MIGHTY CULTURE

Why the 'lost lieutenant' jokes actually have some merit

"You can't spell 'lost' without 'Lt'" is such an old joke in the military that Lieutenant George Washington probably had to halfheartedly chuckle at it to get his salty platoon sergeant off his ass. Yet, no matter how many times it's repeated, we have to admit, it's still kind of funny.

It stems from the idea that all lieutenants are inept at land navigation and, when the platoon goes off rucking in the woods, the platoon leader is going to get everyone lost — so they should follow the platoon sergeant instead. It doesn't matter if the lieutenant actually knows their way around a land nav course, the stigma is still there.

Like all sweeping generalizations, it's not entirely true. Maybe the lieutenant was prior enlisted and has retained that particular skill. Maybe they were in the Scouts as a teen and picked up a few things. Kudos to you, resourceful lieutenant! Prove that stereotype wrong for the betterment of your peers.

But as it stands, there are a few systemic reasons why lieutenants get lost, perpetuating the joke.


The difference between lieutenants and sergeants is basically the same as the difference between intelligence and wisdom. Now, we're not saying that sergeants aren't smart or that lieutenants aren't wise, but they're groomed with different emphases.

Lieutenants are trained to value institutional knowledge. Ask any officer a question and they'll recite the book answer, verbatim — intelligence. Sergeants, on the other hand, are born from street smarts. They probably couldn't tell you the exact, obscure regulation about God-knows-what, but they can tell you if it's right or not based on context clues — wisdom.

They make a fine team together. It's what keeps the military functioning. It's that special balance of yin and yang in the unit. But land navigation is almost entirely based on wisdom, not intelligence. It's a skill you learn over time and develop a gut feeling about.

Knowing what the book says about crossing tricky terrain is much different than the NCO approach finding a way across.

(U.S. Army photo by Master Sgt. Michel Sauret)

Knowing the book answer (and only the book answer) to land navigation is where lieutenants shoot themselves in the foot. As odd as it sounds to enlisted, officers do conduct land nav training while at the academy, OCS, or ROTC. They probably tell you what the book says about putting a compass to your cheek to shoot a proper azimuth, they probably tell you about each topographical feature on a map, but that doesn't always translate to the real world.

In practice, memorizing what the book says about land nav actually hurts you. Leading a platoon through the field requires you to juggle a few things — where you're coming from, where you're going, the direction in which to travel, and about how far between those points you should be at a given time.

The secret to land nav is to not think about it too hard.

(U.S. Army photo by Armando R. Limon)

An NCO could look at the map and say, "I'm currently in this valley and I need to be at the second hill to the west. Seems to be about a quarter of a kilometer away. Compass says west is that way... Cool" and be on their way.

Officers would likely over-analyze the situation. They'll stare at the compass until it reads precisely the right direction according to their starting point (and not readjust it as they move). They'll measure the distance they've traveled based on step count, knowing that each stride is roughly one meter (and not account for terrain). They'll follow what the book says to perfection — and it'll put them way off course.

Land nav is not something you can learn in a book. Every location is different. Sure, mastering land nav requires a good dosage of the book stuff — but you also need to know when to toss it to the side in favor of following your wise, experienced gut.

All of the jokes can easily be avoided if the lieutenant keeps their pride in check and trusts in their NCOs.

(U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. William Jones)