Sunday, July 15, 2018

After Action Report: Heartbreak Ridge

Heartbreak Ridge is a good action story with few leadership lessons. Dissenting for the sake of the task is one of the ethical standards that makes businesses (and scientists) successful. The guardian ethos rewards conformance to hierarchy and tradition. So, a story about an unorthodox soldier provides a context for thinking about values. In the case of Heartbreak Ridge, the hero’s values are ultra-orthodox. The complexity is delivered in the contrast between his military work and his successful attempt to re-unite with his ex-wife. When not firing an AK-47 at his men to teach them what it sounds like, GySgt Tom Highway is reading women’s magazines in order to eventually ask, “Do you think our relationship failed because of a lack of commitment?” 

As an actor, Clint Eastwood makes a good Marine. He has said that personally he is a libertarian conservative. He stays in great physical condition. He directed and produced the movie. The writer was James Carabatsos who created Hamburger Hill and Heroes. The story was gung-ho and left me feeling happy, but not any smarter. 

GySgt Highway is assigned to a reconnaissance platoon that has been allowed to lapse. This was 1986. The American military was not yet over Vietnam. “We are 0-1-1: no wins, one tie, and one loss.” The previous platoon sergeant was “retired on active duty.” The men are unmotivated. But that assessment and this assignment come from Maj. Malcolm A. Powers, who has been set up as the antithesis of our hero. Maj. Powers is an Annapolis graduate. He transferred to a combat regiment coming from supply and logistics. Although he expects GySgt Highway to get the platoon into shape, he calls the Gunny an anachronism with no role to play in the modern Marine Corps. In contrast to the martinet, we have 2LT Ring. Ring led his ROTC unit. He wears glasses. He excuses himself from an exercise to make a doctor’s appointment. Nonetheless, he supports GySgt Highway’s actions, speaking up to the Major to take responsibility for the Gunny. He tries hard. His heart is in the right place. He leads the men into combat. 

Under direct fire, the Lieutenant makes a bad choice and his radioman is killed. He is crestfallen. “You won’t make the same mistake again,” the Gunny says. We can believe that; and it might be interesting to write a story about Major Ring in Iraq during the Surge. 

Overall, Heartbreak Ridge charges through a barrage of intellectual bullets. The warrior ethos embraces fatalism. When 2LT Ring is floundering over the death of Private Profile the Gunny tells the Elltee that the man’s time was come and no matter how fast you run when it’s your time there’s nothing you can do about it. But that is not entirely true, or no reason would exist for GySgt Highway’s gung-ho training regimen and relentless pursuit of combat readiness. 

And that speaks to the problem of Maj. Powers. The story line denigrates him for coming from supply. He wants every form filled out, every bullet tallied. He is not the hard-charging Bionic Marine that GySgt Highway is. We get that. It is the story. But the fact remains that while good commanders know tactics and great commanders know strategy, winning commanders know logistics: an army moves on its stomach. But we do not get a lot of hero stories about the 4-shop.

Powers and Ring are college graduates whereas Highway “graduated” from Heartbreak Ridge when he and two others were the only survivors of three days of human wave assaults. (Highway was granted a Medal of Honor. That speaks to other problems with the story line, but let that go for now.) Although GySgt Highway is condemned as an anachronism, we see him learning to understand his ex-wife by reading women’s magazines. It is an emotional problem, not an intellectual one. The Gunny does outfox his wargame opponents by setting a better trap but it is range of the moment, concrete, not something you learn from a book. In point of fact, of course, it exactly one of the many lessons in the books assigned to those who want to become leaders in combat. It is just that we did not sit with young Cpl Highway at the NCO school.

(For more on the differences between the commercial ethos and the guardian ethos see Systems of Survival: A Dialogue on the Moral Foundations of Commerce and Politics by Jane Jacobs, New York: Random House, 1992, which is cited in several other posts in this blog.)

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