"...do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic..."

"For the good of the Air Force, for the good of the armed services and for the good of our country, I urge you to reject convention and careerism..."
- Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, Maxwell AFB, April 21, 2008

"You will need to challenge conventional wisdom and call things like you see them to subordinates and superiors alike."
- Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, United States Air Force Academy, March 4, 2011

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Cowardice At Home, Cowardice in Battle

I just watched a documentary about Corporal Desmond Doss, a deeply principled medic who passed up a deferment to serve in World War II. His amazing actions of incredible courage in battle earned him the respect of his peers and the Congressional Medal of Honor.

Outside and prior to combat, however, he did not enjoy the respect of his peers. Rather, he was ridiculed for his principles and convictions which were a thorn in the side of several of his commanders. One of Doss's stateside training commanders attempted to outdo previous commanders and threatened to court martial Doss. This commander was going to take care of the thorn. The reason? Doss wouldn't cave on his conviction to not carry a weapon as a medic. You see, Doss was coded as a conscientious objector and that code meant he legally did not have to carry arms. The commander wasn't concerned with the legality of his situation, however, and simply wanted Doss gone. He wanted the thorn removed from service.

Despite ridicule and minor punishments, however, Doss remained in the Army where his heroics in combat were later legendary. The actions of that same commander in combat were also recorded. According to one soldier, he and several others saw the commander run for safety in the face of the enemy while his men remained on the line to fight.

The Secretary of Defense recently spoke to Air Force Academy cadets and discussed courage on and off the battlefield before focusing on the need for courage off the battlefield. The story of Corporal Doss may help explain why Secretary Gates chose to focus on heroics off the field of battle.

Those who cannot display courage at home, preparing for war, cannot be trusted to show courage in war. This seems intuitive enough. A coward is a coward. An insecure commander who is threatened by a principled subordinate who refuses to cower will likely display his insecurity if ever actually tested in combat. Likewise, a subordinate who does not have the courage to stand up for his principles in the face of institutional ridicule and punishment will likely not stand up to the enemy in combat. It's a matter of character and true colors.

Consider a study by Dr. E. Paul Torrance, Crew Performance in a Test Situation as a Predictor of Field and Combat Performance, which sought to determine traits that led to superior performance in combat. Dr. Torrance wrote in his 1957 study:
The effect of disagreement on group process cannot be fully understood without examining the effect willingness or unwillingness to disagree with others has upon the individual. Research findings indicate that certain individuals show a generalized willingness to oppose others and disagree when the situation requires it. In a series of studies of the personality requirements for survival, such individuals were found to produce superior results in the form of more adaptive behavior in survival situations, willingness to take calculated risks, and unwillingness to accept defeat. In our studies of USAF jet aces in Korea, we found that this characteristic was typical of the ace when compared with his less successful colleagues.
Of course insecure commanders are threatened by courageous and principled subordinates while good commanders seek disagreement. In my experience, the best commanders are those who not only allow you to disagree with them but will actually protect you from commanders above themselves to give you room to disagree. The best commander I ever had, a man steeped with combat experience and principle, did exactly that. Unfortunately I have also had non-combatant commanders attempt to destroy me for unpopular opinions. The link between real combat experience, principle, and courage cannot be discounted. Of course the institution's antagonism toward the courageous is nothing new. Secretary Gates' recent speech was filled with examples of stellar officers who endured the wrath of lessers. Torrance observed:
Willingness to disagree is a major characteristic of the aces-the high achievers. It also characterizes those best able to meet frustration, those most willing to take calculated risks, and those who have the most "will to fight." In spite of the fact that most really outstanding people appear to possess this characteristic, many of them fare rather badly at the hands of…superior officers… They are seen as threats by superiors and are frequently not appreciated, or even tolerated. Too often the greatest rewards are for conformity.
As such I think the Secretary of Defense is on to something by focusing on courage off the battlefield and asking officers to use their stateside experiences to prepare their integrity and sharpen their courage. In my experience, we could use many more commanders and many more subordinates who have the courage required to live lives of integrity. We could all learn from the example of Medal of Honor winner Corporal Desmond Doss.

Watch the documentary here: http://www.desmonddoss.com/

Work Cited:

Torrance, Paul E. “Group Decision-Making and Disagreement.” Social Forces 35 (May 1957): 314-318.

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