Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Where is the garrison Army going? I worry it is heading back to spit and polish, while ignoring hard lessons of the last decade

By “58 Scout” Best Defense guest columnist The more we draw down from our current conflicts the more of a push from the top I am seeing to become a more disciplined force. Got it — “always be better” — but a lot of the comments that myself and many of my peers keep hearing ...


By "58 Scout"

Best Defense guest columnist

By “58 Scout”

Best Defense guest columnist

The more we draw down from our current conflicts the more of a push from the top I am seeing to become a more disciplined force. Got it — “always be better” — but a lot of the comments that myself and many of my peers keep hearing are quite disturbing and, to be honest, generally insulting. 

During my redeployment briefings we received a video message from the U.S. Army Pacific Commander. In it was the typical “good job, you are the country’s finest, etc. etc.,” but what really burned me, and most of the men and women who watched the video, was one of the CG’s comments. I am paraphrasing, but it was something to the effect that “this is the best Army I have seen in 30 years of service…but we need to take it back to pre-war Army.” Really?

The final straw for me was this piece I found in the Army Times about SMA Chandler and his changes for the force. That article is about sending CSMs to legal courses to do their jobs better, but again, the intent is the same and getting louder.

Chandler told the senior enlisted leaders to institute programs at their posts, camps, and stations to apply lessons learned to the Profession of Arms Campaign. The Profession of Arms has become a lost art, especially among junior officers and NCOs. The deployment cycle of the past decade eroded everything from common military courtesies to fitness standards. Of great concern is the lack of counseling, leadership, and decision-making skills needed by midgrade NCOs and junior officers. 

I am deeply concerned about just what he is trying to address. Yes, the garrison Army will have more saluting, parade rest, clean uniforms, haircuts, etc., but he has cut deeper. I’m confused — what decision-making skills should the combat proven SSG need to work on? And let’s be honest: I don’t think that the SMA and most of the senior officers and NCOs have ever really walked in those shoes. During these wars the decisions made by junior officers and NCOs, at the company and platoon level, have been some of the most important. It makes me angry because I know what I have done and what so many others like me have done and more. The entire intent of being a professional soldier is going to war and destroying the enemy. What most of us in the military have trained for — and done — several times. Yes, there were a lot of growing pains over the last decade, especially learning what was most important to accomplish this task. We learned: Shooting, first aid, cultural lessons — important! Haircuts, hands in pockets, pressing uniforms? Not that important. 

The senior leaders of today’s Army want to go back to the Army that they grew up in — the Army of the 80s and 90s, with the spit-polished boots, starched uniforms, skin-tight haircuts. To them, these are the signs of a disciplined force. To the senior leaders of the Army I say this: Bring back the tough and realistic training standards that made us a focused and disciplined force. Those are the things that will prepare the force for challenges that lie ahead in the decades to come. Incorporate this training with the volumes of lessons learned in leadership and decision-making, while under fire, by our junior officers and NCOs. The success and failures of the next decade will be based on your leadership and decision-making skills and how we cultivate our junior officers and NCOs. 

I’m not sure where this Army is going but I am deeply concerned. Maybe I’m missing something that can only be seen from the top. Or maybe the SMA thinks doing circles around the parade field will draw attention away from the fact that we don’t have any money for real combat training. 

“58 Scout” is an active-duty soldier.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1

More from Foreign Policy

The Taliban delegation leaves the hotel after meeting with representatives of Russia, China, the United States, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Qatar in Moscow on March 19.

China and the Taliban Begin Their Romance

Beijing has its eyes set on using Afghanistan as a strategic corridor once U.S. troops are out of the way.

An Afghan security member pours gasoline over a pile of seized drugs and alcoholic drinks

The Taliban Are Breaking Bad

Meth is even more profitable than heroin—and is turbocharging the insurgency.

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya addresses the U.N. Security Council from her office in Vilnius, Lithuania, on Sept. 4, 2020.

Belarus’s Unlikely New Leader

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya didn’t set out to challenge a brutal dictatorship.

Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid

What the Taliban Takeover Means for India

Kabul’s swift collapse leaves New Delhi with significant security concerns.