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You’d have to be a hermit snowbound in a cave in Montana not to know that America’s armed forces are held together with duct tape, bailing wire and gallons of sweat.

The kids that daily put their lives on the line all over this messed-up world have tanks without engines, planes without parts, ships without gear and a military infrastructure — hangers, barracks, ranges — that looks more like that of a Third World military force, not the one you and I support to the tune of 300 billion bucks a year.

But there’s a bigger problem than the material side of things turning to rust and dust. People, some of our best and brightest, are walking in big numbers. And wars are won by fighting men, not hardware. Won by men who are willing to make the sacrifice that frequently includes their lives.

Contrary to popular myth, being a soldier or a sailor is a hard life. The pay stinks, the working hours are long and too often some SOB is looking down the barrel of his weapon trying to convert your warm body into a notch on his stock.

Besides being dangerous, the job calls for months of being away from the family and living in sewer conditions that your city’s board of health
would condemn in a drill sergeant’s minute.

So, why do it? Patriotism, the challenge, adventure and belonging to the Band of Brothers are just part of the answer.

Most warriors don’t look at soldiering as a job, but as a calling to lead special people and defend America. When everything clicks, being a member of our country’s armed force is not just satisfying; it’s adrenaline-pumping, soul satisfying fun.

But in 1998 the fun is in short supply, which explains the exodus of many of our best sergeants and chiefs and young officers.

Sure, the robo-cop Clinton deployments and the shortages which have made doing too much with too little almost a mantra in today’s military have made things tough, but these by themselves aren’t why morale is lower than CNN’s believability after their phony nerve gas story.

The big problem is that many of the senior brass have forgotten to live by the principles of leadership. The brass — most lieutenant colonels/commanders to four stars — has lost the basic look-after-the-troops type of leadership. Leaders with the right stuff have been replaced with careerists who put show over go, career over the troops and the truth.

A recent Army survey reveals that almost 70 percent of soldiers don’t trust their senior leadership.

Army Captain Scott Custer says he resigned because he became tired of sitting through marathon briefings with a commander “who cared more about our soldier’s teeth than with the fact that our infantry squad leaders had never cleared a trench line in the dark; tired of planning training events which were so canned that their only result was to expend ammunition because the lane required no leadership decisions to be made by our young sergeants.”

The small unit leaders who are quitting are tired of the senior leaders who specialize in micro-management, the close-to-the-vest, fail-safe decision makers who as one captain put it are “administrators masquerading as leaders.”

Scott, who had a brilliant future when he resigned, says today’s senior leaders lack the one ingredient necessary in an effective leader. Something not taught in service schools: “vision.”

Many other studs who are hanging it up say senior leaders are more concerned with “appearance” than what’s right for their troops.

Another captain says, “They’re afraid of a black mark on their record and afraid to fight for their soldiers if it means bucking the system. They’re all about the next promotion, not standing tall for what’s right.”

Twenty-six-year veteran, Regimental Command Sergeant Major Clifton P. O’Brien II of the elite 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, who’s retiring prematurely, says, “We are in a dive. It gets worse monthly.”

Too bad for our country. The people that are hanging up their suits are tomorrow’s Matt Ridgways and Chester Nimitzes.

Who will lead our forces 20 years from now? Will the present crop of non-risk taking corporate managers who stick around because it’s a job become our future top brass?

If that’s the case, we better all start learning Chinese.

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