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One Bullet Away: The Making of a Marine Officer

One Bullet Away: The Making of a Marine Officer

Author: Nathaniel C. Fink
Rating: 9/10
Last Read: June 2014

Quick Summary: This book recounts Fink's journey through Marine Corps officer training and his experiences with war in Afghanistan and Iraq.  Fink shares some of the leadership training that he gained during his schooling and leadership roles in the USMC.  

While I don't normally recommend books about war for those who are not interested, in this case I will do the opposite.  It takes me back to the years I spent in ROTC receiving similar training (with much lower stakes) - many people in leadership roles do not carry the same ideals or perspectives that the USMC instills in its leaders. There is much wisdom to be gained in the USMC leadership principles, and I think this book showcases some practical examples of their application.

My Highlights

We should remember that one man is much the same as another, and that he is best who is trained in the severest school.
—THUCYDIDES

“I saw a bumper sticker in the parking lot that said ‘Nobody ever drowned in sweat.’” --loc 127

Olds explained that orders slowly executed meant advantages lost. --loc 200

I wanted to be there, and I tried hard. For the first time in my life, desire and effort wouldn’t be enough. I was learning that in the Marines, the only easy day was yesterday. Success the day before meant nothing, and tomorrow might never happen. I woke up each morning at Quantico wondering whether I’d still be there that night. --loc 285

But in combat, we were told, there’s rarely time for discussion and debate. Complex ideas must be made simple, or they’ll remain ideas and never be put into action. --loc 308

We drilled them, and every other list, over and over again. I memorized them in the classroom, in line at the chow hall, and in my rack at night. The purpose, we were promised, was to make them instinctive. They would become innate to our decision-making process and infuse everything we did without even a conscious thought. --loc 310

“First,” he counseled, “you must be technically and tactically proficient.” There was no excuse for not knowing everything about the weapon, radio, aircraft, or whatever else it was you were trying to use. “Being a nice guy is great, but plenty of nice guys have gotten half their Marines killed because they didn’t know their jobs. --loc 355

A good plan violently executed now, he urged, was better than a great plan later. Be decisive, act, and be ready to adapt. --loc 359

“Fourth, know your men and look out for their welfare.” Fanning smiled as he remembered Marines he’d served with. They will, he said, follow you through the gates of hell if they trust you truly care about them. “This is not about you.” Fanning spoke the sentence slowly, emphasizing each word. He explained that the Corps existed for the enlisted infantryman. “Everyone else—you aspiring infantry officers included—is only support. --loc 364

From that afternoon on, I accepted the rules and lived by them. When getting dressed by the numbers, I tried to move faster and yell louder than anyone else. When Olds made me call cadence, I did it with heart and never backed down. He stopped caring that my calls confused the platoon. Marching didn’t matter. It was about cool under pressure. It was about detachment. We had to retain our ability to think when the world was crumbling around us. Not for ourselves, but for our Marines. --loc 374

His message was clear: you need discipline most when it’s hardest to muster—when you’re tired, hungry, outside your comfort zone. --loc 456

Being a Marine was not about money for graduate school or learning a skill; it was a rite of passage in a society becoming so soft and homogenized that the very concept was often sneered at. --loc 549

The Corps teaches three fundamentals of marksmanship: sight picture, bone support, and natural point of aim. --loc 571

The third element, natural point of aim, is the most important. With each of the shooter’s breaths, the rifle muzzle rises. It settles with exhalation back to a natural resting point between breaths—the natural point of aim. Make the bull’s-eye your natural point of aim, squeeze the trigger near the bottom of your breath, and you’ll hit the target. --loc 573

We learned the six troop-leading procedures by the acronym BAMCIS. Begin planning. Arrange for reconnaissance. Make reconnaissance. Complete the plan. Issue the order. Supervise. --loc 605

SMEAC: situation, mission, execution, administration and logistics, command and signal. --loc 608

Speed, we were taught, is a weapon. Be aggressive. Keep the tempo high. --loc 616

We learned that indecision is a decision, that inaction has a cost all its own. Good commanders act and create opportunities. Great commanders ruthlessly exploit those opportunities and throw the enemy into disarray. --loc 617

We learned that the Corps relies on mission-type orders: “Tell me what to do, not how to do it.” --loc 621

Decentralize command and allow subordinates to operate freely within the framework of the commander’s intent. --loc 621

I remembered the “80 percent solution”—a good plan now was better than a perfect plan later. We had crossed the threshold of action. This was enough information to do the job; now the task was to do it. --loc 684

Leaders have an ethical responsibility to serve as buffers, protecting their subordinates, and a moral obligation to act from the courage of their own convictions. The moral courage of their leaders is what separates combat units from armed mobs. --loc 765

He explained that Americans, especially young American men, exhibit posturing behavior. Two guys in a bar bump chests, get up in each other’s faces, and yell. If a fight follows, it’s about honor, saving face. That’s posturing. Marines on the battlefield must exhibit predatory behavior. In that bar, a predator would smile politely at his opponent, wait for him to turn around, and then cave in the back of his skull with a barstool. --loc 786

He identified five things an infantry leader can do to help maintain the psychiatric effectiveness of his men in combat: minimize fatigue by sleeping whenever possible, build confidence as a team, encourage communication, use spare time to practice emergency medical training, and do after-action critiques to address the shock of combat and killing. --loc 807

Your Marines will expect four things from you: competence, courage, consistency, and compassion.” --loc 879

The last thing they needed was a Pattonesque monologue from a newborn lieutenant, so I introduced myself and said I was happy to be the newest member of the platoon. I told them I wanted to meet with each man individually over the coming week and asked if they had any questions for me. There were none. Staff Sergeant Marine dismissed them, and they headed back to the armory. I thought I heard approval in his voice as we walked back to the office. “No bullshit, sir. Marines appreciate that.” --loc 993

“If safety were paramount,” Whitmer declared, “we’d stay in the barracks and play pickup basketball. Good training is paramount.” Whitmer’s idea of good training reminded me of something I’d read about the Roman legions—their exercises were bloodless battles so that their battles were bloody exercises. --loc 1002

Captain Whitmer replied that we, as infantry officers, had been trained to be aggressive. Nods all around. “But there’s a fine line between aggressive and foolish.” Good commanders, he explained, could operate right at that line, without crossing it. We had to know the difference between a risk and a gamble. All commanders take risks. They are calculated decisions to make gains in a dangerous environment. Gambles are pure chance—closing your eyes and running the gauntlet. --loc 1024

even if they had a low CDI factor. I took the bait. “What’s CDI?” “Chicks dig it, sir. Football team: high CDI. Chess club: low CDI. Platoon sergeant: high CDI. Mortar section: low CDI. Doesn’t matter that mortars have all the firepower. Life’s unfair. Didn’t they teach you that in college?” --loc 1078

‘Never regret not doing a real mission. Now you can have all golden memories and no ghosts.’ I --loc 1096

"The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places,” Hemingway wrote. --loc 1151

“But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure that it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.” --loc 1152

Past deeds are a young Marine’s source of pride, inspiration to face danger, and reassurance that death in battle isn’t consignment to oblivion. His buddies and all future Marines will keep the faith. Some people in my life would call that naivete, but I was coming to know it as esprit de corps. --loc 1164

I climbed up to Captain Whitmer’s cabin, to let him know his officers were all aboard. I found him sitting at his desk, wearing sweatpants and looking relaxed. His incense burner smoldered, and acoustic guitar played softly in the background. This was Captain Whitmer at his best, embodying the line from Rudyard Kipling’s poem about keeping your head when all around you are losing theirs. Yes, he knew about the attacks. Yes, he expected we’d be sailing earlier than planned. No, he saw no need for concern. --loc 1201

Captain Whitmer was too self-effacing to say it, but I knew the answer. Among the battalion’s company commanders, he was the iconoclast, the outcast stepchild who trained his Marines to be good instead of look good. He pushed us hard, questioned authority, and couldn’t even feign obsequiousness. --loc 1343

It is a central tenet of the Marines’ war-fighting philosophy that each subordinate must provide options to his boss—tell him what you can do, rather than what you can’t. Depending on the situation, two or three or four courses of action would be developed and then roughed out into basic operational plans. --loc 1361

Hardness was the ability to face an overwhelming situation with aplomb, smile calmly at it, and then triumph through sheer professional pride. --loc 2327

The pilot had requested the most favored method for guiding a helicopter into a landing zone in the dark. The NATO-Y, standard throughout the Western militaries, is four chem lights tied to premeasured lengths of parachute cord. When laid on the ground and pulled taut, they form a Y. One of the Marines pulled it out, already tied, and cracked the four chem lights. He laid them across the landing zone, with the base pointing into the wind and the two legs marking touchdown points for the helicopter’s main landing gear. --loc 2581

I remembered a story I’d heard from General Jones, the commandant who’d eaten dinner with us on the Peleliu. He’d quoted a former Marine officer who went on to be a Fortune 500 CEO. When asked for his guiding principle, the CEO replied, “Officers eat last.” The philosophy is simple, and it goes a long way. --loc 2907

Winning a firefight requires quick action by leaders. The key is to make decisions about your enemy and act on them faster than he is acting on decisions made about you. --loc 2917

In training, I was taught the OODA loop, a four-stage decision-making process described by Air Force fighter pilot Colonel John Boyd: observe, orient, decide, act. --loc 2918

Engage your brain before you engage your weapon. --loc 3082

“Well, sir,” Person said, turning in the seat to face me, oblivious to the fight all around him, “I guess I’m fighting for cheap gas and a world without ragheads blowing up our fucking buildings.”
“Good to know you’re such an idealist.”
“That world sounds pretty ideal to me right about now.”
--loc 4051

I remembered General Conway’s instruction back in Kuwait: “Your first obligation as an officer is the defense of your men.” --loc 4238

“Howdy, sir. How you doin’ this evening?” Espera said.
“Never better. Tired, cold, wet, hungry. I feel like a Marine.”
--loc 4274

“Last time I saw you in a cold hole, LT, was in Afghanistan. Makes me feel like an old campaigner.”
“Regular warhorse, Espera. Just wait. Next year it’ll be Syria, then North Korea, and who knows where after that. We’ll never have to train again. Just war, war, war.”
--loc 4276

I ached for him. No one knows the costs of war better than the grunts. I guessed the television news that night was full of reports of collateral damage and civilian casualties. I wished people could see how much we agonized over our decisions and prayed they were the right ones. These choices didn’t always translate into hesitation on the trigger or racking self-doubt, but sometimes it was enough to sit awake in the cold rain just thinking about them. --loc 4282

“Never pet a burning dog.” --loc 4335

Gunny Wynn’s priority as platoon sergeant, first and always, was the safety of his men. Mine, as platoon commander, was accomplishing our mission. --loc 4341

Gunny Wynn and the team leaders systematically strengthened the plan, pointing out weaknesses and suggesting improvements. It is a simple fact of human nature that people will more willingly go into danger when they have a say in crafting their fate. --loc 4347

Ironically, I remembered Colonel Ferrando’s words from a briefing the day before: “You can’t volunteer to go to war and then bitch about getting shot at.” --loc 4406

Strong combat leadership is never by committee. Platoon commanders must command, and command in battle isn’t based on consensus. It’s based on consent. --loc 4538

Any leader wields only as much authority and influence as is conferred by the consent of those he leads. --loc 4539

What’s past is past, but the present and future will kill you. --loc 4560

I finally understood why Whitmer had threatened us that night. Commanders always bear the heaviest responsibility. When you’re tired and under stress, your efforts to convey that gravitas can come out all wrong. --loc 4568

“The sacred geometry of chance, sir.”
“I like that.”
“Espera and I talked about it earlier. We can do a lot to influence the outcome, but sometimes it’s out of our hands,” Rudy said, then mimed firing a rifle. “A running man shoots a burst into a moving Humvee. Why do some miss? Why do some hit? Why a flesh wound and not a femoral artery? Aim and skill have nothing to do with it. The difference between life and death out here is seconds and millimeters—the sacred geometry of chance.” --loc 4599

After all, I would be right there at the front, in as much danger as anyone, sometimes more. An instructor at Quantico had told me that officers got paid to be gophers: when all the sane people were burrowing in the dirt, it was an officer’s job to poke his head up and see what was happening. --loc 5368

Anyone who looks with anguish on evils so great must acknowledge the tragedy of it all; and if anyone experiences them without anguish, his condition is even more tragic, since he remains serene by losing his humanity. —AUGUSTINE OF HIPPO --loc 5870

I left the Corps because I had become a reluctant warrior. Many Marines reminded me of gladiators. They had that mysterious quality that allows some men to strap on greaves and a breastplate and wade into the gore. I respected, admired, and emulated them, but I could never be like them. I could kill when killing was called for, and I got hooked on the rush of combat as much as any man did. But I couldn’t make the conscious choice to put myself in that position again and again throughout my professional life. --loc 5923

Great Marine commanders, like all great warriors, are able to kill that which they love most—their men. It’s a fundamental law of warfare. Twice I had cheated it. I couldn’t tempt fate again. --loc 5926

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