Monday, January 14, 2013

King for a Day

 The ancient Romans had a grand holiday in mid-December, they called it the Saturnalia.  The festivities lasted a full week, and all sorts of debauchery and frivolity filled each day.  One fun twist of the status quo the Roman’s permitted was the reversal of roles between slave and owner, servant and master, subordinate and senior.  It was not unusual during the festival that the master of a household could be caught serving his servant his meal.  It must have been a good time, at least for the servants.

What if, once a year, the Marine Corps were to consider this idea or something similar?  I don’t mean that everyone should begin worshiping Saturn.  Nor am I talking about the debauchery and frivolity I mention above.  No, I am simply asking about taking this concept of ‘role reversal,’ and using it, after some modification to the details, to reward, develop and educate junior officers as emerging leaders within our Corps.
A battalion from an infantry regiment, as its busy operations and training schedules might allow, could identify the optimum period (day, week, month) of the upcoming year to hold Operation SATURNALIA.  Over the course of the year leading up to the “Operation SATURNALIA”, the Battalion Commander devises a battalion level tactical scenario, possibly aided and assisted by existing TDGs or case studies.  The scenario will be used for executing Operation SATURNALIA, with no pre-ordained solution.  The Battalion Commander gives a simple, “Here’s the enemy, here’s his composition, here’s the current situation and here’s your Regimental Commander’s task and intent.”

In the month immediately preceding Operation SATURNALIA, each company-size unit within the battalion provides the name of their chosen Lieutenant, who will then stand for a board.   The board will be composed of the Battalion CO and any 3 additional Battalion Commanders from any regiment or separate battalion.  If feasible, the Regimental CO of the battalion conducting the operation will sit in as the tie breaking vote.

After the board, the battalion commanders decide which Lieutenant was both the most confident, most decisive, and most competent tactically.  The decision is immediately publicized.  Here is where the Roman role reversal comes in, but with one glaring difference.  The Lieutenant and Lieutenant Colonel do not switch places; the Lieutenant merely takes the Battalion Commander’s place for Operation SATURNALIA. 

For the conduct of the board, the only officers allowed in the room are the Commanders, and one of the 4-5 lieutenants being boarded.  The boards will only last 2 – 2 ½ hours, each Lieutenant getting 30 minutes.  As the Lieutenant enters the room, his time starts.  Immediately one of the sitting battalion commanders verbally gives him a platoon level tactical scenario, with an associated tactical question.  If he answers it satisfactorily, another battalion commander then gives him a company level tactical scenario.  The third gives another company level situation, and time permitting the fourth provides a battalion-level tactical decision question. 

If at any point that the lieutenant shows indecision, or gives unsatisfactory answers, the battalion commanders can, within the time limits, develop the given scenario as if they were an enemy reacting to a hesitant platoon or company commander.  If a Lieutenant gives a confident and quick answer as to what he’d do, and if it is acceptable, even if it isn’t the best, the commanders have the opportunity to either move on to the next scenario, or give the enemy’s response. Each scenario, however, should not last longer than ten minutes, so that the Lieutenant has an opportunity to demonstrate tactical proficiency and potential competency beyond the platoon level.

In order to prevent a company commander from offering a lower rated Lieutenant, and to get more “buy in” from the Company Commanders, if a Lieutenant does not perform well, then his Company Commander can be  summoned to the board  himself.  The commanders then present the Captain with the same scenarios and he is questioned for his responses.  This might prove sufficient incentive to ensure the Lieutenant chosen is both competent and well-prepared.

The battalion commander gives the winning Lieutenant the tactical scenario and the regimental CO’s task and intent for the battalion.   There is no five paragraph order provided.  Just an abbreviated situation, and a simple task, and intent.  The exercise will be up to a week long, and the Lieutenant is given up to three weeks to prepare the battalion for the “fight.”  The commander  during the three weeks of the planning phase, and the one week in the field, will act as supervisor and mentor to the Lieutenant “battalion commander,” and will provide weight to the Lieutenant’s decisions when he deals with outside agencies, and the battalion staff. 

In a widely disseminated photograph, Lt. Col. Bryan McCoy throws a hand grenade on March 29, 2003, after his convoy was fired on outside a small village south of Baghdad, Iraq. (Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images)
This experience will provide our best Lieutenants the opportunity to learn how to plan and execute a battalion field exercise from a battalion commander’s perspective.  It also brings them out of the platoon and company pigeon-hole to gain a broader perspective of why and how things are decided the way they are at the battalion level.  It would undoubtedly be enjoyable, it would be a public recognition of excellence, and could assist in retaining our best and brightest.  As King for a day, a Lieutenant will receive an invaluable lesson in battalion tactics and leadership, a lesson that will hopefully endure through the day he receives his own battalion as a Lieutenant Colonel.

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