The importance of demanding performance before promotion

To the editor:

A response to Robert Weissberg:

It might have been a failure of good intentions, but it was more likely to have been living so high up in an ivory tower as to be unable to see the ground. I lost interest in college about three quarters of the way through my first year, and joined the army. Basic training at Fort Dix in 1951 was considerably different from a campus in upstate New York. For one thing, you were not permitted to lose interest.

The training staff (cadre) at Fort Dix were a mixture of volunteers and draftees. The thing they had in common was combat experience. In our platoon the sergeants were, mostly, black, as were the recruits they trained. And, also, judged. If you were dumb as a brick, you were going to learn to march in formation, operate and maintain your weapon, keep yourself and your equipment clean and ready for use, and learn to follow orders. Especially follow orders.

One of the men in my squad was attending one of the historic military colleges when he was drafted. He knew the manual of arms for the sabre, of all things! Another was a black kid from New York’s slums who nearly blew my head off when he pulled the trigger before he started to clean his rifle because he had disobeyed the order to make sure it was safe before leaving the range. One who was pulled from our group early was selected, based on two weeks of intake tests, to go to NSA and learn to decipher morse code in Korean.

My point is, the sergeants’ job was to produce soldiers who could go into combat with other men, not endanger their lives, and possibly contribute to the success of the mission. If a man could “see lightning and hear thunder,” he was going to learn, by brute force, if necessary. The sergeants were not concerned in the least about his capabilities, his feelings, or his place in society. The recruit was going to learn. And he did learn.

And at the end of basic training, the cadre got together and talked about the trainees. If a man caught on quickly, not only followed orders but understood them, or showed aptitude in other ways, they were offered opportunities to advance. Some of our cadre sergeants were not sergeants at all. They were corporals who had been assigned to the Leadership Training Division out of Basic. If they did well in training us, the next step was Officer Training. The graduation rate from Basic was extremely high, because everyone involved had an incentive to make it hat way. The Army could, and did, use any just about anyone who came in he door.

The failure of academics to understand what Kipling wrote about soldiers a hundred years earlier, not too many good intentions, created the mess. It was lack of rigor at the start, and failure to demand performance before promotion. In practice, the real intention was to fill classrooms and provide salaries for professors, not to educate.

James S. Taylor
Tooele, Utah