The Burden of Command; my latest column in the North County Times

Here is last week’s column from the North County Times:

Command is a Heavy Burden

The Navy recently announced that the commanding officer of the USS Essex had been relieved of his duties. Capt. Chuck Litchfield, a veteran of 24 years of service and a graduate of the Naval Academy, was sacked because his ship collided with an oiler during refueling operations.

Because of the incident the Navy decided that it had “lost confidence in his abilities” and had him “reassigned to administrative duties.”

Litchfield is the 11th naval officer to lose his or her command so far in 2012. Last year, the Navy “lost confidence” in 23 commanders and fired them, and it certainly looks like this year is on course to match that number or possibly beat the all-time record of 26 firings from 2003.

So why are so many key leaders being removed from the best and most important jobs that they will ever have while in uniform?

That is a great question, and it also holds the answer. Commanding officers in all services, not just the Navy, are responsible for so much more than a person in a similar position outside the military because they are entrusted with the very lives of the people under their command as well as making sure that they can accomplish the mission that they are assigned.

This may sound a bit trite, but think about it for a moment:

Unlike their corporate counterparts, commanding officers in the military are duty bound to protect the United States and in doing so they can and will send their people out to fight and die.

To date, some 7,866 young American men and women have paid the ultimate sacrifice in Iraq and Afghanistan, and each and every one had a commanding officer who was responsible for ensuring that they received the best training and equipment —- but more importantly, for ensuring that the people in the unit are a cohesive team that does its job as well as humanly possible.

Commanding officers don’t spend money. They spend lives: The lives of American citizens; your children, your neighbors, and in the case of those on active duty, possibly yours. They are responsible for the men and women under their charge, and it is their duty to ensure that the lives that are risked and lost are done so in circumstances where every conceivable and possible thing has been done to prepare those people to survive.

Such responsibility goes far beyond just making sure that they are trained and ready, though. It goes into areas held dear by the military; things such as honor, respect, commitment and trust.

Many commanders are fired for things that have nothing to do with combat or steering ships around, but for conduct that violates that sacred trust between the leader and the led. A unit cannot be successful in combat or anywhere else if the commander cannot be trusted by the people he or she leads; and, indeed, when such mistrust becomes evident military leadership must address the situation. If it can be fixed without firing the commander, then great. However, if it can’t, then the boss needs to go.

The commanding officer alone is solely responsible for the unit, and that means that when the unit fails it is his or her fault.

Commanders are sacked for a variety of reasons, but they all go back to the concept that they are responsible for everything that their unit does or fails to do. In Capt. Litchfield’s case, the collision of the Essex and the oiler was his fault. For others it may be creating a toxic climate within the unit, failing too many inspections, or perhaps having inappropriate relations with a subordinate or two.

Whatever the cause, if the Navy (or the Army or the Air Force or the Marine Corps) loses confidence in the commander’s ability to lead and accomplish the mission, then the commander must go. The stakes are simply too high —- both for the people they lead and for the safety of the nation.

It’s nothing personal. It’s just business. Very serious military business.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s