What makes young men and women willing to risk their lives on the front line? What is leadership in a military organization? How is it taught and instilled? These are some of the questions I’m pondering in preparation for some research I’m undertaking as background for a memoir.
My father, a retired Marine Corps Colonel who fought in World War II, rarely talked about his wartime experiences. Sometimes his emotions overwhelmed him, but more often, he didn’t think they were worthy of elaboration; like many of his era, he didn’t consider himself a hero. The heroes were the other guys. The ones who died.
My brother Dean recently stumbled across a video recording of his conversation with my father in 2003, ten years before his death. Talking about his officer training in Quantico in 1941, he recalled that his mother and aunt visited the base just as he came off the bayonet course. He remembered that he “ran it for blood.” Then he explained why he took the training so seriously — not because he needed to save his own skin when facing an enemy, but because, as a second lieutenant, he would likely be responsible for his platoon:
“You’re going to teach kids this stuff. You’re their mommy, you’re their daddy. They depend on you for literally everything at the platoon level, which is the message I drilled my young candidates on. It’s your monkey. It ain’t going anywhere. You better fly it.
“If you’re good at this, you’ll know their names, and if they’re married, you’ll know their wive’s names and the names of their kids, be interested in them as individuals. Because when you get into battle time, there’s no time to get an introduction. All that should be behind you. You’re familiar with the guy; you’ll know what he’ll do and what he won’t do. You’ve got to know this and that takes intimate contact. That’s a serious matter, which is why the Marine Corps is good at what they do. There’s nothing impersonal about any of it, no matter what you see in the movies.”