Monday, January 28, 2013

Living History

When I was a teenager, I lived in State College, Pennsylvania. Also living in State College at that time, and living there still today, is an older gentlemen by the name of Gerald Russell. Colonel Gerald Russell, USMC (ret), youngest battalion commander during the Battle of Iwo Jima, to be exact. He is a living legend, a treasure trove of experience and historical knowledge.

Colonel Russell, however, is not the focus of this essay. The focus is any and every living former Marine Corps battalion commander, particularly those who have commanded a battalion in Iraq or Afghanistan. Just like Colonel Russell, the value of whose experience no one would question if he were to present those experiences in a speech or in writing, we have battalion commanders who have commanded in war, and whose experiences can be captured and passed on to another generation of leaders.
My recommendation is that once a year, a given infantry or artillery battalion designs a field exercise around an historical example from the invasion of Iraq, or from one of our major battles post invasion in either Iraq or Afghanistan. For example: Sangin, Fallujah, Ramadi, etc. In the year leading up to the exercise, once a month the Battalion brings in a battalion commander, or a company commander, or a platoon commander involved in that particular battle or operation.

The guest speaker would give a presentation during a Wednesday or Thursday lunch at the O’club. This is key, it cannot be after hours, it especially can’t be on a Friday afternoon. It has to be on a day, and at an hour that will encourage the greatest attention from the battalion officers. Before each lecture, all the officers and SNCOs in the battalion will be expected to read an excerpt no longer than 10 pages from a selected book, or an article from the Gazette or Leatherneck about the battle to be discussed. On the day of the lecture, the officers and SNCOs gets together for lunch at the O’club. After everyone is finished eating, the guest gets up and gives a 30 minute speech on the enemy situation as he saw it, and the decisions he made in response. The next 15-30 minutes are then given over to a question and answer session.

This is a simple way to bring vitality and realism before an exercise, even if the exercise ends up being purely a practice and refinement of techniques. One way to look at this is, ‘education meets training.’ It is an inexpensive way to improve the tactical and operational thinking of our officers and SNCOs by using the most unique and irreplaceable of resources, a past commander’s experience.

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