Surviving a Bad Command
by Andrew P. O’Meara, Jr., Colonel United States Army, Retired
Great leaders tell us by their example that there is no such thing as a bad command. Despite scanty clothing, drafty log cabins to protect men from freezing conditions, and meager rations for his soldiers at Valley Force, George Washington would never have labeled the Continental Army a bad command. Nor would Douglas McArthur have tarnished the dignity of his men by claims he had led a bad command at Corregidor; despite the Imperial Japanese Army attacks that defeated the last American resistance on the Bataan Peninsula during the opening campaign of the Americans in World War II. Nor would George Armstrong Custer have described his as a bad command before braves and squaws scalped the last of the fallen soldiers of the 7th Cavalry at the Battle of the Little Big Horn.
For Washington and McArthur great leadership and an indomitable spirit made possible American victories over determined opponents, while poor intelligence and poor planning allowed victory to elude Custer and the Cavalrymen of the 7th Cavalry. The point is that not all commanders are dealt a winning hand. And each commander must play the hand dealt by fate to his or her command. The hard truth is that few leaders can be called truly great commanders, and some commanders have bad experiences in commands that fall upon hard times, as did Custer and the men of the 7th Cavalry. Discussion of lessons learned in hard times helps to fortify the spirit when warriors come face to face with unpleasant realities. The following essay describes what happened when American troop units experienced hard times imposed by austere budgets during the Vietnam War.
Once a powerful and respected field force, Seventh Army became a bad command during the Vietnam War. I served there before, during and after that bitter War, and I experienced the decline of the once proud command. In The 25-Year War General Bruce Palmer concludes that decisions made by the Department of Defense (DOD) rendered the “once magnificent American field Army…incapable” of performing its important mission of defending NATO. He regretfully acknowledged that the once mighty Army had become a replacement training activity in support of the war in Vietnam. General Palmer’s conclusions are accurate, but they don’t tell the whole story.
In addition to draftees, Seventh Army’s replacements consisted of second lieutenants in lieu of captains and junior sergeants to fill the vacancies created by the transfer of senior non-commissioned officers to units preparing for deployment to South Vietnam. Inadequate manning levels were not a temporary measure; they became a crutch for the Department of Defense (DOD) to make ends meet during the long war in Vietnam. The cutbacks in manpower remained in force from 1964 until the end of American participation in the War. A drastic reduction in supplies in the pipeline to sustain training and maintenance operations accompanied the drain of qualified leaders. The results were predictable. Seventh Army went into a decline documented in harsh terms by “indicators of indiscipline” – racial incidents and escalating crime rates.
My memory of the period includes tanks not combat ready, as well as poorly trained and dispirited tank crews. Willing young leaders lacked the qualifications to train their units. Demoralized troops lived in long neglected barracks where the stink of raw sewage seeped through rotted plumbing to haunt the living both day and night. The Vietnam War was a bad time to be a soldier in Seventh Army.
Shortly before he died, General Harold K. Johnson confessed his deep regrets over his failure to resign in protest, when the Secretary of Defense (SECDEF) forced the Army Chief of Staff to adopt austerity measures that gutted the Army serving in Europe and in the Continental United States (CONUS) during the Vietnam War. The SECDEF, Robert S. McNamara, imposed stringent reductions in manpower and maintenance support to pay for the Vietnam War. He demanded that the services do more with less, and diverted to the War resources needed to pay for combat readiness. Exacerbating the problem, the SECDEF insisted that combat readiness at the unit level be maintained by determined leadership. That created a dilemma for commanders, who saw the readiness of their units steadily decline. The contradiction between stated objectives and resources required to pay for combat readiness created a paradox – the McNamara Paradox – the assignment of missions without the personnel replacements and the resources to pay for unit training and maintenance operations.
Operating under severe handicaps, the senior leadership of DOD sacrificed Army units in NATO and the United States to pay for an undeclared war. The SECDEF had told the Congress that the operations in Vietnam were limited in nature, and LBJ ran on a peace platform in the presidential elections in the fall of 1964. In the absence of a candid DOD accounting for the undeclared war, the Congress failed to provide the resources required for sustained combat operations of the expanded military forces in Vietnam. The SECDEF made up the difference by diverting troops, leaders, supplies, and equipment to fight the war from the training base and units manning the frontiers of freedom.
The troop units of Seventh Army guarding the NATO frontier soon fell upon hard times as the flow of replacements and repair parts for Seventh Army dried up and senior leadership told commanders to maintain combat ready units without adequate fuel, ammunition, repair parts and replacements to maintain combat readiness. Predictably many commanders at all levels observed Army Regulations in the breach. Some commanders held the line, accurately reporting the status of their units; they were relieved of command. Others gave an appearance of following orders to make do with less by cutting corners, and putting the best face possible on the bad hand dealt to the Army by the SECDEF. In unfortunate circumstances, opportunistic commanders set ill-advised precedents by covering up readiness shortfalls; deception became a means of survival in bad commands.
We, who survived the experience, talked about the Army’s problems while attending the Command & General Staff College and the Army War College. We shared our experiences and came to realize that our experiences were not unique. Among the pearls of wisdom shared was learning what went wrong, appreciating the hard rules that govern in a bad command. Understanding those rules is important because they convey the differences between proper and improper conduct of duty, establishing the character of good and bad commands. In the final analysis these rules tell us something. They tell us when it is time to draw the line, to request a transfer, or to resign a commission – something that General Harold K. Johnson failed to recognize, when the time of decision was upon him.
Informal rules of survival, we learned, prevailed in units that had ceased to conform to Army Regulations for the management of property, training, and logistical support of units that had been cut loose from the umbilical cord of a functioning supply line. Dysfunctional behaviors became indicators of sick units. The following unethical practices, or rules of survival, characterized sick organizations:
· Bad management decisions at the top were covered up and the victims were held responsible for the sins of top management. Ethical commanders reporting accurately on the results of diversion of resources by DOD were relieved of command or given bad efficiency reports, leading to the elimination from the Army of soldiers of integrity.
· Non-combat ready equipment and equipment shortages were concealed. Lost, missing or broken equipment was covered up by falsification of readiness reports that concealed unit deficiencies.
· Higher level commands and staffs, composed of the so-called greatest generation, institutionalized deception. Personnel managers covered up the diversion of qualified replacements to units in Vietnam; while subordinate battalion commanders were expected to report their units combat ready.
· Drastic reductions in fuel to support unit training resulted in curtailment of unit training, which reduced training readiness.
The practices described above violate Army Regulations – the behavior of those who resorted to deception to survive a bad command. The admonition to dedicated, professional leaders is that when such patterns of behavior appear in the unit they must assess the alternatives to service in an organization operating beyond the pale. When honorable men and women encounter such practices, they have two choices: correct the problem if it is a localized problem or depart units that indulge in the deceptive practices of bad commands. When all else fails, resignation from the service becomes the honorable approach to avoid the appearance of aiding and abetting unethical conduct.
I was put to the test when placed in command of a tank battalion in the 2nd Armored Division at Fort Hood, Texas in 1975, where severe shortages continued to prevail for lack of funds to correct the problems created by years of inadequate support by the Department of Defense. Major General George S. Patton had just taken command of the Division, when I assumed command of the 1st Battalion of the 67th Armored Regiment.
When George Patton assumed command he inherited a Division that had suffered through all the problems and challenges we faced in Seventh Army. Equipment problems and personnel shortages were endemic in Army units of the period; part of the price paid because the Congress had not authorized the funds to pay for the Vietnam War. The readiness and training of the Army steadily declined due to DOD’s diversion of operations and maintenance funds to pay for the undeclared war. George Patton’s predecessor in command of the Division had demanded that commanders falsify readiness reports to higher headquarters to achieve combat ready ratings for the Division. The 2nd Armored had looked good on paper and had paid the bills by submitting false readiness reports – an outcome encouraged by McNamara’s policies.
Following my assumption of command, I focused on training the unit and I enjoyed the challenge of troop duty. Nevertheless, bad days and crises captured the trials and tribulations of Army service in the wake of our defeat in Vietnam. My staff soon explained the Division’s deceptive procedures – failing to report deserters and reporting inoperable equipment as combat ready. I told my staff that Major General Patton would never accept anything less than absolutely accurate reporting. I insisted that they report the true status of the unit, regardless of practices that had prevailed in the past.
We reported accurately and I noticed an immediate tension with the Maintenance Battalion Commander. My people next complained that they received equipment from the Maintenance Battalion that was supposedly repaired, when in fact the equipment had never been repaired. I told my commanders and staff to collect the information for ninety days, and if we could document the trend I would report the situation to the Division Commander. I intended to ensure that the problem was not an isolated incident.
We waited and documented the situation. At the end of ninety days the Battalion Staff summarized the maintenance support by our Direct Support Maintenance Battalion in a written report. It reflected a serious situation best characterized as institutionalized prevarication to conceal lack of readiness. The scam worked like this: the direct support maintenance unit commander would phone and ask what was needed in the way of equipment repairs to report the unit combat ready. The call would be made on the same day the readiness report came due. When the commander said he needed – for example – six tank engines, five transmissions, and six generators, the maintenance unit commander would tell him to report the unit as combat ready, and he would deliver the repaired equipment in the morning. “We’ll stay up all night and repair the equipment,” were his exact words.
Relying on the word of the maintenance battalion commander, my staff would submit a satisfactory readiness report only to discover later that the equipment delivered the next day remained inoperable. Unfortunately, it would take time to discover the deception. By the time tank engines were installed and transmissions were changed out several days would have elapsed, revealing the newly installed equipment was broken. The maintenance unit then stonewalled my protests: “It was working when it left here. You must have broken the engine during installation.” We then had to start over documenting a non-operational tank, opening a new job order, and “starting from square one” while waiting our turn for an operational replacement assembly.
I wrote out my resignation, and stated in the resignation that the Division had institutionalized false reporting procedures and the Maintenance Battalion concealed the problem by issuing broken equipment as serviceable equipment. I attached the maintenance report prepared by the staff to my resignation. I made multiple copies of the resignation, providing information copies to each tank battalion commander, the Brigade Commander, the Division Support Command Commander, and the Division Commander. I expected to find support for my actions from other commanders suffering from the same corrupted support system. To my amazement and disappointment, I found no support for my exposure of the Division’s corrupt practices. Left to fight the problem by myself, the sidelines remained quiet as the fur flew. The sycophants who had bought into the false practices by falsifying readiness reports wanted no part of my stand opposing the corruption institutionalized in the Division. They acted as if they didn’t know me.
After delivering my resignation to the senior commanders of the Division, I went down to the motor pool. I assembled my officers and non-commissioned officers, and I read them my resignation. They cheered and applauded, a response typical of the rank and file in the Army. They wanted no part of organizations that relied upon unethical practices to accomplish the mission. They were elated that their commander supported them and sacrificed his career rather than tolerate unethical reporting of unit readiness.
My company commanders all insisted that they too would resign their commissions. I said that it was not necessary. One resignation would suffice to cause a full investigation, conducted amid great venting of indignation by those party to the corrupt practices. When the smoke cleared, General Patton refused to accept my resignation, the Assistant Division Commander for Support retired, and we won a small victory. We received a new direct support maintenance company; and thereafter, when we turned-in a tank engine for repair it came back in working order.
I knew that General Patton would only accept full compliance with the regulations. Curiously enough the former Division Commander, who had preceded George Patton in command of “Hell on Wheels” and bore responsibility for the false readiness reporting procedures was summarily relieved of command of V Corps in Europe for false official reports soon after my resignation was declined by the Division. The chickens had come home to roost and the Army had begun to repair wounds inflicted upon the integrity of the officer corps – second and third order outcomes of the bad management decisions and dishonesty of the former Secretary of Defense.
There are things far worse than resignation from the service. Far worse than the slings and arrows of unfounded criticism is to act as a bad example in a position of responsibility, allowing our actions to become a corrupt model for men and women in Army uniforms. The worst alternative for honorable leaders is not criticisms from those who adopt corrupt practices; it is to dishonor the uniform and those we lead by dishonorable conduct – practices resorted to by unethical commanders following the decision of the SECDEF to cut the umbilical cord of support to field commands. Fortunately, my Division Commander trusted my judgment, investigated the charges, and found them to be true. In so doing he rewarded my decision to resign my commission. The Army had begun to turn the corner and honorable men again took the helm
 General Bruce Palmer, Jr., The 250Year War: America’s Military Role in Vietnam, The University Press of Kentucky, Lexington, 1984 page 175.
 See Guenter Lewy, America in Vietnam, Oxford University Press, New York, 1978 pages 127-161.
 H. R. McMaster, Dereliction of Duty: Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies that Led to Vietnam, Harper Collins Publishers, New York, 1998 page 318.
 H. R. McMaster, Ibid, pages 323-334.