Small Wars Journal

What Caesar Told His Centurions: Lessons of Classical Leadership and Discipline for a Post-modern Military

Wed, 01/02/2013 - 5:30am

Author's Note: Special thanks to Dr Chris Lamb of the Center for Strategic Research and Dr Fred Naiden of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for their help in revising this piece.

Over the past year, senior leaders in both the Marine Corps and the Army have criticized the discipline of the American military.  In the Commandant’s “Heritage Tour” and in similar comments made by senior officials in the Army one hears a constant refrain that the American military is losing its warrior ethos and its professionalism.[1]  A similar dissatisfaction is felt by many officers and staff NCOs with the quality of the human components of the military – witness a recent survey by the Army that only 25 percent of its officers and enlisted feel it to be going in the right direction, with poor discipline and a lack of confidence in senior leadership being cited as leading factors for the low morale.[2]  The Marine Corps has long claimed that such problems are the province of the Army; the Marine Corps ethos has always been based at least partly on the notion that Marines are innately better than everyone else, are made and disciplined in a way entirely different from the other services and are held to much higher standards.  But discipline problems can no longer be denied by either service: since the 1990s, but particularly since the surge in Iraq, there have been increasing concerns that the human material America is offering its military is too weak, and that the system of training and discipline now in place have caused our standards to decline precipitously.  

This is a problem that has been faced by others before us.  What I offer here is a historical perspective to our current problems and a few lessons learnt over centuries of campaigning by the Roman Army.  Although far removed from us by space and time, their concerns were the same as ours.   Like us, the Romans were preoccupied with protecting their borders from alien cultures, and like us, chose to fight those battles as far away from their doorstep as they could, largely by using their organizational and technological expertise to prosecute conventional wars against an unconventional enemy.  In their estimation, they faced an apparent decline in the human capacity of their countrymen to wage war.  Like us, the Romans of the last century BCE looked to a recent past - perhaps a half century prior - as being a golden age, and saw in their own era the decay of virtues and martial strength.  They worried about the declining quality of the men who entered military service and were dismayed by the corrupting influences of what they knew as “modernity”.  Beyond these broad similarities, if Clausewitz was correct that the principles of war do not change over time but are immutable, then perhaps too the principles of military leadership are also immutable, or at least analogous.   Thus the pillars of classical leadership still have their application today.   It is leaders who decide what will be disciplined and how disciplined will be administered and thus determine the values and virtues that will be expressed in any organization.  Whether we survive as an institution and remain an effective fighting force may depend upon our willingness to reaffirm the military virtues that were familiar to the Romans as well as to the Marines of just a few generations ago, but which we, and America, have now largely forgotten.           

The First Pillar: Personal Discipline

We love phrases like “be the example and set it.”  Although in practice it is easy to dismiss the importance of behaving correctly both on and off duty, the experiences of two millennia back its importance:  “The conduct of officers is always determined by the behavior of their generals; it depends on that whether they adopt the simple life or indulge their taste for riotous living; this again determines whether the troops are smart or disorderly.”[3]  We take our cues on how to behave and how not to behave from those with more power than us, both because we want to emulate those we respect but also because it gives us an idea of how much we can get away with.  Although in our era we tend to narrow the concept of “setting the example” to simply avoiding trouble, the Roman conception would have been much broader and would have encapsulated a host of conceptions about what constituted military virtues and how one expressed them in daily living.  Gaius Marius is described by Plutarch as living a life that was “rude and unrefined, yet temperate, and conformable to the ancient Roman severity” making him “more comfortable with the discipline of the camp than of the city.”[4]  For such men, dressing in polo shirts on liberty would not have qualified as setting the example, rather, living frugally, “banishing luxuries on every hand,”[5]  and embracing hardship and pain with calmness would have been the essence of military virtue.

Pillar Two: Focus Your Control

The question was asked by a different military, “Do you command your section? or are you merely in it? Have you got that grip? If you have not you are merely a rather unreliable means of transmitting orders which you are incapable of enforcing.”[6]   The nexus of discipline, leadership and punishment is a complicated and unfortunately understudied subject, but we can settle with Tacitus’ judgment that soldiers of all times and places are “men who cannot endure the extremes either of bondage or of freedom.”  Determining how much and what kinds of freedoms to allow is a key to efficient organizations of all kinds.  Julius Ceasar answered this conundrum by paying attention only to those attributes that directly contributed to one’s usefulness on the field of battle, and mostly only when threats were near:

He never valued a soldier for his moral conduct or his means, but for his courage only; and treated his troops with a mixture of severity and indulgence; for he did not always keep a strict hand over them, but only when the enemy was near. Then indeed he was so strict a disciplinarian, that he would give no notice of a march or a battle until the moment of action, in order that the troops might hold themselves in readiness for any sudden movement; and he would frequently draw them out of the camp without any necessity for it, especially in rainy weather, and upon holy-days. Sometimes, giving them orders not to lose sight of him, he would suddenly depart by day or by night, and lengthen the marches in order to tire them out, as they followed him at a distance.[7]

Whether we call Marines “professionals” or “warriors”, our efforts to control their behavior should focus on how they behave in the field and in combat rather than what they do in their free time.  If they are professionals, their identity as Marines only exists while on duty; if warriors, then it is probably true that they will fight "nothing the worse for being well oiled."[8]  As Kipling put it, “Single men in barracks don’t grow into plaster saints”:  Marines rebel against discipline when they feel it to be either unnecessary or unrelated to their real purpose, which is to fight.  For this reason, we should not equate discipline and the ability to perform under fire with dainty behavior on liberty or “polished buttons, erect carriage and things of that kind... [as they] are not the cause but effect” [9] of internal discipline.  Discipline should be tough, but if it is not grounded in purpose, it will never be self-enforced.

Pillar Three: Communicating Virtues Through Punishment

Over recent decades, the range of military punishments available and the level at which they can be assigned has narrowed considerably.  The weightiest punishments will generally be administered at a level so far removed from where they occurred that by the time the guilty party is actually punished our collective attention will have drifted away.  Thus there is little practical element of collective dissuasion in brig time and discharges.  And the punishments available to company-grade officers, those most intimately connected with maintaining the “good order and discipline” of the services, are generally so watered-down or so intimately tied to bureaucratic processes as to be almost meaningless for correcting behavior – in fact, the amount of paper work any punishment or corrective action requires makes it almost more painful for the punisher than the offender.  And although the paperwork may be useful in a long campaign to end someone’s career or prevent their promotion, such punishments are much less useful for immediately correcting the behavior of individuals and units.

Nonetheless, junior officers and staff NCOs can shape individual and collective behavior through mild punishments and extra military instruction.  Punishments must be swiftly administered and tied directly to the deficiency at hand.  Attention should be focused on those things which directly and obviously influence combat effectiveness.   Polybius recounts that the Roman Army primarily punished soldiers for two types of transgressions, “crimes” and “unmanly acts.”  Crimes included activities like falling asleep at post or, for officers and NCOs, failing to catch one’s subordinates if they fell asleep at post.  Such offenses were punished by being stoned or beaten to death.  The second category consisted of those things which were considered “unmanly acts and disgraceful in a soldier” such as desertion in battle or losing one’s weapon in the field, which were punished with death or flogging.[10]   At the commander’s discretion, this category could be taken to the extreme: the general Corbulo had a man executed simply for putting his sword down while digging a trench.[11]  Entire units could be punished as well.  Units that broke in battle were decimated:  lots were drawn and every tenth soldier was beaten to death by his comrades.  In another example, the legions that survived being defeated by Hannibal at Cannae were punished by exile to Sicily where they lived in tents for the years until Scipio took them to Africa where they redeemed themselves at Zama.  Although these punishments were harsh, they were all tied directly to combat performance.  Thus, they served a well-defined military purpose and because of that there was good reason for the rank and file to “buy into” the disciplinary system.  

Pillar Four:  Make Rewards Meaningful

There must be very few people left who have not heard the term “positive reinforcement.” Rewards are an important aid in maintaining unit effectiveness and morale.  But do we reward well?  Does being granted extra liberty for winning a PT event increase combat effectiveness?   And does giving a decorative piece of paper to someone in front of a battalion or regiment reinforce military virtues?  Maybe not.  Historically, winning a competition would have been reward enough in and of itself, perhaps with some trinket added into the bargain.  We cheapen the activity and weaken our competitive spirit by offering external incentives for good performance.   And we are so inundated with meaningless awards that generally the only person concerned with an awards ceremony is the recipient, which suggests that we are not inspiring the general population to emulate whatever trait we are rewarding.  In the vast majority of ceremonies, the watchers, from generals on down, are bored, uncomfortable, and doing their best to not pay attention to what is going on. 

Until recently, most armies offered rewards that combined intrinsic value with public praise, making them both more tangible and more meaningful than what is offered today.  For example, the Romans rewarded the first soldier over the walls of an enemy city with the corona muralis, a crown made of gold.  Other awards might be given in the form of torques or bracelets of (somewhat) precious metals.   These rewards were presented to the recipient in front of the whole army and when worn with one’s uniform were considered very impressive to soldiers and civilians alike. 

…the recipients of such gifts, quite apart from becoming famous in the army and famous too for the time at their homes, are especially distinguished in religious processions after their return, as no one is allowed to wear decorations except those on whom these honours for bravery have been conferred by the consul; and in their houses they hand up the spoils they won in the most conspicuous places, looking upon them as tokens and evidences of their valour. Considering all this attention given to the matter of punishments and rewards in the army and the importance attached to both, no wonder that the wars in which the Romans engage end so successfully and brilliantly. [12]

Just like their punishments, the Romans would not have seen the point of rewarding anything that did not occur in battle.  Thus, awards were tied to combat performance and martial values and had considerable effect in spurring the efforts of soldiers in battle.

Pillar Five: Discipline By Example

It is very easy once one advances beyond the rank of Corporal or Sergeant to find oneself becoming tied to the concept of “managing” or “inspecting” work and to stop participating in it.  How often have we seen PFCs and Lance Corporals filling sandbags or picking up trash or doing rehearsals while a handful of staff NCOs and officers watch them from the sidelines?  An easy habit to fall into, and because it is one that does not necessarily prevent one from accomplishing the mission, equally easy to dismiss one’s idleness by saying, “Well, that’s not my job.  I exist for other purposes.”  But Plutarch says of Marius that he gained popularity with his soldiers by

“matching the[m] in labor and abstemiousness... as indeed any voluntary partaking with people in their labor is felt as an easing of that labor, as it seems to take away the constraint and necessity of it....For they [the soldiers] do not so much admire those that confer honors and riches upon them, as those that partake of the same labor and danger with themselves; but love them better that will vouchsafe to join in their work than those that encourage their idleness.”[13]

Partaking in physical labor, however menial the task, does serve a purpose, for it offers a commonality of experience and reinforces the bond between those working and those most intimately responsible for them.  For this reason, the emperor Hadrian could often be seen marching with his army in full kit for as much as twenty miles.[14]  Many successful leaders intuitively emulate this practice, hence the innumerable photos we see of politicians with their shirt sleeves rolled up in order to look workmanlike, or the pictures of generals in clean uniforms addressing dirty, exhausted Marines coming back from a fight or from a training exercise.  These images have their place in mass communication, of course, but for those who share a closer bond with the rank and file nothing but real sweat will suffice.

Parthian Shots

You might wonder why I chose to draw lessons solely from the Romans rather than the Spartans, who we so like to compare ourselves to.  Certainly, 300 and Gates of Fire have made the Spartans seem accessible and their courage is undoubted.  However, both our military and our society at large do not bear a close cultural resemblance with Sparta, nor did the Spartans have a military system that we would want to emulate.  Their concept of “command authority” was derived from a complicated politico-religious foundation that would be impossible to replicate.  On the battlefield, this meant they often relied on what we would consider superstition to give them moral courage. At the battle of Nemea, for example, after maneuvering their forces into position for a charge, the Spartans paused less than 200m from their enemy in order to sacrifice a goat before committing themselves to action.[15]  Fortunately for the Spartans, their superiority over the other Greeks in small unit maneuvers was a saving grace in many mismanaged battles.  

Hans Delbruck said of the eventual Roman triumph over the Greeks, “All the differences between the Greek and Roman military systems can be traced back to the difference in discipline.”[16]  It was this discipline that allowed the Romans with first a citizen army, and then a professional army, to secure the borders of a new nation and to expand them to the farthest reaches of the known world.  And it was the decline of that discipline that marked the fall of the Empire, being both a symptom and a cause of it.  The wealth, the infrastructure and the technology of Rome meant nothing in the face of foreign invaders when the organization and composition of their military was beyond repair.  Roman discipline was built upon a belief in the virtues of austerity and frugality, the dignity of labor and an acceptance of hardship – but tempered by a willingness to acknowledge the basic humanity of soldiers and not to castigate them for sins they committed away from the battlefield.  These beliefs would have been familiar to Americans of two or three generations ago, but that is no longer the case.  Our ability to remain an effective fighting force may depend upon on our willingness to accept those virtues once again and America’s willingness to allow us to act in accordance with those beliefs.

[1] See for example Jim Michaels, “Marine Corps Chief Addresses Lapses in the Ranks,” in USA Today 4 June 2012, Andrew Tilghman “Officials Troubled Over Behavior of US Troops” in Army Times 3 May 2012,  Michelle Tan, “Soldiers Seek Return to Traditions, Discipline” in Army Times 3 April 2012

[2]  Bryan Bender, “Army morale declines in survey” in The Boston Globe, 19 August 2012 .

[3]  Tacitus, Histories, W.H. Fyfe trans., p. 89

[4] Plutarch, Lives, J. Langhorne and W. Langhorne trans,  Vol I, p. 513

[5] Historia Augusta, Hadrian, 10.4

[6] An Open Letter to a Very Young Officer (Journal of the Royal United Services Institution, Vol. LXII., February to November, 1917 available online at

[7] Suetonius, The Lives of the Twelve Caesars, A. Thompson and E. Forester trans., Vol I, LXV.

[8] Suetonius, The Lives of the Twelve Caesars, Vol I, LXVII.

[9] Lord Moran, The Anatomy of Courage.  New York: Carroll and Graf, 2007.  p. 182

[10] Polybius, Histories, p. 250.

[11] Pat Southern, The Roman Army: A Social and Institutional History. Oxford: ABC-CLIO, 2006. p. 146

[12] Polybius, Histories, p.250

[13] Plutarch, Lives, p.515

[14] Historia Augusta, Hadrian, 10.4

[15] Xenopohon, Hellenica, H.G. Dakyns trans., 4.2

[16] Hans Delbruck, History of the Art of War Within the Framework of Political History.  Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1975. p. 286-88


About the Author(s)

Evan Munsing is a Light Armored Reconnaissance Platoon Commander for the United States Marine Corps.  He was previously a subject matter expert on organizational theory for the National Defense University where he wrote about interagency military teams.  The views expressed here are solely his own and do not reflect the views of the United States Marine Corps, the Department of Defense, or the United States Government.


Very well written article with a solid foundation, however, with regards to discipline the author misses out on a cornerstone of modern warfare; mass media plays a role. Whether it's a video taken on a cell phone, a childishly inappropriate photo uploaded to Facebook, or an article published to a major news source taken out of context, none of these were issues Caesar or his contemporaries had to deal with. The Roman public wasn't being bombarded by images from the distant frontier of the actions of their legionaries off-duty. They didn't see the rape and destruction that inevitably followed the seizure of a town. Liberty-related incidents, while we may want to write them off as being non-combat related is a falsity.

A Roman soldier who murdered a Etruscan prostitute would probably not suffer any disciplinary action, nor would the Roman public likely even hear of the occurrence. I can't say they would disapprove, however, that simply wasn't a factor that commanders had to consider in the way in which they conducted discipline. It didn't affect the conduct of campaigns as wars were waged simply on the battlefield; not in conjunction with the sphere of public opinion. Can we say the same for the modern Marine Corps? If a Marine were to murder a Filipino civilian can we say that that doesn't have a direct result on that Marine's combat effectiveness, or to that of the units forced to react to that public relations nightmare? Those Marines now had to shift their focus from training, and flex towards handling a dicey international incident in a strategically important region.

I would like to emphatically agree with the author, however, the Age of Information inherently means discipline must be enforced full spectrum. Do we want our Marines to be tough bar-room brawlers? That's a given. My only claim is that the actions of few can negatively effect the whole. "Strategic Corporals" do not simply apply to the battlefield, but also to the pool-halls and bars.

"It ultimately depends upon the leadership. If they truly, honest to goodness, know that one day those young smart alecks in S-6 (I think that is where the computer geeks are) may have to fight, then they are more likely to keep the martial spirit alive. If they don't really believe that, they won't."

"I find your lack of faith in the S-6 disturbing." - Darth Vader

I am a former infantryman and a current signaleer. I believe that while discipline is essential to the survival of the grunt it is still most definitely necessary for POGs too. It takes discipline to perform proper PMCS and validation of your systems so that they won't fail during a critical time. Then when Murphy shows up anyways and you have a mass casualty type situation where all the redundant systems magically fail at the same time, you need discipline to keep your head attached and logically work through the problem while under stress. An outpost should never lose comms because someone forgot to fuel the generator, but it happens all the time. That type of thing can be just as dangerous as sleeping on guard duty.

Madhu (not verified)

Thu, 07/31/2014 - 1:09pm



Thu, 04/17/2014 - 4:17pm

Evan -- just read your article. Thanks for sharing your insights. The article offers readers an interesting evaluation, and you get the words right in explaining several complex subjects. We can and should learn a lot from the Romans. It's appropriate, as our founders looked to Rome History for the keys to private, and public, virtues.

Ned McDonnell III

Thu, 03/13/2014 - 12:18pm

I have read this article three or four times over the past year. While influential to me, for which I am grateful, I must wonder whether the implicit concern about the quality of soldier overlooks the fact that in the past ten years, this generation of citizens soldier perhaps has been burned out by multiple tours. What was the battle pace of these legionnaires? I always had the impression that it was one or two before the soldier settled down on conquered land.

Leonard McDonald

Tue, 03/11/2014 - 3:38pm

Stuck on Schwab?

I like this one for pillar 5: "Be an example to your men in your duty and in private life. Never spare yourself, and let the troops see that you don't in your endurance of fatigue and privation. Always be tactful and well-mannered, and teach your subordinates to be the same. Avoid excessive sharpness or harshness of voice, which usually indicates the man who has shortcomings of his own to hide." --Erwin Rommel

Red Rat

Fri, 03/29/2013 - 12:21pm

The nature of people has not fundamentally changed since Caesar's time, and so I think there is a lot to be gained from looking at best practice of the time, especially in matters concerning leadership and management.

This debate matches in part a debate that certainly the British Army had in the period 2008 - 2011 and which still bubbles to the surface to this day in 'Soldier' magazine, 'Think Defence' and 'Kings of War'. It appears to be somewhat of an ongoing debate in the Australian military at the moment.

When looking at the 5 Pillars what struck me was:

Pillar 1: In my experience the best fighting troops have the best self-discipline. SOF troops may be of unorthodox appearance, but are inevitably highly disciplined. In my experience too many are seduced by the appearance without recognising the underlying self-discipline.

Pillars 2 and 3: These are where the pressures of what I call 'political correctness' are most often to be found; the drive by society to impose its values & standards on the military. This is a natural state of affairs in any society, it can be both healthy and unhealthy in terms of military standards but it is a necessary tension to be managed in a democracy.

Pillar 4: In the British system the Honours & Awards system works well. I have been struck in the last 10 years by the desire of UK governments of all hues to reward through financial bonuses and to my mind the corrosive effect that this has had on the military. It has made us exceedingly expensive to employ and there is now a sense of entitlement amongst junior service personnel (those of 10 years or less experience).

Pillar 5: Partly personal, partly organisational ethos. In my battalion (The Queen's Own Highlanders) we had what was called the "No Walk By" rule. Every member of the battalion was expected to correct anything they saw wrong, no matter the rank. Whether that meant picking up litter as the Commanding Officer or maintaining discipline in others as a private soldier one was expected to confront and resolve issues, not ignore them.


Fri, 01/18/2013 - 4:20pm

While there has always been a tension if not conflict between those at the front and those at the rear, this otherwise excellent article touches on but does not explore the continuing experience that certain units that succeed may be not only insular in their tactics but in their appearance and approach to discipline. In war, armies have come to recognize the need for groups that they otherwise detest, because they are not "regular" troops--the SAS's precursor, the Long Range Desert Group, Orde Wingates Chindits, etc. Had they not had the protection of Mountbatten and Churchill the chances are that the R.M. Comandos would have been shut down.
It seems that the British--pehaps because they covet their eccentrics--make small allowances for the eccentrics who seem to be able to prove themselves on the field, despite lapses in dress, decorum, and appearance.

The French paras did not always get respect from their more conservative St Cyr trained bretheren. At the same time the highly disciplined Legionnaires did not always adapt well to fighting the Viet Minh, advancing in line to the beat of the drums as if it were Waterloo.

Fast forward to the present, and we still have more significant funding of traditional arms because they are sourced at great expense which funds lobbysists who can point to sub-sourcing in each Congressperson's district or state.

Just as the guerilla started by fighting with limited arms and funds, so still must today's unconventional warriors. And they wage guerilla struggles within their services for funding, missions, equipment, and air and other support. At the end, the Beltway rules and its rules rule.

With the rear brought more present in the front by electronic communications the friction increases with oversight and control from those who aren't there, don't send the requested supplies or support, but want to back seat drive.

Add to this the tendency to have a continuing set of counter-guerilla operations--which put a premium on unconventional warfare and unconventional warriors, and it's a recipe for conflict.

Let us not forget that even the well attired and shaven James Doolittle was courtmartialed for strategic thinking outside the box.

Imagine what could happen if some officer were to seriously point out the strategic and tactical flaws of massive investment in the YF35 of which we can afford very few, when our rising competitor is known to prefer cheap--if technologically inferior--weapons to be employed in waves. The army knows how to punish the unconventional--by putting them in paper pushing jobs until they screw up or leave.

Judging from Fick and Exum's memoirs, it seems that this is the way the services treat rising lieutenants.

A newer variant is the need for computer hackers to defend against strategic hacking of our systems--and to be able to do the same offensively. While the services have their share of internet McGuyvers, for the most part those who are most gifted at computers are least likely to either want to be part of a military organization or tolerate its
requirements. Perhaps there will be a need to have something like the Manhattan project, where the brilliant can serve but not be subject to the full requirements of rear echelon expectations.

Wise commanders--usually those who rose from the ranks--make allowances, even compromises, and get rough acknolegement of basic army requirements --and tactical success--in return.

This was true in the times refered to by Lt. Munsing's sources. One perhaps significant difference is that in those days, as he points out in passing, the general led from the front or the middle, gradually to the rear, and receded thereafter. Now they can be continents away but in the earpiece or heads up display of the troop at the sharp end.

The comments on the punishment meted out to those who urinated on the bodies of those they killed (who appeared to have been laying ied's)in the Marine Corps Times also suggests that if discipline is to be perceived as fair there needs to be a periodic discussion and system for buying in to the codes or values to be enforced.

Hopefully, we'll read more from this author on whether discipline is more of an issue in counter-guerilla operations where the oponent is not in uniform than in "regular(sic)" warfare.

A good article, good comments, keep 'em coming!

Bill M.

Sat, 01/05/2013 - 5:13am

In reply to by Nathan Fleischaker


Without a face to face discussion to clarify what we mean by discipline we will probably talk past one another while possibly being in violent agreement and not realize it. For example, it is my experience that the younger soldiers that are little bit wild (not out of control) on their off time are generally good in the field to include combat. Discipline in garrison is not violated by a soldier who goes downtown on his off time and has a couple of drinks at a biker bar and gets in a fight, or a soldier who gets speeding tickets, etc. in the States. He can answer to the local authorities like any other citizen without the chain of command going into a panic over it, but the way our Army is now the command will focus on this to the point of stupidity while ignoring discipline related to field craft. Our profession is focused on developing disciplined soldiers, that doesn't necessarily mean model citizens 24 hours a day. In fact many great leaders who changed the world had significant flaws, so our focus on these minor incidents while ignoring relevant discipline should be frowned upon. On the other hand a soldier who misbehaves while assigned overseas off duty in some place like Okinawa or Korea puts the mission at risk (relationship with host nation), so in those cases military discipline extends what would normally be a non-military discipline zone and the leadership needs to enforce it with an iron fist.

One example is boys will be boys, get over it. The other example puts a mission at risk. We can debate nuances forever, but I think the author's point is discipline is too often focused on insanely stupid and irrelevant stuff (especially in the combat zone with worthless garrison SGMs running around focusing on minor uniform violations, especially targeting soldiers just returning from a patrol, I know you know the type), while focus on noise and light discipline, patrolling tactics, weapons maintainence, etc. is often unattended to. Combat discipline is being combat ready and being focused on those things that make a unit and individual combat ready. When commanders are focused on garrison nonsense in a combat zone which I saw excessively, especially in Iraq we're missing something. I hear the arguments that if soldiers can't get the simple uniform stuff straight how will they be able to fight. That argument has been proven false throughout history, but I'm not so sure the argument that leaders that focus on such minutia are capable of focusing on and enforcing the real standards that make a soldier combat ready. I see a correlation between those that are focused on the stupid and combat ineffectiveness. My hypothesis is these individuals focus on creating an image, not fighting, in fact many of them view fighting is risky to their career, so they attempt to stay garrisoned even while deployed and focus on creating that image of discipline when the unit is anything but. Lots of gray areas, but overall I think the author makes sound points.

Nathan Fleischaker

Sat, 01/05/2013 - 2:31am

Appreciate the article and many of the sentiments about discipline and a potential in how we are obsessing in the wrong places. But concerned about a few things - most importantly the distinction between off-duty time and combat readiness. I don't buy the distinction and - again this is anecdotal - but my experience deployed in OIF and OEF (I'm a Marine infantry officer) has been that units that are combat effective are the ones that get the little discipline issues correct. I'm not saying that small disciplinary infractions are the same as combat readiness, but I am saying they are directly correlated - call it a measure of effectiveness if you will.

Is it possible to obsess over the wrong things and ignore genuine problems, but I think it is a mistake to think that we can develop Marines and soldiers who are self-disciplined when "in combat" but accept no authority when they are off-duty?

I recognize that I'm doing a rough-shod job of defining terms and probably conflating a few concepts at the same time, but it seems that one of the key issues being addressed is the concept of off-duty actions correlating to combat performance. Discipline (whether self or imposed) requires consistent obedience to authority and structure. Life "off duty" may not have the same measures of combat effectiveness as combat, but it is bound by authority and structure as well. To say that we only care about people who are disciplined "on duty" is either misunderstanding the nature of discipline, or asking for schizophrenic individuals.

Isn't the latin root (and thus Roman) for integrity comes from integras - wholeness and consistency so that we are always the same in our actions. I'm inclined to find more truth in Lord Moran's "if you know a man in peace, you know a man in war"


Fri, 01/24/2014 - 3:47pm

In reply to by JPWREL


There is certainly a story of a French soldier remaining with his locally recruited unit (maybe GCMA) and requesting ammunition re-supply as the Viet Minh closed in.

Just looked at 'Street Without Joy' one of Bernard Fall's books, not in there on a quick scan.


Fri, 01/24/2014 - 2:46pm

In reply to by carl

'That is a good story to tell when somebody indulges the American popular cultural conceit about the French being cowardly.'

Very well said. The slandering of French courage by American's is both unseemly and demonstrates ignorance of the continuous strand of valor woven into French military history. No few numbers of Vietnamese, who had fought both the French and Americans considered the French individually as the more formidable opponent especially when considered that he was not equipped, supplied or supported in the same lavish scale of the Americans.


Thu, 01/10/2013 - 11:03pm

In reply to by CBCalif


Some of those old books written by Frenchmen were something all right. One of the best I ever read was by a French enlisted man who by happenstance got into small group of French soldiers who were living amongst with some hill tribes and leading them against the Viet Minh. I wish I could remember the name of it.

I think Fall told a story of a French officer from one of those units who, when France pulled out, wouldn't leave his people. He gave them his personal word that he would stay by them and he did. That is a good story to tell when somebody indulges the American popular cultural conceit about the French being cowardly.


Thu, 01/10/2013 - 10:20pm

In reply to by Bill M.

It has been a long time since anyone I know (that is still alive) mentioned the name Jean Larteguy and noted probably the most well known paragraph (to his fans) from "The Centurions." The statement made by the character in the book " Lt. Col. Pierre Raspeguy -- modeled after (later) General Marcel Bigeard -- if I recall correctly.

A name from a generation of French Soldier / Writers and simply Soldiers that also included Jules Roy, Bernard Fall, Roger Trinquier of GCMA fame, and other paras such as Marcel Bigeard and Jacques Massu. All gone now, but they left behind some fascinating books and even though during the French Colonial Wars they would be on the wrong side of history (if military defeat determines that position), they gave it their all.

I was introduced to Larteguy's books by hometown neighborhood friends of mine who were with the 173rd Airborne when they first deployed to Vietnam -- after they returned.

You are either from an older generation like myself or some of his writings or selected paragraphs have seen a bit of a rebirth in this country. A brief mental voyage into the past.

“I'd like to have two armies: one for display with lovely guns, tanks, little soldiers, staffs, distinguished and doddering Generals, and dear little regimental officers who would be deeply concerned over their General's bowel movements or their Colonel's piles, an army that would be shown for a modest fee on every fairground in the country. The other would be the real one, composed entirely of young enthusiasts in camouflage uniforms, who would not be put on display, but from whom impossible efforts would be demanded and to whom all sorts of tricks would be taught. That's the army in which I should like to fight.”

― Jean Lartéguy

Good article, unfortunately few in key management (intentional use of management instead of leadership) positions will understand it.


Thu, 01/10/2013 - 11:38pm

In reply to by Sparapet


Two things strike me about this. First I think logistical superiority is vital to our winning wars but it is for naught if our well supplied forces can't fight. For example in North Africa we had a big force that was transported and supplied from across the sea. That was a logistical feat of wonder. But until they learned to fight that logistical superiority wouldn't make a difference. Maybe that is why we look at how to fight better. People who want to improve study more the things they may not do so well.

I come from an aviation background and the struggle between a martial outlook and an administrative outlook reminds me of something. There is a big tendency in flying to yield to a complacent reliance upon automation. The machines can do a good job and they hardly ever break. But they do break, and when they do, atrophied flying skills may not be up to the situation. It takes personal mental discipline on the part of pilots to keep their skills up and more than that, it takes a recognition by the company and authorities that the pilots, the people, have to be kept in practice. That has been recognized for years, sort of. It has really come to fore since the Airbus accident over the South Atlantic.

Maybe something like that happens in the military. The machines are working well enough that a 'martial culture' hasn't been vital. But something will happen, it always does, and then the people and their inner strength will be vital. It ultimately depends upon the leadership. If they truly, honest to goodness, know that one day those young smart alecks in S-6 (I think that is where the computer geeks are) may have to fight, then they are more likely to keep the martial spirit alive. If they don't really believe that, they won't.

In your experience, do you think the leadership really believes that some day all of those people in the back will have to fight? (just to be clear, I am a forever a civilian.)

Other than that, I love when this kind of article is published. It shows that people haven't changed and the kind of things that worked long ago, still do. To me there is sort of a comfort in knowing that somebody else solved the problem and if he can, you can.


Fri, 01/04/2013 - 2:01pm

In reply to by carl


Thanks for the encouragement (you may regret it :) ). This issue is one of many number that are easy to reduce to grand statements and anecdotal arguments. I made a point of noting that what I had to say were anecdotes. That is the source of my reluctance to elaborate. I will add this much though, and I believe it to be very true.

In addition to poor discipline that can appear in any organization with poor leaders there is the issue of institutional culture. In all of the services we go through great pains to distinguish the "elite" and the "line". This, I would say, has been the case for all of history. What the modern industrialized army "line" has, however, is something more than its non-elite combat power. <a href="">This study highlights</a> the shift of the "line" from combat to combat support over the course of the 20th century. What this means is that the average Soldier you encounter isn't a combat soldier. The problem is that the "martial culture", that order & discipline, the requirement to obedience, the overt displays of respect (earned or unearned), the medals for bravery, severe physical punishment for failure, etc are designed for the SGT of the 101st I described in my earlier post, not for the logistics systems specialist or intelligence analyst. The logistic systems specialist could be damn good at his job, have an IQ of 115+, and be patriotic as can be. But his duties do not distinctly benefit from the "martial culture", they are there by association. The Target or Wal Mart Corporation logistics specialist has similar skill requirements, minus the APFT and range time.

When the majority of our uniformed Soldiers are not the combat guys, the martial culture starts to drift from being a military way to being the grunt way. The grunts are under this influence and will likewise start to see it as anachronism not fit for "modern war." I've been in combat units (tanks, scouts), theater logistics units, and intelligence units. The intel and log guys "do the Army stuff". The combat guys "need the Army stuff". However, they less and less see it that way. They are influenced by the tail. The Marines may have been the best insulated from this type of influence, but they are not immune to the broader effect on the military as a whole.

The irony is that in US history we win our wars by logistics. But, to keep with the historical theme of the article- we academically obsess over those who seemed to win operationally. We study Roman legions and nazi formations for their seeming ability to overcome numerical odds to win by tactics and admire their discipline and know-how.

I recognize that this is a simplification to make a point. A single point of view on a complex problem. But I can't escape the idea of a severe martial culture with an earned pride keeps cropping up among history's examples.


Wed, 01/02/2013 - 3:22pm

In reply to by Sparapet


Some of the best things said on SWJ are said in the comments. If you have more to say on this subject, please go ahead and say it. I would be interested if no else is. (Though I would count on many others being interested too.)


Wed, 01/02/2013 - 10:10am

In principle, agreed through and through. I do think our society makes it all the more difficult, forcing us to segregate further from our civilian identities if we want to maintain martial discipline.

An anecdote from my last OIF demob site. Spoke to a inf SGT from the 101st on his second tour. He was in his late 30's, having joined post-9/11 already aged 30. He said as an "adult in the ranks" he found his NCO's overbearing and offered very familiar criticisms of strict discipline. After his first deployment into the 'triangle of death' (Yusufiyah for those familiar) in 2005, however, he said he understood its point. When his platoon came under attack, he obeyed his NCO's instinctively, realizing after the fact that had he not been conditioned to do so, it may have cost him his life and the unit's ability to respond quickly.

Conversely, my own experience has shown that deployment brings out a perverse desire to punish for easily documented foolishness (e.g. G.O. #1) but offers little discipline for performance or for outright breakdowns of discipline, lest it reflect badly on the command (I will not provide examples). Although interestingly, the leaders responsible were quite good at coming up with "procedural" excuses, having seen much Law & Order, once they realized how things might look if a Soldier or a unit were to be 'punished' for such an offense.

Although the above may be anecdotes, they are anecdotes from the field. And I think all of us have heard the tropes "they are all adults," "deployment is hard," "this is the field, not garrison" and the like in our careers.

So much more to say on this!