A Marine colonel infantry officer, my boss, exclaimed, "Fetzer, you are so … !," poking me hard in the chest, the volume of his admonition and force of his stabbing finger increasing with each strongly enunciated word. Of course, I have left out the exact expletive that completes the sentence.
Standing at attention but leaning forward into the colonel’s stabs so I wouldn’t stumble backward and break my stance when he hit me, I was being "coached." As the 42-year-old commanding officer of a deployed-at-sea aviation combat element (a squadron) comprised of 28 aircraft and 500-some Marines and sailors, my boss was unhappy with my unit’s performance, and he was showing it.
I can’t say I enjoyed being yelled at, harshly criticized, or poked in the chest. Does anybody?
But frankly, I deserved to be briskly coached, disciplined, and admonished. All of that.
Did I deserve to be poked? Well, that just came with the turf and the time. The colonel was a hard man. And we were Marines. Man to man. Raised and tempered by a throng of disciplinarian men, including my dad, coaches, teachers and drill instructors, I’d been through far worse than the colonel could dish out. And if you can’t handle a dressing down and a few finger stabs in the chest without running off to the powder room sobbing, how the heck will you be able handle the rigors of combat and capture by the enemy or, closer to home, the mental and physical demands of contact sports?
Anyway, I knew the score. As commanding officer, everything that happened or failed to happen in that squadron was ultimately my responsibility. My team had performed poorly. I was responsible for its failures. I deserved what I got from the colonel and the colonel clearly got his point across. I really wasn’t any worse for the wear.
A lot’s changed in 20 years. Not only is physical discipline or touching Marines (in a disciplinary way) frowned upon if not outright forbidden, even simply pointing at Marines with an opened palm and rigid fingers — some call this gesture a "knife hand" — and raising one’s voice to add emphasis may be discouraged.
The Marine Corps Times, which recently reported on changes coming to Marine leadership training in a column titled, "Brass Edict: Mentor More, Intimidate Less," called the knife hand gesture intimidating and "vaguely threatening." At one time, there was nothing vague about Corps discipline. When you got a finger in the chest you darn well knew you were being disciplined and you were intimidated. That was OK. And then it was over and you moved on, no worse for the wear.
Vaguely threatening? Forget real discipline. Now even vague discipline may be on the way out. Amongst our hardened Marine Corps Teufelshunde or Devil Dogs? In what was once known as the world’s toughest, most disciplined fighting force? If so, no wonder discipline as we knew it is endangered in every other aspect of American society.
There’s a feminization of discipline occurring in our society that matches this trend in other areas. At least in the past, when disciplined men generally got crisply "filleted," they learned from it — or not — and moved on, not really dwelling on the experience.
Women, on the other hand, generally get sweetly "counseled" (or mentored) or at least less crisply disciplined and then they ponder — for months — the deeper meaning and feelings of the experience. We’re moving as a society to this kinder and gentler method of discipline — if it can even be called that anymore — with, as of yet, unknown consequences.
Moreover, turning Devil Dogs into Pound Puppies is just one reflection of our cultural shift away from real discipline and toughness. "Spare the rod, spoil the child?" Gone. Discipline in families? Gone. Real discipline in schools? Gone. Tough discipline in sports? Gone.
And now maybe hard discipline in the military is next to go. If the failure to shave U.S. Army officer and accused Fort Hood killer Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan to make him comply with military grooming standards before his long delayed trial is any indication, we’re already there. But all is not yet lost.
That’s because good leaders are situational leaders who have the ability to use different techniques for different times and people. Mentoring and coaching have their place in a leader’s "tool box" to be sure. There’s even a time for "sweet" counseling. But there’s also a time for tough love and to be disciplinarily "flayed" when it’s needed.
We all need real discipline time to time, regardless of our age or status. Leaders, especially military leaders and sports coaches, therefore need the ability and the authority to use every reasonable leadership technique necessary to succeed and win — including a "knife hand," timed screaming and even a few unfeminine pokes in the chest or a slap upside one’s punk’in head when appropriate — without danger of losing their credibility or their jobs.
Barry Fetzer is a columnist for the Havelock News. He can be reached at email@example.com.