Enduring principles

Recently I read the Army was retooling basic combat training (BCT). Having graced the retired rolls since October 1, 1999, I try to stay abreast, but admittedly I am not up to speed on the current state of BCT or its product. For a time, following retirement, I actively observed, read about and wrote about these topics. For much of my life, they were near to my heart and often a cause of anxiety. Concern might be a better descriptor, but every Noncommissioned Officer worth their salt will admit to periods of anxiety when thinking about whether they’ve done the right things to prepare Soldiers to face the day’s challenges. Anyone who has retired from service will tell you that you are never fully weaned from such thoughts. But as time wore on, and it always does, I thought I’d leave discussion of those important issues to people on the ground. That is how I preferred it when I was serving. After all, they were living it and the Army I knew and loved always found it’s way home. Back to the enduring principles that sustained it throughout history.

Still, having spent several years of my life as an Army Drill Sergeant, I was curious about how and why they were remaking BCT. I read they are going to require among other things weapons qualification with iron sights, increased emphasis on discipline, increased emphasis on physical training…. I wondered, out loud actually, what had they been doing? In BCT, ground zero for instilling discipline, how do you let it slip to a point where indiscipline becomes a problem? Guess I just didn’t know what I didn’t know.

We’ve tinkered with enduring principles over the years. Some person of influence will come along thinking there is a better way, a better wheel, and try to lead us away from what never changes. Our enduring principles. People change, times change, equipment changes, but principles do not. You cannot fiddle with discipline. Either you have it because you demonstrate it, live it and enforce it or you do not. Training must be to a standard and driven by essentiality not time or resources. The Soldier must meet the standard. The standard cannot be modified to accommodate the ability of the trainee or in some cases the supposedly seasoned Soldier. All things Army have standards. The Army has standard bearers. They are Noncommissioned Officers (NCOs). If NCOs are brought up in the Army where enduring principles are laid aside or tinkered with for expediency of making Soldiers “ready”, it could be a long march back home. The only people who can lead an Army back, are the standard bearers.

Old fogies like me have seen a thing or two. Even though it may skip a byte here and there, I searched the cranial hard drive. Sure enough, I’ve seen and lived it before. I came into the VOLAR (All Volunteer Army) Army in 1971 nearing the end of the Vietnam War. By the time I finished training in the spring of 1972 and was ready for my first permanent duty assignment, Vietnam was in full draw down. My first duty station was Camp Red Cloud, Uijongbu, Korea. It is also where the smell of marijuana permeated the barracks and it was the first place I watched a senior NCO shotgun a couple of beers for breakfast to stop his hands from shaking – before he went to work. A great example he was to a brand new Private First Class, but also a vivid memory that helps one stay on track. Vietnam was a long difficult trek for our Army and our country. It was a time of repeated combat tours – sound all too familiar? The NCO Corps was worn down, depleted and practically defeated. Depleted to the point that the Army found it necessary to create a “Shake and Bake” Noncommissioned Officer’s Candidate Course (Educating Noncommissioned Officers, CSM Daniel K. Elder, © May 1999) that took young men from street life to Vietnam NCO combat leader in 22 weeks.

Sometime in 1985 or early 1986, I was given a draft copy of a not yet published article written by Lieutenant Colonel (LTC) Larry H. Ingraham, Department of Psychiatry, Walter Reed Army Institute of Research. I came by the draft article honestly via the United States Army Europe (USAREUR), Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations’ (DCSOPS) Sergeant Major Ned Deveraux who received a copy from Command Sergeant Major (CSM) James C. Ligon who at the time I believe was then or eventually became V Corps CSM. It was a leadership talk from CSM Ligon that inspired the title of my book, The Three Meter Zone: Common Sense Leadership for NCOs

LTC Ingraham’s draft article was titled:

“Fear and Loathing in the Motor Pool: An Historical Context for Framing Leadership in the U.S. Army with Special Considerations Given to the Corps of Noncommissioned Officers”

I still have that yellowed draft copy, with my highlights and notes. There are multiple staple holes in the corner from the amount of times I pulled it apart to provide someone with a copy. The article became a guide of sorts. It was a place in time for me to look back upon and never forget. To see where we’d been, how far we’d come and what we NCOs needed to do to sustain. It was a constant reminder during my time as a First Sergeant and CSM of what NCOs and the Army could never let go of – enduring principles and NCO leadership. It was a place in time important to my life. It was a place I did not want to see our Army return.

I am sharing the first couple of paragraphs as they appear in the draft, because they did not make it into the article published in Parameters magazine, December 1988 to which I have linked. In the draft introduction, LTC Ingraham wrote:

The U. S Army theme for 1985 was “Leadership.” Before we declare the year a success and move on to our next challenge, I would like to set the historical context in which all contemporary discussion of leadership must be framed.

My remarks are based on tape recorded career histories of 20 senior NCOs representing most of the Army’s career fields to include division level CSMs. These were collected in 1983-84. The interviews ranged from 10 to 23 hours each, but transcription takes 10 to 12 hours for each hour of tape. Transcription is still in progress, so the following account is my story of their stories.

I came away from the interviews with profound admiration for the Corps of Noncommissioned Officers. The sheer native abilities of these NCOs was very impressive, their understanding of soldiers and the army profound, and their loyalty to the army and the country unquestioned. I also came away with grave misgivings that, in our NCO professional development efforts, we are emphasizing the wrong things. I fear we are likely to end up with senior NCOs decidedly less capable than the NCOs I interviewed—soldiers who had achieved so much with very little in the way of school training. But let me tell the story.

LTC Ingraham’s article, Fear and Loathing in the Motor Pool was published by the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research in 1986 and in the December 1988 issue of Parameters. The Parameters article linked here is titled Fear and Loathing in the Barracks – And the Heart of Leadership.

Before you read it, whether serving or Veteran, try some introspect. Think of your own leadership. Recall the leadership you’ve observed during your time or in recent years. As you read, temper it with a serious look at the current state of our Army. An Army that sees the need to retool basic training to improve among others the most basic thing – discipline. Consider multiple years of repeated combat deployments, consider years of limited resources affecting training and equipment maintenance.

It was NCOs that brought our Army back from the trials of the Vietnam Era. It is NCOs that ensure adherence to enduring principles. Let me leave you with links to a couple of other articles. In 1999 as I was transitioning out Field Artillery Journal, having received and advanced copy of The Three Meter Zone, asked me to write an article. Leading in the Three-Meter Zone was published in their May-June 99 issue after I was already on transition leave. The focus of the article is about the most enduring thing – on the ground leadership of Noncommissioned Officers.

In August 2017, I wrote a series of articles titled Social Engineering and the Military. I provide the link also, because I believe all these issues are intertwined.

NCOs still lead the way.

© 2018 J. D. Pendry