While I was a light infantry platoon leader in Germany with the US Army, I got a chance to take a US platoon (30-40 men) through a 3-week course at the Centre d'Entrainement Commando on the French - German border. Although the main camp was located on the German side of the border, on the edge of the Black Forest, the training (as the name suggests) was run by the French. My platoon was attached to a French combat engineer company that was rotating through the course as part of its annual training calendar.
The US platoon I led was a composite one - half picked from across my own company and half from a US combat engineer unit from the same NATO brigade. The senior NCO was from neither of these units, as his main job was translating within the Protocol Office of the international headquarters in Heidelberg. He was there to help us communicate with our French comrades, in case my 6 years of French classes let me down. If this all sounds a bit complex, then you are getting the picture.
The idea of the course was to put small units and their individual members through stressful physical and psychological tests to help them bond and work better in the future. This objective was only partly applicable to us, because my bastard platoon would disband, with members heading back to their respective permanent units, as soon as the course finished. For us, it was more a chance to do some tough training and improve cross-national relations and understanding at a grass-roots level. The real pressure was to make sure that we did well in the course so as not to let our country down!
The first task was a timed five-mile road march, which the entire unit had to complete within a given time period. Failure meant being sent home from the course in ignominy. About half-way through, it became obvious that one of the NCOs from the engineer unit was having a very difficult time. He began lagging the rest of the unit. Coaxing, cheering, shouting and threatening all failed to get him to pick up the pace. His body was simply not up to it. In a rare moment of Rambo machismo, I took the pack from his back and strapped it onto my chest. I had been training a lot, so carrying two didn't kill me (although it did take the starch out of me!). He was able to catch up during the final mile, and the unit made it into the course - but not by much. We had to plan carefully how to help that guy through each of the tough events that remained before us. (He worked hard and did fine!)
I remember that much of the training had to do with conquering fear of heights or enclosed spaces (e.g. tunnels). Several of my men had these fears in spades, so it took a fair bit of psychology to figure out which buttons to push to get them through some things. The good thing was that it didn't leave time for me to worry much about the heights and tunnels, which might well have frightened me considerably if I'd had more time to take notice of them.
The hardest bit came when a severe claustrophobic had to crawl through a long sewer-like tunnel to gain access for the rest of the group into a depot we were meant to be raiding. He was a squad leader - in charge of 9 men. He was facing his worst nightmare, but he couldn't back down. If he did, all of his men would see it. That would spell the end to his days as a leader in that unit. We had a five minute heart-to-heart at the mouth of that tunnel, and he did it. He came out the other end crying and trembling, but no one cared about that. He had faced his fear, so he maintained (and amplified) the right to demand that his men do the same if and when the time came. I've rarely been more proud of anyone than I was of him that night.
The officers and NCOs had meals in a special mess. The breakfasts introduced me to a great French military tradition. When a person entered the mess, he shook the hand of each person already eating and said good morning. Each incumbent rose to shake the newcomer's hand as he approached. What a friendly way to start the day.
I became quite good mates with the second-in-charge of the French engineer company. My halting French combined with his decent English meant that we could communicate just about anything we wanted to one another. He was from Alsace, the French region just a few miles away, so he spoke good German as well. He admitted that he had not been impressed by our US unit in the early days, but that he was amazed how quickly we came together as a unit and managed to get through everything even though we had weaknesses as individuals.
One of my soldiers put his boots by the fire after we reached a rest camp on part of a long mission. We all grabbed a few hours sleep before moving on at sunlight. Unfortunately, the poor guy's boots had melted by the time he went to put them back on. Luckily, he had a second pair.
Each day we also had training in hand-to-hand combat. The (very tough) instructor latched onto one of our guys as his guinea pig for demonstrating submission holds. He stated proudly that one could make someone do almost anything by applying the right sort of pressure to a painful area. Upon wrenching my guy's wrist in an ugly way, he demanded the poor soldier take a bite of grass. I was on the verge of an international incident, as I felt I might have to intervene on this guy's behalf. The instructor gave me a look as if to say, 'Trust me on this one.' My soldier held tough for one excruciating minute then gave in. The instructor immediately let him up, offered him hearty congratulations for holding out so long, said he'd been made to do the same thing in earlier days and invited him to dine in the instructor's mess. Wheeow, glad that one ended okay.
Another of the instructors was new to the course and pretty junior as a soldier, but he was of southeast asian heritage and obviously extremely well schooled in the martial arts. I, for my sins, was asked to hold a small twig between my teeth while he did a reeling 360 degree flying kick. He flicked it from my mouth without leaving a scratch. We found out two weeks after returning to our base that the course had been hit by a bout of bacterial meningitis and that he had died from it. We must have made it out just in time.
The final exercise involved a long covert, foot movement through the Black Forest, with a raid at the end. These French engineers specialised in path-finding - laying out a route for others to follow, so they took the lead through most of it. Eventually, time came for us to forge the path. A number of my soldiers were pretty bushed by then, so we had to devise a strategy on the fly to split my unit into two parts. I would take the 'fast' group and mark the trail for the rest, while the rest of the unit moved at a more even pace.
My 'leadership' worked fine in getting the fast group through, but then it gave way somewhat to my more powerful 'sleepiness'. Despite trying to stay up and make sure that my second echelon made it in safely, I drifted off into un-leader-like sleep. My excellent second-in-command brought in the trailing group good as gold. The watch woke me, and we all celebrated completing the course successfully (and getting some really cool badges for our uniforms).
Still, drifting off seemed one of those things that MacArthur or Eisenhower (or my own best squad leaders) would not have done. It's one of the many small examples in which my weakness broke the surface into the light of day. I didn't have the resoluteness, the physical selflessness, to be a real leader in the Army. I've nothing but respect for those who do.
I'm curious. I like looking beneath and behind the obvious, also looking for what is between me and the obvious, obscuring or distorting my view.