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Soldier Morale: The Missing Link




Steven J. Greer


Recently, the media has focused their camera sights on several soldiers on duty in Iraq.  Interestingly enough, these soldiers all share a common bond that unfortunately, tears at the very fabric of our nation and defense.  Their comments undoubtedly earned them unwanted attention from several layers of command hierarchy and now, have sparked a national media frenzy questioning the morale of our troops in Iraq.


A cursory glance at these incidents and one might conclude these soldiers are undisciplined, truculent, and downright disrespectful.  What would cause a young soldier to call for Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s resignation, a comment reprehensible and appalling?  As much as one might argue these incidents are isolated and surely not indicative of the 21st Century warrior, one could well argue there is an underlying trend that begs further study and analysis.  This trend, if not addressed and remedied potentially will derail successful transformation of our Army.


I believe this trend has eroded, in my opinion, our sense of duty and commitment to a higher cause.  Simply put, we are failing to provide our soldiers with a sense of purpose, direction, and motivation – with a higher cause that inevitably carries the day on the battlefield.  Disgruntled soldiers are not born; they are created at the hands of inept leaders.  Substandard leaders build disgruntled soldiers and the construction effort can quickly permeate and overwhelm an organization as a whole.


Army leaders recognized the need to reinforce army values several years ago and coined the acronym – LDRSHIP.  Loyalty, Duty, Respect, Selfless Service, Honor, Integrity, Personal Courage.  We inculcate these values into our soldiers from the moment they arrive at Basic Training.  Leaders further reinforce these throughout a soldiers career via professional development, discussion forums, education, vignettes, and training.  However, knowledge of these values does little to transform our soldiers into better soldiers.  For these values, arguably, are similar to what we might expect of all American citizens regardless of race, color, creed, or national origin.  


Transforming soldiers to meet the objectives of tomorrow comes with a price.  A cost that our current leaders must bear now, for tomorrow may be too late.  Our enemy will not wait, thus we must be prepared and act swiftly to change the morale paradigm.  The morale of those we send into harm’s way is paramount to mission accomplishment, but more importantly, to our nation’s defense and commitment to the founding democratic principles.  The morale of many of our soldiers is directly linked to an identifiable trend.  This phenomenon, this absence of historical reference to lessons learned on battles spanning the globe, will continue to erode our troops and negate their sense of duty.


Essentially, we are failing our future by failing to learn from our past.  Our Non-Commissioned Officer Education System (NCOES) must be transformed at a pace commensurate with future combat systems, joint interoperatibility, asynchronous warfare, and effects-based munitions.  We cannot simply rely on innovative technology to win our future battles for at the end of the day, it is that infantryman, tanker, scout, or artilleryman that must take the fight to our enemy, to close with and destroy aggressively and with rapid dominance.


Leaders are responsible for providing our soldiers with the tools needed to win wars and provide for our nation’s defense.  One of those tools is historical reference.  Our current NCOES must immediately begin to inculcate junior leaders with the history of our army -- our success, our failures, our wars, our battles.  Men and women imparted with the privilege of wearing the uniform must first understand why we need an army, the risks of not having a strong army, and how our army is organized.  Second to a fundamental understanding of purpose, soldiers must be cognizant of the path to Army Transformation.  Why the need to transform, how we plan to fight future battles, and what their individual roles might be.  Third, leaders at all levels must motivate.  They must teach, mentor, and inform soldiers under their care. 


Soldier morale is directly correlated to leadership.  The disgruntled soldiers reported in the media are not necessarily examples of today’s soldier.  Indeed, they are a-typical examples of junior soldiers I’ve had the honor of serving.  The army as an institution, in part, bears the burden and responsibility for the opinions these young soldiers expressed for we have done little to instill a sense of historical perspective in them.  Skeptics are welcome to disagree; yet my experience tells me differently.  How many soldiers know when the Army’s birthday is unless they needed to study that for an upcoming board?  How many soldiers know who our great leaders are and how their inspiration encouraged thousands of men to bear arms – Grant American Ulysses: A Life of Ulysses S. Grant, Patton George Patton: A Life From Beginning to End, McArthur American Caesar: Douglas MacArthur 1880 - 1964, Eisenhower Eisenhower: Soldier and President (The Renowned One-Volume Life), Ridgeway Matthew B. Ridgway: Soldier, Statesman, Scholar, Citizen, Schwarzkopf It Doesn't Take a Hero : The Autobiography of General H. Norman Schwarzkopf, or Powell My American Journeyto name but a few?  How many soldiers know of the tremendous sacrifices their forefathers shared in order to protect our freedoms?  The answers to these and other questions may surprise us all, yet we have the opportunity, on the heels of transformation, to change this paradigm.  Knowledge of history and tradition contributes to soldiers better equipped to deal with present and future challenges.


Identifying the problem is only half the battle, providing a solution is the other.  Certainly, this is not to say we need more history teachers in our ranks.  Yet, we must recognize the lack of historical reference within our enlisted education system and move quickly to fix this deficiency.  NCOES must reassess its purpose, redefine its mission, and realign its learning outcomes to meet the challenges of future war.  This is a lengthy process, one that cannot happen overnight or under the sole tutelage of our most senior non-commissioned officers, many with more than three decades of valued service.  It takes leaders who can think “out of the box,” who are visionaries as well as warriors, and can articulate the needs of our junior non-commissioned officers while simultaneously developing an innovative framework for establishing a new sense of understanding, rationale, and information sharing.


How do we instill a sense of historical reference?  We must endeavor to educate ourselves as well as our soldiers.  In a career spanning 20 years of active duty, there have been several written works that contributed to my personal understanding of our army and our history.  Two excellent books that come to mind are Tom Brokaw’s The Greatest Generation and Charles Heller’s America's First Battles, 1776-1965.  These books are riveting, insightful, poignant, and replete with lessons learned our army cannot afford to forget. 


Winning our nation’s wars requires a non-negotiable contract with our constituencies, the American citizen – our mothers, fathers, sons, and daughters.  We can teach soldiers to engage enemy targets with tremendous stand-off, employing the most sophisticated weapons in the world, at a time and place of our choosing, with speed, lethality, and mobility, yet, we can not teach high morale.  This must come from within, based on beliefs, values, a common bond, respect, and personal motivators.  It must start with knowing where we as an army have been -- with historical reference to not only the sacrifices, but also the purposes and accomplishments of our predecessors.  High morale is a combat multiplier of gigantic proportion.  Lack of morale can lead to disaster, yet with high morale, in concert with Army Transformation, we cannot be defeated.  In the final analysis, it is the leader who must influence the morale of his soldiers.  No one said it would be easy.


Copyright © 2003, Steven J. Greer, All Rights Reserved



 Author:  Steven J. Greer is a retired US Army Command Sergeant Major.  He earned a Bachelor's degree from Liberty University and a Master of Arts in Land Warfare from American Military University.  He is an adjunct professor at AMU and teaches courses on special operations strategy, low-intensity conflict, insurgency, and revolution.  [This information was current at the time of 2003 publication].