Saturday, April 04, 2009

The Unforgiving Minute – A Soldier’s Education by Craig M. Mullaney

Anyone who is a regular reader of The White Rhino Report is aware that there is a growing body of excellent books that are coming out of the conflicts that continue to rage in Iraq and Afghanistan. We are getting an excellent assortment of well-written and carefully reasoned first-hand accounts from young leaders who have been tested in the crucibles of battle, dizzying operational tempo and multiple deployments. Taken together, these books give us a broad view – not only of how the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been proceeding- but also a deep look into the minds, hearts and characters of those who have been asked to lead the “boots on the ground” in these conflicts. If history repeats itself, many of these thoughtful and articulate battle-tested warriors will end up in positions of national-level responsibility in appointed and elected office. That process is already beginning to take place. Craig M. Mullaney, author of The Unforgiving Minute, served on the Obama Transition Team, along with Nate Fick, USMC veteran and author of One Bullet Away.

Within the space of a few days, I was told by three different individuals that I needed to read The Unforgiving Minute. One of those who was touting the book so highly was Congressional Medal of Honor Recipient, Capt. Paul Bucha, whom I met in Chicago when he spoke to a gathering there a few weeks ago. I took his advice, and that of 2LT Samir Patel, and procured a copy of the book. Shortly after I read the book, I was able to meet the author, Craig Mullaney, when he spoke to members of the Armed Forces Alumni Association of Harvard Business School and the Kennedy School of Government. Mullaney, a West Point graduate and Rhodes Scholar, recounts the development of his sense of what it means to be both a soldier and a leader. The book deserves its place on the New York Times Bestseller List for Non-Fiction.

Early in the book, Mullaney sets the tone for his career as a West Point cadet and eventual Army officer by recounting his process of deciding to apply to a military academy rather than the liberal arts school that most of his friends were choosing:

’What am I doing here?’ I repeated to myself the well-rehearsed lines I had delivered to family, friends, and strangers. ‘Are you sure you wouldn’t be happier somewhere else?’ they’d ask. My happiness wasn’t the point, I would respond. I wanted to serve my country. Are you sure you want to be an Army officer? Yes, I told them.

I hadn’t come to that conclusion lightly. Like most of my high school classmates, I’d applied to a half-dozen universities. I’d gone with my parents to tour beautiful old colleges in New England. Admissions officers promised academic challenges and extracurricular fun. They promised well-paying jobs after graduation and powerful alumni networks. The hardest part, student tour guides confided to us, was getting in. I couldn’t explain at first why I felt so out of place. Afterward, flipping through their glossy brochures at home, I realized what was missing. They’d asked nothing of me.” (Page 13)

His studies at West Point, including literature, helped Mullaney to begin to develop a sense of what it would mean to lead soldiers:

“One author we read, Antoine de Saint-Exupery, a daring pilot-intellectual, spoke of what I had been trying to articulate to my family about the draw of military service. Flying without instruments as a postal courier on the South American ‘Aeropostale,’ Saint-Exupery wrote of the camaraderie that developed between men engaged in dangerous enterprise for the benefit of mankind: ‘The grandeur of a profession is . . . above all, uniting men: there is only one true luxury, that of human relationships.’” (Page 52)

During a Spring Break trip to the beaches of Normandy, site of the historic D-Day invasion, Mullaney asked one of his professors, Lt. Col. Guy Lofaro, a decorated hero, about handling the pressures of combat:

’How do you know how you will handle combat?’ I asked

‘You don’t,’ he responded. ‘You’ll never know until you’re there.’

He paused and looked out over the cliff at the rollers drifting inexorably toward the shore. I nodded slowly as he discharged wisdom in measured, thoughtful bursts.

‘What you know for certain is that it will be chaotic and loud, and you’ll be ready to piss in your boots. You’ll be more scared of letting down your men than anything the enemy’s gonna do to you. And then you’ll lead from instinct and judgment. That’s the price of a salute.’” (Page 69)

Mullaney recounts a time of discouragement during Ranger training, and how reading helped him to regain a sense of perspective:

“A few days later I snapped out of the funk. I had picked up a book to read, Gates of Fire by Steve Pressfield. I zoomed through it in between the odd maintenance jobs they had us perform while we waited two weeks for the next cycle. Of Ranger students to arrive. In the book a Greek warrior recounts his brutal training with the Spartans and the Spartans’ heroic, outnumbered stand against the Persians in the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 B.C. I copied a passage from the book, and stuck it in my Ranger handbook: ‘The hardship of the exercises is intended less to strengthen the back than to toughen the mind.’” (Page 111)

As the number of warriors that I count among my friends has grown exponentially over the past decade, I have observed that the ones who strike me as the most effective as leaders are those who are not only brave and battle-hardened, but are also voracious readers – “people of the book,” if you will. Many soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines have asked me to give them recommendations of what they should bring with them to read while deployed.

Mullaney hammers home this point with the quotation that he chose to open the second half of the book: “The nation that will insist on drawing a broad line of demarcation between the fighting man and the thinking man is liable to find its fighting done by fools and its thinking done by cowards.” Sir William Francis Butler (Page 215)

Finally, let me share the author’s observations about courage that he made in the context of the time that he and his unit spent under fire and duress in Afghanistan:

“Sweat dripped onto my dog-eared copy of The Red Badge of Courage. Stephen Crane had written his masterpiece about a young soldier in the Civil War without ever stepping on a battlefield. As a high school student, I had wondered with a groan why I had to read it. The Civil War was ancient history. What was courage to a fifteen-year-old? It made no sense at that age, but it made sense now.

Henry Fleming, the main character of the book, is a young soldier in the Union Army. He isn’t sure how he will stand up in battle. He postures along with the others, cloaking his fears in bombast. In his first test under fire, he runs. When next pressed into battle, Henry rises to the challenge carrying the colors forward under withering fire. He redeems his shame. In both fights, fear is a constant. It is Henry’s will to face that fear that changes.

I tore through the book, scribbling in the margins. Henry’s meditations on courage intrigued me now that I had observed courage firsthand. If, as some of Henry’s fellow soldiers contended, courage was an immutable characteristic, then you either had it or you didn’t; you were a hero or a coward. That wasn’t what I had observed, though. Inn combat, men were all heroes and cowards, at the same time and in varying degrees.” (Pages 337-8)

Mullaney’s thoughtful recounting of the classroom lessons he experienced at West Point, Oxford, Ranger training and Afghanistan represent a worthy addition to the literary "After Action Reviews" that are being offered to the reading public. I commend it to you.



No comments: