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Duty and Debt

By Weeden Nichols
Opinion | August 15, 2010

HAYS, Kan. - A former commander, under whom I served in 1973 and 1974, has become, over the years, a very good friend. The bond is secured by the fact that we shared a friend, now deceased, of "best friend" stature to both of us. Colonel P____ and I correspond frequently. In a recent message to him, I reminisced as to how indebted I am to him for certain actions he took on my behalf prior to my departure from his command in Korea. He replied to the effect that no one is "indebted" to someone for simply doing his duty. He stated, in effect, that his two major interventions on my behalf, thirty-six years ago were warranted and deserved, that it was his duty to intervene, and that not only I, but the Army, benefited.

We are all familiar with those holders of public trust, holders of elective or appointive office, here in Kansas, in other states, or nationally, civilian or uniformed, who use public assets or public actions as "trade goods" for their own enrichment or advantage. In other words, they are using what belongs to the public, and which should have been devoted to the public good, as though it is their own property, to give or withhold according to their own personal advantage. This is the connotation of "indebted" of which Colonel P___ was wary. He was right.

I'm usually careful with words, usually careful to make fine distinctions, but in this case should have chosen my words with greater care. The topic of duty was a matter both Colonel P____ and I recognize as centrally important to honor and principle. Yes, I agreed that others are not indebted to us when we simply do our duty, whether so doing is easy or difficult. Doing our duty is why we are here, and we should not consider, even for a moment, doing otherwise, no matter whether those involved are grateful, resentful, or totally uncaring. (Parenthood is an example that almost anyone can understand, of duty done with no expectation of reward.) Having been more than ready to concede that, I must say, nevertheless, that my life would have taken a very different course, had Colonel P____ not intervened in those ways I (perhaps awkwardly) described in my communication to him. I must add also that I was subordinate to many, many persons during my military career. Only a very, very few met the standard of duty which Colonel P___ cited. Most of those to whom I was subordinate were self-serving. Most simply did not "rock the boat" on any matter of principle or on anyone's behalf if there was no immediate payoff to themselves. Many "used" others to their own advantage. Some were competent. Many were not. Some were kind and decent, but lazy. A very few were actively unkind (as a matter of some obscure and distorted principle, or simply because they were bad people). Some deceived subordinates for operational reasons. Some deceived subordinates simply to manipulate or keep subordinates off balance. Some actively discounted or downplayed the accomplishments of subordinates, then secretly represented to higher command innovations by their subordinates as being of their own design. Many engaged in "empire-building" -- merely expanding the number of persons under their control, under contrived justification, for résumé purposes, or equivalent. My point in my original message to Colonel P___ was that I am aware and appreciative, constantly, of actions he took, relative to me, at critical times. "Indebted" was the wrong word. I have given a great deal of study and thought to ways in which an organization can operate efficiently and effectively in mission terms, while minimizing damage to its members, and maximizing development and commitment. I admit that my interest in such things was largely the result of bad example and bad experience, but good example and good experience played a part also. Colonel P___ was a good example to me, and he provided a memorably favorable experience.


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