False bravado is often confused with true competence. Somewhere in between is something which might be defined as unconscious incompetence, a state in which someone believes that they are competent when in fact they are not. I’ve learned to recognize the differences pretty quickly due to some of the experiences I’ve had and people I’ve encountered.
The platoon-sized unit of Marines I was assigned to put band-aids on was composed mostly of guys who had been in line (infantry) companies during Operation Phantom Fury – the second push through Fallujah in November of 2004 in which 54 Americans were killed and 425 wounded in a 9-day period. Total coalition casualties reached 107 killed and 613 wounded by the end of the operation. The guys in my platoon who had fought in that battle were short-timers with just enough time left on their contracts for part of one deployment, so the Marine Corps sent them back for a second or third trip. Almost all of them were from one battalion – 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines, or 3/5.
Naturally, as a junior Corpsman straight out of the training pipeline, I idolized pretty much every one of my Marines. I really looked up to those who were combat veterans, but anyone who had been in a day longer than I was someone I respected.
One of the Marines was especially boastful – and in a platoon of Marines, that’s saying something. I’ll call him Country. He was especially critical of anyone who hadn’t deployed before or hadn’t been in combat. Among other things, he ridiculed me when I tried to teach things to the platoon. He wasn’t an infantry Marine, but an NBC (nuclear, biological, chemical) specialist. He’d told everyone that as part of 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines during Phantom Fury, he had been put in an infantry squad and seen plenty of fighting, because the battalion had no need for him at headquarters (the other NBC specialist in the platoon didn’t have any such experience, but I liked him more because he wasn’t a dick). He saw himself as a gunfighter, for lack of a better term.
Another of the Marines – Kirsch – was comparatively quiet. He’d been in a line company with some of the other 3/5 Marines, but had told me that he hadn’t seen much fighting. He was a happy-go-lucky guy that I became friends with. We butted heads from time to time, but got along pretty well overall. Considering that he was the turret gunner in my Humvee, that was a good thing. On base or when we had downtime while visiting outposts, OPs and FOBs, he joked around a lot. In fact, I think it’s fair to say that he was kind of scatterbrained (sorry dude).
But in the turret, on roads where IED attacks occurred daily, his behavior changed as if a switch had been flipped. I wasn’t cognizant of it at the time, but I felt safe largely due to his presence in the turret. He knew what to look for and he looked for it. He knew how to use his M4 carbine, M9 pistol, and the mounted M2 heavy machine gun. He knew how to work as part of a team, how to take orders, when to take charge. He knew how to use the radio, how to drive the humvee, how to change an IED-shredded tire or attach tow straps to a disabled vehicle. He listened when I taught medical classes, and was ready to help me do my job if necessary.
I mention this incident only because of its relevance to the topic and the behavior of these two Marines. Our unit was at the main administrative area for the city of Fallujah when a number of crew served weapons and rifles opened up on some of the Marines on post. I don’t exactly recall what happened, but I was closest of anyone to the trucks and the quickest to react, so I ended up being first in a turret. Kirsch was close behind me. The engagement was pretty short and I couldn’t positively identify where the shots were coming from. I wasn’t about to open up with a .50 caliber machine gun on an apartment building occupied by civilians, so I did not fire the weapon. When I looked around afterwards, I’m pretty sure I saw Country coming out of the main building where we had all been at the beginning. In contrast, Kirsch was right there with me, along with our driver.
A short time later, a Marine from 3/1 moved into a hooch across from one used by some members of my platoon. Conversation between him and the 3/5 Marines naturally moved to the one Marine we had from 3/1 – Country. To our initial surprise, he said that Country had never been part of an infantry squad during Phantom Fury – that he had spent the entire engagement at battalion headquarters. Naturally, a sort of come-to-Jesus moment occurred shortly thereafter for Country. It was handled quietly by the NCOs, but his behavior changed dramatically after that day.
True competence can only be demonstrated under true pressure. Some talk endlessly about how good they are, how much skill and experience they have, how learning new things isn’t important – but when it comes down to it, they fail to live up to their bluster in the real world. Country moved on to another (private) environment where men carry guns, and I wonder if he learned his lesson permanently, or if he kept telling tall tales. The takeaway for me was a life lesson on how to recognize hot air for what it is.