Monday, October 19, 2009
Why do people respond to military drill? Why do we still after enormous technical changes practice close order marching and the manual of arms? Why do we polish brass?
The answer is because it works. The military is the most practical of environments. It has to be as it deals with life and death. The drill shows training in attention to detail, patience and cooperation, listening skills, acceptance of responsibility, and trust. Respect for tradition is not a mindless activity. The fact is that when groups of people have to be moved from point A to point B it happens faster and with less confrontational supervision once everyone has learned to walk together.
My troops in Deck Division once asked why they had to polish the brass. They pointed out that they could paint it red and it would look good and fight corrosion. So I took the question to my Executive Officer, Oliver Hazard Perry III. Hap Perry was about as wide as he was tall and you usually saw his tonsils first, because he was screaming at you. On this occasion he was patient with me and explained that the ship was more than a machine, it was a community with a purpose. Then he asked me a couple of hypotheticals.
1) Suppose Lord Louis Mountbatten was coming to visit your ship, would you paint the brass?
Answer: No, Lord Mountbatten was a sailor and he would expect to see a clean but functional warship.
2) Suppose Lady Mountbatten was coming to visit, what do you do?
Answer: Paint the brass XO?
3) What are you going to do now?
Answer: Polish the brass XO.
Note that the Exec gave me, the junior officer, ownership of the ship in his example. That showed both good pedagogy and good leadership. Since our ship was the USS England, named as usual for someone who died heroically in this case an Ensign at Pearl Harbor, the use of Mountbatten was appropriate. Lord Louis was a great naval hero. He perfected the Maneuvering Board that is used to solve navigational problems and his character was the basis Noel Coward's Captain Kinross in 1942's In Which We Serve. He was killed by the IRA.
Some people have the gift, I’ll call it leadership, and it sounds like the Mother in Law had it. People can do amazing things with the right help.