Thursday, July 27, 2006

Responsibility, Initiative, and Expectations

At what point do young Marines exceed civilian society with regard to taking personal responsibility and initiative, even under the most intense, life-threatening situations and who is that enables them to attain this level of personal productivity?

Are the time-tested methods at Parris Island and San Diego so skillfully implemented by our drill instructors that young recruits are molded into warriors, devoid of their previous civilian hesitancies and shortcomings, capable of thinking and acting for the good of their peers and themselves?

Is it the Noncommissioned Officer’s who train and teach junior enlisted Marines to become responsible, decision makers as they themselves have become?

Is it the Staff Noncommissioned Officer’s who mentor them, passing along the wisdom, leadership, and experience of their years, providing them the personal and professional tools to become self-sufficient at any level?

Those questions originally raced through my mind when watching the coverage of Hurricane Katrina. I found myself making the comparison between some in the Gulf Coast area and the Marines I’ve known who took responsibility for themselves and their fellow Marines, even through the most trying of times. The Marines stood in stark contrast to those who appeared to have made poor decisions or even any decisions on their own behalf. I knew there were many storm victims who simply lacked the means or ability to exit the path of the storm. My heart went out to them. But I also knew there were those who had both the means and the ability, yet stayed, and then had full expectations for someone else to take care of them. Why?

And why were there expectations by so many observers that those caught in the storm need not take responsibility for themselves? They demanded that someone else (usually the entity farthest from them, the federal government) be held responsible, neglecting the concept of personal responsibility.

I kept making mental comparisons to a fire team, squad, or platoon of Marines caught in a life or death struggle during combat. No unit, at any level would simply wait around for the next higher command to come bail them out. They would start fighting immediately. The fire team doesn’t wait for the squad to show up before fighting when caught in an ambush. The squad doesn’t wait for the platoon, the platoon the company, and so on. They take responsibility and initiative. They shoot, maneuver, and communicate.

Some would say “that’s what they should do; it’s what they’re trained to do.” But, they also do the same when not caught in the life or death scenarios of combat. They do it in garrison. They do it under benign conditions. They find ways to make things happen. They take the initiative, “they improvise, overcome, and adapt,” as the Heartbreak Ridge movie line goes. As I reflected on those characteristics of the Marines with whom I’d served, they contrasted sharply with those of the individuals who possessed the means yet chose not to use them before Katrina hit.

I let the questions and comparisons pass, feeling judgmental, not having been in the shoes of those from the Gulf Coast. But, it was hard to let them completely escape my mind with the month’s long parade of stories blaming the government for the Katrina situation, while absolving so many others of any personal responsibility.

Those questions and comparisons recently resurfaced while watching the news coverage of Americans awaiting transportation from Lebanon.

The same decrees exempting them from any personal responsibility were made. Not so much by them, but by the observers here, especially those with political motives. The same demands were made for someone else to be held responsible for the plight of those caught in the fighting. There was an absolute oversight of the fact they had placed themselves into such a troubled, dangerous location.

Why was the immediate reaction to blame the federal government for not wiggling its nose and magically, instantaneously casting all 25,000 back to the states?

The coverage reinvigorated the questions I’d had about society’s expectations for personal responsibility and renewed the comparisons between Marines in combat and their civilian peers caught in a dangerous situation.

All of which leads me back to my basic, original queries: at what point are ordinary young men and women transformed into Marines who are responsible and proactive? At what point do they become more mature than their peers and the rest of society in terms of realistic expectations during times of difficulty and hardship? At what point do they become worthy of being held responsible for their actions while their civilian peers aren’t held to any standard during times of duress?

In the end, the answers to those questions are debatable and seemingly intangible. What I do know is that I prefer Marines be set apart within the American framework. I prefer that Marines be held to the very highest of standards, certainly far higher standards than the rest of society, and that we as leaders and American citizens expect extraordinary things from the Corps.

But at the same time, I have to ask, “How little have we, as citizens, come to expect of our fellow citizens?”

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