I’ve been meaning to write this one up for a long time. What finally prompted me to do it was a comment from a retired British Army sergeant major friend of mine:
Have a sinking feeling; have just read my way through the US Army Sergeants Major Academy website. What a profoundly depressing experience; who the fuck do these guys think they are? Sad to see the Aussies and Kiwis colluding.
He’s not the only one to have some negative thoughts about our current day sergeants major and command sergeants major. I am sure one or two of those will pipe up here, shortly.1
I’ve been retired now for a while and out of the line for longer still. Still, the reports I get – and you would be surprised at how many reports I get – are that, despite important exceptions, sergeant major has become something between a broken rank, a political special interest group, and a waste of human talent. Still, those are all hearsay, so I am going to talk only about what I’ve seen myself, and that a bit dated.
- My second first sergeant in my second company command, one George Rogers, had a connection with me from prior times; he’d been an instructor on the mortar square at Fort Polk when I was a private going through mortar AIT, in 1974.2 He was picked up for Command Sergeant Major and went to be the CSM for 3/19 Infantry, 24th Infantry Division. I asked him what he was going to do as a CSM. His answer was, “A hell of a lot more than check police call3 and haircuts, sir.” Six months later I asked him what he’d managed to do. His answer, given with disgust, was, “I check police call and haircuts.” This was a first class non-com, a former Marine infantryman with a preposterous number of tours in Vietnam, and a veteran of 1st Ranger Battalion, as well. But we had him checking police call and haircuts as his major reason to exist. Anyone see anything wrong with that?
- The best piece of advice I was ever given, in over three decades of military service in one capacity or component or another, was when I was a PFC, from my brigade CSM, Harvey P. Appleman, around October, 1975. It went to the effect of, “You’re probably worried that you’ll be afraid under fire. Don’t be. You’re going to be in charge of something when that day comes and you will be too busy to be afraid.” As it turned out, he was, of course, right.
- I retain a soft spot for CSM Blagoe Paul4, who was the sergeant major of 4th Battalion, 10th Infantry, in the Panama Canal Zone, when I was stationed there. Part of that is that I was probably the first buck sergeant in several years not to get his ass reamed for screwing up the formal raising and lowering of the flag for reveille and retreat. You see, CSM Paul’s quarters on Fort Davis Canal Zone, were well positioned for him to see the ceremony, and he made it a point to. Every damned day. And, sure, Paul was a hard ass but, like CSM Appleman, not too high, mighty, aloof, arrogant, etc., to spare some good advice and professional development on a promising young trooper.5
Still, with both Appleman and Paul, I was not really in a position – being so junior – to judge. With Rogers I could only share his disgust at the waste of human talent, while I never really had the chance to see his battalion from the inside. There was precisely one superlative command sergeant major I ever worked with, that I was senior enough and experienced enough to judge, and in a position to judge. He remains to me the beau ideal of what an Army CSM ought to be, how he ought to act, and what he ought to do.
His name was Joshua McIntosh. We met in the field, not too far from Bethel Cemetery, on Fort Stewart, Georgia, sometime in the spring of 1986. A jeep pulled up – yes, we still used M151s back then – and this tall skinny black dude I’d never seen before got out. He saluted and reported in with one of those melodious Virgin Island accents, “Sir, I’m the new battalion command sergeant major and I’m here to inspect training.” As with any other company commander under such circumstances, I was tactful, answering, as I returned his salute, “Glad to have you sergeant major.” Yeah, that was bullshit; no company commander, ever, was really happy to see the sergeant major show up.
Except that he didn’t act like any command sergeant major I’d ever seen since being commissioned. He pulled his ruck from the back of the jeep, slung it over one shoulder, then tapped the jeep twice with his palm to catch the driver’s attention before telling him to return to the rear with the jeep. Then he jumped in the back of one of my squad’s tracks.
He spent twelve days with us, as I recall. Every day he switched off to a new squad, while also spending a day each with the platoon sergeants. What was he doing? He was doing what one would hope every sergeant major would do; he was parleying his vast experience6 and leadership into teaching, coaching, and training my squad leaders and platoon sergeants to be better squad leaders and platoon sergeants.
I nearly died with joy. Dear God, what had I ever done to deserve the blessing of a super-senior non-com who, unlike the ones I’d been seeing for the last half dozen years, at that point, was actually trying to make his unit better in the best way he knew how, and that the best way to do it? Not really happy to see the sergeant major show up? My ass; after that, that man had a standing invitation to spend all day, every day, with my company, and I’d send my jeep to get him, too.
Super senior? He was actually the senior CSM on Fort Stewart. What was he doing as a mere battalion CSM? Simple; he flat refused to be the post, division, or a brigade CSM, because he thought it was a criminal waste of talent. He thought a CSM belonged in a battalion, and that a battalion of his own branch. He never said it quite this way but, in effect, his attitude was, “Let someone else spend his days worrying about police call and haircuts. I’m going to be a real battalion sergeant major.”
Unlike the other ones? Well, yes, some CSMs are arrogant asses, but that’s not all that intolerable and can be useful on occasion. Far worse that the 24th Infantry Division, particularly under Norman Schwarzkopf, was the epitome of the Class IX7 parts theory of personnel management. Bad enough that the infantry heavy brigade was commanded by a tanker and the tank heavy brigade commanded by a grunt, what they did with CSMs was simply absurd. There was a time when the first brigade of the division, the infantry heavy brigade, had an aviation mechanic for a CSM, while the tank battalion’s CSM was Special Forces, one of the infantry battalions was, if I recall correctly, from a maintenance background, and the other, though infantry, had spent eighty percent of his career in initial entry training assignments8, far, far from the realm of rapid maneuver with heavy vehicles. What did all those misplaced sergeants major have in common? Police call and hair cuts.
It can actually be even worse than that, though. There’s been a tendency for a long time to try to turn a CSM, even one like Josh, into a glorified clerk, worrying about NCOERs9, leave, and a host of fairly trivial matters that could be done as well by a not very smart private. In Josh’s case you could see it on his face, a perpetual scowl in garrison that turned into a bright, happy smile when the last building was passed on our way to the field. I know it because I gave him a lift to the field from time to time in my jeep or track and watched the change.
Were it my call, I’d follow Josh’s advice and example, get rid of all CSM positions above brigade and possibly above battalion, allow no one to be a CSM of anything but a battalion of the type he grew up in, and, in general, use the diamond-hard core that remained just as CSM McIntosh used himself, to build a superior corps of non-coms for their unit. I think we’d have a better army for it.
1 Oh, hi, Jack.
2 And, small world-wise, his predecessor, 1SG Smalls, had been my very first section leader when I’d reported in at Co-D, 2nd Battalion, 502d Infantry, in 1975.
3 Police call means the morning check, usually after physical training, to ensure that there’s no trash on the ground.
4 Who died in August of 2015. Hell of an NCO.
5 Promising? Oh, I was Fort Campbell and 101st Airborne Division soldier of the month for October, 1975, and 4th Battalion, 10th Infantry soldier of the year for 1977. I suppose they considered that to be somewhat promising.
6 He was another one with more tours in Vietnam than a Marine could count to without using the fingers of two hands, or possibly unzipping his fly.
7 Repair parts, cheap, expendable, and any one as good as any other.
8 He was a career drill sergeant, in effect.
9 Non-Commissioned Officer Evaluation Reports
Tom Kratman is a retired infantry lieutenant colonel, recovering attorney, and science fiction and military fiction writer. His latest novel, The Rods and the Axe, is available from Amazon.com for $9.99 for the Kindle version, or $25 for the hardback. A political refugee and defector from the People’s Republic of Massachusetts, he makes his home in Blacksburg, Virginia. He holds the non-exclusive military and foreign affairs portfolio for EveryJoe. Tom’s books can be ordered through baen.com.