Bottom Line Up Front: When is it foolish to be bold? When is it risky?
“We’ll be dancing naked on the objective by breakfast.”
I was a US Army Armor Officer during the Cold War assigned to Ground Cavalry units. By training I was an Armor officer. By assignment I learned to be a Cav officer. The Cav mission is armored reconnaissance. When asked the difference between Armor and Cav we’d say, “We gather information and fight if we have to. Their primary mission is to fight.”
Each branch of the Armed Forces has a distinctive culture.
The mounted warfare culture—Armor, Cav, and Mechanized Infantry— tends to be impatient and quick to act. This is especially true of Armor and Cav (both Ground and Air Cav).
When I was on active duty, Army and Marine Corps units rotated in and out of the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, California. Tough training and could be very embarrassing because the training standards were so high and because the Observer Controllers (OCs) could track what everyone was doing 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. They saw you when you were naked, metaphorically speaking.
If you had bad habits or were poorly trained, they found out quickly. I had a particularly embarrassing thing happen to me at the NTC, but many people were embarrassed at the NTC in those days. That was the whole point—sweat hard in training so you don’t bleed hard in combat.
Painful, difficult, effective training.
The threat we faced was the Soviet Army. Heavy threat, lots of tanks, lots of mech infantry, lots of artillery. The NTC replicated it all. The OPFOR—Opposing Force or Opposition Force– would train ceaselessly as the Soviets. They replicated Soviet tactics and had the home field advantage. The player units, the Blue Forces or BLUFOR, would rotate into the NTC, draw our equipment, put on our MILES gear (Multiple Integrated Laser Effects System—sophisticated Laser Tag gear), then for 2 miserable weeks fight under simulated combat conditions with the OPFOR. The NTC recorded and tracked everything. After a battle the Observer Controllers (OCs) gave you feedback and you’d watch all the horrible mistakes you made play out on a screen in front of the men you trusted and admired the most. They could track individual men, tanks, jeeps, vehicles of every kind. All the supplies, the food, the fuel… it was all there for everyone to see. They could record your radio transmissions.
The OPFOR was world class.
In one of the most common scenarios for a BLUFOR unit, the unit prepared for an attack, geared up, planned, did all the right things, then conducted a deliberate, prepared assault on the OPFOR unit, which was dug in, usually far more well prepared, on high ground.
The trick was not just to attack the OPFOR and seize the high ground, it was to push the OPFOR off, seize the high ground then immediately/immediately prepare for the OPFOR counter attack, which was guaranteed to come. It’s hard to exaggerate how difficult this is. To attack a well prepared enemy fighting on his own terrain, to push him off the hill and then to have done the planning and have the emotional, psychological, physical stamina to prepare immediately for a counter attack and then repulse that counter attack. Very difficult, but US Army units learned to do it in the 1980s and 1990s and it’s one of the reasons the US defeated the Soviet Union and won the Cold War.
But that’s another story.
To do this successfully—to attack and defeat then successfully defend a counter attack by the OPFOR—was difficult. Anyone who did it had every reason to be proud of himself.
In those heady, sunny, innocent days of long ago, the over-the-top hyperbolic exaggerated challenge that captured that capability was to say, “Gentlemen, if we do this correctly, we’ll be dancing naked on the objective by breakfast.”
Fort Knox, Spring of 1996 when it was still the US Army Armor Center
After I left the Joint Staff at the Pentagon I wrangled an assignment at Fort Knox. I served in some staff capacities but what I needed to proceed in my career was an assignment as a Cav Squadron XO. To interview for that tough job I had to go to the office of a man I respected a lot. I was nervous. I had tried to get this assignment for a long time and it was very competitive. A lot of officers wanted the job I was trying to get.
I figured I would take the direct approach. See the man who made the decision. In most units that would be the commander. In this unit, though, I learned from talking to the S3, or Operations Officer, that the commander deferred to his XO. So, I knew the XO made the decision. At IBM they’d teach me that made him The Decision Influencer.
I made an appointment to meet with the XO. I went to his office on the appointed day about 10 minutes before the appointed time. He was elsewhere but would be back soon.
I was invited to sit in his office and wait. I sat in his office and waited. But I looked around. You can learn a lot about a man by what he keeps in his office. What he displays, where he displays it, how he displays it. Behind this man’s desk I saw a photograph of him with 3 other officers in full combat gear. Holding their helmets, tanned, tired, laughing. Their backs to the camera.
They were looking back, over their shoulders, at the camera. They had dropped their trousers and were baring their backsides. They were in full field gear, their faces and hands were burned dark by the sun. Their exposed backsides were not burned dark by the sun. Bright white. The caption on the picture frame? “Dancing Naked On The Objective”
“Get the hell out of my office.”
Well, what did this tell me? It told me he was competent, confident, bold, had a sense of humor and was likeable. I certainly liked him. He returned to his office. I stood. He and I shook hands and exchanged pleasantries and he said, “OK, Major McGurk, so what do you want?”
I said, “I want the toughest Squadron XO job you have.”
He turned his back on me and started to talk. I don’t know what he said but he was staring out the window talking. For reasons I cannot explain I decided to take my shirt off. I was in BDU trousers, an Army brown t-shirt and combat boots. I was pretty fit. I had a high and tight haircut. He remained facing the window and kept talking. He may have asked me some questions and I answered them but he never turned around until he had stopped talking. Then he turned around. I had squared off in front of his desk and was standing there, leaning a little forward, nodding my head. He stared at me there in his office in my t-shirt, trousers and boots. He said, “What the hell are you doing?”
I said, “Well, sir, I think you should get to know me a little better.”
He said, “Yeah? And?”
I said, “You tell the 4 toughest majors you have in this regiment to meet me at the flagpole at retreat (On an Army post retreat is when the colors, the American flag, are retired for the day by an honor guard at 5 pm) and I’ll fistfight them.”
“You’ll fistfight them?”
“Yes, sir. I’ll fight them.”
“So, you think a little physical confrontation is the way to solve this problem?”
“Well, sir, I don’t guarantee I’ll win, but I do promise you this. I’ll fight like 10 m*****f****** and you’ll have a much better idea of what kind of man I am by about 5:15.”
He said, “Get the hell out of my office.”
No officers met me at the flagpole, but I got the job.
Call to Action: Decide what you want to go after. Ask yourself if boldness of execution will help you attain your goal. Not all career opportunities are as straightforward as this one, but the most enjoyable opportunities do require that you take bold action. Boldness of action is invigorating and fun. You’ll like it. Even if you don’t get the job, write a hand-written thank you note that is polite and articulate and on quality stationery. I assure you the recipient will remember you and you will have started a long-term relationship that may benefit you in the future.