No Minister

The skills of ordinary men

I recently read two articles that actually cover some of the same ground, even though their topics could not be more different.

The first is from 2003, Electric Heroes, and it’s written by a lawyer looking back at one of his early cases where a woman sued an American power company over the death of her husband, who was a linemen.

They clambered up narrow steel ladders and then inched across four-inch-wide “angle-iron” girders made slippery with rain or morning dew, and when they reached out, they touched either the open sky or heavy steel cables whose purpose was to carry enough electricity to power the nation’s fourth largest city.

Because they were so well trained, they were able to work safely, routinely, under conditions that would terrify you or me.

The writer points out that these men (in those days they were all men) were also very careful, which made the case a little strange since this particular linemen had fallen 120 feet to his death or possibly had jumped. Not even his workmates could figure out what had gone wrong.

As the young workhorse lawyer gathering two years of information for the trial, he got to know these men very well.

They had a strong sense of duty, and they had a natural dignity that was boundless.  They were modest men, but they had quiet pride by the mile.  Amongst each other, they were very, very funny.  They cussed a lot, and after work they’d go out together for a beer, or to hunt or play poker or catch an Astros game.  And they stuck up for one another.  You’d think twice about crossing any one of them.

They took the case seriously from the beginning because one of their own had died in their midst, for reasons they couldn’t quite explain or grasp, and they were being accused of having caused his death by their indifference. 

In the end the case was settled out of court and the jury dismissed. The young lawyer had become so bonded with these men that he was incandescent with rage at what he felt his senior lawyers had done to them: as much as admitting that they had been indifferent to their workmate, their friend. But the young partner took him to lunch and, as he saw in hindsight, helped him grow up a bit:

“In the greater scheme of life, are you really furious that Mrs X is getting the fairly modest amount of money that will be left to her after her lawyers’ fees and expenses are extracted?  She’s not getting a huge windfall.  Our client can afford it.  It all goes into the rate-base, and ultimately it will be paid in tiny, tiny increments by all the families for whom Mr X helped keep the lights on during his twelve years with the company. Can you not see the justice in that result, even if it wasn’t the harsh and total victory you were gunning for?”

The second article is very recent and is written by a Captain Charlie Anderson of the Minnesota National Guard, describing their recent expedition to Kabul to extract American and Afghan civilians before the Taliban took over: A few good ‘Bastards’.

It’s a fascinating look at those events from a soldier’s view, but it’s also a good look at a component of the US military that’s often overlooked or disparaged, The National Guard. They’re part-time soldiers although equipped with the same stuff as the regular forces including, in this case, Bradley’s and Abrams tanks. Having said that I was surprised a few years ago to find out from a mate in the NZDF that the Hawaiian Air National Guard flies F-22’s!

But what shows here is that the training is also right up with the regular forces:

We’d practiced and trained for the past two years. The task force did a combat training rotation exercise at Fort Hood, Texas in 2019 and executed a successful rotation (the first post-Covid) at the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, California in 2020. While drilling at Camp Ripley, Minnesota we completed numerous tabletop exercises and worked the Military Decision Making Process repeatedly until it became muscle memory.

We had executed multiple iterations of gunnery tables and were continuing ongoing missions in Syria, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia. We were confident that as the CENTCOM Regional Response Force we’d be poised and prepared to project military power wherever it was needed to accomplish tactical and strategic goals.

When the time came to move out they were ready to go and got to Kabul promptly. Even so such units still endure scepticism from the regulars:

One captain I met from their brigade intelligence section told me he was under the impression that a senator had pulled some strings and got us deployed from Minnesota. When I told him about our task force and that we were already in the Middle East, postured for such a crisis event, he was speechless. Initially, there was an air of distrust, but we proved ourselves worthy partners, dispelling the myth about the perceived capability gap between the active duty and guard/reserve components. 

It was this paragraph that caught my attention in relation to the first article, as the commander of the unit, Lt. Col. Jake Helgestad, described:

He underscored the life skills the National Guard brought to the 82nd Airborne. “We provided capabilities to the fight beyond trigger-pullers that 1/82 never would’ve been able to — engineers, plumbers, electricians, welders, mechanics, heavy machinery operators – we enabled advanced operations that directly impacted the military’s ability to get people out.” 

No need to call up the US Army Corp of Engineers to build barricades and reinforce walls when you’ve got a bunch of people who do that in their everyday lives.

The article is lengthy but well written and packed with a lot of coal-face detail about what they dealt with in a horrific and rapidly deteriorating situation. Well worth your reading time.

Written by Tom Hunter

September 18, 2021 at 9:54 am

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