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The Sobel Problem: Band of Brothers "Curahee"

(To read the rest of our series on Band of Brothers, please click here.)

I’ll open up with an admission: when we started researching this series on Band of Brothers, Michael C and I re-watched every episode except for one, the pilot episode “Curahee”. We’ve just seen it too many goddamn times. Since Michael C and I have the episode memorized, I have to open up with a criticism of Band of Brothers:

I hate Sobel. (Not the man, but the character.) And not for the reasons the filmmakers/screenwriters wanted me to hate him.
Both an incompetent ass and woefully out of his league regarding this whole military business, Sobel represents an awful stereotype of officers in the US military presented way too often in books, movies and TV shows:

They’re idiots.

Sobel gets lost, alienates his men, and then loses his command. The viewer hates him, and rightfully so, based on how the series presents him. But Sobel is just one example in a pop culture sea of poorly represented officers in film, books and television:

- In Platoon, a war film I adore, 2nd Lieutenant Wolfe acts like a pathetic puppy trying to impress his men. His sergeants run his platoon, while he just watches and tries to ingratiate himself with the platoon.

- In Aliens--again, another film I adore--Lieutenant Gorman sits pathetically in his M577 with no idea what to do until the NCOs and a civilian (a civilian!) take control. Thank god Corporal Hicks survived.

- In Band of Brothers, Sobel is just one example of many bad officers. Later in the series, Lieutenant Norman Dike fails at command, because, as Sergeant Lipton narrates, “[he] wasn't a bad leader because he made bad decisions. He was a bad leader because he made no decisions.”

- In war memoirs, as I wrote about here, I read four books with incompetent officers in them. (I challenged at least some of those accounts.)

- On this humor site, the joke headline, “Army 2LT Leads Platoon Five Kilometers Without Getting Lost, Awarded Medal” brings the point home.

- In the documentary Restrepo; the platoon’s three “PLs” (all of whom Michael knew; all of whom excelled in their careers) barely appear in the film.

- In real life, the standard response to any young cadet who accidentally calls a sergeant “Sir” is “I’m no sir. I work for living.”

And finally, TVtropes.org has a whole page dedicated to this archetype: The Neidermeyer, named after the ROTC cadet from Animal House. Our society believes that (most) officers are soft college kids who can’t lead.

Sure, there are some good officers in Hollywood too. TVtropes.org call this the “A Father to his Men” trope. Band of Brothers celebrates Lieutenant Winters, Captain Spiers and Lieutenant “Buck” Compton. But for every competent CO, there are ten heroic Joes. Every enlisted man in the series who survives for more than one episode fights heroically. Only officers (or Germans) become antagonists.

Except, in reality, this isn’t the case. Officers aren’t incompetent. Officers can lead, can fight and can win battles. But I’ll go farther, and this is where I will write something extremely controversial:

Officers aren’t just equal to enlisted men. They’re better. By every measure, the average officer is superior to the average enlisted man.

You may be freaking out right now that I could write something so anathema to American values, but the data is on my side. Look at high school GPA, marital stability, athletic prowess, criminal records, financial stability, performance on PT tests or any other test; officers score higher than enlisted men. I guarantee if you ran a study, using any metric, the officers would win in every category. They smoke less, drink less, run faster, shoot straighter and generally live life better.

On an anecdotal level, this applied, almost universally, to every officer I met. If I had to run a war game, and I could pick any service member I wanted, I would pick all officers. (The one exception may be senior, senior NCOs, but they hardly represent the average enlisted man.)

This isn’t a pretty or nice thing to say. It goes against the anti-elitist, pro-working class ideal that defines America. We love our troops, but we love our enlisted soldiers most of all.

I think the point stands, though. Modern American culture stereotypes officers as incompetent, out-of-their-league college kids when, in reality, this just isn’t the case. (Ironically, the “going to college” part of the equation probably explains why officers excel in every facet of life compared to enlisted men.) If you asked society who was a better soldier, the list would go: Sergeants, enlisted men, then lieutenants, captains, colonels, majors, with generals coming in last.

As Winters tells Sobel when he fails to salute him in the final Band of Brothers episode “Points”, “You salute the rank, not the man.” That’s what our society does. We look down on officers as men, but salute their rank and service.

We should salute the men as well.

thirteen comments

Yes, officers are mostly (mostly) much smarter, better educated, fitter etc than enlisted men of the same experience level, hence being officers. But there’s a lot of truth to the hapless lieutenant trope, mostly because a dumb digger (I’m Australian) just has to haul his kit around, patrol his arcs, and keep his mouth shut until he’s got a few years on. Lieutenants come straight out of training and are constantly on the spot, highly visible, leading a platoon containing at least one and up to half a dozen enlistees who are considerably more experienced than he (or she). By the time they’re a captain most officers are experts and professionals, but you can forgive us for being irritated with having them lead us into combat while we get them there.

This may be one of our most controversial posts we’ve written. And I understand why, because it can be simplified and misconstrued. Like my article, “I didn’t deserve my combat pay”, this post really isn’t trying to denigrate enlisted men, it is trying to raise up the perception of officers to that of enlisted men. In media, it is very hard to compare two objects and not come across as “hating one” at the expense of the other. For instance, I love enlisted soldiers and NCOs, but I hate the reputation (undeserved in my opinion) of lieutenants.

So we spent a ton of time on the language of this post, and I still wish we had a better clearer way to say, we don’t hate enlisted. We love them. But we hate “officer hatred”, especially when our officers (and my experience is with the army) do so well.

As to Andrew’s comment, it is one of the most nuanced explanations of why lieutenant hatred happens. So thanks Andrew, I think the spotlight thing goes along way to explaining why a young PL’s time is so hard.

Well this was certainly a thought-provoking post. I spent 4 years as a medic in a light infantry unit, so I’m very much familiar with the officers vs. enlisted argument. Since I’m planning to re-enter the Army as a PA once my schooling is complete(in two years), I’ll eventually have the perspective from both the officer and enlisted sides. With that said, I think you should find a more nuanced way to express your argument than simply saying officers are “better than” or “superior” to enlisted and NCOs. This sort of language seems to imply moral superiority rather than simply acknowledging higher performance. The fact is that our officers are only “better” than enlisted swine because there are more filters through which they must pass, and more resources have been committed to their education and professional development.

I didn’t call enlisted men swine. That’s not a fair thing to write.

And you made the point I did. Officers have more training and more hoops to jump through, which begs te question:

Why doesn’t Hollywood portray officers this way?

You’re right, it’s not fair. It was meant to be tongue-in-cheek comment from a former E4, but it wasn’t expressed very well. I think the negative portrayal in Hollywood comes directly from the fears of enlisted men and NCOs as documented in various war memoirs. Soldiers fear losing experienced, trusted commanders and platoon leaders at seemingly arbitrary times, such as in the middle of a deployment. This causes a great deal of anxiety and leads the officer corps to be unfairly compared to the NCO corps, which is seen as providing stability to the unit. In essence, the distrust of the officer corps by the enlisted members is directly due to the “churn” which is enforced by the personnel system.

Whether, or to what degree, or by whatever measure, officers are “better” than enlisted seems like a completely pointless issue. Aside from it being immeasurable, due to arbitrary metrics that will hopelessly be skewed by emotion and bias, it misses the point and distracts us from the real question that we should be reflecting upon. That question is: is the stereotypical 2LT representative in any way of the mean or modal 2LT?

I doubt any of us have data to quantify personality and attributes of a specific rank of officer in one branch of one country’s armed forces, in one era. We have only anecdotal information.

I met very few mediocre officers. In fact, I met 2 out of around 25 to 30 Platoon Leaders that I knew in the 5 years that I was an active duty Army Infantry Officer. The vast majority were, simply put, studs. They led platoons for 6 to 12 months at a time, through continuous combat operations in Baghdad, Samarra, and elsewhere. No showers, no toilets, no days off, no hot food, no running water, no internet cafe, no MWR – just day after day of leading exhausted 18- and 19-year-olds into city streets without enough sleep, without enough resources, without enough manpower, and without enough intel, but somehow managing to get their missions accomplished lawfully, ethically, and safely enough to bring their men home alive.

What really grilled my ass was the occasional trip that I would make to a FOB, where I would often hear some E9 who had deployed to an air conditioned office for 12 months, making comments about cherry LTs and dumb LT mistakes. The only “dumb mistakes” any of our LTs made were not understanding that dirty uniforms were frowned upon, and reflective belts required, at the garrison wonderlands that our senior leaders constructed while the rest of us were fighting a war.

That, in my view, is one of the interesting things about OIF/OEF. What stereotype has emerged from these conflicts? It’s not the idiot LT. It’s the E9 who is obsessed with reflective belts. It’s the GO and field grade officers who obsess over PowerPoint slides. It is the junior officer who was both happy and successful leading platoons and companies for year-long deployments, punching our enemy in the balls (figuratively), and then deciding to ETS because he doesn’t want to spend years as a staff officer, making PowerPoint slides for the field grades and GO’s.

An incompetent junior officer sticks out like a flashing beacon. A competent junior officer is less of an attractant because he or she is busy learning their craft — often from their NCOs or petty officers. A good NCO/petty officer knows his or her job is to help young officers master their profession and they take that job seriously.

I was a superior enlisted soldier and NCO in an MI MOS with service in a range of environments from hardcore tactical to echelons above corps. I don’t think that the “better man” evaluation really applied to that line of work and it doesn’t totally jibe with my experiences. The officers in my MOS were supposed to be able to do the same work as enlisted, but few had the skillset or aptitude so they tended to specialize in management, which is an important task in and of itself, and I wouldn’t sell that short. Roughly 33 of what officers do, while the bottom third of officers tended to be both lousy at the technical side of the job and poor managers, while their leadership position made their lack of leadership / poor character stick out like a sore thumb. They were as bad as the worst enlisted, it’s just that their position made them much more dangerous than a lower enlisted chucklehead. On the pure soldiering side, the officers generally spanned the full range of the bell curve. With the exception of one former SF ODA officer who was the first field grade officer in my chain in one assignment, the top PT’ers in all my units were a cluster of enlisted, though the officers were always good runners. The first sergeants I answered to, with one exception, were superlative soldiers and managers and could have handled company command or Bn XO/S-3 level work. Better men, objectively? Not really. Just different. Oddly enough the officers had a lower ASVAB GT requirement for much of the time I was in so perhaps that has something to do with my impressions, the enlisted weren’t your average Joes.

I also worked with a lot of field grade officers and a couple flags. The flags were superlative in one way or another, they all had a superpower or two, and few deficiencies. The field grade officers were definitely a mixed bag – in MI there were a lot of utterly stellar majors, and it was the general perception that most of the really good ones would never go past LTC because they were too mission-oriented and didn’t punch enough career tickets, though one really good major of my acquaintance made it to flag rank. There weren’t as many stellar LTCs and COLs for some reason. Those I serviced – combat arms officers I worked with, also tended to be really strong all around soldiers with the really weak ones sorted out by the second year as a 1LT, though the more elite the unit, the smaller the gap between the line soldier and the officer. Among the SOCOM folks I sometimes worked with, most of those officers were particularly special people, but then their tabbed enlisted were particularly special too. You’d get a stud officer and be amazed by his abilities, then find out the two E-5s on the team both had >4 languages each and the E-6 had an elite triathlon win under his belt.

Sorry about the jeremiad but I figured with enough anecdotes it would add up to anecdata. My point being that I wouldn’t call either class superior or inferior. It depends on what the officer & particular enlisted in a given class are selected for. In some fields, the officers probably are the better men. In others, it’s likely a tossup, with officers normally having a different skill set and aptitudes from talented enlisted that they lead. Sometimes, you just don’t know how people will turn out either. Those young enlisted men aren’t quite fully formed; they won’t come into their own until they are a bit older, so the thoughts of superiority are generally the thoughts of a 27 year-old man evaluating a 20 year old. There is a big difference. As for me… I’m a successful lawyer with a high end practice and a degree from a top tier law school. I keep in touch with my last platoon leader – he’s a general now.

If I recall correctly, one of Sobel’s main problems is that he did not listen to those (in this case NCOs) around him. The “cherry” LT is exactly that. Nothing replaces experience. That and he was just a straight up ass. Chances where that if he had gone in to battle with his men he wouldn’t have made it off the drop zone. He failed to realize that you can be a strong leader and maintain standards but not alienate his troops.

That being said, the criteria that you use to compare Officers and Enlisted doesn’t work for me. The Officers that fail in those categories are usually not Platoon Leaders but are put away in an S shop some where. The Enlisted Soldier usually has no place to be put and so he stays in the platoon and thus is more visible.

I’d be more willing to accept the argument that officers are superior based on “high school GPA, marital stability, athletic prowess, criminal records, financial stability, performance on PT tests or any other test” if wars, battles, firefights were fought under testing conditions.

One thing you don’t consider is that enlisted personnel often have different priorities than officers. Officers have a mission to accomplish; grunts are generally more interested in not getting shot. They’ll do the mission and they’ll sacrifice themselves, but don’t expect them to like it or respect the people who are making decisions without getting shot at.

The incompetent officer may be an inaccurate literary and cinematic trope (although I’m not willing to concede that), but it feels real to anybody who’s ever worn stripes.

Two points:

First, the discussion on this comment thread has been amazingly respectful and insightful. As opposed to Twitter, where disagreement is usually shorthanded as “this is dumb”, most of the people who dissent on the comments have brought cogent arguments and new ideas to the debate. I appreciate everyone who took the time.

Second, I see another phenomena at work here. It might not be that people hate lieutenants because LTs suck, but because they hate bosses. And all bosses suck. And it is much harder to lead people then be led by people. I would add that LTs do have to learn on the job—like any boss—often in the most difficult circumstances imaginable (like I did). However, I do believe that LTs are probably the most adaptable and fastest learning group on the planet. So yeah, LTs make mistakes, but they make 90% of those mistakes in the first 1-3 months, then before admirably.

Which brings me back to the core point: LTs do not deserve the hatred and enmity and derision of Hollywood because they have to learn an incredibly hard job on the fly.

We will have a follow up post addressing all of the comment we’ve received on the comments here and on twitter. Maybe not all of them, but a lot of them.

Although I agree with Mike C I am more than bias on this topic. When I discharged in 2008 I discharged as a Captain in the US Army Infantry. However, in 1998 I enlisted as an Artilleryman.

In the ten plus years I spent within the military ranks I noticed a level of competence that could baffle the mind coming from both areas. I will agree that officers typically fair better than their enlisted and NCO counterparts. While a cadet at west Point my classmates and I would snicker whenever we saw a senior NCO fumble with his brand new TI-89 (its a calculator). The one mantra that stuck with me all these years was a bumper sticker stuck to the back of my enlisted friends car. It was a direct quote from Adolph Hitler himself, which read, “The enlistedman is sly, and cunning, and not to be trusted.” Adolph was a corporal in WWI.

The problem I have with The Sobel Problem is members from Easy Company will all swear on their lives that the fighting spirit of Easy Company was forged by the mettle of Captain Herbert Sobel. Think of how many lives were saved due to the readiness of Easy Company.

The problem with men like Sobel is a matter of pride. All great leaders must learn to develop subordinates, so that leaders can rely on subordinates. Leaders at every level must learn to delegate authority and get the very best out of their men. For the most part, Sobel accomplished those criteria and received immense praise by his superiors. Sobel arrogance got the best of him, and his soldiers called him on it. And he wasn’t relieved, he was promoted. His Regimental Commander decided that his ability to inspire soldiers was better suited for the war effort and he was given command of a non-combat unit. Had Sobel stayed he very well would have died in the invasion, as Winter’s commander’s plane was shot down. That’s how Winter’s got command on D-Day.