Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Commentary: Doing the right thing

Command Sgt. Maj. Anthony Mahoney
2nd BCT, 10th Mtn. Div. (LI)

“Well, you see Willard…In this war, things get confused out there - power, ideals, the old morality and practical military necessity. Out there with these natives it must be a temptation to be God. Because there’s a conflict in every human heart between the rational and the irrational, between good and evil. The good does not always triumph. Sometimes the dark side overcomes what Lincoln called the better angels of our nature. Every man has got a breaking point – both you and I have. Walter Kurtz has reached his. And very obviously, he has gone insane.”
The dialogue between the characters Corman and Willard during the opening scene of the movie Apocalypse Now indicates, each of us, as mortals, struggle with temptations of moral and ethical conduct. One may simply acquiesce; citing the original sin from the Garden of Eden as evidence that we lack the ethical sinew to withstand the winds of moral turpitude. Or conversely, one may, to paraphrase Nancy Reagan, ‘just say no’ to conduct which is illegal, immoral or unethical, and therefore prejudicial to the good order and discipline of an organization.
George Washington once noted, “Discipline is the soul of an Army. It makes small numbers formidable; procures success to the weak and esteem to all.”
Army Regulation 600-20 states that military discipline is founded upon self-discipline, respect for properly constituted authority and embracing of the professional Army ethic with its supporting individual values. Furthermore, discipline is manifested in individuals and units by cohesion, bonding and a spirit of teamwork; by smartness of appearance and action; by cleanliness and maintenance of dress, equipment and quarters; by deference to seniors and mutual respect between senior and subordinate personnel; by the prompt and willing execution of both the letter and the spirit of the legal orders of their lawful commanders.
These characteristics are subjective metrics we use to compare and contrast the discipline of military units; we are all guilty of forming snap judgments as to the discipline of a unit simply by observing it during training or during a walk through of its motor pool areas and billets. For example, a first sergeant may display Army values posters on the orderly room walls, but does he require his subordinates to display those values through their personal conduct? A command sergeant major may require Soldiers to recite the seven Army values during promotion board procedures, but does he demonstrate those values through his personal example? Plainly stated, our actions speak much louder than our words.

Additionally, in the “Army of One” the actions of a few may bring discredit upon the many. We are all familiar with the concept of the strategic corporal. The actions of a few undisciplined individuals at the Abu Ghraib Detention Facility in Iraq resulted in a fury of public outcry around the world and a concomitant decrease in the prestige of the U.S. military, both at home and abroad.
Mao Tse-Tung understood well this concept when he published Basic Tactics. He observes, “Whether or not the military discipline of a unit is good influences the reputation of our whole Army and its ability to secure the sympathy and support of the popular masses.”
Remember, our actions speak louder than our words.
We can bring discredit upon ourselves, our unit and our nation through our own egregious acts of willing misconduct, and through our inaction in the presence of malfeasance. There is no defense or excuse for one’s conduct when you know that the deed is wrong and you proceed anyway.
As Soldiers, we have the general military authority to take action. The road to military dereliction is paved with the deeds of commission, as well as the sins of omission. I am evangelical in my conviction that all failure at the individual level can be attributed to one of three ultimate causes; lack of training, lack of resources or lack of motivation. If lack of these ingredients is a recipe for failure, than if present in the correct proportions, they can also produce delicious success. Knead the mixture with a little “leadership by example,” and the result will be a productive, cohesive unit.
Field-Marshall Viscount Slim records the importance of discipline in the final chapter of his memoir Defeat into Victory. He observes that, “At some stage in all wars Armies have let their discipline sag, but they have never won victory until they make it taut again; nor will they…We found it a great mistake to belittle the importance of smartness in turn-out, alertness of carriage, cleanliness of person, saluting, or precision of movement, and to dismiss them as naïve, unintelligent parade-ground stuff. I do not believe that troops can have unshakable battle discipline without showing those outward and formal signs, which mark the pride men take in themselves and their units, and the mutual confidence and respect that exists between them and their officers.”
Remember, your actions speak much louder than your words and do not ever compromise your honor. The concept of honor, while considered quaint and perhaps old fashioned to some, is the inculcation of those individual and group values we hold dear. Externally, honor manifests itself by deeds, and not words. Martin Van Creveld describes it best when he wrote, “When rewards become meaningless and punishment ceases to deter, honor alone retains the power to make men march into the muzzles of cannon trained at them.”
During the movie Apocalypse Now, Walter Kurtz got off the boat and quickly descended into the dark, decaying abyss of insanity. Good did not triumph and Kurtz allowed the darkness to overtake his better angels. In today’s decentralized operating environment opportunities abound for Soldiers and leaders to discover that they have impaled themselves on the horns of an ethical dilemma.
Much like Dorothy and her companions - the Tin Man who lacked a heart, the Scarecrow who needed a brain, and the cowardly lion - during their journey to find the Wizard of Oz, our Soldiers today must display that same sort of grit in order to navigate their “yellow brick road” on the slippery slope of ethical ambiguity. They must use their intelligence to distinguish legal issues in the fog and confusion of rapidly developing events, their heart to discern moral lassitude and their courage to execute the ethically correct option, even when it may not be the most comfortable personally.
In the final analysis, what matters most in the real world is not the deceptive outward public appearance, but the real man behind the curtain.

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