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The CIB, the Light That Commands the Room

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As you already know, I’m the garritrooper in this outfit, “too far forward to wear a tie, and too far to the rear to get shot at.”

But that doesn’t mean that I don’t know some things about wading in muck up to my elbows, sleeping on hard ground, marching ten miles in full kit, or peering down the sights of an M-14 at a target 200 yards downrange. Or having a big, tall black sergeant, with the same last name as me, bark down my throat, while calling me “cousin, Sir.” Although a JAG officer, I had been commissioned an Infantry 2nd lieutenant, so I was not the typical desk-jockey.

And I have been shot at, although never in uniform. In fact, I’d even been hit, but it was in commission of a felony, and I was running away. Just some buckshot in the leg, my Boy Scout training let me tend to it myself, so I could avoid seeing a clinic, where I would have been immediately reported and likely thrown out of college, and then what would I tell my Dad?

I’ll may tell that story some day, as it was one of my most effective stories in counseling young soldiers, for I became relevant in their eyes once they knew I’d done worse things than they were doing, which was bootlegging Class 6 whiskey to local bars, or working the backend of hashish distribution off C-140’s coming in from Thailand at Yokota AFB. After telling a kid that I’d already stood at the edge of the abyss that they were standing on, nothing more than blind frigging luck saved me, I think they got the message.

It gave me street cred, as they say today.

I’ve already told other stories about Army life in Japan. It was a Major US Army Command at that time, and its HQ was in a building designed and built in the early years of the Occupation, on the site of the original Imperial Japanese Army military academy, their West Point. It was designed just like our Pentagon near Washington. (I think that building has since been torn down.)

It was steeped in history, there were Tori parks, and several tunnels with iron gates, that contained who-knows-what sorts of relics of the old regime. The command rated a 3-star general, and it commanded a 2-star command in Okinawa, only recently returned to Japanese control after we took it by force of arms in 1945 (it was in all the American papers, at least.) It also had control of various small Army commands throughout SE Asia, from a tropical laboratory test site in Malaysia to a listening post on the far northern end of Japan, where you could see the USSR even more clearly than Sarah Palin could. There was still a small post in downtown Tokyo, Camp Drake, that had once been McArthur’s HQ, and of course, the jewel in its crown, Zama Hospital, where my youngest son was born. It was the first pass-thru for wounded coming out of Vietnam. Because of their trauma center, it drew some of the finest surgeons in America, who volunteered for a four-year tour just to get that sort of live-training.

All that was my bailiwick.

The Officers club and NCO club were the hub of socializing, as you can imagine. It was a reversal of what you would find in a TOE infantry division, for it was top-heavy in rank, lots of colonels and lieutenant colonels, fewer majors and captains and almost no lieutenants.

And almost all had served in places like Saigon or Cam Ranh Bay, far from the gunfire. None had served in combat. Their only proof fo service were the standard ribbons.

 

Oh, we had several captains and majors with combat experience. You’ve already met by buddy, Maj Guy, who did two tours as Military Advisor to Montagnards in the Vietnam highlands. How that qualified him to pimp prostitutes for ranking Japanese military officials at Manos’ in Tokyo was beyond me. But he was a fine jungle warrior and great friend. I miss him.

We also had a few senior 14-15 year captains who were not considered promotable, so had to be released. Fine leaders of men, they sadly lacked the education, and, let’s face it, the style and grace of men who could mix socially with senior officers. Two of those had been enlisted, and commissioned in the field, so, instead of being cashiered out they were allowed to fall back to their original enlisted rank to fill out their 20- years to retirement.

One of them, Captain Mike, figures in this story, for he distinguishes between the military of those waning days of Vietnam with the corporate world I came to know in the 80s

There’s a lesson there.

You see, CPT Mike was as rough as a cob. He was deputy commander of the garrison, about 900 enlisted men, so did not work inside the HQ building and rub elbows with the brass. 16 years in, he’d been an officer only about five. Two tours in Vietnam, I never knew the circumstances of how he was commissioned, but it was obvious that he’d never been to a sit-down dinner with a table full of brass. His wife was a tiny little country girl named Midge, from Arkansas, and I’m guessing he was from the same neck of the woods. Troops loved him, in part I guess, because he saw the world the same way they did. Been there, done that. We consulted on dozens of small disciplinary cases, so we were friends. We had several dinners together, but never once corked a bottle of wine. Beer all around.

I got to visit with him and Midge in 1977, after I left the Army, when I did a stint of reserve duty at Ft Drum. He was back to SSG  Mike then, just waiting to finish his 20. He and Midge and I stayed up into the night talking. It was sure good to see those two.

It would still be another 10 years before I’d come to appreciate Capt Mike in another dimension, but he drew the starkest distinction between how the corporate world viewed (still views) its rank and file and how the US Army, and a 3-star general viewed the officers and men under his command in 1975.

Let me set this up for you:

You see, the Officer’s Club Friday night gathering was not unlike a gathering of corporate management at a cocktail party just before a long dreary dinner, then afterwards, a 30-minute snoozer by the CEO.

A billion dollar manufacturing company (in 1988 dollars) you could get a feel for the company’s future prospects just by watching the give-and-take in the cocktail hour before the floor show.

Army TDA commands had similar functions, although I’m not sure about TOE commands. Senior executives would circulate, but keep a proper distance from anything controversial, while the “front office” people, Sales, Marketing, Payroll, and Planners, paper-hangers I called them, would congregate and talk among themselves, and, the Manufacturers, plant and front line managers, the people who actually represented 100% of the company’s production and profits, would hang to themselves on another side of the room, made to feel like kitchen help.

Our Friday night Officer’s Clubs were a little like that, for most people bunched up according to their craft, Logistics (G4), Administration(G1), assorted paper-pushers like JAG, MP, and a battalion of civilians, DACs, who formed the corps of the lushes in the command, for most had been in Japan for over 20 years. Men with combat experience, largely in G2-G3, and mostly captains and majors, hung out together.

You can imagine who’s stories were better.

In the manufacturing corporate world these were like high school dances, where groups would mutter about other groups, even sneer, or giggle. The front office people thought I was one of them because I had that law degree, even though I worked in the company’s biggest factory, visiting the Corporate HQ, 100 miles away, only once a week. It took a couple of years, and those kinds of get-togethers, for me to disabuse them about where my loyalties lay. I liked the dirt-under-the-fingernails production side of the company much more.

It went downhill from there, and our top brass never saw it.

The principal sport at these functions was ridiculing the “manufacturers”, a term they used as an epithet. Imagine 10% of the people who provide logistical support for the other 90%, the people who make things, mocking them because they, well, make things?

I often heard them comment that they could teach monkeys to run a factory.

You may recognize this sentiment in some military command structures today. I can’t say. But I left that company, and the biggest paycheck I’ve ever received, in 1989, because I knew where it was going. In 1991 they filed for Chapter 13.

With that in mind, let me finish the story about Captain Mike.

It was Friday, and I was at the Officer’s Club bar playing liar’s dice with two other captains, standing next to two LTC’s from G4, who I only knew by sight, roaming around the halls on the first floor. LTC John and LTC Frank. They were holding forth about some logistical thing about Conex containers being trucked up from Yokuska. My buddies were rolling the dice to see who paid for the next round, while we talked about NBA basketball. One of them had played in college.

In walks CPT Mike and sidles up to me and drawls “Hey, V, mind if I get in on this?”

Mike never came to the club. I’m not sure if anyone there even knew him, so I introduced him to the captains. The LTC’s barely acknowledged him, still wrapped up in their conversation about Conex containers. We’re talking, all facing the bar, the LTC”s are talking, facing each other, then suddenly, Mike leans over the bar, looks past us and speaks to the two colonels, “Pardon me, sirs, but I think you’re wrong on that.”

“Wrong on what?” I thought. I wasn’t even listening.

Then the colonel nearest us, with his back turned, turned around to see who it was that interrupted them, and said “What did you say, Captain?” Then the other colonel, facing Mike, put his hand in that first colonel’s shoulder, as if to say “Let him speak”.

I didn’t know what the hell Mike was talking about, and unless he’d had a couple of shooters before he  came in, he was still on his first beer, and I’d known him to put away six just singing George Jones songs, but he just crossed a line captains never do and keep their 201 file clean.

Mike turned, facing them, and proceeded to relate something about moving Conex’s by trucks up such-and-such a highway into I Corps, and something about a firefight along the highway. I had no idea what he was talking about, but apparently the two colonels did, for they just looked at him and listened.

Mike went on for a few minutes then finished, and I expected the standard reaction by a senior officer being contradicted in such a public and flagrant manner. Instead, the second LTC stood up and said, “Well, I had never thought of it that way Captain…then peering to read his nametag, …”Harkness. But can we buy you a beer?  What’s your pleasure?”

Damn.

Capt Mike Harkness proved that you can’t train a monkey to run a factory. It takes men. Only these two light colonels already knew that…and it was the bright glare of that Combat Infantryman’s Badge that reminded them who was talking, assuring them that he knew what he was talking about. They deferred to the Badge and listened.

 

Men with CIB’s can be wrong, drunk, even stupid at times. But in the company of men without one, they get listened to. Or used to.

In this case, Mike had something to say that was useful to their conversation. I never knew what. It didn’t matter. Had they known he only had a high school diploma, would it have mattered? Thank God they didn’t see the EM service stripes on his sleeve, or that Good Conduct Ribbon next to his MSM.

Maybe the CIB blinded them to all the other things that might have disqualified him. I can’t say.

I was a lawyer and could never have gotten away with that on my resume alone. I got chewed out once for the tough questions I asked a major on cross examination.

The Badge did it.

No modern corporate manager would ever do what those two colonels did…listen. Had I said that same thing to a few executives in my company, no matter how right I was, I’d have been cleaning out my desk next morning.

That was over 40 years ago. If you still pay this sort of respect to the bearer of the CIB, hold into to it for dear life, for its absence in the private sector is killing American Big Business. Whatever they do up there isn’t Capitalism. It’s something else. And it thinks America’s producers are trained monkeys.

Maybe American companies should start giving their producers little badges that remind their bosses that they know a thing or tow because they’ve seen and done a thing or two.

 

 

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About the Author:

Vietnam era Army JAG, Asia, 17-yr Cold Warrior in Soviet-China Bloc green zone, Been shot at and hit, but in crime, not war; twice-broken nose for lying (same fellow) hence good law school candidate; Could have been Somebody in Corporate world and politics, but at every crossroad chose to be a man with a tawdry past instead. Gave up law and am now a redeemed American.
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Comments

  1. mike collins  August 21, 2018

    last time i was invite up to visit with the old guard at the unknown soldiers tomb, we got to have a few beers with the men. what i did like was that quite a few of them had a cib. it was not like that last time. to many wars,and the men with the cib knows that. they also have a museum up there –we are in it for a large weapons cash we found. we were up there for i believe it was the sergeants of the year dinner. some general came up to me and said he had never heard the sergeants talk so much-when received award. he did not know i had them all drinking beer in my room showing them the chicago flag mayor daley sent me-which i had everone in my group sign in 1968 in vietnam.

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  2. Allen  August 21, 2018

    Thanks Vassar, you know my feelings about the CIB, its the only award I ever sought, the other’s were just gimme’s. Even the Bronze Star, who gives a shit?

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