The Young Officer and Staff Duties

By Michael M. O'Leary, Captain, The RCR

Time, time, and the saving of it, should be the soul of every order and instruction, of every report and of every message. - J.F.C. Fuller, 1943

The line officer despises the lowly "staff officer," and rues the day he might become one himself. But every officer, regardless of rank, position, or responsibilities requires the fundamental skills on which the capable staff officer depends. These skills are best acquired when opportunity presents at the most junior levels, for they are much more difficult to master (or fake) if early years of commissioned rank are spent avoiding putting pen to paper, for this, when dealing with the bureaucracy on behalf of one's troops, is where the rubber meets the road.

Even the most enthusiastic platoon commander, between assaulting enemy objectives and leading troops to hell and back, must be ready to write a brief, comprehensive and clear memorandum ensuring one of those troops for which he is responsible receives an entitled benefit or is identified for an opportunity. Whether writing Performance Evaluation Reports, letters of recommendation, Summary Investigations, or requests for adventure training funds, young officers are never far from occasions requiring the development of their personal military writing skills. As painful as it may seem at the time, each time a Company 2IC, OC or Adjutant, bleeds red ink over a carefully crafted memo it should be seen not as a condemnation of effort, but as a chance to refine one's abilities. No less important than indications of MPI and individual hits on a rifle range are to an infantry rifleman.

Officers who write well spend less time fighting the bureaucracy and more time training with resources they managed to convince the staff to provide them. Those who see staff duties as a dead or unneeded art spend a lot of time running in circles and finding things unobtainable when the good old boy net fails them. Easy to set the blame on those others when one's own staffwork is non-existent, even if it means you've set aside one's own commitment to doing the best for the troops.

In this age of e-mail and instantaneous passage of information and queries, it is hard to develop a concrete understanding that good staff duties are as important as ever. Let me set forth one example:

In the days of hand-written drafts, and clerk-typed correspondence, a staff officer might take a day or two to mull over the perfect wording for a set of four or five questions to another unit or headquarters. Passing this to a clerk, it might be a day or two before the typed version of the draft was returned. By then, the staff officer had time to consider the issue, and then to view the content, structure and tone of the letter with fresh eyes. Amendments might be in order, to either remove or insert points, or even to completely alter the tone or format of the letter. Extra work for the clerk perhaps, but it did ensure that the final product was as good as the staff officer could produce - in this case the staff officer's contribution was the intellectual effort to create and revise the document, the clerk's was to prepare it in the requested format.

With external correspondence, most units had a very limited number of appointments who could sign letters leaving the unit lines. And this limitation in itself ensured due focus on the preparation of correspondence because senior eyes would see the product before it was signed and dispatched.

That letter was then sealed in an envelope and mailed. A week, or so, in transit, time for the recipient to absorb its content, a week or so to staff a response. Perhaps a month might go by before the sender bothered to call looking for confirmation that a response was on its way (excepting of course emergency requests or imposed deadlines).

Contrast this to today's methods. The staff officer sitting at his desk, able to immediately dispatch a question by e-mail to any other staff or line officer with instantaneous delivery. Now the officer, on conjuring his first (of the four or so) questions, sends an e-mail to his lateral counterpart. Perhaps he adds an info addressee or two to ensure they are aware of the request. Later he derives his second question, and another e-mail follows in the wake of the first. Shortly, there's another. The next day, sober second thought wants to revise or combine questions already sent, perhaps already answered or rejected for the very reason an amendment is desired. Responses may have their own alternate info addressees. It's not hard to imagine the information morass that can quickly be created by a too hasty approach in using available technology with what is literally a lower degree of applied intellectual effort than the pace the predecessor staff process allowed.

The point here is not so much the imbalance between effective execution and advancing technology, but in the loss of focus on the importance of credible staff processes and good staff work. Imagine the difficulty in sorting out the ensuing problems if this contrived information morass is dealing with a pay or leave problem for one of your soldiers, or an exercise ration plan. Use the technology to streamline delivery and development processes, don't permit it's sense of immediacy to overrule common sense deliberation in the creation of staff work.

Being a good staff officer, either as a primary function (like the Adjutant), or in support of a line job (like a platoon commander submitting training requests), doesn't have to mean you have to like it. Effective staff officers seldom have to do things twice, or spend time sorting out their own paperwork messes. They get to spend more time with their troops, or working on other staff projects that benefit their units, because the routine administration was done right the first time. Clear staff writing that achieves a desired effect or response is as important to the fighting efficiency of a unit as skill at arms. It ensures beans and bullets are where they need to be in the right quantities, that troops have minimal lost training time for administrative reasons and that intentions and goals are well defined in support of the training requirement.

The education of officers has never been more highly proclaimed as an essential requirement for commanders. This requirement, however, to be useful, must also be expressed in ways that support and forward the intellectual development of the army as a whole. It is one thing for an officer to continue his own intellectual development through personal study, but the effects of this are limited if he is unable to concisely express the synthesis of original thought in military matters to his peers, subordinates, and the Army as a whole. The mechanism by which this must be done is the written word. Expansion of the body of knowledge particular to the direction of doctrine, process and technology in use by our Army can only be achieved by personnel who are able to express these new ideas in a form readily digestible by others. Despite their modern appeal as methods to communicate with the masses, sound bites, vertiginous PowerPoint presentations or single screen web pages with dancing penguins are no way to further the sharing of knowledge. The officer who effectively develops his staff skills will also be able to craft credible position papers on any matter of technology or process within his expertise.

There's no such thing as a "natural" staff officer. The skills to write well must be learned, though some may pick it up sooner than others, there is no substitute for practice, even when this requires subjecting one's work to the editing depredations of a cranky old Adjutant. Like many painful training experiences, this is best experienced while young; unlike others, the scars are usually invisible and do not support good Happy Hour "war stories."