"To add value to others, one must first value others."
What can we do to improve morale?
That was the question a senior officer once asked me.
What can we do?
To improve morale.
He really should have known better than to ask someone like me.
But they never do.
I was assigned to a ship homeported out of a major naval station. It doesn't really matter which one, they're all pretty much the same.
This was a year or so into the war. Which one? Doesn't really matter, they're all pretty much the same. As such, it was still popular for elected officials to be seen making the rounds, shaking hands, talking to the troops. Oorah! And so on and so forth.
The usual patriotic bullshit for the voters back in the flyover states.
Some Senator or Secretary or some such animal (they're all pretty much the same) had rolled through base a few weeks before and made the mistake of asking how things were going.
Enlisted Sailors and Marines aren't exactly shy and they generally know an opportunity when they see one.
So they told him.
They told him exactly how things were going a year into an ill-conceived war started on a lie.
Oh boy, did they tell him.
He was shocked. But, then they always are. They're always surprised when the guys they send to catch the bullets aren't all that enthusiastic about the project. That's always a surprise, given how popular war always is back in Washington and all. But, if you don't want to know, you shouldn't have asked. Should have just got your wartime reelection picture with the troops and headed back to the cornfields of Iowa or wherever it is these assholes come from.
But, no, you had to ask.
Disillusioned, the Senator met with the base Commanding Officer and told him there was a morale problem.
Now, I'm sure the CO demonstrated suitable surprise. What? No way! Why, I'll have to look into that, Senator! We'll certainly get to the bottom of it and have these troops singing God Bless America in no time! Thank you for bringing it to my attention!
Problem is, Senators tend to have staff, and staff tends to follow up on things like military morale issues because pretending to give a shit is a really easy way to get some votes from military parents in Corn Country.
So, the Captain had to look like he was actually doing something.
And thus, a few weeks later a bunch of officers who had far, far better things to do (like, you know prepare our respective units for another wartime deployment), ended up in the base auditorium for Commanding Officers Call.
What can we do to improve morale?
Stop wasting my time with these idiotic Commanding Officer's Calls, for starters.
But, naturally you can't say that out loud.
So I did what I usually did in such situations: Sat up straight and fired up my official government issue Palm Pilot (this was before smartphones) and proceeded to see how many rounds of Solitaire I could beat before the senior officers solved the morale problem and we could get back to the business of war.
And then, they made a mistake.
They asked me.
Some smarmy looking ring knocker scanning the audience spotted me seemingly not paying attention and thought he'd score some points with the Captain. Chief Warrant Officer! Do you have any suggestions?
Do I have any suggestions?
Now, if you don't understand the difference between regular Navy officers and Chief Warrant Officers, well, the easiest way to explain it is that when they say "an Officer and a Gentleman" they're talking about the first kind.
No one -- no one -- would confuse a Chief Warrant Officer with a gentleman. Even in bad light.
Warrant Officers are former enlisted Chief Petty Officers, as a group they have a reputation for being supremely competent under any circumstance and supremely unpleasant in all of them.
We're the people you call when it's all gone to hell and a gentleman would have to get his hands dirty.
Sure, I have some suggestions, I answered. First of all, in 20 years of service, I have never once heard a enlisted Sailor or Marine or Soldier or Airman say they were getting out because they didn't get enough money for college -- or whatever idiotic suggestion it was just floated by the Lieutenant over there.
Troops always say the same thing: I'm getting out because I'm sick and tired of all the bullshit.
Bullshit? But what do you mean, bullshit?
Well, said I, lemme give you an example.
These people, they swore to give their lives for this country. And they will. They'll deploy for a year into the warzone, over and over, leaving their families behind, risking their lives every damned day in a war that nobody even knows what the fuck we're fighting for.
They'll do that without complaint (mostly).
But then they come home.
They come back here, to this base.
And you know what?
They have to sit for two hours every single morning, in a line of cars outside the main gate, waiting to get on base. They have give up an hour of precious sleep, because there are only two gates open. And only two lanes per gate. There are a dozen other gates that could be used, but they're not open. Then when they get on base, they have to spend 30 minutes trying to find a parking spot. Why? Because everything on this base is more important than they are. Everything.
See, I counted.
That's right, I drove around the base and I counted the number of parking spots down by the waterfront that are taken up with ... potted plants.
Yes, you heard me correctly. Potted plants.
Big stone containers with palm trees or flowers. Base beautification. The result of a visit by some other Senator or some such do-gooder.
A hundred parking spots, taken up by plants.
Plants are more important than the men and woman who crew the ships. Plants get better parking.
Another couple of dozen parking spots are taken up by dumpsters. That's right, trash dumpsters.
Dumpsters are more important than Sailors.
Another hundred, or more, spots are reserved for contractors.
Contractors are more important than Sailors.
There are entire parking lots reserved for equipment. Can't park there, because tanks and APCs and trucks are more important than Marines.
You know where enlisted people park? A mile away, on the other side of the fucking highway, and then they have to hike all the way across the base to get to their ships.
They lose two hours of sleep, of time with their families, just to get on base and find a goddamn parking spot.
So, said the Captain, puzzled, it's the parking?
No, it's not goddamned parking. You wanted an example, I gave you one. It's not just the parking, it's everything.
Everything else is more important than the men and women who are willing to give up their own lives for this country. And everything on this base, every minute of every day, demonstrates that.
You might not see it, but they sure as shit do.
When they say they're tired of all the bullshit, that's the kind of bullshit they're talking about.
And it's an easy fix. It won't cost you a penny. All you have to do, is show people some respect. That's it. Get rid of the goddamn planters. Make the goddamn contractors park on the other side of the highway, they can afford to run a shuttle bus. Or walk, God knows they're getting paid enough. Park the goddamn equipment over there too. When you're ready to load it on the ships, you can drive it over.
Show these people that they matter more than plants, more than contractors, more than dumpsters, more than tanks. That's just one example, there are hundreds more and you'll have no problem finding ways to show your people you care about them if you go looking for the opportunity.
It's not about parking, it's about people.
You know what the Captain said?
Do you? I'll bet the veterans can guess.
He said, "I don't understand. I don't have any trouble getting on base."
I don't have any trouble getting on base.
I thought he was joking.
I really did.
But he wasn't. He wasn't capable of understanding. He heard "parking" and that's as far as his brain would go. He could not, or would not, see the bigger picture. See the people.
I couldn't believe he could be that dense or that privileged.
But he was.
I don't have any trouble getting on base, he said. I don't have any trouble finding a parking spot.
You don't have any trouble?
See, there was a special gate just for senior officers. A special lane, just for them. And a reserved parking spot right in front of their office. This guy showed up every morning, drove past 20,000 enlisted Sailors and Marines in line to get on base, and was waved through the gate without slowing down.
He didn't have any trouble and he couldn't see what the problem was.
Note: Not all commanding officers are this dense. Maybe not even a majority. This guy was a special case.
He waved his hand for me to sit down and they moved on to somebody else. I went back to Solitaire. There wasn't much point in paying any further attention. Eventually they decided the morale problem was solved because Sailors and Marines always bitch and so there really wasn't any problem after all.
And then we all got back to work, with two hours stolen out of a day that already didn't have enough time in it.
And they probably bought some more potted plants too.
I think about that moment every once in a while. Often lately.
Ask any senior military leader what their most valuable asset is and they'll say people.
It's the people. That's what's important.
Maybe they even think they really mean it. Some of them anyway.
But it's not.
Everything is more important than people. The mission. The equipment. The money. The war. The potted plants. The contractors. The dumpsters. The Senators. That's what matters.
You can always get more people -- until you can't.
The Command is a reflection of the Commander.
As is the morale of the troops.
Out here in the civilian world, it's the president's job to care about the people.
It's his job to agonize over the lives lost.
The president isn't a military general for a damned good reason.
He's a civilian, because it's his job to actually put people first.
It's one thing when when it's low morale on a military base because the CO is a self-centered tool.
It's another thing entirely when it's the guy in charge of the country.
Trump ignored the pandemic, back when we might have stopped it.
He called it a hoax, the flu, a plot by his political enemies to make him look bad.
Everything else was more important than people. Everything. The stock market, profit, business, the job numbers, his popularity, his reelection. Golf. And probably potted plants too, for all I know.
The Senators asking questions? The Congress People demanding a plan? Trump saw that as an irritation. Just people in way of the mission -- which in Trump's case is profit.
He repeatedly ignored the advice of experts, deferring again and again to the toadies and sycophants and those who told him what he wanted to hear. He listened to the advice of fringe conspiracy theorists over that of the nation's best scientists. He's still doing it.
He attacked and mocked the experts, the warnings, the simple basic proven actions we all could have taken to make things better if only we had a real leader who actually cared about people.
And he refused, utterly refused, to see what was happening right in front of his face.
Because everything -- everything -- is more important to Donald Trump than people.
And then he got it.
No. Heh heh. Not a clue. He didn't get a clue.
The plague. He got that.
He got it because his own shitty irresponsible behavior made it inevitable that he would.
He not only got it because his own behavior put him at risk, he quite literally infected dozens of others. Hundreds. Maybe thousands, if you include his rallies and meetings where he repeatedly encouraged the very behavior that led directly to his own infection.
The numbers are climbing again. The infection rates are going up. 220,000 dead now and more deaths coming.
The nation and its attitude towards this disease is a reflection of its leaders. Of Trump.
As is its disorganized, ineffective, fatal response.
Because underneath it all, Trump just can't see it. Won't see it. Isn't capable of seeing it.
When Trump got it, he was attended by a personal doctor at taxpayer expense. Literally Trump is that doctor's only patient.
He was flown in a taxpayer funded government helicopter to the best hospital in the country. A government hospital, staffed by government doctors and government scientists and government nurses and government technicians and government staff. Something Trump says is bad, it's socialism if you get it. But, for him, well, it's his right because he deserves it.
He was installed in a private luxury suite reserved just for him at taxpayer expense and a team of 20 doctors was assigned to his case. That was their only job. Trump was their only patient. Their entire attention was on him. He was given the very best care possible and treated with advanced experimental medications that cost more than a million dollars per dose and are not available to anyone else. Just him. And we paid for it all.
Not a single penny of Trump's treatment came from his own pocket.
Just like income taxes: You do all the paying, he gets all the reward.
And then, instead of listening to the experts, he went for a joyride solely in order to stroke his own ego. Putting a dozen more people at risk for no reason whatsoever. People, who if infected by Trump, would not have gotten the same care he got -- indeed Trump and Republicans tell you that you don't deserve the same treatment because it'll cut into profits.
After which, Trump flew back to the White House while still infectious and went right back to acting like an irresponsible jackass, literally ripping off his mask on the White House steps.
And now, here he is.
It's not so bad, he says.
The flu is worse. This pandemic is a plot to make me look bad. I don't understand what you're talking about. I don't understand why people are worried. Look at me, I beat it all by myself. Heck, everybody should get it. Herd immunity!
He is utterly oblivious.
He's that captain, driving past 20,000 Sailors trying to get on base and he sees nothing, never looks up, the guards wave him through without stopping and he rolls into his reserved parking spot precisely on time and he just can't understand why anyone else has a problem.
And now what is he talking about? Profit. The stock market. Reelection. Blaming others. Attacking his political opponents for his own failures. Everything is more important to Donald Trump than people who might be infected because of his failed leadership.
Everything is more important than the actual citizens who he swore to protect.
Of course, the analogy isn't a perfect one.
Military Officers are often single minded for a reason.
They have to put the mission before the people.
That's what being an officer is.
In the end, that's the job. As an officer, one day you might have to order your people to give up their lives. You might have to order them forward into fire, knowing they likely won't survive. Even on a good day, you have to order tired people to give more than they want -- or they thought they could.
You can't do that, if people really come first.
For us, it's duty. Duty comes first. Responsibility comes first. War comes first. Because that's the job. It won't win you any points with the voters back in Iowa, probably why General and Admiral aren't elected positions, but that's the job. And sometimes when you go from doing that to commanding a base back home, you forget to switch gears -- or you can't. And then, sometimes even when you can put people first, you don't. You put the potted plants first, or the contractors, or the dumpsters, or the equipment.
And that's a failing on your part.
But the fallout of that failing is limited by design.
And there are very real consequences for officers who can't balance the requirements of duty against the needs of their people.
Just as there should be limits on presidential power and consequences for failure.
That's what our founders intended, that there should be immediate and dire consequences for any president, any elected leader, who fails to put people first.
As Trump has repeatedly failed to do.
That is the entire point of the Constitution.
The Constitution doesn't protect profit, or business, or the stockholder, or even government. It was designed to put the citizen first. People first. We require our elected leaders -- and our military -- to swear allegiance to the Constitution for that very reason.
When profit and power mean more than people, when political ideology comes first before loyalty to the nation or even to the idea of civilization itself, there can be no liberty, no justice, no freedom.
In the civilian world, people must come first and there must be immediate and dire consequences for those leaders who disregard their duty to the people.
Or what then is the point of civilization?
If you want a better nation, be a better citizen.
"You are not here merely to make a living. You are here in order to enable the world to live more amply, with greater vision, with a finer spirit of hope and achievement. You are here to enrich the world, and you impoverish yourself if you forget the errand."