. He said they were all very depressed about the massive numbers of top lieutenants and company commanders who were getting out of the military nowadays and the implications for the future higher ranks of the military, which only promotes from within regardless of whether those who stayed in aren’t so hot.

Here’s another news flash for the colonels and generals. If you want to see both the cause and solution of that problem, visit your local mirror.

I appreciate informed, well-thought-out constructive criticism and suggestions.

John T. Reed

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