Monday, December 05, 2005

The Real Winners

Saturday was a good day to root for Navy. A very good day indeed. It didn't start out as promising as one could hope for, as Army scored first (never mind that that was the first Army lead in any Army-Navy game since they last won in 2001), and seemed able, at least for a quarter, to answer each Navy threat. But starting in the second quarter, Navy began to pull away, and never looked back.

In the end, though, do you know who the real winners were? We were -- this country, our military, our way of life. And that would have been true regardless of who won the football game.

I was thinking about it as I watched the game, as I sat there impressed that I was watching two of the least penalized teams in college football, as I watched the determination with which both teams played from the first kickoff to the last tick of the clock. I was amazed at their team spirit, their sportsmanship, their resourcefulness. As I watched this with the knowledge that these are the future leaders of our armed forces, I kept having one recurring thought:

We're in good hands.

There are many reasons bandied about for why the U.S. Military is so successful, has won so often, lost so seldom. The weight of our industrial might, our level of technology, the fighting spirit of the American solider, the motivation of the freedom for which we fight. And these all certainly have their place in explaining our success. But devotees of military history will tell you there's another reason we fight so well and win so often, especially in the context of specific battles:

The quality of American officers.

And I don't just mean our general staffs (though we've had some damned good generals and admirals, to be sure). Most of the graduates of our service academies will never acheive that rank. Some will, many will make colonel. Others will be majors, captains, lieutenants. Or in the case of the Navy: captains; Commanders, Lieutenants, Ensigns. But those are the very men to which I refer.

Our service academies have a tradition of producing officers who are bright, motivated, and confident. Of course, the enlisted ranks will tell you that means OVER-confident in the early days of their careers, but hte good ones take their lumps, learn their lessons, and truly lead. It's that quality, leadership, that makes the difference. Unlike the command structures of many of the totalitarian regimes we have fought, where power is concetrated at the top, US junior officers are created in a culture where they are expected to take initiative and make decisions on their own, on the spur of the moment, when the crisis demands. Sure, they're given guidelines and boundaries for their behavior (Standard Operating Procedures and Rules of Engagement), but when the chips are down, they know that they have the authority to react to the immediate situation without waiting for detailed instructions from above, if the situation warrants. And they are confident that they have been equipped with the right information and the right decision making skills to identify those situations. The history books are filled with countless tales of battles we won because a lower officer made a spur of the moment decision in the heat of battle that changed the course of events. Even in our darker moments, this quality in our officers shines through -- the massacre at My Lai was uncovered not by the press, but by a lowly Lieutenant who knew what his duty was -- to report the incident to his superiors.

In a way, Navy's victorious Option Offense on Saturday was a splendid example of just this kindo f thinking -- the Quarterback was given a goal to acheive, and general guidelines as to how the play would go. But as it unfolded, it was on his shoulders to make the ultimate decision as to whether to pass the ball, lateral it, or keep it. He was confident that the other 10 players would execute their part of the play, and he was confident in his own ability to make the right decision at just the right moment. And while he was wrong on a few occasions, he was right far more often -- often enough that his team won.

So the next time you want to thank or honor the military, remember the officers as well. They may not be as common as enlisted men, but they are just as deserving of our gratitude.

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