Saturday, February 2, 2013

Promotions and Pride

I served over 20 years in the US Army and had 8 years of ROTC experience prior.  Not what you think - I took junior ROTC at Xavier High School, the Jesuit Military Academy of New York. But throughout all of those years I had one event that always filled me with a sense of accomplishment that was strangely combined with a sense of dread...the promotion!

Measuring success?
In the military one's success is measured in three ways when not actually in combat, in which case it is measured  by surviving, or seeing your unit members survive, or closing on the enemy with fire and movement and taking your objective (or holding it).  In other words, winning battles and wars.  But through the course of a war or a career awards and medals for accomplishment  gallantry and the like are nicely punctuated with the occasional promotion.  The Army that does not have cash bonuses like the civilian sector, therefore promotions (okay, there are longevity steps) are the only tangible  means of remuneration...the gift that keeps on giving. And they do stoke the ego...

Many in the service of their country will publicly disdain the need for such recognition but for the most part such sentiments are pure balderdash.  Almost everyone likes recognition and in the military, short of awards for gallantry - promotions are it.  During the period of the Yankee Doodle Spies, the promotion of officers was a big thing.

Silas Dean
And just like their British counterparts, the American officer corps was intensely political. Congress made promotions and commands at the highest level. Officers lobbied congressional representatives in their quest for advancement. The American agents in France, Silas Dean and Benjamin Franklin, even solicited rank and command for foreign officers and civilians. John Adams, disgusted with this military politicking, wrote that he  “wearied to Death with the Wrangles between military officers, high and low. They Quarrell like Cats and Dogs. They worry one another like Mastiffs Scrambling for Rank and Pay like Apes for Nuts.”

 Military pride nearly cost us our independence. More to the point,  a promotion or command denied  often played a pivotal role during the war.  Note the less than honorable service of  General Charles Lee, Washington's second in command who avoided over-achieving whenever  it  undercut General Washington's authority. The scheming of General Horatio Gates, victor at Saratoga, became center of an anti-Washington cabal aimed at replacing Washington with him.  And pride as toxic to the nation's struggle for independence is most notoriously exemplified by the treason of General Benedict Arnold, whose grievances (and they were legion) included the unjust denial of a deserved promotion to Major General. Each of these men turned on Washington and thus  the cause, due to excess pride.

Continental Army Officers were just human beings

We often forget that the men who served as our First Patriots were human beings who had families and obligations.  Promotion meant prestige and honor.  These were very important traits in the 18th century.  They also meant more pay and most officers and all enlisted men were not wealthy landholders but teachers, shopkeepers, small farmers, etc. So a promotion and the potential for more money was a real consideration. And all (correctly) assumed that higher rank during the war meant higher prestige that could be advantageous after the war,  Again, they weren't much different than folks today.  In a perfect world patriotism is its own reward. But in the real world patriotism needs to be rewarded fairly.
Washington saved
 the nation in many ways

Unfortunately, a promotion in the Continental Army did not necessarily result in an increase in pay.  In fact, payment for officers and enlisted was sporadic. Congress had to ask the states for the money to pay the Army and the states delayed or reneged whenever they could. Without going into it here, this almost took down the new republic before it was launched and only swift action by George Washington himself prevented a disaster. It also formed Washington's political leanings toward a strong central government self-sufficient enough to fund the national defense, the common defense. So curiously, the politics of promotion played a key role in the course of the war and the formation of the country

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