The Lieutenant Don't Know: An Interview With Author Jeff Clement, USMC


An Interview with Author Jeff Clement, USMC

Too often when we come to Veterans Day, the best we do in observance is to think warmly of The Greatest Generation, and to be sure to say “thank you for your service” to the first person we pass in uniform. But what if there’s more for us on this day, and what if it has implications for our daily lives?

We are, no doubt, well meaning, and truly thankful: there is perhaps no image more inspiring than that of men storming the beaches of Normandy. And yet somehow we’ve let the inspiration stay tucked away in old photographs instead of bringing their courage and determination into our daily lives, into vibrant full color.

This Veterans Day, we need to see beyond the insecurity that drives us to offer a well-meaning thanks, and realize that while not all of us are called to deploy to the Middle East or elsewhere, we are all called to live in a way worthy of the service for which we say thanks. The hyper-partisanship of Congress, the fear-based talking points, and the shallow debate that plagues our political culture just don’t merit the sacrifices of human lives in Iraq or Afghanistan – and much less so the shores of Northern France. We need a deeper understanding of freedom.

This Veterans Day, we need to realize that the excellence, the leadership, and the courage of those who serve are all traits we can and should connect to our daily lives.

This Veterans Day, we need to realize that the service for which we are thankful isn’t solely reserved for those who were living on the original Armistice Day in 1918, or the Second World War. We all witnessed an attack on our country in 2001; it is our brothers and sisters who responded, doing so when at times our response seemed disconnected—and perhaps was—from the threats we fear.

So today, we are sharing an interview with Jeff Clement, author of The Lieutenant Don’t Know: One Marine’s Story of Warfare and Combat Logistics in Afghanistan. It’s a book everyone should read, because in it we get a glimpse of daily life for Marines fighting America’s longest war. For anyone who has had family members or friends deploy, The Lieutenant Don’t Know offers a firsthand account of the day-to-day from one Marine’s perspective. By reading it, we will have a fuller understanding of the service we remember today, and if in reading it we begin to connect our lives to the pursuit of a deeper freedom, our nation will be that much more strong, and that much more free.

-Caleb Paxton, LIBERATUS Founder


First off, thanks for agreeing to do an interview! You’re officially the first author LIBERATUS now has the privilege of interviewing; I’m excited to share some of your story and perspective with our writing team on Capitol Hill and other readers for Veterans Day.

For the first question, I want to go ahead and jump into the deep end. You wrote a lot about leadership and leading Marines in your book. I’ve always had the impression that many of the leadership lessons that seem to be part of the fabric of the military are just non-existent in civilian life, and especially in our political culture. For your average twenty-something working on the Hill, who’s never received intense leadership training in an environment that tests you physically, mentally, and emotionally, it seems those lessons just aren’t intuitive. So all of that said, what would you say are some of the biggest leadership lessons you learned in the Marine Corps?

There are three big things that I usually like to mention.  First, “it’s not about you!”  As a leader, you are a servant first.  As a Marine Officer, your first responsibility is to the mission and your Marines—if you are more concerned about your own career or how something is going to make you look, you’re sure to shortchange your Marines.

Second, learn everything you can so that you can make sound, informed decisions.  Nobody knows everything, nor should they be expected to.  Reading and studying are a given.  But to really learn it involves asking lots of questions of your subordinates, who are often the technical experts on a subject.  This takes a measure of humility because you have to acknowledge that you don’t know everything.  But as it turns out, instead of viewing you as ignorant, people usually appreciate that you acknowledge the importance and complexity of their job and respect you more for asking the questions.

Finally, lead by example.  Don’t expect people to uphold a higher standard than you hold yourself to.  In combat situations, this usually means being at the front as you go into a dangerous situation, but it’s arguably more important when it comes to moral leadership.

I assume those lessons aren’t confined to running a supply or recovery mission in Afghanistan. How have you been able to carry them into everyday life (and again, help us connect the dots to civilian life, because I don’t think it’s always intuitive, especially in politics)?

Absolutely!  The things that make someone a successful leader in the Marine Corps translate are not the “drill instructor”-style yelling made famous by R. Lee Ermey in Full Metal Jacket.  The best leaders I served with were the ones who worked the hardest, who asked me for my input, and who didn’t shy from doing or saying something because it might make them look bad.  Do the right thing, not the thing that you think will be the least objectionable to the promotion board.

Our current issue of The Journal is titled A Creative Pursuit, in an effort to talk through how to bring more creativity—and therefore better work—into politics. My assumption is that for creativity to thrive, you have to have strong leadership. And yet if we go back to your book, it seems like you guys were putting up with BS at Leatherneck, but outside the wire, away from all of that, your guys were thinking outside the box and coming up with solutions like putting an MATV on an LVSR. Can you talk about the leadership and creativity dynamic you experienced, how—if at all—you had to shield your Marines from the BS coming from higher up, what you did differently on your second deployment, and also, for us civilians, what MATVs and LVSRs are?

MATV is a Mine-resistant, Ambush-Protected All-Terrain Vehicle—a heavily armored guntruck.  An LVSR is a Logistics Vehicle System Replacement.  If you guessed that it replaced the Logistics Vehicle System, you’d be right.  It’s a heavily armored cargo truck.  A full explanation would take too long for this interview, but let’s just say that the naming of those trucks alone is a good example of where we need more creativity in government!

On to the other parts of the question: You need a leader who is willing to entertain a solution and not be afraid to stick with the status quo.  There is risk in doing something different, even if what we’re doing right now won’t work.  “At least if we keep doing what we’ve always been doing, I didn’t make it worse!”

Outside the wire, away from all the colonels and generals, I was free to be creative because the ultimate decision and responsibility rested on me. And when you’re getting shot at or the longer we sit somewhere trying to fix something the chances of getting shot at increase, I want the fastest solution to the problem possible.  You develop a healthy sense of pragmatism.

But not wanting to take the risk that comes with a new solution is something all leaders do to some degree—it’s human nature. When we come up with an idea or a subordinate brings us one they’re excited about, we hem and haw and internally worry, “If it goes wrong or if this person finds out, I’ll be in trouble.” Acting on those kinds of doubts is counterproductive, because they aren’t truly doubts about the idea and whether it will work, they’re doubts about how the idea will make you look.

The key to being able to implement creative ideas is a pragmatic approach and a willingness to accept the risk that it might not work as well as the status quo. At each level as a leader, you can take responsibility for more things with greater scope, so you can implement creative solutions at that level.  You might not be able to reform a particular issue, but maybe it means you can prevent a poison pill amendment from getting tacked on a particular bill.

If most of your ideas work most of the time, and they know why you did something differently, people will forgive you for the few times that your new idea doesn’t work.

In talking about a creative pursuit, it also seems imperative to know what you’re pursuing so you can do so creatively! I got the impression though that while it may have been obvious what the purpose of each supply convoy was, the larger purpose of our presence in Afghanistan seems to be unclear. How did that affect your Marines while deployed, and perhaps more importantly, what would you say to a Member of Congress or a Military Legislative Assistant who’s prepping vote recs on authorizing use of force? How would you craft arguments for or against the use of force? What should we be thinking about knowing that a vote rec made in a cubicle on the Hill has real-world implications for lives sent into combat?

If we’re going to do something, we have to be willing to do it all the way, and for many things you can’t do it “cheaper.” If you want to build a house, you can’t arbitrarily say, “We’re going to use no more than 20,000 nails,” if it really takes 60,000 nails to build a house.  Yes, you might be able to erect the structure of the house and it might look like a house, but with only one nail in each joint instead three or four it’s going to fall down as soon as it’s built.

The biggest challenge with use of force is that we often have no real idea what it will take and what the outcomes will be.  The challenge that I would issue, as someone who saw this on the ground, is that you have to consider the likely second and third order consequences.  “Okay, so we do X, what happens after that?” And after that? And after that?”  We call it wargaming, and you come up with the two or three most likely outcomes of each action, and if you don’t have a good answer then you need to go back to step one and reconsider.

Pair that with an understanding of the big difference between the strategic level of warfare and the tactical level of warfare.  A tactical objective is kicking in doors, securing specific pieces of terrain—“Secure the city of Lashkar Gah in the Helmand Province.”  Strategic objectives are bigger, longer term, and generally can’t be accomplished by physical actions alone—“Establish a Provincial Government in the Helmand Province that will provide for the rule of law.” The US is really, really good at the tactical level.  But that’s not enough.

Use of force comes down to killing—either the threat of killing or actual killing—in order to accomplish a specific objective and ultimately, pick a winner.  We use other terms, like “no fly zone.” Well, establishing a NFZ in Syria can also be stated as “Explicitly promising to kill any Syrian aviators who enter this airspace in order that the fighters (‘moderate’ Syrian fighters, whatever that means) on the ground will be more successful countering Assad’s government.” Look at our current penchant for drone strikes (all over Africa and the Middle East).  We are explicitly killing people, allegedly targeted by name, with the intent of shaping the outcome by killing some people in order that the people we want to win are more likely to do so.

The problem is that we’re really not that good at picking winners—not that anybody really is. I do know that we often pick the wrong winners with predictable results.  I’m not a pacifist or an isolationist, but when it comes to invading other countries and going to war, my attitude is best stated thusly:  If you and I are hiking in the backcountry beyond the reach of modern medicine and you develop appendicitis, we can both agree that your appendix needs to be cut out.  However, me not being a surgeon and not knowing what I am doing, I am almost sure to cause more harm than good if I cut your abdomen open.

I’m no doctor, but I can pretty quickly come up with a list of bad things that will likely happen (hemorrhage, sepsis) if I attempt surgery.  Sometimes use of force is relatively clear, like when you step in to stop a genocide.  Other times it’s much more murky, and both sides or all sides are kind of “bad guys,” like in Syria right now.  We need not be afraid of saying “Our use of military force is unlikely to solve this problem and we’re not going to pick one side of the argument and start killing people on the other side just for the sake of doing something.”

The UN is fraught with issues, as is NATO, and I do not think that we should restrict ourselves to use military action only if we can get NATO on board.  But if we can’t convince our closest allies that a war (when you have M1A2 Abrams main battle tanks on the ground, it’s a war) is worthwhile and justified, as in Iraq, which we could not sell to NATO, we should think long and hard about whether we should proceed.

While we’re thinking about Congress, what kind of interactions with or perspective of our political process did you have while stationed at 8th and I (or elsewhere)?

I was at Marine Barracks Washington (commonly called 8th and I) during the 2013 government shutdown.  During the initial discussions about the shutdown, it was unknown whether or not active duty military personnel would be paid during a shutdown.  I also had civilians who worked for the Command.  They came into my office and asked, “How will I pay my rent and feed my family if I don’t get paid during a shutdown?” Note that the Marines would still have to come to work—even if the government shut down and they weren’t getting paid.

That experience shaped my impression of Congress.  Here I was, less than a third the age of some of our elected officials, having to tell a twenty-one year old kid that I didn’t know how he was going to feed his family or pay his rent, even though I was going to order him to come to work.  Congressional leaders made a series of deliberate decisions and put me in that position less than a mile and a half from where they were voting on it.

Yes, ultimately the military still got paid and most civilians ended up getting backpay.  But do you know who didn’t get paid?  The people who work at the restaurants near military bases and National Parks.  And civilian contractors, like minimum-wage cleaning crews, who work to clean government buildings.  And parking lot attendants near those facilities. And on, and on, and on.  And for what?  What did the shutdown accomplish?

I saw this and so many other smaller examples where both sides knew they weren’t doing what was in the best interest of the greater good—in fact, they were holding the greater good hostage to an ideology, playing a giant game of chicken.

It seems political culture is so dysfunctional because we’ve lost any sense of what it means to live well where we are. Describe for us more about the day to day deploying with the Marine Corps and how to bring excellence to your work.

There’s a saying in the Marine Corps that goes, “Bloom where you’re planted.”  It’s usually meant as a nicer way of saying, “Suck it up, Buttercup,” but the two sayings are quite different. You might not really like where you are or what your job is, but you should still do the best you can at it.

Whether you’re in a barren desert in Afghanistan or in a cubicle or wherever, there are parts of your job you won’t like.  And we all want to change the world, but that’s a very abstract thing.  In the meantime, you just need to do the best you can where you are with what you’ve got.  You might not be able to change the whole world or make everybody’s lives better, but you need to look for the small opportunities where you can.

Each interaction and small objective along the way is a chance to improve that one thing and make a few people’s lives better, even if it’s in a small way.  The problems come when too many people don’t do that—and everyone beneath them suffers.

Change has to happen at all levels—if it’s toxic at the top, people at the bottom can’t be expected to make everything better if they just work hard and make great reports and keep the conference room clean.

You talked a little bit about Logistics kind of being second class to Infantry—and yet also being critical to the success of Infantry. On Capitol Hill, the culture is very hierarchical, with Members being worth the most and each step down the chain, the people are really valued less and less. At the same time, as an officer you often spoke about looking out for your Marines. To put this in a question, how can we rethink political culture to find a greater sense of equality and care for the people supposedly at the bottom?

Truth is the great equalizer.  We need to have a culture where the truth, where facts, are king.  In that kind of culture, where what people say has to be accurate and honest, it’s possible to come to achieve great things, whether it’s planning a coordinated operation with logistics and infantry units, or trying to put some bipartisan legislation together.  I haven’t been in the halls of Congress, but I’d be willing to bet that the further down the hierarchy and the closer to the bare facts you get, the less likely people are to believe, deep down, in some of the most vehement political rhetoric.

I think Politifact is a fascinating project.  They routinely reveal that politicians on both sides are routinely saying things that are flat-out, objectively wrong about many of the facts underlying their positions.  I would be interested to know how many of these inaccuracies are deliberate lies vs. willing ignorance, but I digress. They are hardly ever called to account for their inaccuracies/lies.  Each side calls out the other and is then dismissed as being partisan.

If a Marine officer dismisses what a lance corporal says because the lance corporal is junior in the chain of command, the officer might feel good and important, but it probably won’t fix anything—there’s a good chance that the lance corporal who is closest to the problem has a decent idea of why the truck’s engine won’t start. At the very least, the lance corporal is the best one to establish the timeline around when the truck broke down and what was happening when it did—and then we can go about developing a plan to fix it.  When you base everything on facts, real objective facts, I think people are less likely to be left out of the process.

Pragmatic people who have come together and established a consensus on what are much closer to finding some agreement on the why and the what do we do about it.  Too much of what I see from our senior leaders, on both sides, are deliberately misleading or false/inflammatory statements paraded as facts, that no objective person can agree with.

Pursuing the truth in political debate seems so obvious, and yet so contrary to the status quo. I mentioned the idea of a deeper freedom at the beginning, and I think in part that means being free from the need to spin the truth to gain power, and my hope is that with LIBERATUS ideas like these, and the leadership principles you discussed here will begin to take root in our political culture.

To conclude though, what’s next for you? Do you have plans to write a second book? Run for office?

I’m in the process of wrapping up my second book, a novel with some themes that coincidentally align with some of the things that Liberatus is working on—I hope to release it next year (though I said that last year too).  It starts out with a nun almost getting run over by a Metro bus and ends with both characters leaving DC to head down a different path with their lives.

I don’t know what I want to do with my life yet, but I’m working on figuring that out.  I’m working in private industry right now, gaining an appreciation for what private business is like.  Ultimately, I’d like to help identify strategies to tackle wealth inequality without crushing growth or limiting freedoms—I’m considering a switch over to a career in academia, but I’m really not sure.

A run for office isn’t in the cards for me right now, but you never know in the future!


Cover Photo Credit: Jeff Clement