What Color Are Your Socks?
It's time to leash your dogma
"Marine! You! What color are your socks?" Looking down at the band of white above his boots and below his bloused trousers, a veteran of many a fire fight winces. He knows what's coming "White socks are not authorized! What are you, some kind of cowboy? Who do you work for? This looks like a leadership problem!"
Sadly, the color of one's socks has become an indicator of one's worth as a Marine. He is not judged by his actions in the fight against the Taliban, nor is he judged by the weeks and months of active combat that he has been fortunate enough to survive. Regrettably, for too many leaders, Afghanistan has become a place where they can replace Gen John A. Lejeune's philosophy of leaders and Marines treating each other as teachers and scholars with the simplistic and domineering mantra of the drill instructor and the recruit; instead of mentoring and leading our young Marines into the complex world of fourth-generation warfare, many choose to impose upon their juniors the myopic and amateurish repressive fetters that are better suited for the yellow footprints.
Blind adherence to regulation and rule without the temper of maturity is not leadership; it is autocracy. When common sense and situational awareness are pitched out the porthole and replaced with the narrowly focused dogma of domination the result can be unsettling, if not frankly outrageous. Sadly, there are many examples of such "leadership" in action overseas.
Outside the dining facility, a young Marine is accosted by his seniors because he has no cover and there are no nametags sewn onto his utility uniform. The junior Marine, after being excoriated for his unprofessional appearance, explains that he is fresh from the camp hospital. He details that after being delivered to the surgical team via the medevac helicopter his bloody combat uniform was cut from his body by the triage corpsmen. It is only then, after the wounded Marine explains what has happened, that those "leaders" cometo understand that perhaps they should ask the Marine why he lacks a cover and nametags instead of immediately condemning him for his seeming unprofessionalism. Perception is not always reality. It is the duty of a leader to be able to tell the difference.
In another corner of the area of operations, senior leaders have unilaterally determined that the flame resistant overgarment uniform is not authorized for use aboard the forward operating base or outside the wire. Instead of offering their Marines the enhanced protection offered by the specially designed and organizationally provided combat uniform, those uniforms sit in a con ex box, unissued, despite the real danger that flaming improvised explosive devices pose to each and every Marine who ventures out on patrol. Leaders should endeavor to provide every possible form of protection for their Marines, not to inflict their personal idiosyncratic distain for the unfamiliar and deny them access to such important and potentially lifesaving gear.
In yet another part ofHelmand Province, Afghanistan, a leader who truly understands co unter insurgency makes the notable decision to meet with his tribal counterparts fully clothed in a s hai war khameez and native head wrap. His decision to embrace the customs, culture, and clothing of the indigenous peoples is rightfully lauded as the superb application of co unter insurgency doctrine, yet should a lance corporal wear a shemaugh (scarf that he received as a gift from an Afghan counterpart to protect his neck from the blazing sun, he is regarded as an undisciplined renegade worthy only of a rebuke. Just because the Marine Corps hasn't yet started to issue such a piece of gear isn't a reason that we can't allow initiative borne of common sense to prevail. True leaders should be capable of releasing their slavish grip on the uniform regulations in order to look out for the welfare of their Marines.
We are fighting a complicated war against a dynamically changing and continually adapting enemy. We preach the significance of initiative at the lowest level, the critical ity of the strategic corporal, and the importance of company-level operations. A central tenet of counterinsurgency is the decentralization of control to those who walk the ground, where young officers and young Marines are expected to use their experience and intelligence to make the right decisions. It is disingenuous to expect graduate-level thought from Marines who are hamstrung by leaders who cannot see beyond the confines of peacetime regulations and actually trust the judgment of junior Marines who are on the frontlines of this counterinsurgent war.
Gen A.A. Vandegrift led a division of Marines into the jungles of Guadalcanal, and they managed to successfully conduct the first major U.S. Marine operation of the Pacific campaign despite disregarding established orders to wear their useless leggings in the sodden jungle. We revere the survivors of the Chosin campaign notwithstanding their undisciplined audacity to wrap themselves in any tattered rag they could find to keep the savage cold at bay as they fought their way to Hungnam. Today, our Marines are likewise doing great things as they fight the Taliban and embrace the local culture, and just maybe, as leaders, we can embrace their initiative and learn from it ourselves.
These same young Marines are giving the Nation the best, and for many the last, years of their lives. They are also giving their feet, their legs, their arms, their hands, and sometimes more in service to Corps and country. As such, it is the sacred duty of every leader to ensure that they are well and properly led. There are times that a leader must force Marines to save their own lives, but to correlate the wearing of nonregulation socks to protect their feet or a scarf to protect their neck with unprofessionalism and a cowboy attitude shows a remarkable level of disrespect. The common sense of a combat veteran should not be so readily discounted by those who do not share their burdens; perhaps those who spend more time inside the wire than beyond its relative safety should take note of those who live on the other side. No sane Marine would forego the protection of his or her small arms protective insert plates when headed for a gun fight, and those who disregard the requirements for their own safety are fully deserving of the lambasting that their seniors are duty bound to enthusiastically provide. Again, it is the duty of the leader to distinguish what is right even if it contradicts the regulations. Most people call that simple common sense.
Those leaders who emphatically state that there is no difference between the rules and expectations for Marines between the continental Unites States (CONUS) and a combat zone exhibit a shocking lack of situational awareness. To equate the conditions and realities of Camp CONUS with camps, outposts, and bases in Afghanistan is to disregard reality. In CONUS there is no enemy doing his best to kill Marines on a daily basis, there are no improvised explosive devices in the roads, no snipers in the tree lines, and no combat pay. Marines can go home to their families at night and read bedtime stories to their children, which they certainly cannot do in Afghanistan. It is time for leaders at all levels to recognize that things are indeed different in a combat zone; a Marine doesn't live in a mud hut or a hole in the ground and not shower for months on end in CONUS. There, a Marine has the luxury of buying a new pair of regulation socks when his current pair wears out. There a Marine doesn't spend hour after hour out in the sun, day after day, week after week, and month after month without respite. To reduce the hardships, dangers, and realities of fighting a real war to a level of irrelevancy subordinate to the rigid expectations of garrison life in Camp CONUS is naive and sorrowfully narrow-minded. We can, and should, do better.
Let's get back to the Marine from the beginning of this article. What color are his socks? Today they are white, because many yesterdays ago his issued socks rotted off of his feet. Weeks that stretched to months of slogging through the mud and canals of Marjah made short work of them. Thankfully, such great supporters of the military as those at Socks for Soldiers sent boxes of new, clean, white athletic socks for him to wear, for which he was grateful. How shocked would those great Americans be if they knew that the time and money that they dedicated to help servicemen overseas would be met with the myopic scorn of such narrow-minded leaders who cannot see that sometimes a sock is just a sock and not an attempt to scornfully ignore the uniform regulations? His socks are white. If all you can see is red because that Marine had the audacity to cover his naked feet in something other than his boots for want of a pair of standard issue socks, then there is a leadership problem. If the only thing that runs through your mind when you run into a Marine is what you can do to him as opposed to what you should do for him then you are right; there is indeed a leadership problem. That leadership problem is you.
Three combat tours and his commander is worried about the color of his socks. (Photo by Cpl Paul Zeliner.)