By Dan Sharp
“Ours is not to question why,
ours is but to do and die.”
-Lord Alfred Tennyson
I am so tired of hearing this quote. This phrase, or some variation of it, has been regurgitated ad nauseum to our troops, and in modern considerations, it is hypocritical at best. At worst, it can be used as manipulative propaganda.
During my nearly 12 years as a Marine Corps Infantryman, the chaotic nature of war made communication a matter of life and death. Long bouts in Iraq and Afghanistan taught me how important it is to understand the reasoning behind assignments. “Commander’s Intent” is arguably the most important portion of any combat briefing you will receive.
It is a concise statement of purpose and outlines the desired end state of any mission. Essentially, it acknowledges the “Fog of War’’ and allows subordinate leaders flexibility to accomplish the overall goal. This also allows a measure of mutual understanding among maneuvering units. Blindly pursuing arbitrary checkpoints, despite all evidence of their irrelevance, is a terrible leadership philosophy. That is not just my opinion, it is military doctrine.
According to Marine Corps Doctrinal Publication 1 (MCDP-1), the entire reason leaders are required to provide their commander’s intent is to allow all subordinates the freedom to exercise their judgment. All Marines are expected to take initiative when faced with obstacles and unforeseen circumstances. In fact, subordinates are encouraged to offer feedback on plans, until a final decision is reached. Marine Corps history is filled with examples of individuals recognizing a point of failure, and improvising until they accomplished the commander’s intent. Additionally, understanding the reasoning behind the actions of higher, and adjacent units, will make you a more effective leader. This also includes learning the motivation behind your enemy’s actions, and why they would attack certain objectives, or use specific tactics. Using all information at hand to make a sound and timely decision can save lives.
Clearly there will be times where instant willingness and obedience to orders is critical. However, the ability to disregard personal safety to follow orders is developed and enhanced by the cohesion of a unit. A private flippantly asking “Why are we doing this?” during a lull in operations, may seem like subtle belligerence, but an experienced leader can use that as an opportunity to expand that subordinate’s understanding of the situation. Thus, making them a greater asset to the team. It may also identify a lack of clarity in the brief, which will afford the leader an opportunity to ensure the rest of the unit understands the desired end state, avoiding potential failures in communication. It takes a certain type of bravery to admit a lack of understanding, and leaders ought not to reactively punish this, but embrace the benefits of an inquisitive mind. After all, MCDP-1 also states that “yes-men” should not be tolerated.
From a more pragmatic perspective, it is vital that leaders have a factual understanding of battlefield tangibles. The allocation of assets, status of logistics, and availability of munitions paints a realistic picture of the situation at hand. Many times, in Iraq and Afghanistan, I was forced to make the most of what resources I was given. To the occasional chagrin of my Marines, I endeavored not to be wasteful, even if doing so would have made life much easier in the moment. This approach frequently allowed me to facilitate the completion of arduous or impromptu follow-on missions, in compliance with my commander’s intent.
Typically, when this happens Marines get medals pinned to their chest. So why is it that you are rewarded for understanding the “why” behind a mission at the tactical level, but so many troops were left scratching their heads when the “why” was questioned at the strategic and operational level? For that matter, so many of us found ourselves asking “why?” at so many levels.
“Why are we sleeping right next to where we burn trash?”
“Why are these companies not following the regulations for disposing of toxic material?”
“Why won’t the VA recognize the data that links burn pits to health issues?”
“Why are so many politicians so hesitant to take a stand and help us?”
“Why has it been decades before certain conditions were covered?”
My entire military career, I was taught, nay ordered, to question the “why” behind things, so I could better accomplish the overall mission. Yet, when those questions inconvenience those at a higher level, they somehow become taboo?
There are multiple generations of warfighters that were trained to understand the importance of knowing why we did things. Blindly following orders can lead to ruin, evident by the fact that certain policies ruined the health of a large portion of combat veterans who suffered from toxic exposure. Much of this can be traced back to a lack of accountability, for those who were supposed to be explaining why we did things.
To paraphrase ancient wisdom, a prudent man sees danger and takes refuge, but a simple one keeps going and suffers for it. Running headlong into a minefield for the sake of following orders is inadvisable. As such, we must not blindly follow paths that lead to detrimental consequences. The lack of critical questioning at higher levels has perpetuates a system where the well-being and treatment of veterans are secondary to optics and public perception.
Now that we have buried countless brothers and sisters due to cancer and other illnesses, many truths are coming to light, and they paint an ugly, and familiar picture. Those who served in previous generations know the challenges of asking for transparency, and accountability to be prioritized. As the Editor-in-Chief for Pop Smoke Media, I can attest that it is incredibly difficult to get even the simplest official statement regarding mundane occurrences on military installations. Let alone matters that have implications to millions of veterans. This is unacceptable, and we as a community, cannot let the next generation suffer the same “sling and arrows of outrageous fortune” that so many previous veterans have endured.
Transparency seems like a simple request. Granted, there are complex factors involved with ensuring the safeguarding of protected information. However, anyone who has spent any amount of time dealing with our government knows that few officials want to go on the record, lest they eventually be called to testify. Please, if you have time, watch a few press briefings at the Pentagon and see how many times the spokesperson side steps a direct question. This elusive behavior led to the creation of a drinking game among groups of veterans watching the disastrous withdrawal of Afghanistan be downplayed and minimized. This disconnect can make it incredibly challenging for our nation’s heroes to get honest, straightforward answers about important matters. They are proud to have served their country, but so many veterans are left feeling jaded by the difficulties of obtaining basic information. Not only is this disrespectful to their service, but it also paints a bleak picture for what the next generation is to expect.
In 1932, two-time Medal of Honor recipient, Major General Smedley Butler USMC, was famously dejected after his service and even helped lead massive protests in Washington DC. The availability of information in modern times has shined a light on many other recent first-hand accounts of service members who felt let down or betrayed by their government. Not only is this heartbreaking, but it should also instill a strong sense of worry about the future of our national security. If you ever get a chance to talk to E5 on recruiting duty, ask their honest opinion about the state of things. Not the canned “corporate approved” answer they are required to give, but the real answer. You may dismiss this as anecdotal evidence to your own peril, but many of the recruiters that I have spoken to are miserable. The fact that recruiting numbers have been dangerously low is readily available data, and has made life extremely hard for those who are responsible for recruitment.
Why is that?
Maybe it is because potential recruits remember seeing Global War on Terrorism veterans having to sleep on the steps of the capitol building to get healthcare legislation passed for toxic exposure? Maybe it is because they see veteran legislators, refusing to offer input or advocacy for such a bill? Or perhaps it’s because they see opponents to such legislation, offering boisterous criticisms, but offering no real solutions to the overall problem?
From the perspective of someone with their whole life ahead of them, this might seem like an undesirable profession. Particularly because you must sign a contract that legally removes your ability to quit if you are being forced to work in conditions that lead to toxic exposure. According to an April 2023 article by Jim Garamone for DOD News, titled ‘Vice Chiefs Talk Recruiting Shortfalls, Readiness Issues,’ it has been reported that recruiting numbers have come up short by several thousands, further highlighting the struggles faced by recruiters in maintaining readiness.
Although a full comprehensive solution to this problem is multifaceted and could span several chapters, I offer only one. Veterans, and like-minded citizens, must come together and continue to ask for accountability. Once specific problems have been identified, there must be a unified effort to demand accountability of our public leaders. It is imperative that the attention, and emphatic efforts, of the military community be channeled to those in a position to make change. This mainly consists of exercising constitutional rights to inform our elected officials of our displeasure with the way veterans have been treated. During the efforts to pass the Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson Honoring our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics Act of 2022 (PACT Act) into law, we were fortunate to gain some key legislators as invaluable allies. Unfortunately, we also learned not all representatives were as altruistic. In several meetings, we were simply told that unless an issue was perceived to potentially impact an office’s reelection bid, sparse time or effort would be invested towards it, beyond the rhetoric that supports campaign donations. During my time walking the halls of the capitol, several staffers told me they would not participate in any discussion of toxic exposure healthcare, because none of their constituents had called them to say it was a concern. It is a disheartening reality, but it is merely an obstacle for us to adapt and overcome. We know our intent is to help veterans, and this allows us flexibility necessary to engage a system that is designed to mute voices of opposition.
Thomas Jefferson once said, “I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend.” Thus, I believe diverse perspectives are essential to the respectful exchanges that foster greater understanding. As you might expect, it is hard to abide regurgitated fallacies that have fermented within the confines of an echo chamber. However, all points of merit will expand my understanding of a situation and strengthen my own argument. We must seek our commonalities and join together to end the stoic romanticism of blindly following orders. It is imperative that we continue the dialogue and incorporate the lessons of our past to create a future where veterans are prioritized and respected. For the sake of those Americans yet to be born, we must seek accountability, and we must be brave enough to continue to ask the question “why?”.
The opinions expressed are those of the author, and theirs alone. They do not reflect the opinions or views of the DOD, Burn Pits 360, Pop Smoke Media, or any affiliates.