Careful, You Just Might Want to Salute Him
A character sketch of Lt. Gil Hanley
Its guys like this who almost give officers a good name
Bill Mauldin has a phrase for officers who compel enlisted
men to always take notice of superior ranks with a quick flip of the arm Mauldin
calls such officers "salutin demons." The implication being, of course,
that if you have to force a poor battle-weary EM to salute you, you dont deserve the
gesture. Only prigs and glory-mongers go in for such chicken when other things, like
resting, eating, or airing out a painful foot blister, are far more important to a grunt
in the large scheme of things, and obviously do him much more good than springing to
attention every time some supposedly valuable person in officers garb walks by. Very
often even a hastily executed 45-degree arm-crunch takes more energy than the
ever-fatigued infantryman can muster. Fortunately, for the men in King Companys
Second Platoon, no such gymnastics are required of them. They could easily have ended up
with some stuffed-shirt, know-nothing ninety-day wonder in command, but lucky for them,
they got Lt. Hanley instead.
One of my favorite scenes with Hanley, and one that typifies his
relationship with his men, is in "The Party," when Kirby and the gang, in a bid
to wheedle a favor out of Hanley, start saluting him like crazy when he shows up among
them. From the expression on his face, you know what he must be thinking in
response to this sudden, utterly surreal and unprecedented outbreak of military protocol: "What
the hell ...?"
Because, you see, this looie, while he may sport a pinky ring,
a college degree and a Robert Taylor do, is definitely no salutin demon. It
must have something to do with the fact that he himself is a mustang, a guy who came up
through the ranks and received a battlefield commission. Having seen Army life through the
eyes of the low-level grunt, he has a certain tolerance, if not outright sympathy (well,
maybe a bit of the latter too, though he never actually lets on), for the complaints of
put-upon soldiers, even professional buckers like Kirby. And officer-dom, for him, holds
little mystique. So he gets to ride around a lot in jeeps big deal. That stripe on
the back of his helmet doesnt come in very handy in Kraut territory he knows
it only means hell get shot at before anyone else does. Such stark
battlefield realities might account for the demeanor hes observed in fellow platoon
leaders, namely, that "a lot of second lieutenants are strange."
His style of leadership combines the attributes of approachability
and authoritativeness. Got an annoying "Superman" in the outfit? Sarge acting
kinda moody after bad news from home? Need a pass so you can finish your honeymoon with
your Army-nurse wife? Hanleys definitely the kind of officer you want around to deal
with such problems. Hell always listen with a sympathetic ear, even if he
doesnt agree with you in the end. Which is to say, the man is approachable, but the
man is no pushover, either. Rumor has it that he once thoroughly chewed out the toughest
of NCOs (no names, please) ... and lived.
Perhaps Hanleys greatest asset is the faith he has in his
men. They, of course, are lucky to have him, but I think he knows hes luckier still
to have them, especially Saunders. Where would he be without this ultra-reliable,
battle-savvy veteran sergeant of his? Probably lying kaput with the whole platoon back in
that apple orchard off Omaha Beach. Hanley, in that case, had the great sense to listen to
his subordinate and not his ego. This humility and lack of affectation have characterized
him ever since, proving that his officers status, far from going to his head, has
not changed him one bit. (Although, if he ever again chooses to pull rank on Saunders over
some dame, he now at least has more rank to pull.)
So, it turns out, there really are two kinds of officers
the kind that wear their commission quietly (sometimes along with mud all over their
face), and the kind that wear it for everyone else to see. Bill Mauldin, in addition to
lampooning stuffy brass, has given us at least one vivid portrait of the kind of officer
the Army should have more of. Mauldins cartoon shows a lieutenant sitting in a
foxhole with Willie and Joe only, if it werent for the looies bar on
the helmet, youd never know the difference among them. This officer, not unlike how
we often see Hanley, has the same slovenly beard stubble, the same slouched shoulders, and
the same dark circles under his eyes as the men he commands. And command them he does,
Ill bet. Would the men of Second Platoon repeatedly go up those murderous hills with
their damnable bunkers, do you suppose, for a mere officer? Not likely. But they do
go up those hills for Lt. Hanley.
Copyright � 1998 by Dorothy Spangler.
All rights reserved.
Characters from the television series COMBAT! are the property of ABC-TV.