Donn Starry on Soldiers and Training

GEN Donn A. Starry in Vietnam as a Colonel and Regimental Commander of 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment

The speech below was given in January 1981 by GEN Donn Starry to a gathering of cavalry professionals at the annual Cavalry Ball. He spoke on the generational and cultural divide between older leaders and new recruits and Soldiers. I was reminded of this speech recently while attending a pre-command course with a block of instruction entitled “Generation Translation.”

I’m not sure the reflections of GEN Starry over 40 years ago are all that different from what they would be now. I’d go so far as to say that GEN Starry’s comments, in their entirety below, sound as if they could have been given 40 minutes ago with no modification and be just as relevant.

When 4th Squadron, 10th U.S. Cavalry Regiment was deployed to Europe in 2017 I re-read this speech while in Varpalota, Hungary shortly after taking command of the squadron. I sent it out as part of the Black Jack Self-Study Program — I invite you to take a look at the link and see the questions for reflection from July 2017.

Nearly four years have gone by since this article was first featured on this blog and over 40 years since these words were first spoken by GEN Starry. The more times I read it the more convinced I am of their timeless nature in relationship to leadership and the perspectives of one generation of another. The only glaring difference between then and now is the characteristics of specific technologies.

Two questions for reflection:

  1. What is your biggest takeaway after reading?
  2. How can you implement some of GEN Starry’s perspective into your own leadership style?

I present to you the words of GEN Starry.

Cavalry Ball, Fort Carson, CO; 9 January 1981

“You’re far too knowledgeable an audience for me to dwell long on the legends of cavalry, so I thought instead we’d share some thoughts on command in today’s Army. As a first order of business, let me assure you that I’m not naive enough to believe that the environment of command is the same as it was when I was in your place. To believe that is to ignore, at some peril, the events of the last 25 or so years — military, sociological, economic, and political. Times have indeed changed, and so has the Army, and with it the atmosphere of command.

In fact, the only constant in the equation of command is the soldier — the young man or woman who has to lay his [or her] life on the line for his [or her] country. That may surprise you that I believe the soldier si the same, considering the media exposures and expert committee reports that have drawn so much attention recently. With behavioral sciences, the technological revolution, the TV generation, and all the other tags, titles, and panaceas that have been applied to this generation of young people, we are often led to believe that they are radically different. But they aren’t. They are still young human beings. They are, like their forebears, impressionable, scared, brave, and willing to respond to the right approach.

That’s the big hitch — the right approach. It does no good as a commander to agonize over whether they can read or not, whether they were properly motivated to join the service, whether they are losers, whether they have high aspirations or not. Those points are primarily interesting from an academic point of view. Today’s soldiers are indeed products of the world in which they were raised. In the short time they are under your command, you won’t realistically be able to change much or any of that.

So the first point for a commander is to accept them as they are — young human beings with a basic desire to succeed. For some of them, it hasn’t been easy. No one has ever taught them the necessity to keep trying even when they fail. They grew up in a success-oriented world, and many were rebuffed on their first try. Some were tossed aside by society and given no encouragement or alternatives. So they drift. Not yet losers — they’re too young for that; they haven’t really had a good fight. The danger is that, when society quickly gives up on them, they give up on themselves.

In accepting them as a product of their times, the commander must realize they don’t in fact read as well as we did because they have learned through pictures — TV, electronic media, whatever you want to call it. They don’t or can’t visualize on their own because, in their world, they never had to. So our training must be presented in the same fashion — either through electronic media or on the real item of equipment. We cannot rely on their imagination because it’s not very highly developed.

The second point I’d like to make concerns their own attitudes. They have been raised in a world of nuclear jeopardy and learned to live with it on a day-to-day basis. Crises, whether real or manufactured, no longer impress them. Theirs has not been a quiet time. Assassinations of high officials, kidnappings, wars, threats of wars, protests, strikes, marches, and crises of integrity at high level s have been their steady diet, brought instantly into focus by the cameras.

Given that type of environment, who wouldn’t be affected by it? They are cynical of all that they see and outspokenly candid in their thoughts. They have observed that the “squeaking wheel gets greased,” and they have learned to apply that principle. They are not often content to do something or believe something just because someone says so. They require, and will demand if necessary, explanations for the way others attempt to arrange their lives.

Facing this, many oldtimers and some new ones throw up their hands and say, “They’re untrainable, undisciplined, and losers.” That’s a real easy alternative. Of course it doesn’t solve anything but it does absolve us of any blame, if we’re still around after the next war. Gratefully, those who approach the problem in this vein are few in number.

For the rest of us, those who are willing to do some real work, there is an approach we can take. It involves some understanding of our soldiers’ background; some candor on our part; some imagination as to how we approach training; and finally a realization that our Army and our soldiers cannot be equated to some impersonal, quantified statistic. Let me talk for a minute on that last point.

Because of the fast-paced world we live in, the invention of the computer, the discovery of vast new analysis techniques, and the proliferation of pocket calculators, we are a nation that consumes statistics at an ever-increasing rate. We have raised the art of quantifying — the ability to put a number on everything — to a religion, or at least an obsession. Unfortunately, we only quantify the easy things. The hard things we ignore.

So in the Army we have indicators of morale, leadership, command, and so on — AWOL rate, court-martial rate, disease rate, bond rate, charity rates. It never seems to end. Many believe we can put a number on just how good or bad a commander is. After all, we have over a hundred various indicators ranging from operational readiness rates to chapel attendance. In a recent survey, one division published a 62-page quarterly book covering 46 different topics.

None of these so-called indicators are ever addressed in any priority or in relation to their contributions to how to fight and win the next war. They exist, they are a statistic, they’re measurable, they’re quantifiable, and therefore they are important But because they are measurable, are they really important? Can command, can our soldiers, can our Army be reduced to a bar graph presentation of statistics? I think not.

So what approach can we take to command and to our soldiers that is fair and that takes into account the important unmeasurable intangibles? General Creighton Abrams said it best, “People are not in the Army, they are the Army.” People require a personal approach by commanders. Personal observation, personal guidance, and personal interest mean that you can’t command anything from behind a desk. It doesn’t require charisma. Most of us aren’t blessed with that anyway. But it does require eyeball-to-eyeball contact with those under our charge.

Second, we’ve got to put a brake on the meaningless collection of unrelated and irrelevant statistics — irrelevant because they don’t measure either our soldiers or our mission. We struggled with this problem in TRADOC in training. Remember the old MOS tests and ATTs? When we went to change these, we discovered that we were measuring irrelevancy. So we did some front-end analysis and developed sets of tasks that a soldier and the unit should be able to do to accomplish his job. These became the SQTs and ARTEPs that we use today. Notice, however, that these measures provide a standard, a norm, not a comparison point.

Commanders should apply that same methodology to all the statistical data they collect today, a front-end analysis to decide if the statistic really measures anything relevant to being a soldier. If not, do away with it. Hand in hand with this is the absolute necessity to avoid comparison of units and individuals to each other by statistics. They should be measured to a standard, not to each other. Comparison to each other only results in a race. If you put enough emphasis on a comparison, you’ll get a change, but the cost often invalidates the statistic.

Let me sum this up. Command in today’s Army requires that the commander understand the background of the generation of young people in his charge. He must communicate with them using methods and terminology that they understand. He must challenge them with tasks and jobs that they understand are meaningful to the mission.

The commander today must be more candid and patient in explaining the why of doing things. Sometimes, when this is done, we find no real reason for the task. If that’s the case, we probably don’t need to do it. “Because we always did it that way” is no longer a valid reason. This kid of introspection is good for any unit or individual.

Commanders must avoid statistical comparisons between units or individuals. Standards — performance tests — should be our basic approach to any mission. The use of statistics has to be modified with a personal interest and evaluation of the unit or individual. Professionalism in our craft requires that commanders know their own job and that of their subordinates. Above all, we must be willing to teach our soldiers how to do their jobs. It can’t come only from books and TV tapes. As a part of the teaching process, we must allow our subordinates room to experiment, to make mistakes, and to learn from those mistakes. It’s much better to go through this process in peacetime training than to pay the painful cost in war.

Now, all that I’ve said doesn’t mean that there is no place for competition. Competition is a natural process; the human desire to succeed, to be the best, is deeply rooted. It would be foolish not to capitalize on that. But the competition must be organized i such a way that the competitors — units or individuals — can in fact affect the end result.

It is of no value to have competition on operational readiness rates if the competitors are ultimately at the mercy of the supply system for parts. We’re not measuring the readiness program of the unit; we’re measuring the whole system. Nor is it any good to compare test scores on SQT tests between individuals when they, in turn, are at the mercy of various training systems that must compete for time with operational missions. Only a common standard will avoid the frustrations that will result from these examples.

So competition must be controlled and guided toward a goal that the competitors can achieve and ne that produces a worthwhile result. That, in itself, is a big challenge to the commander.

Finally, let me note that commanders of today have an opportunity to correct a serious mistake that has been made by the predecessors, relegating of the NCO to an administrative assistance role. How or why this happened is buried in the parameters of 20-year retirements, the Vietnam War, and many other reasons. But it has occurred, and our NCOs know it, and we should be candid enough to admit it. We’ve tied a generation of NCOs to paperwork, orderly rooms, and administrative work.

The job of training our soldiers in individual tasks — Sergeants’ Business, has been usurped by the officers or left to the individual or, worse yet, ignored. We’ve got to turn Sergeants’ Business back to the sergeants. Individual training of the soldiers is the responsibility of the NCO. Those NCOs I’ve talked with want that responsibility and the authority to carry out.

With the advent of SQTs, Soldier’s Manuals and Job Books, we have a ready-made system for the NCOs to take over. Only they can make the system work. Commanders have a rare opportunity to put this system on solid ground and, at the same time, return the NCO to his rightful position as a leader, a teacher, and a small unit commander. OF all the things you can do as a commander, this change will serve your unit and the Army the most.

I’d like to leave you with a thought I’ve said before and I firmly believe. Wars are won by the courage of soldiers, the quality of leaders, and the excellence of training. Of the soldier’s courage, there is no doubt. The quality of our leaders can be enhanced by the excellence of training, training that is realistic, meaningful, and thorough; training that adheres to standards that are understood and achievable; training that provides the intangible spark that convinces our soldiers and our leaders that they can and must win the battles of the next war; training that gives them the will and the knowledge that they are the best; training that provides them the skills and craftsmanship to do the job.”