11 December 2004

Off Point: Rumsfield & the Question

Okay, it was back in the 90's. My unit 519th Military Intelligence Battalion (Tactical Exploitation, Airborne) was technically "Airborne." However, large numbers of soldiers in the unit (including yours truly) were "Legs." It wasn't all that important in reality because most of our unit was never, ever going to jump into combat (this was before F company joined the battalion). It had little to do with our individual company missions and for a long time we trained for our missions so we could do them well.

Then one day we got a new LTC. He was a disaster. Now, I don't know if he didn't understand our mission or if he was trying to use the unit as a stepping stone in his career. All I know is that all of the sudden we started doing things which could be tracked on paper and shown to superiors instead of a number of mission specific things which didn't really show and wouldn't matter unless someday we actually had to perform the mission in a combat zone. He also cared a lot about appearances.

So one day we have a battalion inspection. That was pretty typical but then he had us all come into the area theater. He stood up on the stage and announced that he was considering having everyone in the battalion wear maroon berets whether they were Airborne or not (at the time Airborne wore berets while Legs wore field caps). Then he asked for comments. The first person called on was a Sergeant First Class who worked in the Headquarters building and he laid down the party line: "That's a great idea, sir. I think it will build unit cohesiveness and blah, blah blah . . ."

Every soldier that commented from that point until they stopped taking comments (about 30 minutes later) told the battalion commander how bad his idea was and laid out reasons. It was very, very clear that almost all the soldiers in the unit thought this was a really bad idea. And the commander did not have any satisfactory answers; it was obvious that he wanted us all wearing berets so the unit would look more Airborne and make him look better. Of course, nothing we said was listened to - a week later the message came down that we were all to start wearing berets and we did.

Which is a long-winded way to say that it was my experience that in today's professional - but rarely career Army - soldiers will do as ordered (complete their mission) but are not afraid to tell their superiors what they think. They are citizen-soldiers, not soldier-citizens, and don't fear the prospect of harming their careers. This is doubly true when you are talking about Guards and Reserves.

Of course, this all leads to the burning question: WHY???

Why would Rumsfeld open himself up so he could get dinged like that? While I generally disagree with Ogre's comment about this post from Gleeful Extremist, he is absolutely right in his last sentence conclusion: "The military is NOT a Democracy." Those senior in the chain of command should show up, inspect, hand out medals, give the rousing speech, and leave. Town Hall formats are things tailored for a democratic process; they are meant to have a politician answer questions from citizens - you know, the people he's supposed to answer to. Senior members of the chain of command may answer to the President, Congress, the citizenry, &cetera but they cannot and must not answer to soldiers. Rumsfeld should have made his speech and walked away.

However, the truly interesting part is that the question was the right one to ask and has (at least seemingly) brought a positive reaction. Some reports have credited this to a reporter (because we all know no soldier would be bright enough to ask it). I am deeply suspicious of the claim that the reporter actually authored the question. In particular, there is strong evidence that the SPC Wilson was concerned about this before he left to go to the Middle East. The reaction from the assembled soldiers would also put the lie to the reporter's claim: "Shouts of approval and applause arose from the estimated 2,300 soldiers who had assembled to see Rumsfeld." This is indicative of a unit where the concerns voiced were widespread; this is probably a subject which has been discussed ad nauseum among the troops. Maybe the reporter helped the Specialist phrase the question but he was not the origin of it.

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