Throughout its history, the U.S. Army has been proud of its sergeants, and rightfully so. Unlike most armies in the world, America’s victories depend on the professionalism and excellence of the Army’s corps of NCOs, the front-line leaders who lead the fight on the ground, in the trenches and at the tip of the spear.
Most officers will freely admit that they rose on the backs of sergeants, were molded and shaped by them, and owe their success to the “right hands” that supported them at every step. This is as it should be. An American Army without great sergeants is unthinkable.
What makes a good sergeant? There are many answers to this question, but they all begin in the same place. Before everything else, good sergeants accept and embrace their roles as leaders—charged to lead soldiers in peace and war, and clothed with lawful authority to order, direct and command obedience, in garrison or under fire.
The power and authority to order soldiers into action on the battlefield is an awesome responsibility, sometimes entrusted to NCOs as young as 20. The good sergeant accepts this duty and strives to be worthy of it.
Implied in this charge is a willingness to assume total responsibility for the unit entrusted to the sergeant’s leadership and care. The care and welfare—on and off duty—of its soldiers, their training and readiness, and accountability and maintenance of the unit’s assigned equipment are inescapably a sergeant’s business.
But more than this, at the small-unit level, the sergeant is a combatant, a fighter, whose direct example under fire and actual fighting ability can determine success or failure. Like the centurions of old, the sergeant stands in the front line in the face of the enemy. Where the sergeant goes, the soldier will follow.
Because of this, the sergeant is perhaps the most complete soldier in the unit: physically fit, morally and physically brave, tactically and technically proficient and dedicated to the unit, the mission and the soldiers entrusted to their care.
As the Army’s first-line supervisors, sergeants both enforce standards and model those standards, never abusing their rank and position to avoid hardship or danger. The good sergeant observes the customs and courtesies of the service, possesses exemplary military bearing and is careful not to abuse the authority that comes with NCO rank, wielding it firmly but fairly, never forgetting that every soldier deserves to be treated with dignity and respect.
The sergeant’s task thus requires a whole host of skills, abilities and attributes. Among these are an exact knowledge of each weapon in the small unit—its capabilities, types of ammunition, maintenance requirements and method of tactical employment, as well as how to reduce stoppages, make minor repairs and attach and boresight aiming devices.
A squad, crew or team leader has probably held every job in that element and should be a master of all, thoroughly proficient with its weapons systems. The sergeant must be skilled in mine warfare, demolitions and tactical communications systems, as well as night-vision technology and GPS navigation systems.
In mounted units, even more is required, such as knowledge of vehicle recovery techniques, field-expedient repairs, how to conduct mounted movement at night safely, fording operations, gunnery and much more.
In combat, the sergeant also must be ready to step forward and take over for those above. As a young private, my division command sergeant major was Command Sgt. Maj. Johnny Pearce, who lost a lung fighting in the Pacific in 1945. He had entered the battle as a private and ended it as the acting platoon sergeant. Such stories are commonplace in military history. Even young squad leaders must be proficient in platoon tactics and battle drills, first to understand their role in the larger picture, then to step up if needed.
All this places heavy burdens on a sergeant, but those burdens only increase with rank. The platoon sergeant must now assume responsibilities for many more soldiers and far more equipment, with the added duties of developing junior NCOs and the lieutenant. Young officers can be profoundly influenced, for good or ill, by their first platoon sergeants; a bad experience here may ruin an otherwise promising officer for all time.
Good commanders will make it clear that training and developing the platoon leader is a key task for platoon sergeants, and they will be held accountable. Behind closed doors, there is room for professional discussion and even disagreement, but in front of soldiers, there can be no daylight between the lieutenant and the platoon sergeant. “Training up my lieutenant” should be a point of pride for every platoon sergeant.
At the company, battery and troop level, the power and influence of the NCO is greater still, in the person of the first sergeant. There is little that falls outside the first sergeant’s purview. Absolute accountability of personnel and equipment at all times is demanded, but also a finger on the pulse of the unit that no commander, however devoted, can hope to match.
The first sergeant is a disciplinarian, a counselor, a teacher and trainer, a role model, but always a combat leader. Charged to support the unit logistically and administratively, the first sergeant is also, by far, the most experienced soldier in the unit. In the chaos of combat, when the commander is down and the unit is shaken, it is the first sergeant who soldiers look to to rally the troops and restore the situation.
At battalion level and above, this role is magnified in spades in the person of the command sergeant major. Now at the top of the NCO hierarchy, the command sergeant major occupies a unique position of authority, influence and prestige. Commanders will often task the command sergeant major with specific and weighty responsibilities in the field and in combat, and though designated as the unit’s “senior enlisted adviser,” the command sergeant major is far more than that. Sounding board, expert practitioner, font of wisdom, professional fighter—the list of attributes may be long and accomplished, but no role is more prominent or pronounced than that of the commander’s “right hand.” Next only to the commanding officer, the command sergeant major can make or break a unit. For this reason, the Army is rightfully selective in choosing the few who will rise to the highest enlisted rank.
In good units, the interaction between officers and NCOs is a strong, positive and healthy one. Officers are enjoined from their earliest days in uniform to respect the role and the prerogatives of the NCO corps, to model that respect in front of the troops and to provide the freedom from excessive supervision and oversight that sergeants need to do their jobs. The professional NCO affords commissioned officers the same respect, follows lawful orders cheerfully and without reservation, and supports and never undermines the chain of command.
When these precepts are observed, the officer can make fully informed and practically sound decisions in an environment of mutual respect, and the NCO is free to execute those decisions flexibly, without being micromanaged, within the general framework of the commander’s intent.
In practice, of course, the Army is an organization composed of human beings with all their virtues and vices. At times, leaders at all levels may deviate from the ideal. Officers on occasion may bypass or ignore the NCO chain, or rebuke sergeants in public and not in private. NCOs may treat junior officers disrespectfully or second-guess orders and directives from above in front of the troops. These and similar actions fall short of the professional ethic and should be addressed immediately to preserve the foundation of good order and discipline upon which all depends. Where officers and NCOs trust and respect one another, almost anything is possible.
From the earliest days of the Army, the NCO has occupied a place of special trust and honor. At Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, Baron von Steuben in his Regulations for the Order and Discipline of the Troops of the United States—the famous Blue Book—took care to point out that “the choice of Noncommissioned Officers is also an object of the greatest importance: the order and discipline of a regiment depends so much on their behavior that too much care cannot be taken in preferring none to that trust but those who by their merit and good conduct are entitled to it.”
So it is today. The Army fights and wins on the professionalism and devotion of its sergeants. May it ever be so.
* * *
Col. R.D. Hooker Jr., U.S. Army retired, is a nonresident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council, Washington, D.C. A career infantry officer, he commanded a parachute infantry battalion in Kosovo and the Sinai, and a parachute brigade in Baghdad. A former dean of the NATO Defense College, Rome, he also served as aide-de-camp to the secretary of the Army. His latest book is The Good Captain: A Personal Memoir of America at War.