How can a commander love his troops and yet send them to their deaths?

Article by Keith Nightingale

I have been asked by several people to explain the term “love” as I use it in the context of essays on being a grunt. Let me try.

High performing infantry maneuver units — squad through battalions — have a strong sense of mutual love for each other. A love so strong that during combat, lives are willingly spent to defend the remainder of that combat family. In peace, that love persists to death between members who will willingly sacrifice blood relationship events to assist a brother from a previous combat family. Quality leaders are the key to inculcating that love by expressing it and earning it themselves. This is a love that can be brutal and beautiful beyond description. It emanates from a family built by the same father but from diverse mothers though the battlefield as the womb of creation.

For soldiers to achieve their peak performance-both individually and organizationally, they need to have a sense of their leadership and a belief that he believes in them and will do everything he can to support them and aid them when he can. It is as easy as wandering through the perimeter at 0100 on a rainy cold night, getting hot coffee sent up to an isolated element or making sure everyone got their hawk gear when they needed it-and you were there to see that it all happened. And they see you.

Key is a leader’s exposure to the Grunts in routine face to face communication explaining what is happening, what is required and what we will do. Not faceless orders or edicts through a squad leader but a message from the father to the kids about a coming event and the personal and organizational imperatives. There builds a bonding between the leaders and the led akin to a family-which is the point. Grunts will not willingly die for a PowerPoint slide or a computer text-they want to see, smell and judge the measure of the man who will spend their souls.

Leader love is also expressed in the application of clear standards and discipline without exceptions or personality adjustments so everyone sees that application is fair across the board. Grunts want to know both the How and the Why and understand that any favoritism is directed toward the all, not a specific part. Troops intuitively understand good and bad and understand the Why of any condition of which they are a part.

Leader love is also built through appeals to pride and performance-each person is unique but working together the various individual parts can unleash the potential of the whole. WE are a team and WE carry each other. No individual in a tight family is prepared to fail his companions, so they all pull harder. Appealing to their uniqueness expressed by their performance, allows them to physically see their quality compared to others and understand why certain discipline and training demands works for the betterment of all. Hard is good. This is an ultimate bonding experience.

Through the application of this approach and similar acts, the unit gains a love and affection for themselves and their units and an affection for the leaders that got them there-much like a father and his kids. This also creates a highly effective lethal flexible battlefield instrument.

Leader love is also expressed in the seemingly contradictory act of time to time making the point that some will die or be wounded–it is the price of the job and they understand it. It is also understood that no one will be sacrificed if other means to attain an objective short of personal exposure were available eg artillery, bombing, gunships etc. Here, it is essential that the Grunts see the leaders up front sharing risk and hardship as a matter of routine-this is an ALL IMPORTANT trait that is unfortunately denigrated by advanced battlefield technologies of communication.

On a personal note, I truly loved my combat troops and they knew it. They also knew I was very demanding and would place them in harm’s way-ironically a fate most supported as an instrument to demonstrate their own organizational and personal worth. That feeling of affection displayed over time, training and exposure, transmitted the units into formidable fighting forces and was so recognized by other sister elements. The really important point to each member was that he truly understood he was part of something larger than himself and wanted to experience that family and what it meant. As did I.

To lead Grunts is a supreme privilege and in all cases, the leaders must be worthy of the led.

Col. (Ret.) Keith Nightingale commanded four infantry companies, three battalions, and two brigades. These units included two tours in Vietnam, the Grenada invasion, and several classified counterterrorist operations including the Iran rescue attempt. He was a founding member of the 1-75th Rangers as well as one of the original members of what is now Joint Special Operations Command and U.S. Special Operations Command. Col. (Ret.) Nightingale has written numerous articles regarding the Infantry in both Vietnam and the Desert Wars. He is a member of the Ranger Hall of Fame. 

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