Thursday, May 4, 2017

He carried a dense, unhappy expression around the eyes whenever he was expected to think clearly

From Before Their Time: A Memoir Paperback by Robert Kotlowitz. A memoir of his service as an infantryman in World War II.

In the rush of mobilization, militaries often make do with what is available (talent and materials) rather than what is optimal. Kotlowitz has a near perfect description of this common circumstance as manifested at the company level. Too be clear, this is not an Army thing. It is any organization that is trying to create rather than grow. A new business or division is created and you staff quickly with what is available at that moment rather than picking and choosing optimally over time. Instantaneous can get you there quickly but with costs (in lives or money, depending on the circumstance) whereas growing a business takes longer but at less cost of failures along the way.
Captain Michael Antonovich commanded C Company, but only in a manner of speaking, as I liked to think. And I was not the only one with doubts about him. Everyone in the company had them, including the non-commissioned officers. Antonivich had pursued his mandate in standard fashion, joining ROTC while in college, then entering Officer Candidate School after he was drafted, and finally, as he moved up the ladder, finding his present post in the Yankee Division, which needed young officers as much as it needed enlisted men.

Almost everything that Antonovich knew about military operations he had picked up from someone else, mostly in school, sometimes in the field. It was all secondhand, by the numbers, memorized. But secondhand knowledge was a commonplace among Army officers then; the Army was building an officer corps in quick-time and moved accordingly. Naturally, there were anomalies. The fact was that Michael Antonovich had never fired a real weapon beyond target practice. His head was stuffed with standard infantry tactics, out of textbooks; some of those tactics went back to the Civil War. He was strapped and bound by the Army's wartime limitations but not unhappily. It suited Antonovich to try to be what he had observed in others and not to venture too far on his own.

Antonivish was from Columbus, Ohio - not from New England - a former football tackle at one of those vast Midwestern state universities: Nebraska or Kansas, I never got it straight. He looked the part, too, with a massive body, thick legs, and a square-skulled head, that carried a dense, unhappy expression around the eyes whenever he was expected to think clearly. At those moments, his right eye tended to wander slightly, perhaps from the strain. Whatever, this walleyed effect could be disconcerting when C Company came face-to-face with it.

The cruel fact that everybody understood about Michael Antonovich was that he was mentally out-of-synch with his physical capabilities. He could run faster than most of us. He could lift weights that were beyond our reach and outlast almost anyone in C Company on forced marches. This is not inconsiderable for the head of an infantry company, who must always at least appear to excel. But Antonovich wasn't really intelligent enough to be a company commander - not that brilliance is needed for the job, although soundness is. As it was, the captain lacked both. His judgments were too often unreliable, as though he was depending on guesswork, and he indulged, again too often, in the unpleasant discriminatory habit of playing favorites. (I was never one of them nor were any of my pals.) This left some of us nervous in Captain Antonovich's presence. We never knew what to expect of him, and my guess is that he didn't either. Not auspicious, I thought, from the first meeting.

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