“Sir, what the fuck were the commanders thinking, sending us in there with no armor to clear a fucking town? We could have all been killed, and for what? We’re sitting in the same goddamn field we were in last night, as if nothing had happened, except we got the shit shot out of us and lost a great team leader.”
I walked a fine line. As an officer, I couldn’t badmouth decisions the way a lance corporal could. Even as a lowly first lieutenant, I simply had too much rank, too much authority and influence. It would be disloyal and insubordinate, a transgression both moral and legal. At the same time, though, to smile in the face of stupidity and say something about liberating the Iraqi people or living up to the example of Iwo Jima and Hue City would neuter me in the eyes of the men. Men shrink in combat to little circles of trust: us versus them. A platoon that puts its commander in the “them” category is a dangerous place to be. Every young officer learns the difference between legal authority and moral authority. Legal authority is worn on the collar — the gold and silver rank insignia that garner salutes and the title “sir.” It doesn’t win firefights. Moral authority is the legitimacy granted to a leader who knows his job and cares about his men. In combat, I learned to rely on moral authority much more than on legal authority.
So I conceded part of the Marine’s statement. “That was bullshit, bad tactics. After all the artillery prep and with the air escort, no one expected that ambush to happen. We were all wrong. I can’t speak for the battalion, but I can tell you that will never happen again in this platoon.” I paused and locked eyes with the Marine to be sure he knew I wasn’t just talking. “I’m sorry about Pappy. I don’t know if we’ll be fighting for another three days, three weeks, or three months, but I can tell you one thing. We have to learn from what we do right and what we do wrong, then move on. There were twenty-three of us, back to back. Now there are twenty-two. We have to get each other home in one piece.”
The Marine nodded, accepting this line of reasoning. Strong combat leadership is never by committee. Platoon commanders must command, and command in battle isn’t based on consensus. It’s based on consent. Any leader wields only as much authority and influence as is conferred by the consent of those he leads. The Marines allowed me to be their commander, and they could revoke their permission at any time.
Fick, Nathaniel. One Bullet Away: The Making of a Marine Officer. Houghton Mifflin; Boston. 2005. p. 276 (hardcover)