Backbone of the Armed Forces Book Review
I read the book The Noncommissioned Officer and Petty Officer: Backbone of the Armed Forces on my iPad during a recent flight and it kept me company for the entire 2 hours. It may seem daunting once you see the 180ish pages, but don’t let that spook you off. Only 92 pages are new content, the rest are “Founding Documents,” items like the Declaration of Independence and creeds. Good reads of course, but save that for later. Of the 90ish remaining pages there are many photographs taking up a page or two so I would guess that there are 60-70 pages in which you will be reading, and many are topical and straightforward.
My initial thought was that there is nothing revolutionary in the book but it is a great first attempt for a multi-service look at commonizing the roles and traditions of both the noncommissioned and petty officer corps. Knowing both the Sergeant Major who commissioned it, Marine Corps Sgt. Maj. Bryan Battaglia, senior enlisted advisor to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs (SEAC), and one of the co-leads retired Air Force Command Chief Master Sgt. Curt Brownhill, I knew the result was going to be worthwhile. This is a hard crowd to play to and pleasing all the service enlisted ranks (as well as commanders and officers) is a tough order, but I think the team did so in an nonthreatening way. In the Preface the SEAC mentions of the team that “They remained mindful of the differing Service cultures and identities, and they sought to avoid an inadvertent dilution of any particular Service’s expectations or standards.” Though there will be folks scuffed up over this book it will not be because the team was parochial.
Though the USAF NCO corps grew from out of the Army Air Forces (AAF), of all the services the Army and USMC noncom seem to me to be the most common in the roles and purpose of the NCO/PO so I am proballygoing to skew this to my own Army prejudices. From an outsider like me the sea services appear to use their enlisted force, especially at the senior level, differently as compared to the ground forces. I acknowledge the different missions of the Navy and USCG, but their CPO structures seem to be fairly similar. Like Army NCOs in the Transportation Corps, USCG CPOs can command certain sized ships and mid-grade POs command small boats, I do not know if that is as true for the Navy. Sergeants “run the Army,” yet noncommissioned officer crewmembers send their pilot-officers off to war while they remain at the base. In the USAF officer pilots fly drones and in the Army it is enlisted sodiers. So the fact that there are more and more joint operations and multi-service activities is makes perfect sense that there is a book to try to put some perspectives on all this.
What I think is the unasked question of “why this book,” and “why now?” Goldwater-Nichols is what, 27-years old now so why are we attempting to define (or redefine) the role of NCOs/POs? Is it because we have senior enlisted leaders for “unified” and “specified” field commanders and even one serving at the pleasure of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff? Or maybe its because of recent events like the embarrassment of failing to fill the SEAC position during Admiral Mullen’s remaining tenure after CSM Joe Gainey left? I guess it could be to address a perceived gap within the services, or to certain people in the services, and that is to re-enforce the authority of an empowered NCO/PO Corps? Or even worse, maybe it is the perception that in the minds of some the NCO/PO Corps may have gotten “too big for his breeches?” Quite possibly it is a little of all or a preemptive strike, but for me this book matters and here is why.
Some of the greatest joint learning I received was from sister service enlisted men and women while attending the Joint Forces Command KEYSTONE Senior Enlisted Leader Course and it was there that I found out how little I knew about my counterparts, and how their culture, customs and courtesies were similar, but different. I experienced a clash of service cultures while in Iraq, it was a difference in service cultures that caused tension on my base because there was a USAF Air Expeditionary Wing co-located within and surrounded by all types of of troops that make up an Army Logistics Support Area, and often policies and norms conflicted. I believe as the services interact more and more it is often a clash of culture that sometimes cause the dreaded inter-service rivalries. Many times, and I was guilty of it as well, it is due to ignorance or lack of exposure and it took sitting down one-on-one to address some of those and accept the others as peers. This is not only an inter-service problem, I had to do the same thing with an Army CSM to understand why he and his entire Brigade deployed without the complete Army PT Uniform and only pack unit T-shirts for PT. Those events reminded me that sometime it is our own maturity and experience, or lack of, affect our own personal understanding of standards and conduct. As the standards bearers the NCO/CO maybe be the worse offenders here, especially when it comes to being considerate of others beliefs at the expense of our own.
I feel the book writers, authors, editors and leads bring out the meat in how they lay out the details in Chapter 1-4, and I hope to monitor the dialog as this book is kicked around and dog-eared by the various NCO/PO communities, let alone at bastions of thought like service academies and NCO/PO academies. Though War Colleges are great institutions for advanced thought it is Captains Career Courses, the Sergeants Major Academy, and Ft Leavenworth (and other service equivalents) where the real debates are bound to happen about those chapters.
They start off with gusto by possibly for the first time defining (or possibly redefining) the joint enlisted servicemember with this definition “As an enlisted member in the Armed Forces of the United States, you are a member of the Profession of Arms and have taken an oath of enlistment to support and defend the Constitution. When you become a Noncommissioned Officer or Petty Officer, you are then an empowered and trusted leader in America’s all-volunteer force. As a leader and technical expert, you enhance organizational effectiveness and directly contribute to mission success. Innovative, adaptive, and resilient, you are the indispensable link between command guidance and execution, ensuring that each task is fully understood and supervised through completion. You are responsible and accountable for the development and welfare of your subordinates. You teach, coach, and mentor them. As a steward of the institution, you enforce its standards and are its ambassador to the world.”
My Army brain has no problem with these statements and concur with them, but we could easily nitpick that this is a lofty goal and not necessarily a statement of fact for all NCOs/POs currently. It’s where I hope we will be one day, but promotion to NCO/PO ranks does not automatically ensure empowerment. It is nice to believe that each person promoted to the next is technically proficient for that grade and commanders have fully empowered them. But we all know that people are promoted on “potential” so technical expertise is expected at the level they are promoted from, not the rank they are promoted in to. The fact is we have “green” NCOs and POs who have yet to have GROWN into their current level of professionalism, that is the system we currently have. I expect some to bristle at the statement at the bottom of Pg.2 “This book aims to define and illustrate who NCOs/POs are, what they do, and why they are a critical enabler within the Armed Forces” Some in and out of uniform will lay claim to making that definition known long before the book, however I think in the vein it is written that the true value is the collective definition of the NCO/PO, instead of the unique individual service definition.
There are plenty who wonder what NCOs/POs really do, especially at the more senior levels and within the Joint community, performing special duty, or at unique assignments, and this book attempts to clearly clarify and define. Though it is not a historical document and was probably never meant to be, what is lacking is a tie back to a reference, a regulation, or historical context. I feel that is what the Appendexis are attempting to do, but I think some will merely strong arm the words up front because there is little policy to back up many of the hopes and dreams of those written words. We all know that the Services write policy…I mean besides that whole “raising a [service]” thing, writing and enforcing policy is just about all that the services have left since said Goldwater-Nichols. This is not a policy manual and as such hardly is a good reference document to pull out to point at a sentence or a paragraph in explaining where an NCO/PO authority for a certain action emanates from. The writing team acknowledged something to that affect up front by saying “We didn’t use this book as a how-to or an instruction manual to teach you to be a good NCO.”
Chapter one speaks of the empowered NCO/PO, and I think that term may cause some to pause, or question “empowering” enlisted leaders. The writing team goes on to remind the reader that “They [NCO/CPO] are empowered with responsibilities and authorities to maintain good order and discipline at all times.” And then in Chapter 4 they follow up with “There is but one commander of any given unit or organization. That officer, whether a lieutenant/ensign or a general/admiral, is in command. That officer’s corresponding NCO/PO is a principal advisor, a source of competence and counsel, who enhances the officer’s ability to command effectively.” I think they neatly wrap it up earlier with a statement in the previous page that “The ability of the NCO/PO to understand the commander’s intent, coupled with earned trust to execute it, is the foundation of the officer-NCO/PO relationship.” I think the 6 pages of Chapter 4 are well worth the price of this book alone (yeah I know its it’s free).
Chapter 4 I believe is demanding of our further dialog and I will move to our list of Podcast topics because here at the NCO Guide we think this will be discussed in other forums as well. It may be weeks or months before people put the brainpower behind this book after the initial news releases so we hope you write your thoughts below in our Comments section, or call our hotline at (254) 853-4410 and leave a voice mail with your questions and comments. We will also be listening for how the senior enlisted advisors of the services and Component Commands couch this, their voices will play importantly in how this document is received. If you have thoughts call or write us, we just might play your message on our Podcast.
No matter your thoughts on the content of the book I will stand up and cheer Sgt. Maj. Battaglia for taking this on, it is a great way to further the message that the enlisted force of our joint services have a common mission and purpose, so bravo. And kudo’s go to co-leads Command Chief Brownhill and Dr. Albert C. Pierce for their leadership, as well as those inter-service writers and authors who played a part. We look forward to the continued dialog.
CSM (Ret.) Dan Elder