William Hamilton: Are our best officers leaving? If so, why?
Grand County, CO Colorado
An article in the January/February 2011 edition of The Atlantic Magazine is titled: “Why Our Best Officers Are leaving.” The article concludes that the military’s command structure rewards conformism and ignores merit to the point we are losing officers with the kind of innovative spirit needed to win against unconventional forces.
The combat arms do not want for leaders who were brave on the battlefield. But, in non-combat settings, some are “conformists” to the point they will not risk the kind of realistic, peacetime training that attracts young people of courage and daring to a lifetime of military service.
While commanding an elite airborne battalion in West Germany, I learned the father of one of my lieutenants was the U.S. Naval Attache in Oslo, Norway – a NATO country. Coincidentally, retired Lt. General Knut Haukelid, one of Norway’s national heroes, was a friend of mine.
During World War II, Knut was one of 12 Norwegian commandos who blew up the heavy-water plant at Telemark. After the Nazis rebuilt the plant, Knut’s commandos sank the ferry boat carrying the heavy water Hitler needed to build an atomic bomb. Richard Harris played a cinematic “version” of Knut in the movie: “The Heroes of Telemark,” starring Kirk Douglas.
In 1969, Knut and I skied together with the Norwegian Ski Brigade. We became friends and stayed in contact over the years. Was this a unique set of circumstances or what? I called Knut. He suggested we fly the lieutenant’s platoon to Norway to re-enact the commando raid on the heavy-water plant. He would personally supervise the entire operation. Unfortunately, our plan for “adventure training” in Norway had a fatal flaw. It did not come down from our higher headquarters. It came from the bottom-up.
We submitted a detailed plan for the lieutenant’s platoon to make a night drop on the same place where Knut Haukelid and crew jumped into Norway during World War II. Next, the platoon would cross-country ski to the Hydro-Norsk power plant at Telemark, scale the steep cliff, re-enact the famous raid, and then be trucked to Oslo for the U.S. Air Force flight back to Germany.
The conformist brigade commander was a hard sell. His wife longed to be Mrs. General. But we had the support of Norway’s national hero, Knut Haukelid; the support of the U.S. Embassy in Oslo, and the U.S. Air Force was willing to provide the C-130 aircraft we needed to fly the platoon to Norway, drop them from the sky, and fly them back to West Germany. Grudgingly, those above us gave us the OK to go ahead.
The platoon trained for the mission with enthusiasm. In Oslo, the father of the platoon leader was excited. I’m taking bets on how many paratroopers in that platoon would re-enlist for their own positions.
Then, about two weeks before the platoon was to leave for Norway, word came down from U.S. Army headquarters in Heidelberg that the mission was off because “there might be an international incident.” We were crushed. Guess who was ordered to call Knut Haukelid and make up some male bovine excreta excuse as to why the mission was scrubbed? Knut said he understood. But Knut knew the smell of conformist, administrative cowardice. He wasn’t fooled.
While the Army can take a buck private like Oklahoma’s own Tommy Franks to four-star rank and to brilliant success in Afghanistan and Iraq or produce a forward-thinker like General David Petraeus, such leaders are all too rare.
We never knew who secretly put the banana peel under our unique opportunity to conduct some exciting “adventure training” in Norway. But one suspect comes to mind, the kind of conformist who causes the lower ranks to say the military promotion system is like a septic tank: the larger pieces float to the top.
– In 2008, Anadarko High School graduate and nationally syndicated columnist, William Hamilton, was named to the University of Oklahoma ROTC Wall of Fame and to the Colorado Aviation Hall of Fame.
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