Vandergriff: Selfless vs. Selfish Service

Here’s a guest editorial by my friend and colleague, Don Vandergriff. Consider it my Christmas present to you all.


I read MG Bob Scales’s piece on Anton Myrer’s wonderful novel Once an Eagle in Tom Ricks blog “The Best Defense.” I wholeheartily disagree with his assessment. Despite his recommendation to do away with it, it is necessary and should be a mandatory book for all cadets to read regardless of commissioning source! In sum, Scales (and Ricks) interprets the whole book as a command-vs-staff conflict. It is not, as I point out in the review below. The first thing someone has to do to understand this, though, is to read Myrer’s 1200 pages (I have done it twice in 13 years). Then, they must understand the evils of self-serving careerism pitted against the honorable selfless service that the services all claim they promote Their incentives, however, all work the other way.

While it is a nice fantasy to believe that MG Bob Scales (ret.) has had such an impact on COLs and LTCs at the War College, the Army culture from the time right after WWII, but institutionalized in Vietnam, had already set a course of self-serving careerism (Once an Eagle was published in 1969). It is a route toward rampant careerism based on out-of-date assumptions on ambition and talent management drawn from new Human Resource theories developed in the Progressive age, codified in the wave of emerging theories written in the 20s and 30s, and later taught in the leading business schools to the new captains serving in HR (now AG) after WWII. Anton Myrer’s insights toward this trend are remarkable given the time he was writing this and based on his own service in WWII; but he also saw the reflecting trends in American society going this way (and unfortunately continuing today).

Again, why I laugh at all the people that say there is such a cultural gap between US society and the military — there is not one. We are reflective of the emerging values of today’s society’s focus on the new values system of money, things, and time. Anton Myrer points out in vivid detail in many of the non-military scenes that he puts Sam Damon through in the interwar years and his conflict of getting out, at the constant demand of his wife Tommy Damon, in order to ride the wave of greed in the 20s! Damon (Myrer) sees the shallowness in this trend, which by the way is appearing again today, but even worse as the kings of the big banks and Wall Street (while using their political cronies to pave the way) simply rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic (to buy an additional 7th home at the expense of everyone else). They know it, the data is there, and they are still doing it, while using our own elective officials to do it (and I am a libertarian, hating both parties). Despite countless opportunities to ride this way, Damon refuses, because the honor of leading soldiers and serving them and the nation he believes in always draws him back.

Additionally, the book’s focus is at the heart of selfless-serving versus selfish-serving. It has little to do with command vs staff, except only as a vehicle to demonstrate the former conflict. Courtney Massingale seeks the most prominent staff and command positions, always on someone’s coat tails, to avoid the responsibility of having to make the risky decisions when leading and commanding soldiers (regardless of branch type) at any level unless and until it only serves him (Corps Command in the Pacific in late 44 when the war is already decided and the ability to gain all the glory while avoiding the hazards of the frontlines).

In reverse, Sam Damon always does seek these tough assignments, but as you read the bylines, the system is not rewarding of this (so the lesson taken away can have the opposite effect that he, Scales, claims it has). Damon is constantly viewed by the Army establishment as a maverick and is only put in regimental and division command in the worse place possible, New Guinea northern coast in late 42/43 (Read the book America’s First Battles on the disastrous campaign there) out of desperation and because no one else of prominence wanted it. The chosen ones are all trying to go to Europe to serve in the real war with Nazi Germany. Also, Courtney serves in many aide-de-camp and executive officer for GO positions as well. Another prominent step to the top today.

No, data and research have shown that the value sets of most officers toward service or selfish service are set in stone by the time they reach the War College. This book will have little or no impact on anyone other than confirm their own deep seated feelings on who they really are or have become. When asked about this book in 2012 by the CG of Cadet Command for continual reading by cadets, I said “YES!” it needs to be, there is still a chance to mold these aspiring leaders before being corrupted by our own personnel system.

As with so much of Don’s work, these comments apply not just to the military but to any large bureaucratic organization.

One thought on “Vandergriff: Selfless vs. Selfish Service

  1. Thank you for that Chet, best wishes for Christmas and good health in the new year.

    I never fully understood, or appreciated the term “Reganomics”
    until very recently. What I discovered, the basis of which is give those at the very top
    a break, and they will tow everyone else along in good fortune.

    If I understand the article, so it is in the military hierarchy as well.

    That is the Theory, in practice, it has become a nightmare, to a point that many do
    not even recognize the country, and the society, they once knew and loved.


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