Gunny, Put Up The Flagpole

By LtCol Theodore L. Gatchel - Originally published February 1982

"The probable nature of tomorrow's mobile and sophisticated battlefield places a premium on leaders who look forward to the objective rather than to the rear for fresh orders."

Although more than 20 years have passed since I attended my first Marine Corps leadership class, the details are as clear in my mind as they were the day I sat in the classroom at Quantico. The instructor started off with the equivalent of a "pop quiz." He presented us with a problem to solve. We were told to imagine that we were in charge of a group of men who had been given the mission of erecting a flagpole. The instructor gave us a breakdown of the men by rank. The group ranged from a gunnery sergeant on down to a number of privates. We were also given a detailed list of materials and equipment, so many feet of steel pole, so much manila line of a certain diameter, a block and tackle, picks, shovels and so forth. Each student was to write down the orders he would give to accomplish the mission. We were not to use general terms, but were to write the exact words we would use in great detail.

The words were varied. The most detailed solutions came from engineering students, who talked about mechanical advantage and the tensile strength of the rope. No matter how scientific the approach, it wasn't what the instructor was looking for. The correct answer was simply, "Gunny, put up the flagpole." The point of the lesson, of course, was to tell your subordinates what to do, but not how to do it. This technique was called a mission-type order, and great emphasis was placed on it both in garrison and in the field.

In the years that have passed since that first leadership class, there have been many changes in the Marine Corps. One of these, unfortunately, has been a general decline in the use of the mission-type order. More and more, we not only tell our subordinates how to carry out our orders, but tell them in excruciating detail. This practice not only stifles initiative, but greatly reduces the number of ways that any particular problem may be solved.

Let's look at the variables. At one end of the problem-solving spectrum would be a problem in which the person seeking a solution is given no constraints. In a problem with no constraints, an unlimited number of solutions are available. This then is the theoretical equivalent of "Gunny, put up the flagpole." Or is it? A real-life mission with no constraints is difficult to imagine. The constraints may be stated in an order, or they may be implied. They are almost always present. In the flagpole mission, for example, we have implied that the job be carried our with the men and materials at hand. We wouldn't expect the Gunny to contract out the job to a civilian construction firm. Neither would we expect him to take an unlimited amount of time to accomplish the task. Regardless of how reasonable or necessary the constraints may be, they have at least one significant effect. They reduce the number of solutions to the problem.

This effect can be seen in the day-to-day operations of any Marine Corps organization. Picture, for example, the shelves of directives in any battalion's S-I section. Add the orders found in the supply office, the motor pool, the mess hall, the S-4 shop, the armory, and the comm center and the effect is overwhelming. Thousands of rules and regulations, most of which allow the commander very little leeway. With that much detailed guidance, is it any wonder that some commanders and staff officers come to look upon their jobs as simply a matter of ensuring that all the regulations are followed? I know there are Marines who have never critically examined the mission statement for their unit. On the other hand, there are very few who haven't looked over the results of the most recent IG inspection for a detailed list of discrepancies. By their nature, certain jobs are more restricted by regulations than others. On more occasions than I would like to remember, disbursing officers have quoted regulations to explain why they couldn't pay my men at some time or place requested. On one of these occasions while trying to arrange pay for Marines on an exercise that overlapped several paydays, a senior disbursing NCO told me in all seriousness that the problem was one of exercise scheduling. In his opinion, the exercise should have been scheduled so as not to interfere with normal paydays and disbursing regulations.

Constraints can be added to the point where the commander has no latitude. There is only one course open to him. If constraints continue to be added, however, a point will be reached where no solution is possible. How does this happen? Obviously no one intentionally writes an order that can't be followed. The problem occurs when orders issued separately conflict with one another, an increasingly common occurrence as the number of rules and regulations continue to expand.

As a battalion commander, for example, I owned a supply warehouse in the form of a modified Butler building. Housed in the building was a small forklift that was needed to handle the stacked boxes of supplies. This system worked fine until the base fire inspector notified my supply officer that the forklift could not be stored overnight in the warehouse. The building, it seems, did not meet a number of specific requirements for storage of gasoline powered vehicles. An inconvenient, but otherwise acceptable, solution to this problem was found by daily driving the forklift to and from our motor pool, an open parking area about a half mile away. Unfortunately, this solution only worked until another department of the base-the one that owned the forkliftnotified my supply officer that their regulations required that the forklift be stored indoors. Other constraints in the form of budgets and construction regulations made this apparently simple problem officially unsolvable. I say officially, because most commanders faced with this type of situation resolve the issue by simply ignoring one of the conflicting regulations or adhering to it only at inspection time. This approach ensures that the mission is accomplished, but is both frustrating and unfair to the commander involved.

Any commander could relate dozens of similar incidents. Camp Pendleton range regulations required that a using unit clean up a range or training area after completion of an exercise. Base regulations also prohibited off-road use of the commercial stake-bed trucks available to a battalion commander for general use. Division regulations, on the other hand, prohibited the use of tactical vehicles for administrative purposes. These three sets of rules ran head on into one another one day when a very frustrated gamma goat driver of mine returned to the motor pool with a load of trash from an isolated training area and a traffic ticket from the division roadmaster for using a tactical vehicles for administrative purposes, namely hauling trash.

I believe that most Marines agree with me that we suffer from too many rules and regulations. There is much less agreement, however, on what to do about the situation. To begin, most regulations are issued to correct or prevent what is perceived to be a problem at the time they are issued. They are issued with the best of intentions. Unfortunately, the road to increasing bureaucracy-like the proverbial road to hell-is paved with good intentions. An understanding of what these good intentions are and how they generate more rules is the first step in finding a solution to the problem. Some of the specific motives behind regulations include the requirement to implement policies imposed on the Marine Corps from above, the emphasis on automated systems, the requirement to comply with increasingly restrictive judicial rulings, a concern for safety, a desire for "zero defects" or closing all possible loopholes and, finally, the perceived need for more and more uniformity. Let's examine each of these individually to see what can be done. Keep in mind, however, that most regulations cannot be linked to a single purpose. In actuality several motives usually interact to produce any particular regulation.

The Marine Corps is just one part of an increasingly bureaucratic Federal Government that becomes more all-encompassing with each passing year. In 1980, for example, the cabinet agencies and the Environmental Protection Agency issued more than 5,000 new regulations. The Federal Register, in which these regulations are published, included more than 87,000 pages for the year. The point has been reached where an Attorney General recently proposed, albeit tongue in cheek, a system of alternate sessions of Congress. One would enact laws. The other would repeal them. Obviously, many Marine Corps directives are a direct response to directives from Congress, the White House, the Department of Defense, and the Department of the Navy. In one sense the Marine Corps has little choice but to implement these directives with regulations of its own. In my experience, however, we tend to interpret these various regulations more stringently than the other Services, a process sometimes referred to as "shooting ourselves in the foot."

A good example of this can be seen in the procedures involved in replacing lost 782 gear. A Marine who has lost a piece of his individual equipment may voluntarily agree to reimburse the government. In another case a commander may award a Marine a forfeiture of pay for losing a piece of gear through negligence. In neither case does the Marine's unit receive money to replace the lost equipment. In neither case does the administrative effort expended solve the immediate problem. The gear is still missing, and the commander has no new money to replace it. The U.S. Army has solved this problem very nicely by selling individual equipment in its cash sales stores. If a man agrees to replace a piece of lost equipment, he can do so without the slightest burden or cost to his unit. In response to several queries that I have made as to why the Marine Corps does not adopt such a procedure, I have received the reply that such a system would violate Federal regulations. Since both Services are part of the Federal Government, the different approaches to this problem would appear to lie in different interpretations of the same regulations. In any case, orders tend to be more narrowly interpreted and written as they proceed down the chain from top to bottom. One way to reduce the constraints on subordinates is to pass orders on to them in the same broad terms in which they were received, allowing them to make their own interpretations whenever possible.

Another obstacle to allowing subordinates the freedom to interpret instructions broadly is the trend toward the use of automated systems in all areas of Marine Corps activity. Whatever the advantages of the systems may be, flexibility of the resulting regulations is not one of them. Our current fitness report provides an excellent illustration. Designed to be read by a machine, the report must be filled out one way and one way only. And no corrections please. This, in turn, has generated the requirement for a lengthy order on performance evaluation, a great deal of which is devoted to the mechanics of filling out the report. As a final indignity, we now have adopted the requirement for typing the comments section, something Marines chided their Navy counterparts about in the past. Ironically, this change was not made to make the reports more legible for promotion board members, but to meet the requirement for reproduction of the reports by a microfiche copier.

The biggest problem with automated systems seems to be the gap between what is promised and what is delivered. During the procurement process, the prospective user is told the various capabilities of system X. Later, however, when sytem X is asked to produce a particular product, the user is told that although the request is theoretically possible, system X isn't programmed to handle it. Requests to have the system reprogrammed usually prove to be impractical because of technical or budgetary reasons. The user is asked to tailor his needs or his way of doing business to meet the needs of the system instead of the other way around. The solution to this problem doesn't lie in reducing our use of automated systems. It lies in holding the designer's feet to the fire. Demand a system that makes life easier for the user, not one that creates more rules.

Concern for safety is a major cause of added rules and regulations in both the Federal Government in general and the Marine Corps in particular. Dozens of congresssional acts, enforced by nearly as many regulatory agencies, have a direct impact on every aspect of our daily lives. Intended to protect the consumer from inherently dangerous products or situations, many of these laws now appear to be designed to protect the consumer from himself. In spite of the fact that legislation will never prevent the various human errors and misjudgments that cause most accidents, newer, stricter laws continue to pour forth. Few critics are willing to speak up for fear of being considered callous or insensitive to human suffering. The Marine Corps is no exception. Once while I was riding in a Marine Corps sedan, the driver pulled into the motor pool to gas up. I was amazed when the driver told me that I would have to leave the car and stand a specified distance away while he filled the tank. "Base regulation" was the driver's reply to my obvious question. He had no answer to my next question. Why was sitting in a vehicle being refueled considered too dangerous for Marines, but not for women and children who regularly did so at the PX gas station less than half a mile down the road? The answer could probably be traced to the way in which we conduct investigations. My guess is that at some time in the past, someone was injured in a fire while seated in a vehicle being fueled. Rather than appear indifferent to the problem, the investigating officer recommended the sure way of preventing it from happening again. The recommendation was approved and, presto, another regulation.

This attitude of eliminating all possible loopholes is certainly not limited to matters involving safety. I have been a member of at least one command with a policy that for every supply investigation the commanding officer's endorsement must state what steps have been taken to prevent a recurrence of the incident being investigated. A noble intention, perhaps, but one guaranteed to create more rules. In one particular endorsement, I stated that the incident under investigation had been caused by a combination of extremely unusual circumstances and poor judgment on the part of an individual not in my command. Since neither reasonably could have been anticipated nor prevented, I endorsed the investigation by saying that no action was warranted. The report was returned to me with the comment that some type of action was mandatory. I resubmitted it starting a cycle of submission and return that might have continued indefinitely had the officer who insisted that some action was required not been transferred. This attempt to cover every possible contingency, regardless of the probability of its happening, has intruded into almost every aspect of military life. To obtain a base decal for my car, I was required to sign my name seven times. In other words, to complete the required paperwork, to certify that the information I had given was true, to affirm that I had read this regulation and understood that, to certify that I had certain amounts of insurance and would comply with local traffic laws, required more signatures than it took for me to buy, register, license, and insure the car in the first place.

The pressure on commanders to "do something" to solve a wide variety of problems is very real, and many Marines feel that even if a new regulation really doesn't solve anything, neither does it cost anything. With respect to the latter, they're dead wrong. The cost-free regulation is like its famous counterpart, the free lunch. It doesn't exist. The cost of too many, too tightly drawn regulations is lost initiative, wasted effort, lack of innovation and, most importantly, frustrated Marines. The man who can take his pistol to a local civilian range, for example, pay a small fee and then shoot without having to fill out any forms, submit to any tests, or turn his weapon over to policemen and armorers for registration and inspection will undoubtedly become frustrated when he finds that he must take all of these steps and then some to fire the same pistol on a nearby military range.

Correcting this particular situation may be the most difficult of all because it requires something inherently unnatural to most Marines, inaction. It requires acceptance of the fact that solution or prevention of some problems may not be worth the price. Sometimes we need to say to ourselves, "Don't just do something. Stand there."

Contributing to this trend toward meeting every problem with a new regulation is the increasing frequency with which courts-both civilian and military-are forcing their way into matters that were once considered strictly the purview of the commander. We now have, for example, incredibly detailed rules on the wearing of undershirts and the length of a Marine's hair. The fear seems to be that an order that allowed a commander the leeway to judge whether a particular haircut was "military" or "neat" would be considered arbitrary or unconstitutionally vague if the issue were tested in court. If this perception is correct, we are telling our young officers and NCOs that we are willing to trust them to make decisions affecting the life and death of their men in combat, but not to determine whether a Marine's hair is too long.

Court decisions, like executive orders from above, must obviously be obeyed. Court rulings that clearly have a damaging effect on the ability of Marines to win on tomorrow's battlefield should not be accepted, however, without pursuing every available avenue of appeal. The appeals may fail, but the stage will be set for future efforts. The pendulum that has swung so far in its present direction will eventually reverse itself. If not, we can expect to see civilian judges, from the quiet safety of their courts, ruling on field orders issued in the heat of battle. We may be told, for example, that a platoon leader's order to his men to attack "that long, rocky ridge to our right front" was unconstitutionally vague because it didn't designate a specific objective using eight-digit coordinates. Such a prediction may seem exaggerated, but 20 years ago how many Marines would have predicted the state of our present military judicial system?

In addition to causing specific new regulations, court rulings-along with the other forces discussed so far-tend to result in increasing uniformity throughout the Service which, in turn, results in increasingly restrictive rules. Unfortunately, this reinforces a commonly held military belief that a military organization can never be too uniform. The need for uniformity in the military is obvious. From the earliest times, uniformity has distinguished the army from the mob. A phalanx, for example, could work only if the soldiers' spears were of a uniform length and every man moved with a uniform step. A uniform caliber of musket ball was obviously desirable for logistics reasons even before the advent of mass production and identical weapons for every man. Tactics, too, reflected a trend toward uniformity, a trend that culminated with the precise linear tactics of the 18th century. On the battlefield this trend has reversed. Close order tactics have given way to fire and movement. Brilliant dress uniforms, each deliberately identical, have given way to camouflage utilities, each deliberately different. In other ways, however, the quest for absolute uniformity marches on.

No better example of this quest can be found than that shown by the development of Marine Corps uniform regulations. The regulations of 1912 as amended through 1971, for example, mention "ribbons of medals" only to note that they are worn with the undress uniform. By 1922, on the other hand, a number of paragraphs had been added prescribing such details as the size, exact location, and precedence of ribbons. The degree to which this trend has advanced can be seen by looking at a copy of today's uniform regulations. Even the direction that the little Vs on the frames of certain Vietnamese ribbons must point is set down in print.

The question is not whether uniformity is needed in today's Marine Corps. The question is when is the point of diminishing returns reached. The view that uniformity to the highest degree possible is always desirable overlooks many important counter arguments not the least of which is that what may work well for one man may prove to be a disaster for another. A Patton and a Bradley may take totally different roads to the same goal. A commander who attempts to force his own methods-regardless of how successful they may have proved for him-on his subordinates is not only asking for less-than-satisfactory results, but for demoralized subordinates as well. Better to tell them the desired results and let them find the way, a certain number of stumbles along the way notwithstanding.

Allowing subordinates this "freedom to fail," as one author has called it, cannot be done without paying a certain price. The price is small, however, when compared with the dividends returned and generally consists of small embarrassments and inconveniences. If the only thing at stake was the efficient running of a peacetime organization, it might be argued that even the small price was unnecessarily high. In the case of the Marine Corps, what is at stake is performance on the battlefield.

Since the end of World War II, the United States has been outnumbered, man for man, tank for tank, by its potential enemies. Initially we offset this disadvantage with our monopoly of nuclear weapons. Even after the collapse of this monopoly our technological edge held sway. That edge has been steadily dulled, however, to the point where we can no longer count on it to provide the superiority required in battle. Those cases in which our weapons are still more capable than their Soviet counterparts, for example, reflect more a deliberate desire for simplicity on the part of the Soviets than an inability to match us technically.

Any significant advantage that we still have lies in the leadership abilities of Marines at all levels. America has always produced the type of soldier who can think for himself. The probable nature of tomorrow's battlefield with a fast-moving enemy, the shock of NBC warfare, and extensive radio electronic combat places a premium on leaders who can carry on when the situation is changing rapidly and communications have ceased to exist, on leaders who look forward to the objective not to the rear for fresh orders. We have those leaders today. We only need to let them develop their talents now rather than hold them back until they're forced to develop them in battle.

We can do this by making more of our orders the equivalent of "Gunny, put up the flagpole."