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Critical Thinking

J. D. Pendry

One of my professors at an institute of higher learning was a retired NCO. Strangely enough, I knew him from our active duty days as Senior ROTC Instructors. He nearly walked me to death through the hills of West Virginia one spring. He was a Special Forces soldier, Vietnam veteran. He caused me to respect the people who wear Green Berets.

In his classes, he always stressed critical thinking. Critical thinking means to literally tear apart an issue, study it, and weigh all the impact of it. Look at it from all angles, dig into it. Determine the impact of every piece of it by asking many questions and examining all the available information. Only after you've done that are you ready to make a meaningful contribution to the discussion of the subject. It's the kind of thinking you'd expect a Special Operations soldier to use when training, preparing for a mission or evaluating a situation.

I tried to apply those critical thinking lessons to this beret issue that's consumed the Army and what it tells us about ourselves. I've re-examined the Chief of Staff's comments and given some thought to other important issues he raised. The first conclusion I've drawn is that many of us -me included- owe the Chief of Staff an apology, and the rest of the Army needs an Alpha Charlie. This whole episode caused me to reflect on old saying - Little things affect little minds.

So let me tell you my opinion of training at the battalion level and below. This is where I see the heart of warfighting readiness. ...unless squads and platoons and companies can do what they need to do, which is what I call short-sword warfighting... you're not ready. ... Crews, squads, platoons, companies, battalions, this is where Army readiness resides. ... And sergeant's time training belongs to the command sergeants major. Noncommissioned officers plan it, they execute it, they evaluate it, and they decide whether or not retraining is warranted. ... one day a week for five continuous hours. The noncommissioned officer leadership has all of their soldiers mandated to be present at training. ... This is 100 percent of your formation present for training. That's a challenge. But one day a week is what I promised the Sergeant Major of the Army I will guarantee to the command sergeants major.

What does it say about the state of the Army when the Chief of Staff must direct the presence of all soldiers for five hours per week of Sergeant's Time Training? It should suggest to you that somewhere along the line leadership has failed or is failing in its most important responsibility. Not the senior leadership that we all like to beat up, but the unit leadership. The leadership at brigade, battalion and company level. We've all registered our complaints about such things as consideration of others and endless taskings eating up valuable soldier training time. But, when the Chief serves notice to the officer-ship of the Army that he is correcting that problem, no one flooded the Internet with excited e-mails. What does that tell you about the state of the Army? What does it tell you about the state of unit and NCO leadership?

Our second responsibility: the welfare of our soldiers. All soldiers are entitled to outstanding leadership. Let's take that seriously. That means a commitment to developing competent and compassionate, courageous leaders, who can inspire and motivate, develop and lead soldiers, who we then grow in our images. It starts with drill sergeants. They show us what right looks like. ... There is something that happens between a drill sergeant and a young American that remains with soldiers for the rest of their life.... It starts with drill sergeants, and all of us need to carry that relationship over, into the first unit assigned. We will give noncommissioned officers and officers sufficient time in their developmental leadership positions-platoon and company-- so that they can learn their jobs.

We've all seen and experienced the problems caused by ticket-punchers filling leadership positions. Command Sergeants Major who barely blinked at being First Sergeants and battalion commanders with only 18 months previous command time as company commanders. Yet, when the Chief tells us he aims to fix that, not one single hooah filtered up from the background. What does that tell you about the state of the Army?

I hope you got to see the testimony we provided to Congress, that said that we have been too long leveraging our readiness on the backs of our soldiers and their families, and we need to do something about it. I told them that we needed to restore our faith with our soldiers. ... the force is burdened with too few personnel, aging equipment, and poorly maintained homes and facilities. We need to do something about it. Our soldiers are hopeful that the Nation is going to find a way to share with them the same well-being that soldiers have won for all Americans. ... We need to slow our pace. ... Slow the pace and focus on warfighting, mission-essential tasks so we can practice and develop the kind of leadership that we know is important in developing future leaders. It is in the warfighting business that we develop leaders.

Many of us have stated our wishes for a senior leader with candor enough to tell our elected leadership like it is. Yet, when the Chief did that we sat passively by, no thank you's, no attaboy's, no it's about time's, nothing. What does that tell you about the state of the Army?

Can we routinely schedule PCS's in the summertime? Especially for families that have school-age children... Can we move our PCS's for soldiers with families and school-age children into the summer cycle? ...Can we conduct brigade and battalion changes of command during the summer cycles? I think we can. Can we get to the point that soldiers receive permanent change of station orders a year out? ... I think we can.

The Chief showed his intent to work an issue that has always plagued soldiers and their families. No letters to the Army Times, no e-mails. What does that tell you about the State of the Army?

Can we avoid keeping soldiers away from their families unnecessarily? And here I'm talking about policies that establish some protection for weekends in garrison. Can we do that? Because I can tell you, every place I go, there are lots of youngsters working weekends. And my question is: Why? It ought not to be because we were inefficient during the week. Let's get efficient during the week, and let's give our youngsters the weekends they deserve. And I will hold the first general officer in the chain of command responsible for approving any exceptions. Can we give soldiers and families a four-day weekend every time we have a Federal holiday? I think we can. Our soldiers more than earn that time in the field or on deployments.

Can I get a hooah - even one?

Can we control short-notice taskings? I know we can do better. I intend for the Army Headquarters here to start setting the example. 1 January 2001, no nonemergency taskings will leave Headquarters DA without the Chief's or the Vice Chief's personal signature if it's less than 180 days from execution. ...the folks who pay the price here are battalions and companies -- that short-sword warfighting business I talked about -- because that's where all of our good ideas collapse, right on the desk of the young company commanders, who end up spending most of their time learning how to manage requirements as opposed to commanding companies.

I cannot believe that there is a single leader from Squad Leader through Battalion Command that hasn't seen their units and soldiers suffer because of short notice tasking. Unit training is disrupted, soldier's lives are disrupted and unit capability and readiness suffers because of them. Yet, not one comment, or thanks Chief, or appreciate it, not squat. What does that tell you leaders, about the State of the Army?

It [the black beret] will be a symbol of unity, a symbol of Army excellence, a symbol of our values.

We, the leadership, past and present chose to focus on this issue. We were, and many still are, consumed by it. Some soldiers and leaders felt it necessary to degrade every other soldier and branch of the Army to justify exclusive ownership of a hat. Many soldiers and leaders (although many anonymously) made outright disrespectful comments to the Chief of Staff of the Army and no leader stepped forward to take issue with that. We plugged up the e-mail pipes, we filled the Army Times with letters, we plugged up Internet discussion forums and our conversations were of little else. We chose to ignore all the important things the Chief wants to work for that will make it better for soldiers, units and the Army. Instead, we chose as our leadership topic - hats. Again, I ask, what does that say about the state of our Army and the state of its unit leadership?

What it states, loud and clear, is that training, leader development, quality of life... all of those things mentioned by the Chief and important to an Army, take a silent second to the issue of who gets to wear what colored hat. If the energy spent on training and leading soldiers equaled one tenth of what's been spent on debating the pros and cons of this issue by leaders many of the complaints and problems of the Army would vanish overnight.

© 2000 J. D. Pendry