Dan Ford's books
For print editions of Dan's books, go here      For the e-books, go here


"The Collapse of the Armed Forces" (cont'd)

Inspection--one of the most important and traditionally visible tools of command--is being widely soft-pedaled because it is looked on as "chicken" by young soldiers, sailors, and airmen.

In a move "to eliminate irritants to Air Force life" all major Air force commands got orders last year to cut back on inspection of people and facilities.

"You just damn near don't inspect barracks any more," said one Air Force colonel, "this is considered an irritant." Besides, he added, (partly to prevent barracks theft and partly for privacy) airmen keep the keys to their own rooms, anyway.

Aboard ships of the Navy, where every inch of metal and flake of paint partakes in the seaworthiness and battle readiness of the vessel, inspection is still a vital and nearly constant process, but even here, Admiral Zumwalt has discouraged "unnecessary" inspections.

If officers have lost their voices, their ears have in many commands been opened if not burnt in an unprecedented fashion via direct "hot lines" or "action lines" whereby any enlisted man can ring up his CO and voice a gripe or an obscenity, or just tell him what he thinks about something or, for that matter, someone.

Starting last year at naval Air Station, Miramar, Cal., sailors have been able to dial "C-A-P-T" and get their captain on the line. The system so impressed Admiral Zumwalt that he ordered all other shore stations to follow suit, even permitting anonymous calls.

At Ft. Lewis, Wash., soldiers dial "B-O-S-S" for the privilege of giving the general an earful.

At the Air Force Academy, cadets receive early indoctrination in the new order of things: here, too, a cadet (anonymously, if he wishes) can phone the Superintendent, record his message and, also by recording, receive the general's personal thanks for having called.

Word to the Whys

"Discipline," wrote Sir John Jervis, one of England's greatest admirals, "is summed up in the one word, obedience."

Robert E. Lee later said, "Men must be habituated to obey or they cannot be controlled in battle."

In the Armed forces today, obedience appears to be a sometime thing.

"You can't give them an order and expect them to obey immediately," says an infantry officer in Vietnam. "they ask why, and you have to tell them."

Command authority, i.e., the unquestioned ability of an officer or NCO to give an order and expect it to be complied with, is at an all-time low. It is so low that, in many units, officers give the impression of having lost their nerve in issuing, let alone enforcing orders.

In the words of an Air Force officer to this reporter, "If a captain went down on the line and gave an order and expected it to be obeyed because `I said so!'--there'd be a rebellion."

Other officers unhesitatingly confirmed the foregoing.

What all this amounts to--conspicuously in Vietnam and only less so elsewhere--is that today's junior enlisted man, not the lifer, but the educated draftee or draft-motivated "volunteer"--now demands that orders be simplistically justified on his own terms before he feels any obligation to obey.

Yet the young soldiers, sailors, and airmen might obey more willingly if they had more confidence in their leaders. And there are ample indications that Armed Forces junior (and NCO) leadership has been soft, inexperienced, and sometimes plain incompetent.

In the 82nd Airborne Division today, the average length of service of the company commanders is only 3 years.

In the Navy, a man makes petty officer 2d class in about 2 years after he first enlists. By contrast, in the taut and professional pre-WWII fleet, a man required 2 years just to make himself a really first-class seaman.

The grade of corporal has practically been superseded in the Army: Sp4s hold most of the corporals' billets. Where the corporal once commanded a squad, today's Army gives the job to a staff sergeant, two ranks higher. Within the squad, it now takes a sergeant to command three other soldiers in the lowly fire-team.

"This never would have happened," somberly said a veteran artillery sergeant major, "if the NCOs had done their jobs.... The NCOs are our weak point." Sp4 Gyongyos at Ft. Carson agrees: "It is the shared perception of the privates that the NCOs have not looked out for the soldiers."

When B Troop, 1st Cavalry, mutinied during the Laos operation, and refused to fight, not an officer or NCO raised his hand (or his pistol) or stepped forward. Fifty-three privates and Sp4s cowed all the lifers of their units.

"Officers," says a recently retired senior admiral, "do not stand up for what they believe. The older enlisted men are really horrified."

Lieutenant William L. Calley, Jr., an ex-company clerk, was a platoon leader who never even learned to read a map. His credentials for a commission were derisory; he was no more officer material than any Pfc. in his platoon. Yet the Army had to take him because no one else was available. Commenting on the Calley conviction, a colonel at Ft. Benning said, "We have at least two or three thousand more Calleys in the Army just waiting for the next calamity."

Albert Johnson, the tough Master Chief Petty Officer of the Atlantic Fleet, shakes his head and says: "You used to hear it all the time--people would say, `The Chiefs run the Navy.' But you don't hear it much any more, especially from the Chiefs."

A Hard Lot at Best

But the lot of even the best, most forceful leader is a hard one in today's military.

In the words of a West Point lieutenant colonel commanding an airborne battalion, "There are so many ways nowadays for a soldier that is smart and bad to get back at you." The colonel should know: recently he reduced a sergeant for gross public insubordination and now he is having to prepare a lengthy apologia, though channels to the Secretary of the Army, in order to satisfy the offending sergeant's congressman.

"How do we enforce discipline?" asks a senior general. Then he answers himself: "Sweep it under the rug. Keep them happy. Keep it out of the press. Do things the easy way: no court-martials, but strong discipline."

Towards the end of the eighteenth century, after years of costly, frustrating and considerably less than successful war, Britain's armed forces sere swept by disaffection culminating in the widespread mutinies in most of the ships and fleets that constituted England's "wooden walls" against France.

Writing to a friend in [1797?], Britain's First Lord of the Admiralty said, "The Channel Fleet is now lost to the country as much as if it was at the bottom of the sea."

Have things gone that far in the United States today?

The most optimistic answer is--probably not. Or at least not yet.

But many a thoughtful officer would be quick to echo the words of BGen Donn A. Starry, who recently wrote, "The Army can defend the nation against anything but the nation itself."

Or--in the wry words of Pogo--we have met the enemy, and they are us.