Was the point on ‘On Point’ about ‘point’ off-point?

You know how you smoke out a sniper? You send a guy out in the open and you see if he gets shot. They thought that one up at West Point.

— “The Big Red One

This morning, driving back toward downtown from an event in Lexington, I was listening to an experienced U.S. diplomat —Chas Freeman — pontificate at length on U.S. foreign policy.

Which is all screwed up, according to him.

Now I’m perfectly satisfied to admit that Mr. Freeman probably has more foreign affairs knowledge in his left little finger than I do, but after awhile, I got a little sick of listening to his deep, low, world-weary voice explaining to Tom Ashbrook and the rest of us how stupid everyone involved in U.S. foreign policy, except him of course, has been for the last couple of decades. Not in exactly those words, but that seemed the upshot of the parts that I heard.

Not that he didn’t say some things that make sense. When he mentioned how irrelevant we have become in South America, our own Monroe-Doctrine backyard, he was sounding the theme of one of the first editorials I wrote when I joined The State‘s editorial board in the early ’90s. But then, having spent part of my youth down there, I’ve thought this country has given Latin America short shrift since I was about 9 years old.

He also made the case, as everyone does, that there’s something a bit screwy about awarding our biggest ambassadorial posts according to a political spoils system — a point that probably would have greater weight had he not been a career foreign service guy himself, but that doesn’t mean the complaint should be dismissed.

But in making that case, he said something that sounded backwards to me. I don’t have the exact wording (not being able to find either a transcript or the audio yet from this morning’s show), but it went something like this… To stress how dumb it is for top ambassadorial posts to go to presidents’ big campaign donors, he asked whether, in a military situation, you’d put your least experienced soldier up on the point?

And I thought, well, yeah… I think that’s exactly what they do in the Army. Or used to. Maybe it’s a discredited doctrine, but I seem to recall having been told that new replacements tend to be sent up to point as a matter of policy, rather than risk someone more valuable to the squad in that exposed position. Sure, if your enemy knows what he’s about, he’s going to let the point man pass and open fire on the main body, but in case your enemy is also inexperienced and shoots at the first thing he sees, why make it someone valuable?

Now, this goes firmly into the category of stuff I think I know, and never having served in the infantry (or the Navy or the Air Force, or anything beyond Tenderfoot Boy Scout), there’s a chance that Chas Freeman knows more about this than I do, too. Although, near as I can tell from his bio, he was never a grunt, either.

But if I’m right, I’m glad to have caught the owner of that supercilious voice out on something.

So, can any former (or current) soldiers or marines out there help me out on this one?

7 thoughts on “Was the point on ‘On Point’ about ‘point’ off-point?

  1. Mark Stewart

    Being either, I would point out that our ambassador posts that actually require diplomacy from that person go to State Dept. employees. The other ones, whether some sleepy little tropical island or France, who cares really whether they are political appointees (and people who will tend to do exactly as the President directs whenever they are asked to speak up)? Except, of course, a career diplomat who finds all the easy, swank spots closed to him?

  2. Kathryn Fenner

    Plum ambassadorial posts are in close to zero risk places and would seem to require exactly the skill set possessed by the gazillion dollar a plate set, but dinging Freeman’s argument because of who Freeman is/was is ad hominem

  3. Brad

    OK, so it appears that I’m both right and wrong. Or perhaps I should say, both wrong and right.

    I just called Bud Ferillo, who was a squad leader in Vietnam (and, as it turns out, is currently working on a book about his combat experiences).

    When I asked whether it was accepted doctrine to send a new replacement or otherwise inexperienced guy up onto point, he said, “NO.”

    And his reasons why made perfect sense.

    He said that as dangerous as the job was, it “required some seasoning.” You wanted a guy up there who could recognize signs — broken brush, bloodstains, smells — and know what to do.

    At the same time… generally speaking, you don’t put your most valuable man on point, either. Bud said he occasionally took a turn up there himself, just for the sake of morale (it’s important to rotate the position, because it’s easy to get burned out and suffer a diminution of alertness) — but he wasn’t really supposed to, as a matter of doctrine.

    So there you have it.

  4. Brad

    Yep, I got that one wrong. On accounta they called you, and not me.

    But only half-wrong. You still don’t send the MOST valuable man you have (i.e., your squad leader) up on point, generally speaking…

    When I talked to Bud yesterday, he got to reminiscing about the craziest SOB in his outfit, whom he had to bust a couple of times — both times for abusing enemy corpses (cut the ears off one to send to his girlfriend, set off some C4 on another one).

    But when the stuff started flying, he was a fighting wonder, worth any three other soldiers, totally fearless. There are times when such men come in handy.

  5. Silence

    Bud Ferillo is correct, if you put the FNG on point he’ll get the entire squad ambushed. If you want to get into doctrine…here’s what I learned when I was at Quantico:

    The “Fire Team” is built around an automatic rifle (machine gun). You also have an assistant automatic rifleman/grenadier, a fire team leader (usually E-4) and a rifleman. The rifleman is the pointman/scout. The machine gun lays down a suppressing fire while the other members of the team fire and maneuver. The average combat lifespan for the rifleman is longer than it is for the automatic rifleman….who becomes the biggest target.

    Usually, 2 or 3 fire teams make up a squad, led by an E-5 or E-6.
    3-4 squads make up a platoon, usually led by an Lt, supported by an NCO.
    3-4 platoons make up a company, led by a senior Lt or Captain, possibly a Major supported by a
    company first sergeant.
    And so on.

    The reason for the 3’s or 4’s is for command and control while under fire in combat. Basically, one person can effectively supervise 3 other people in such a situation, so the fire team leader would have 3 people reporting to him directly, the squad leader would have 3 people reporting to him directly, the platoon leader would have 3-4 people reporting to him directly and the company officer would have 3-4 people reporting to him directly.

    Companies form into battalions, headed by an O-5 or O-6 and then group into brigades,or possibly into the more amorphous “regiment”. A brigade is headed by the aptly named Brigadier, which is a 1 star general officer.
    Brigades form Divisions, which in turn group into a Corps or into an Army if you have enough of ’em.

    Back to ambassadors, I always heard that the plum assignments went to political allies, who of course are always supported by career foreign service officers. Any embassy that might actually need a skilled diplomat would actually get a career FSO, not a wealthy donor.

  6. Burl Burlingame

    When I went through jungle-warfare training at Schofield Barracks after being drafted inn 1973, there was a big deal about being the point man. The training emphasized good vision and situational awareness and flexibility. You needed to be able to spot the thin wires of booby traps and the camouflaged punji stake boxes, as well as read signs — I likened it to being an Indian scout for the cavalry.

    I distinctly remember one regular Army enlistee who said his goal was being an infantry point man. I asked why, and he said his two brothers were point men in Vietnam. I asked how they were doing, and he said they were both dead.

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