What I learned in Between Wars


By: Brooks A. Mick

I once foolishly accepted when offered command of a National Guard unit that, as my commander explained it, was the worst in the brigade. Black power advocates feuded with Kentucky backwoods folks who still harbored some racial animosity, a Chinese fellow who couldn’t speak much English. Gender conflicts occurred regularly. The food served in the mess hall was so bad nobody would eat it; the troops spent their own money on McDonalds hamburgers for lunch; and the inspectors had just condemned the kitchen anyway. Hardly any of the troops qualified in marksmanship. Trouble all around, I was told. And, as I said, I accepted the challenge. My commander’s parting words were “Are you sure you want to take on this assignment?”

Two years later, the mess hall was in the running for best mess of the brigade. The maintenance section came in second in the brigade competition. We qualified 98% of our enlisted troops on the rifle range. On one of my last days as commander, I was sitting at a table during lunch hour, and across from me was a young black lieutenant whom I had made platoon leader. His platoon sergeant, one of the Kentucky backwoods racists I had inherited, came by the table and spoke with his lieutenant quietly a few minutes and then headed off toward the orderly room to attend to business. The young lieutenant turned to me, smiled, and said, “That man and me are brothers, sir.” And he meant it.

I had appointed a female as platoon sergeant and she was recognized by one and all, and still fondly commented upon by some young troops who now have moved on to responsibilities of their own, as the best platoon sergeant they ever knew.

You think that was luck? It was not. I’ll tell you how it was done.

1) I promoted solely on the basis of merit. Competence counted 100%. No favoritism toward anybody. After a while, the troops learned that I was not practicing affirmative action. If I appointed a black NCO or officer to a position, it was because he was the best available person for the job. (Personal pronoun “he” includes females in this usage.)

2) If I disciplined anyone, it was because he deserved it, not because I disliked blacks or women or Chinese.

3) I simply did not tolerate racism of any sort.

4) I spent most of my time looking for the few things that were going right and then I gave profuse compliments during formations, before the entire unit. We got the mess section cleaned up and reinstated, and one of the first days I happened to see a young lady cook decorating the top of a plain cake with some slices of pineapple, making it look quite pretty. I made a point of commending her at the next formation. Soon the food was improving, the troops were eating in the mess hall and socializing rather than bugging out at mealtime. I could have simply ORDERED them to stay and eat in the mess hall, but this would have provoked more resentment and disharmony before the food was edible. I had to improve the food and let them decide to eat in the mess hall on their own.

5) I made a point of finding the competent people who had been ignored. One young black lieutenant was considered lazy because he never took much responsibility and often spent as much time as possible in his own tent. He was actually a quite bright fellow, but he thought some of the other officers disparaged his abilities and it became a self-fulfilling prophecy. I spent a little extra time counseling him, encouraging him, and it was agreed that, after 2 years had passed, he was one of the best officers in the unit. He moved on to an infantry company and received awards for his competence. Oh, and the Chinese man, I found, had served in the Chinese army and held a great fund of knowledge concerning military skills and just needed encouragement to participate, as he was a very reserved, one might say shy, gentleman. His English improved rapidly and he was a big help in his platoon.

6) Near the end of my first year as company commander, an couple Equal Opportunity staff from brigade headquarters came around and informed me that the general had established some standards (read “quotas”) for the troops. I had to achieve 25% black troops. I told them politely that I couldn’t do that. One could see them bristle a bit. Why not, they asked? Well, because I would have to fire half my black troops. I already have 50% who are black. Oh, well then, you also have to achieve 25% female troops. Can’t do that either, half my troops are female. The EEO inspectors quickly packed and left and didn’t bother me for a while. Then about a year later they returned and spoke with my EEO officer who happened to be a black female–not chosen because she was black or female, but because she was an extremely competent soldier.

“This unit hasn’t turned in any EEO complaints of racism or gender discrimination in almost 2 years. What’s the problem?” they asked.

“The commander would not permit such,” my EEO officer replied.

“What?!!! He forbids you to turn in EEO complaints to headquarters?” they nearly shouted (I was informed later).

“Oh, no, not that at all. He just wouldn’t tolerate any racism or gender discrimination in the unit. And the troops want to live up to his standards.”

The EEO folks once again did a disappearing act.

I also had a secret weapon. My First Sergeant was one of the finest NCOs I’ve ever known and he too had only to be supported by his commander in order to allow the unit to hum along like a well-oiled machine. Much credit, Top, in case you ever read this.

Of course there was much more to the story, but that’s the general outline.

1) If you don’t want racial or gender discrimination, then don’t discriminate. No discrimination, no reverse discrimination, no affirmative action, no favoritism of any sort.

2) Don’t spend all your time looking for what’s wrong. Spend most of your time looking for what’s going right and praise it loudly and in public.

3) Do your criticizing in private.

4) Take care of your people and they will take care of you.

5) And here’s one for Obama: I didn’t waste my time criticizing the prior commander and making excuses for why things weren’t running perfectly.

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