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The view from the ground


The Man Who Really Takes It


by Backsight Forethought



It was 12 September 2001 and a friend of mine and I were walking back to the think-tank where we both worked from the National Press Club where he'd been doing an interview for French radio. "Tony" is a devout political type, a former Clinton speech-writer and one of the most genuinely nice guys that I know.

I don't know about New York, but DC was downright eerie that day. It was, well, quiet. I mean, unlike New York, we weren't shut down. The streets and businesses were all still open, and in fact just about everyone came to work. It was, in many people's eyes, a personal act of defiance to the jackasses that hit the Pentagon and the Towers. So the streets were full, but they were quiet. No honking. No screeching tires. No pissed off cabbies or pedestrians clipped by a speeding suburbanite drunk with the urban potential of his SUV. People said excuse me. True, they said it in about 75 different languages, but everyone got the point.

Tony and I worked in the part of the think-tank dealing with Strategic Studies. In other words, war. I was there because I am a professional soldier (on loan for a year). He was there because he's a smart cookie (a Rhodes Scholar in fact) and knew people, which is pretty much how it works here in DC. The day before shook something loose.

Tony was a shade over forty, and he wanted to know if he was too old to enlist in the Army.

I told him what a massive waste it would be because he's about twice as old as what we need and at 40+ years old I just couldn't see Tony carrying a rifle as a private in the infantry. I guess he didn't quite get the unstated part. I like Tony, but I suspected that what I said and what he heard were two different things. That was confirmed a short while later when, upon hearing speculation about the resumption of a draft, Tony said in a casual conversation of which I was a part, "I support it but we just have to make sure that the right people are drafted." I asked for clarification, and after disclaimers it came down to the idea that it would be a terrible waste of talent if we drafted men and women with strong educational backgrounds.

Now for all intents and purposes I myself am probably to the left of my friend on a lot of social issues, but his statement brought me up short. Being on the left is supposed to mean being egalitarian, and that is supposed to apply to military service as well. At least in theory. In practice, however, this man who once wrote the better part of the States of the Union addresses for the President was demonstrating something different. It reminded me of a letter I once read. The letter was from a general to a congressman. The letter was written in 1942 from a general to a congressman in response to a letter from the congressman. I reprint this letter because nothing else could make my point quite so eloquently as does this long-dead and unknown-to-history American officer.

[Dear Sir]

Your letter of February 17, to the Adjutant General, concerning Private Robert H. Lister, Company A, 165th Infantry, has been sent to me.

You state: "I am wondering if there has been some mistake in his assignment to Fort Ord. Robert Lister has a fine education, has a Masters Degree, is about ready for a Doctor's Degree, is an expert Spanish student, a skilled archeologist, and had been an instructor at the University of New Mexico."

In this division of 22,000 men, I receive many letters similar to yours from parents, relatives, friends and sweethearts. They do not understand why the men who had a good law practice at home cannot be in the Judge Advocate Generals Department, why the drug store manager cannot work in the post hospital, why the school teacher cannot be used for educational work. They are willing for somebody else to do the hard, dirty work of the fighting man so long as the one they are interested in can be spared that duty.
If the doctors in the future are to have the privilege of practicing their profession, if archeologists are to investigate antiquity, if students are to have the privilege of taking degrees, and professors the privilege of teaching in their own way, somebody must march and fight and bleed and die and I know no reason why the students, doctors, professors and archeologists shouldn't do their share of it.

You say, "It strikes me as too bad to take that type of education and bury it in a rifle squad," as though there were something low or mean or servile in being a member of a rifle squad and only morons and ditch diggers should be given such duty. I know of no place red blooded men of intelligence and initiative are more needed than in the rifle or weapons squad.

In this capacity, full recognition is given to the placing of men so that they may do the work most beneficial to the unit of which they are a part. Whenever men are needed for a particular duty, the record of all men having the required skills and qualifications are considered. I have examined the records of Private Lister and it is fairly complete. I know he holds the 100-yard dash and broad jump records in the Border Conference; that he was the president of his fraternity; that his mother was born in Alabama and his father in Michigan; that his father lives at the Burlington Hotel in Washington and I suspect asked you to do what you could to get his son on other duty.

It is desirable that all men, regardless of their specialty, shall learn by doing; how hard it is to march with a pack for 20 miles; how to hold their own in bayonet combat; and how to respect the man who really takes it, namely the private in the rifle squad.

If Private Lister has special qualifications for intelligence duty, he will be considered when a vacancy occurs in a regimental, brigade, or division intelligence section. You can't keep a good man down in the Army for long. Every commander is anxious to get hold of men with imagination, intelligence, initiative, and drive.

Because you may think I'm a pretty good distance from a rifle squad, I should like to tell you I have a son on Bataan peninsula. All of know of him is that he was wounded on January 19. I hope he is back by now where the rifle squads are taking it, and I wish I were beside him there.

I have written you this long letter because in your high position you exercise a large influence on what people think and the way they regard the Army. It is necessary for them to understand men must do that which best helps to win the war and often that is not the same as what they do best.

Sincerely yours,
Ralph T. McPernell
Brig. Gen., USA

My sentiments exactly.


Serve your country. E-mail


Posted January 25, 2004 12:30 AM






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