Non-traditions and my promotion to captain

I promoted to my present rank of captain (O-3E) in May 2015 while stationed overseas, in Kuwait.

Beautiful place, by the way, and I mean that. I loved Mediterranean and Middle Eastern food before. While there… oh, man. Fantastic. There was this shawerma place at a local naval base that was just, the best. The. Best. And there was this restaurant in Kuwait City called Mais Alghanim. Wow. Those places could be my new regular diet.


For a promotion, it remains traditional in the Army for the promotee to wear his dress uniform (not expected while there in Kuwait as it counted as a sort-of-deployment for me), reserve a venue, provide food and drink, and send invitations.

I did none of that. My promotion. My choice. I wanted to simply switch the rank on my uniform and go right back to work like any other day.


My OIC, a major (O-4), said that the tradition didn’t just serve me, but everyone else, too. Eh. I say the best advice is asked for, and I didn’t ask for it.

There might be something about the way I look (maybe ’cause I’m short, nerdy, and Asian) that invites an older-looking veteran to want to put an arm around me, metaphorically take me under her wing, while she props one leg up ala Captain Morgan, and begin to dispense advice on how to live my life better than I would know for myself.


She became increasingly aggravated with me about it but knew that no regulation compelled me to follow the tradition, nor could she reasonably order me to do so. So I didn’t.

She couldn’t order me to do so, but she could strongly suggest it, appeal to tradition, appeal to Army values, and so on.

On the day of the promotion, I did as I intended. I got promoted. My speech was two words, “Thank you.” Shook hands. Went back to work.

When I said my two-word speech, my brigade commander, a colonel (O-6), asked, “Is that it? Del, I heard you were the leader of the local Toastmasters club. I was expecting a longer speech… Well, okay.”


What exactly is the reason for the tradition (the special venue, food, drink, invitations)? It would’ve resulted in plenty of wasted food, time, and effort on my part.

I’m guessing it really is for everyone else, a kind of right of passage, to further show to the rest of the unit that I’m both grateful for the promotion and deserve it.

Last night, while reading Thinkertoys (2006) by M. Michalko, I came across a section about five monkeys in a cage and a pile of bananas on top of a pedestal. As each monkey reaches for it, a researcher hoses the monkey down. Eventually, the monkeys beat down any monkey who reaches for it. One by one, the monkeys get replaced by new monkeys and the tradition carries on, to beat down any monkey who tries for the bananas. Soon, all the monkey are replaced, the reason is forgotten, yet the tradition continues.

I first heard the story from a Marine NCO early in my military career. Boh author and Army veteran Michael Michalko and the Marine NCO made the same point, that it takes hard mental work to become aware of our assumptions and then to question them.

Couldn’t I express my gratitude with a simple “Thank you” and show that I’m deserving by simply doing my job?


Looking back, I’ve only once had a chain of command that sincerely ever cared about what I wanted. Usually they’ll say that they’ll take care of soldiers, and maybe they do – yet even then, to take care of means something different than to care about.

In fact, by expressing that I want a certain something, the military has made sure that I receive the opposite. It will euphemistically call it broadening, character-building or professional development.

Really, it’s just full of assholes who believe that wealth is zero sum, and that if you win, they lose. It’s almost understandable given our job as professionals of violence. Violence is zero sum.

I had fun deflecting her suggestions. She would say, “Del, you really should.”

I’d reply with something like, “I’m good, ma’am. Just another day. No need to make a big deal of it.” That irritated her.

She had he NCO talk to me. But, unknown to her, we were cool with each other and we both disliked her.


As the saying goes, evaluations will reflect. Mine did. I didn’t care. Awards, promotions, special duty assignments, special schools… I’m not interested. It’s my career. It’s therefore my choice to stop climbing this ladder.

There’s a certain art to evaluation writing in the military. From the fitness reports that I saw in the Marine Corps to the officer evaluation reports (OERs) I see now in the Army, outsiders will have a hard time knowing the actual meaning of the report; in particular, the absence of certain wording.

What does not get said matters as much as what does get said. For example, as of recently, if an evaluation fails to mention that the member supports the sexual harassment/assault response/prevention program, then he probably got in trouble for sexual misconduct.

As an outsider, how would you know that certain wording was absent in the first place?

The words absent from evals consisted of quantity. It had a lot of white space. If you read it, it might sound something like, “He did his job. He didn’t get in anyone else’s way. Nothing spectacular. Promote with peers.” And that’s how I like it.

All of my awards and evals would read to a civilian as somewhat praiseworthy. Awards always sound heroic, even if the member did nothing for it beyond being part of a unit. Evaluations, unless the member caused serious harm, always sound okay at the least.

My boss presumed that I wanted to climb this ladder. An assumption that I question.

Is this still the right ladder for me? Is it leaning against the right wall? Is it standing on the right ground? Should I want to climb any higher? Why? Why may I not decide for myself that I’ve climbed as far as I find meaningful? That it no longer proves meaningful to me climb it any higher? Who, except for me, ultimately knows what I find meaningful in life?