What Real Overwork Looks Like

by David French

Victor Davis Hanson’s post yesterday pointing to a New York Times story about President Obama’s overworked, Blackberrying staff prompted an irritated, unprintable text message from one of my friends from Iraq. After all, this West Point grad and two-time Iraq vet had experienced his own work ordeal — but it didn’t have much to do with being irritated by the constant buzzing of his smartphone.

The workload for deployed soldiers redefines the term “punishing.” For troops on the line, they can sometimes spend months at a time under constant risk of enemy fire. Daily patrols — wearing upwards of 80 pounds of gear in 120-degree heat — are preceded and followed by extensive maintenance and briefings. And this doesn’t even consider the strain of actual combat. During my deployment, one of our units engaged in a 36-hour firefight. After it was over, many of those same soldiers had to content themselves with a short nap before going out there once again. You haven’t seen exhaustion until you’ve looked into the eyes of men in those circumstances.

For staff officers like me, the work is different. I wasn’t outside the wire every day (or most days), but I distinctly remember an eight month stretch where I never when to sleep earlier than 2:00 a.m. Not once. Even then, sleep wasn’t assured, as detainees came in during all hours of the night (and morning). Others worked 12-hour (and longer) days, alternating shifts every single day for 15 months. Every day. For 15 months. All while making decisions with lives on the line and frequently going outside the wire themselves.

I don’t even like to think about the burden carried by the Squadron Commander and the rest of the senior leadership. They went out most days and still worked until 2:00 and 3:00 a.m. Try that for a lifestyle: Risk your life on a five- or six-hour patrol, then come back to the “office” and command men in harm’s way for additional ten (or so) hours, until exhaustion overtakes you. Then get up and do it again — for almost 400 days.

Look, I don’t at all minimize the fact that Obama’s staff is under considerable pressure and works long hours. President Bush’s staff faced the same pressures and worked the same hours. But the NYT puff piece? That’s a bit much.