(To read the rest of our series on Band of Brothers, please click here.)
To date, three of our posts or articles have generated a lot of negative, um, “feedback” online. The first was our “At War” guest post, “Where Did God Go in Afghanistan?”, which ended up with Richard Dawkins calling Michael C “sanctimonious”. Then came, “I Didn’t Deserve My Combat Pay” on the Washington Post. We responded to the haterz here and here, and were later vindicated when the latest Quadrennial Review of Pay and Benefits quoted my op-ed and backed it up with tons of research.
Finally, we posted “The Sobel Problem” two months ago. And a lot of readers didn’t like it. According to Brandon Friedman, we ignited a “Twitter war” online.
In the post, Eric C (who wrote the post) asserted two points:
1. Hollywood unfairly characterizes lieutenants as incompetent.
2. Officers--even lieutenants--are usually the most qualified people in their units. Eric C used the deliberately provocative phrase, “Officers aren’t just equal to enlisted men. They’re better.”
We knew it would be controversial, but we didn’t respond to the criticism at the time because Michael C decided to attend a wedding in Italy. Today, we respond. We have divided up the responses into three categories: the praise, the nuance and the criticism.
Many of the rebuttals led us to a really...weird place. And an even odder conclusion. But wait a minute for that.
1. Everyone agreed with our first thesis.
Mostly, people ignored the first part of our argument that Hollywood unfairly portrays officers (especially lieutenants) as incompetent morons.
Compared to the critiques on Twitter, the excellent, thoughtful comments on the blog post itself really pleased us. Rather than reprint the comments, go take a look for yourself.
We heard two different explanations for why The Neidermeyer stereotype exists. Andrew offered that a bad lieutenant can do a lot more damage than a bad private. He’s absolutely right. Infantrymedic brought up another, more recent phenomena: the rapid progression of lieutenants through the ranks. Often, this means young LTs can expect to have a platoon for less than a year, including combat. This means different leaders train the platoons than the ones who lead them in combat (like myself). He’s right too. I personally hate the Army’s over-drive promotion system.
Infantrymedic also chimed in with this point:
“...you should find a more nuanced way to express your argument than simply saying officers are “better than” or “superior” to enlisted and NCOs. This sort of language seems to imply moral superiority rather than simply acknowledging higher performance.”
And he’s right. It is nearly impossible to quantify moral behavior.
1. Officers and enlisted bring different things to the metaphorical table.
The most frequent critique--leveled by @JeffreyStapler, @wjrue, @JasonFritz, and “mucker” (on the post itself)--isn’t a point we entirely disagree with. However, we hold that in a majority of categories--from physical fitness to leadership--officers would do better than the average enlisted soldier. In fact, our capitalist economic system is based on the principle that the best rise to the top of an organization...but wait a moment on that thought.
Some argued that enlisted men excel more at the so-called “soldiers skills”, while officers excel at leadership and management skills. Then again, in the EIB testing anecdote from last week’s post, officers demolished enlisted men in an infantry skills test.
2. @TyrellMayfield and @Forbesmm pointed out that we only used anecdotes.
We have two thoughts on this. First, yes, we’d have loved to have pored through the Pentagon’s files and analyzed them. They don’t let outsiders do that. And the Army doesn’t do a good job releasing the quantitative analysis they choose to conduct.
More importantly, do either of these guys think that if we ran the results, officers wouldn’t come out better? Choose a category--education, performance in schools, discipline issues, PT scores, etc--and we hold that on average officers and lieutenants would rank higher.
For example, Mike Forbes, referencing a typo we made, snarkily tweeted, “...’Better by every measure’ ... except subject-verb agreement.” to which we would respond, “Do you really think that enlisted men--most of whom haven’t gone to college--are better writers/grammarians than officers who did go to college?
3. This is classist. So why say it?
We heard two different versions of this argument. Friend of the blog Alex Horton said on Twitter, “I’m of the persuasion of saying, if it’s true, why even say it? It’s classism that provokes said hatred.” And @JasonFritz1 said, “That sort of bulls*** elitism is exactly why officers get a bad rap in the ranks and in movies.” I think that for the most part our soldiers--who have deployed to war zones and back--can handle a frank and honest discussion about the merits of officers, enlisted soldiers and NCOs. In fact, as the U.S. Army shrinks after the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it needs to have these conversations.
What is wrong with a frank and open discussion about the abilities of various ranks in the Army? It seems like American pundits (mainly conservative) complain about how: 1. Political correctness runs rampant in society and 2. We raise our children to believe they are all winners when some aren’t. The old “Why do we give every child a trophy?” complaint. Then we compare enlisted soldiers and officers, and suddenly everyone worries about hurting enlisted men/women’s feelings. (Hold on to this thought for a moment as well.)
Which leads into a much more pernicious problem which was another critique of our article...
4. Every soldier is just as good as every other soldier.
We could make a ton of counter-arguments to the above statement, but James Joyner (@drjjoyner) rebutted it in 140 characters:
So, your counter is that there's no real difference between officers and junior enlisted along the lines argued? If there isn't, the entire rank structure should be scrapped.
Obviously, it’s impossible to predict or know the political persuasion of most of our commenters. Same with most of the Twitterzens we don’t read regularly. But if I were to guess, most veterans or current soldiers in the Army are conservative and registered Republican. Poll after Army Times poll confirm this suspicion.
But the response to this article seems...downright liberal. I mean, don’t conservatives usually complain that the current generation of kids, teenagers and college kids are spoiled brats who were told since they were little they would always be winners? Don’t conservatives complain about political correctness? Yet we can’t say that one group in the Army is better than another lest we hurt someone’s feelings? And don’t conservatives value individual achievement over an ethos of “everyone is equal”?
There is no better description for it than the new series we plan to start tomorrow:
“Our Communist Military”