Military Writing: The “Lieutenant” Problem

This post is the first in a series in which the CC/PL team highlights the leadership ideas and experiences of company grade officers. Interested in contributing? Read more here. This post if from LT Don Gomez, a U.S. Army officer. The views expressed here are the author’s alone and do not reflect those of the U.S. Army or the Department of Defense.

When I saw the call for submissions that would “highlight the leadership ideas of company-grade officers,” I was intrigued. Company-grade officers are typically younger than their field grade counterparts and often have a burning flame inside of them to make an impact. They are likely more ideological, still nostalgic from reading mountains of junior officer memoirs on leadership and watching films that lionize the role of the small unit leader and his ability to positively influence events. Most importantly, their personal experiences down where the rubber meets the road informs them of a reality that more senior officers may not have experienced for quite some time, and in some cases, not at all.

Yes, I was intrigued at the prospect of reading — and perhaps writing — about leadership from the company-grade officer perspective. However, I know that there are two types of company-grade officers: Lieutenants and Captains. And unless it’s the Captain writing, the piece will inevitably face the Lieutenant Problem.

The Lieutenant Problem is simply the natural bias that a reader — especially if he or she is no longer a Lieutenant — will apply to the piece once they get to the byline and see that it was written by a Lieutenant. That is, the piece will be either dismissed as the musings of inexperience or damned as nothing more than whining.

Recently, writing in The Best Defense, one Lieutenant wrote about his rather strong thoughts about some of his fellow company-grade officers. The comments and feedback were harsh, and mostly of the “whoa whoa, slow down there, Lieutenant,” variety. Lieutenant, in this case needs to be enunciated slowly. Just the other day, in another piece on The Best Defense, a list of “7 pointers” was published to gently guide junior officers (read: young Lieutenants) in the right direction.

Writing in Small Wars Journal in 2011, then 1LT Jarrin Jackson penned a narrative about his experience trying to make counter-insurgency work in Afghanistan. In the comments, a handful of readers piled on, making sure they prefaced every knockdown they launched with “Look LT…” or variations thereof. One commenter even pointed out how the rank of Lieutenant seems to be used as a pejorative.

The Lieutenant Problem is not reserved to writing, of course. Anyone who has watched an NCO or senior officer’s face curl into a smirk after the words “In my experience…” roll out of a Lieutenant’s mouth know what I’m talking about. Lieutenant’s who write, however, have to deal with the added vitriol and keyboard courage that comes from people having the ability to write anonymously or at least from an extended distance.

As a rank, it seems that we have collectively written off the Lieutenant as a source of any kind of knowledge. They sign the hand receipt and take ass-chewings. I’m just as guilty of this as anyone else, having recently read a good piece at War on the Rocks about a British war film, and then found myself feeling instinctively skeptical and overly critical when I learned that the writer was a Second Lieutenant attending graduate school in London. I found myself wanting to dismiss the piece as coming from too junior a voice — and I’m a Lieutenant that writes!

In fairness, as Lieutenants, we tend to bring some of this upon ourselves. For whatever reason, when young Lieutenants write, they tend to write about policy heavy topics; like women in the infantry or how the total Army personnel system should be managed. These are fun topics to write about, but the fact is that when anyone reads the byline and sees “Lieutenant,” they will likely immediately think “young and inexperienced.” The content of the Lieutenant’s argument is an after-thought, if not outright dismissed.

Perhaps if Lieutenant’s focused more on things at their level — small unit leadership, for example — and left the big ticket items to more experienced voices, they might receive less criticism.

Still, I think the problem isn’t really with Lieutenant’s writing or having opinions, but rather the way that as a military we treat that rank. The Lieutenant is typically thought to be the rank in which a junior officer cuts his teeth and learns about how the “real Army” works. He is supposed to make mistakes and learn. As a mentor once told me, “The Army doesn’t need Platoon Leaders or junior officers; it needs field grade officers. You are there to learn.” Whether that is true or not is less important than the fact that many senior officers seem to think it’s true (and maybe it is).

That frame of thinking, that Lieutenant’s should just be sponges and keep to themselves until they’ve passed enough gates to warrant being taken seriously, hinders the flow of information and could potentially be preventing units from getting better. A Lieutenant who thinks he has a good idea and wants to share it might choose otherwise when he looks at the environment and see’s his peers getting blasted by strangers on the internet who look them up on AKO.

“Shut up and color,” as the saying goes.

Without question, there are some Lieutenants who would be best served by soaking up as much information as they can while at the Company level. There are others, though, by virtue of their prior enlisted service, life experience, or unique background who have more to offer than wild college stories.

I would expect that in response to a piece like this, some more senior voices might point out that perhaps I am being “too sensitive” and that Lieutenants’ writing wouldn’t get so criticized if they simply wrote more thoughtful, less emotional pieces. While that might be true, the zeitgeist of responses to Lieutenants’ writing has been largely dismissive or patronizing. Inside of a formation, Lieutenants often share best practices privately with each other at lunch or bars after work. It would be nice if we could get to a point where we could share ideas among a larger audience and have those ideas examined and discussed on their own merit, and not based on date of rank, time in grade, or time in service.

1LT Don Gomez is a prior-service infantry officer and member of the Platoon Leader forums.

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