In praise of the noncoms
WHETHER IN New Orleans or Baghdad, at home or abroad, the real workhorses of our post-9/11 military have not come from among the generals and colonels, or even the captains and lieutenants, but from the enlisted ranks of sergeants and corporals.
As any West Pointer or Annapolis-educated officer will tell you, these noncommissioned officers -- NCOs or noncoms in military lingo -- are the heart and soul of the U.S. military, the repository of its culture and traditions.
They are a poorly paid, blue-collar corps, many of them just high school graduates. Two-thirds of all Marines are noncommissioned and in their first four-year enlistment. Nearly 90% of Army Special Forces soldiers, or Green Berets, are sergeants of one grade or another.
The average American has not worn a uniform since the draft ended more than three decades ago, so perhaps we may be forgiven for clinging to the stereotype of the growly sergeant hovering over a recruit doing push-ups, as in the 1960s comedy series “Gomer Pyle, USMC.”
But the truth is that the sergeant of today (or chief petty officer in the Navy) is generally a technical expert and corporate-style manager who may speak several exotic languages. One Special Forces master sergeant with whom I recently traveled in Algeria, who grew up on a family farm in New Hampshire, had handled military and humanitarian emergencies in 73 countries in the course of a 17-year Army career.
Never before in military history have noncommissioned officers -- who deal at the lowest tactical level, where operational success or failure is determined -- been so critical. This is because of the changing nature of conflict.
As the age of mass-infantry warfare closes -- and the battlefield disperses and empties out over vast deserts, jungles and poor, sprawling cities -- armies increasingly operate unconventionally in small, autonomous units, at the level of the platoon and below, where sergeants reign supreme.
It was the Prussian Baron Friedrich von Steuben who, during the 1777-'78 winter at Valley Forge, laid the groundwork for the NCO corps as it exists today. Thus, he created the genius of the American military: the radical decentralization of command so that the general directive of every commissioned officer is broken down into practical steps by sergeants and corporals at the furthest edge of the battleground. Commissioned officers give orders; NCOs get things done.
Because the world of NCOs is tactical, they do not voice opinions about such things as “should or should we not have intervened,” and thus for the media they often remain invisible.
The idealistic captain or lieutenant has become a mainstay of much military reporting, including my own. NCOs, by contrast, are generally tight-lipped, except when you ask them about the technical task at hand. Then they can’t stop talking. Ask them what they do, never how they feel, has become my motto.
But the captains and lieutenants are useless without their sergeants. And in Fallouja, Iraq, when a young Marine lieutenant was killed along with his staff sergeant, I observed a corporal seamlessly take command.
NCOs are a particularly American species, perhaps because the ever-expanding frontier of Western settlement in North America was all about doing, not imagining: clearing land, building shelters, obtaining food supplies. Though the family farm is dying across the continent, almost half of the 12-man Special Forces A-team with which I was embedded in Algeria had grown up on family farms.
This fine NCO corps is also a product of America’s middle-class society. In many a Third World army, the gulf between officers and enlistees is that between aristocrats and peasants. Because such class distinctions do not really exist here, the consequence is an NCO corps that deals confidently with its superiors, so that lieutenants revere and depend upon their sergeants. It is that bond that is at the core of a military that gets the greatest possible traction out of the worst possible policies.
But NCOs are not sufficiently listened to. The three most desperately needed items in Iraq today are ones that NCOs have long been emphasizing: armored Humvees, “blue-force” trackers for situational awareness of the battlefield and SAPI plates (small-arms protective inserts for flak vests).
NCOs now complain about the heavy equipment they have to carry: all the latest gizmos merely make it easier for an insurgent in flip-flops and armed with an AK-47 to outrun the fittest Marine. NCOs keep the military focused on basics -- the overlooked stuff that wins wars.
Defense policy is only as good as its application by NCOs. In Afghanistan, I saw how general discussions in Washington about building an Afghan national army had limited relevance to NCOs and their immediate superiors in the field, who had to decide -- based on matters of ethnicity and personality -- which tribal militias to keep in place and which to disband.
Especially in an age when field troops are scrutinized under media Klieg lights, the actions of individual NCOs can have untold political consequences.
Although reinstituting ROTC at elite universities is central to healthy civilian-military relations, the far more pressing issue today is providing more NCOs with educations at state and community colleges during their time in the military, and further invigorating NCO leadership courses at places such as Ft. Benning, Ga., and Ft. Bragg, N.C.
NCOs will not become proficient at foreign languages until such study is integrated into their training schedules and becomes relevant to their rank promotion.
Despite all the buzz about “transformation,” policymakers forget that real transformation is about human beings, not weapons systems. It’s about the lowliest grunts.