A Few Good Men
Being in command often means navigating in the dark.
OUT IN THE MIDDLE OF AN OCEAN, in the winter of 1992, a U.S. Navy ensign I’ll call Pulver was training to be the officer of the deck on the USS Reluctant, also not its actual name. It was part of the amphibious fleet that carried Marines and their equipment around the world, and was old enough to have a separate wardroom for officers, who ate special meals off the ship’s china and drank out of real glasses. Each table was draped with a freshly starched tablecloth. All of it was awfully swank by military standards.
Pulver was well known and liked among us six Marine officers who had been living on and off the ship for a few months. He worked in engineering and looked it—steel-toed boots, black grease stains on his khakis, cowlick always poking up. That evening he seemed to be having some trouble steering. We knew this because the ship was tossing and it was hard to walk without cracking your skull on a bulkhead. As we sat down to something delicious (probably prime rib) and spread our cloth napkins on our laps, Pulver decided to steer the ship perpendicular to the direction of an oncoming wave, exposing our port side. Anyone who’s ever played with a toy boat knows what happened next. I’m sure he realized his error immediately and began correcting, but not before the ship leaned hard to starboard, and then to port, and everything on our fine tables crashed into a giant pool of coffee, glass, fruit punch, and beef juice that flowed from one side of the wardroom to the other.
Seconds earlier, the six of us—known by our call signs Piranha, Beaver, Odd Job, Corky, Gus, and me, Toad—had been planning Pulver’s roasting. But I remember how quietly all the junior officers began to clean up after he rolled us. We swabbed and swept, and we did this without gloating because every single junior officer who’s ever commanded has, at one time or another, been standing right there, alone on a dark bridge in the middle of an unforgiving sea, uncertain of what to do but nevertheless in charge.
ONLY A YEAR OR SO BEFORE, we had all been boot lieutenants: brand-new, with little practical experience beyond the upkeep of our footwear. Our first platoons were filled with veterans of a war we ourselves had not fought in, having been in training during Desert Shield and then Desert Storm. We had all seen fellow boots struggle with this. We had struggled with it ourselves. How do you earn the respect of your team when you didn’t fight beside them? We had been as alone as Pulver on the bridge of the ship, and how we each responded to that fact was the difference between our unit’s success and failure.
After we cleaned up the dining area, the six officers adjourned to the wardroom’s lounge to watch Apocalypse Now, something we did at least a dozen times that deployment. Piranha, our company commanding officer, excused himself to finish planning an assault we would carry out that night. (We were a special operations company that raided coastal targets in small, fast, inflatable boats.) He rolled his eyes at our obsession with that movie.
Pulver came into the wardroom after his tour on the bridge. He was whipped; even his cowlick slumped. He sank into one of the old pleather chairs right at the moment the chief of the riverboat accuses Martin Sheen of having no idea where he’s headed, and so why should they continue to carry him, illegally, up the Nùng River? Sheen has no answer for the second part of the question, but as to the first part, the chief was obviously wrong. Sheen had a skill that even the other sailors recognized: an instinct for finding things and making his way. Later, he makes a brutally difficult decision, and his voice-over cuts in: “Those boys were never going to look at me the same way again.” He had been a passenger, possibly a friend, someone they didn’t take too seriously. Afterward there was no question who was in charge of that boat, even if he was now isolated. When things got hard farther up the river, the crew followed him willingly.
“I got a little talking-to from the skipper,” Pulver said. He shrugged. “Do it different next time.” He didn’t take things personally. He learned. He was good in the engineering room and getting better. His solution to the problem of leadership was competence, the confidence to make mistakes in public, but never the same mistake twice.
Odd Job, who got up before the end of the movie to prepare his team of scout swimmers for our raid, had learned how to lead without ever yelling. He was physically strong, a former rugby player with a fondness for French literature. His solution had been to quietly conquer physically and psychologically demanding things faster, better, and smarter than everyone else—and to help others do the same. When he slipped over the side of a Zodiac rubber raiding boat to swim the final few hundred yards to the target that night, his team of scout swimmers followed him without hesitation. He had courage and knew what he was doing.
Corky, who commanded one of the platoons we’d be ferrying to the beach that night, had, over the years, made a close study of the senior enlisted infantrymen he’d met and taken their ideas and techniques and made them his own. He respected his platoon sergeant. He didn’t make hasty decisions and often made creative ones.
Gus was an Ivy Leaguer who never (visibly) got tired and who could foresee problems others couldn’t. He made himself indispensable by keeping his platoon on target and out of trouble.
AS THE MOVIE PLAYED ON, each of the others left early to prepare for our raid. I didn’t command many Marines myself and therefore had time to watch the movie to the end. I was more of a skills guy. When we raided, I decided how to get where we were going. I navigated by landmarks and compass bearings. I had a knack for it and could figure it out when no one else could. I spent a lot of time in the woods growing up; maybe it just came naturally. The lesson I learned early on? Simple things like not getting lost were enough, over time, to earn trust and respect.
Finally I got up and so did Pulver. He headed back to the bridge to try again. I strapped on my gear and descended into the well deck, a cavernous expanse several stories high and almost long enough to fit half a football field, where we stored the boats. At the stern, the gate was lowered to let us out to sea.
The Marines, nervous, cut up as they tied our gear into the boats; their officers, my friends, quietly watched—we were 22, 23 years old. The boats floated out two at a time. I was the last to leave the ship, and as soon as we were clear our coxswain steered us to the front of the raid formation. On the water you couldn’t tell who was an officer and who wasn’t, who knew what they were doing and who didn’t. We were one team of mixed parts, each depending on the other.
“You know where we’re going?” Piranha asked. The moon was gone, the stars were shielded by clouds, and I could hardly see him or my chart. My compass glowed a little. “This way,” I said, and they followed me into the dark.
Originally published September 2015
Duncan Murrell writes for Harper’s, Oxford American, and Virginia Quarterly Review.
Rules of Engagement
Reflections on leadership from Ann Dunwoody, America’s first female four-star general and author of A Higher Standard
When I joined the military back in ’75, I just assumed that as a female I would have to exceed the standards to be accepted and gain credibility. But what I realized was that all good leaders exceed the standards.
Never walk by a mistake. Make an on-the-spot correction. Otherwise, you just set a new, lower standard.
Dream big and try to make a difference. It’s rewarding, but it also helps the organization.
Cultivate a vision. What do you want your organization to look like in five years, and how do you get there? My last team had 69,000 people. I thought: If people understand that they are part of a bigger mission, they’ll know what they do every day is important.
When people asked if I ever knew I was going to be a four-star, I said, “Not in my wildest dreams.” No one was more surprised than me, except of course my husband. You know what they say: “Behind every successful woman is an astonished man.”