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A Think Piece on the U.S. Army's Sorry Readiness Record

By Sergeant Major John Boyce
U.S. Army Special Forces (Retired)

Dear COL Hackworth:

I just read your piece, "What ever happened to Private Ryan's Army?" As one old soldier to another I think I can tell you what happened. It's what always happens to the US Army. It's gone on its butt -- again. As a general statement that's where it usually is -- on its butt. Private Ryan's army was the US Army at it's best, perhaps its all time best. In normal times the Army ranges from moderately foolish to absolute farce. Two or three times it has risen to the heroic stature of Private Ryan. But not often and never for long. Never for long! For the most part, Lt. Gen. Claudia Kennedy is a reasonably good example of the army as it normally is. Not necessarily in her specific commitment to the goofy notion that sensitivity training has a place in a war fighting machine, but as typical of the unfocused, tangentially preoccupied and essentially specious military leadership that is out historic norm.


Let me start with the bottom line so you'll know from the beginning where I'm trying to go. That line is: "There is no perceived need." That is, over the long run, we have not perceived the need to sustain a quality ground force; therefore we have never made the effort. Further, I would argue, the perception is correct. With a couple of exceptions, we have not had the need. Thus we have the Generals Kennedy et el.

I take a Darwinian view. In this context it means, to me, we needn't look at anything that doesn't contribute to our survival. I think that's a rational approach. We only do those things that contribute to our survival. As we are, allegedly, a sentient species, I think I would modify that to say we only do those things that we "perceive" are contributory to our survival. Further, I am being "descriptive" not "prescriptive." I am describing what I think, "is" the case, not what I think "ought" to be the case.

First let me offer some generalities:

I'm not sure whether war is systemic or endemic. Is it part of the hardware or part of the software? I've always believed hardware; now I'm leaning toward software. If it is systemic, (hardware) then should we not expect that we (we the species) would do a much better job of retaining war-related lessons learned? I'm willing to argue yes. That is, if it were "in our blood" so to speak, you would not have to go to school to learn basic warrior skills. It would be second nature. Oops, it would be our "prime" nature.

If it were fundamental to us, I think we would be much better at it. Perhaps it's a good thing it's not systemic. If it is not, we may be reprogramable without fundamentally altering and/or distorting the species.

How many warriors are there in a given society at any given time? (Indeed what is a warrior -- another serious question.) I've heard general officers say that every one in a uniform is a warrior. I think not. My WAG (Wild Assed Guess) is the number is somewhere between 4-7%. So what's the point? If it were more like, say 50%, we would retain the lessons much better. And we would likely be at each other's throats all the time. We always complain that we are forever getting ready for the last war. This is somehow considered a deficiency. Not true I think. What else do the "powers that be" know but the last one? The next one will always be redefined on the battlefield as it unfolds. By contrast, Training And Doctrine Command (TRADOC) says they will scope out the next one before it happens and have the answers ready before we go. They will do it by, "...climbing to the top of the virtual Mt. and surveying the terrain." (That's a paraphrase of TRADOC's mission statement.) Wrong! It won't be from a virtual Mt. Top; it'll be, as always, written in blood. Kids' blood. The traditionally large number of early casualties will demonstrate the sharpness of the learning curve. I think that is the way it is; it is probably the way it must be. (Remember, I'm being descriptive, not prescriptive -- "is" not "ought.") Point being, TRADOC not withstanding, we'll continue doing what we have always done -- not be ready.

Part 2 - OK, some specifics:

What I say now is for the US Army, not for our Navy and not the Air Force. I don't have any opinion on the Air force, but I believe the Navy has always been a cut or two above the Army. This has always been so. Also, I would point out that some of the sloppiness of the Army is in direct proportion to the overall efficiency of the Navy. This is, I think a truism, probably good for all cultures and times. The point is, for a maritime power (such as we are) if you can hammer them at Trafalgar, you don't have to worry about stopping them on the beaches of Dover or the salt marches of the Thames. The squids will claim they have always been a more competent crew than the Army. The fundamental reason is, they insist, that they have to do battle with the larger enemies all the time -- the weather and the sea. Thus, critical institutional knowledge is kept current. Not so for land forces.

The four pillars of incompetence:

1. The Atlantic Ocean: Number one by far. Napoleon couldn't even get the 21 (23?) miles to Dover. From there it would be what, a two thousand-mile march to New York? You can get away with a lot of stupid things with that kind of protection.

2. The Pacific Ocean: Same as the Atlantic only bigger. Following Pearl Harbor, we sustained minuscule damage on the West Coast in W.W.II from Japan. That's been it.

3. Canada: Excepting one significant invasion attempt; remains a friendly (and comparatively weak) neighbor to the North.

4 Mexico: Even less of a threat to the South.

To me this is the crux of it. We as a country, as a culture, as a people, call us what you will, have never had, and have correctly understood that we do not have a need for much of an Army. We are the benefactors/victims of our geopolitical reality. We have no immediate, obvious military threats.

Large or small, competent or bumbling, our Army's never been anything we much worry about. On specific occasions, and for short periods of time, yes. For the most part and over the long haul, no. As soon as the perceived threat goes away the Army goes away. This is reflected in congressional budgets, public opinion polls, recruiting standards, Army pay, and a zillion other ways. We have more history with the hollow Army than the efficient Army. We have had more inadequate armies than competent armies. We have had more shriveled up armies than bloated armies. Even now, we are shriveled in machine gunners and bloated in generals. Part of the reason for this is we the people don't really care. It's nothing we worry about. We don't see the need. Indeed we don't have a need. If we're in trouble, we have always had the time to get ready. That's probably still the case. Power projection? We probably have the time, if we have the will, to protect our "vital interest" in other parts of the world. Yet, I note we won't even properly fund or make valid our two regional conflict concept. Who's kidding whom?

In terms of personalities, I'm afraid we can expect a plethora of Kennedy's (male and female) a few George A. Custers and a dearth of George S. Pattons. To use David Halberstam's phrase "the brightest and the best" may start off at West Point but they don't stick around like they used to. Patton may have gone to the Point but he would now be working for Microsoft or HP. Perhaps McClellans are what we have the most of. McClellans and some Meads. In either case, they represent about what we can expect in military leadership. Anything more is an accidental bonus.

President Coolidge is supposed to have said, "The nation's business is business." That's a heck of a lot closer to what we really believe than, "National security is our business." That goes in the "lip service only" file. How many times have we vowed, "never again?" "Never again" is only sustained by a perceived threat. Time (and often success) erodes everything. Notice how, during the Empire, the Romans fell away from the arduous and time-consuming practice of castramentation, that bulwark of the Republican armies. Watch for the increasing use of "notional play" at the National Training Center. The erosion of the integrity of the NTC and JRTC is my personal barometer of our seriousness in maintaining combat standards.

Part 3

Have we ever maintained a quality ground force for any length of time between wars? I don't think so. The patchwork results during the 45 years of the Cold War show nothing sustained. We had a clear enemy from the Berlin Airlift to the fall of the Berlin Wall. Nevertheless, we seriously weakened our NATO commitment to sustain our effort in Vietnam. In both cases, we had two large oceans working full time for us. No VC made it to San Pedro; no Ruskies in Jersey.

My reading of American history only shows one period when I think we maintained our military preparedness. This would be from the first Indian response to the Treaty of Fort Stanwick to the Battle of Fallen Timbers. That is, for 25 years, from 1769 to 1794, we were "good to go." The border wars of the upper Ohio Valley were a series of skirmishes, fire fights, ambushes, raids and Forts besieged. Kidnappings, murder and torture were par for the course. (The Plains Indians had nothing on these boys!) The whites responded in kind -- often striking first. What I find interesting for our discussion are two points. First, they were ready. The threat was real, perceived and immediate. In general terms, both sides were always ready.

Second, this was primarily a militia war. Often it was just "the boys" who were handy and close by. When it was a little more formal, it was more of "the boys" under Captain so and so. Lewis Wetzel, likely the greatest American warrior ever, never wore a uniform. (Warrior; not General, not war manager, but an "in your face" warrior.) It's not too much of a stretch to say, the only time the US sustained a ready force over a significant period of time, it was done primarily by civilians!

Despite General Douglas MacArthur's romanticized view, the winning of the West was not done by the army but by civilians. For the most part, and with few exceptions, the US army followed the pioneers across the West not the other way around. In many places there was no Army.

In contrast, the Russian expansion was lead by her military. In 1480 Ivan III (Ivan the Great) began the roll back of the Mongol Empire. By the beginning of the 18th century, in planned, systematic campaigns, the Grand Duchy of Muscovy expanded first south and then east. They had already expanded westward reacquiring territory lost to the disintegrating Mongol Empire. Spearheaded primarily by the Cossacks, they subdued tribe after tribe as they opened up the south and east. Thus the army was a key instrument of national policy and "Russian manifest Destiny." From the beginning of the 18th century to at least the beginning of the 20th century, the Russian army has been central to its national goals. Russia, as we know it, was created by the power of it's military. We can make no comparable claim for the US army.

Another point:

Baring the metamorphosis of Canada and/or Mexico into a viable military menace -- a perceived, viable menace -- nothing will change. We will have an up and down army; good enough for the times but nothing sustained. Old soldiers, like you and I, will tear our hair out and gnash out teeth as we see things going downhill. We know the price the next generation will have to pay. Nevertheless, I'm afraid it's the way it's going to be. There will always be a learning curve. And the kids will pay for it. Let's be thankful there's all that water out there protecting us until we get it right.

Now, I'm real sure you knew all this before I started. As a friend pointed out to me, the US Army has proven the great philosopher, George Santayana, had it wrong. Even if we remember history, we are still doomed to relive it. (I'd like to see Wesley Clark's grade for his staff study on the Custer disaster. I'll bet he got an "A+" as plebe on the study then made some of the exact same "Custer" mistakes as a general.)

Our sniveling confirms that we (graybeards like you and me) have bought the cover story. The cover story is, "The job of the US Army is the defense of the USA; indeed, the defense of western civilization." The real mission: "Provide careers and career progression for a large number of amiable but mediocre folks." Well now! Once you know the real mission, it all makes sense, right?

Remember; concealment is not cover.

Best Regards,

SGM (Ret.) John Boyce 18Z

Sergeant Major Boyce's letter is a reply to Colonel Hackworth's "Defending America" article "Whatever Happened To Private Ryan's Army?" - 22 September 1999.  The original article can be viewed at: http://www.hackworth.com/21sep99.html.

John Boyce is a retired U.S. Army Special Forces soldier. The article originally appeared  on Colonel David Hackworth's web site  - www.Hackworth.com. - The article is republished here in it's entirety with Sergeant Major Boyce's permission and the approval of Colonel David H. Hackworth.

If you would like permission to transmit or publish this document in any format, please contact the Web Team at Gunnery Network and we will forward your request to the Sergeant Major for action.



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