Small Wars Journal

Interview with Ken White

Thu, 12/01/2011 - 7:39am

The German keyword is Gefechtsdisziplin - combat discipline…Discipline is a skill that needs training and maintenance, it is not a performance.  Leaders should always remember that it’s combat, not everyday affairs that warrant this effort.     - Svenn Ortmann

One of the great strengths of the Small Wars Council (SWC) discussion forum is its membership, which comes from all walks of life, professions, and countries.  Some, like member Ken White, have dedicated the better part of their adult lives to professions that have taken them to places most people only read about.  Ken typically comments on issues of military training and discipline, and Ortmann’s quote, which can be found at his profile page on a plaque labeled Disicpline Defined, highlights his concerns over the military’s prowess with both realms.

Ken entered the military in 1948 as a Marine and retired as a Command Sergeant Major in the US Army, some 29 years later, in 1977.  In that span, he protected children trying to attend a high school in Arkansas, participated in troop tests of the weapon that would become the M16, advised Vietnamese paratroopers and fought in harrowing combat during the Vietnam War, and spent stretches training Soldiers in key infantry skills.  He went on to serve as a Department of the Army Civilian for another 18 years, during a period he referred to as masochism, and now serves as a moderator at the SWC. 

The broad expanse of Ken’s military and life experience makes for enlightening conversations, debates, and history lessons at the Council.  Despite initial reluctance, Ken was willing to spend some time answering a series of questions that underscore why he’d probably be the right guy to call if your about to head into a scrap with bad guys.

In the biography section of your Small Wars Council profile, you described yourself as “Former Marine, retired Army, and further retired Army Civilian, now doubly tired after two wars, three county fairs and a goat rope.”  The two wars were Korea and Vietnam, but what were the three county fairs and the goat rope all about?

The County Fairs were Laos, the Congo and the Dominican Republic.  The Goat Rope was putting kids in School in Little Rock, James Meredith into the University of Mississippi and the '67 riots in Detroit.  All part of the goat rope that is peacetime service in the Armed Forces of these mostly United States.  There were other inconsequential things but basically, I had a lot of fun in a lot of places.

So you find yourself in Little Rock, and Mississippi, and later on in Detroit.   That's a span of eleven years, by my count, and I imagine you were with different units on each occasion.  Were you with the 101st Airborne at Little Rock, and the 82nd Airborne in Detroit? 

1st Airborne Battle Group of the 327th Infantry for Little Rock, from the 101st at [Fort] Campbell.  Then 1st Battalion of the 508th Infantry from the 82nd for Detroit.

I've looked at the pictures of those incidents recently, wondering if you are in them, and can only imagine the bewilderment your Soldiers must have been facing at the mission. 

 I do not recall any bewilderment at all for either mission.  There may have been some but I didn't see or hear of it; both missions were clear cut and non problematical.

What rank were you during those moments in history, and what was your billet? 

Sergeant and Rifle Squad Leader for the first, Master Sergeant and Battalion Intelligence Sergeant / Acting S2 for the second.

Can you relate a story about the first day on the ground for those two events?

For Little Rock, [there was] the idiotic decision by MG Edwin Walker (a certified nut case...), then Commander of the Military District of Arkansas (those Districts were an intriguing Army anachronism...), to not take any Black Soldiers into the City.  A quick phone call back to Campbell to the Division CG [commanding general] got that turned around.  Walker's decision, nominally to avoid inflaming the populace, was perhaps a product of his warped mind but it was a reflection of time and place.   It was quickly overturned and Walker got in trouble for it--not enough, but some.  It is noteworthy that ten years later for Detroit, such idea wasn't even considered.

When we arrived at Detroit's Central High School where we were to be billeted, I hopped out of a Quarter Ton [truck] and almost fell down due to stepping onto a mass of .50 caliber cases from a National Guard Personnel Carrier's M2 [machine gun].  The Track Commander had fired an entire box at a “sniper" on a roof across the street.  God knows where those rounds went.

Two things to note -- the Little Rock  deployment was commanded by the Battle Group; there were no strap hangers from Division.  The BG Commander was trusted to provide the adult supervision.  In Detroit, our Battalion had a total of one round, 5.56, fired.  It was an accidental discharge and hurt no one.  We did pop a couple of CS grenades one day.  Not necessary but was done.  The tear gas drifted into the jail where the inmates and Guards of course had no masks.

Desegregation was a tough time for our nation.  Did you lose any friends over the issue and the orders you carried out?

It was tough in spots, but overall, went fairly well--if late--in my estimation.  No to both questions.  Little Rock was a bit noisy for a day or so but then went well.  Mississippi was less noisy (except perhaps in Jackson).

I imagine Detroit was a bewildering albeit exciting time as well.  Was it more "noisy" than Little Rock or Mississippi, and how did it make you feel to be in the Army at the time, committed to that task?

I again do not recall any bewilderment.  There were varying emotions about for sure but bewilderment wasn't one of them.  Nor did we look at it as exciting--job's a job...

Little Rock had a few flashes of upset, so it was, in effect, more noisy for the Troops than was Detroit.  Mississippi was essentially a non-event with regard to noise, though the air movement down was hilarious.  Virtually every transport aircraft the USAF had in CONUS was used ad hoc, unplanned, to rapidly move those two Divisions to Mississippi.  All in all, for the Troops, none of the three were really more than a blip and a minor monotony breaker.

Were you contending with enough race problems within the ranks by that time already?  It makes for a lot of grist for popular media, but was it ever so stark that you could actually point to a year and finally say, "wow, I'm glad that's over."?

There were race problems at the time, but they were relatively minor.  The Army's bad period of race relations really hit bottom around 1969.  I'm not sure that such a year ever really appeared, but each succeeding year things got a bit better.  We still aren't there, and it'll take another generation or two, I think.

Among those two wars you fought in, what was your toughest day?--that day when you didn’t think you’d make it home.

That's easy--the day I was flying in a Viet Namese Air Force L-20 Beaver with a young, inexperienced pilot and an even younger Viet Namese crew chief.  It smelled of Nuc Mam and AvGas. It sounded like a steady drone with an occasional hiccup.  We were over the Mekong Delta, the Rung Sat Special Zone--teeming with Clyde [Viet Cong] and his friends--and his radio did not work.  Then the engine started sputtering...

You obviously survived the ordeal, but did the aircraft go down?  Or did you swat the young crew chief across the back of his head to point out something obvious like a hydraulic leak? 

None of that, the sputtering continued--and in fact worsened--until we got to Vung Tau almost on time and landed fairly normally.  I've never known whether he was really lost or not.

Did you find renewed faith in a higher power or at least a conviction to never fly with a Vietnamese aircrew again?

No change of which I'm aware.  I'm Scotch Irish, was a Marine Grunt in Korea and had about ten years of Army airborne service by that time.  Any one of those things will make you devil-may-care, any two will make you also a fatalist, and all three about guarantee what my Schoolteacher Sister-In-Law calls "an excess of don't give a damn-itis."  Being totally areligious, I'm not much on higher powers and as an Adviser to a Viet Namese Parachute Battalion, I was pretty well going to ride with VNAF [Viet Nam Air Force] again and again...

The episode was simply “another day, another dollar” sort of thing.  It's just the one event in Viet Nam where I was remotely curious about whether there'd be a tomorrow or not.

You’ve spent a lot of time providing great counsel about the perils of improper and insufficient training, and it begs the question: has the military, at least at the modern infantry level from 1945-2011, has ever gotten the training formula right for a period of time?

I think it was relatively correct in the 1945-1965 period.  In the 1970s the Army wrongly adopted some civilian industry training techniques that were designed to cope with assembly line workers; they effectively dumbed down training.  Good trainers worked around the shortfalls but it’s still an atrocious system.  Beyond that, I believe the major problems are two: the most significant being perceived, but not real, cost constraints.  Training is not as productive for members of Congress as is the buying of expensive hardware sourced in multiple States and Districts, so it gets short shrift.  That's understandable where Congress is concerned, inexcusable where the Armed Forces have made poor choices.  We just do not train the basics at all well...

The second big impactor is that we live in an open democracy and the Mothers of America will not tolerate their sons and daughters being injured in training to any great extent.

Bad dichotomy.  Tough, demanding job requires tough, demanding training but the system mitigates against that on both cost and societal grounds.  There are no easy choices.

Toxic leadership has been another topic that you’ve weighed in on often. Where does toxic leadership find fertile ground and start to grow? Is it a personality quirk that is inevitable given where and how the military recruits? Is it a system and service issue? Or is it something deeper, more primitive, and impacted by the stressors of combat and deployments over a span of time?

It starts with a culture that emphasizes the desirability of individual drive and initiative while simultaneously stifling those traits by demanding excessive conformity, perverting the meaning of loyalty.  This ambiguity creates conflicts in performance and gives toxicity in leadership a start.  Add a system which insists on moving people and units about so rapidly and chaotically that no trust can be developed between the leaders and the led.  Then inadvertently exacerbate all that by a Congress and military leadership that focuses on short term 'results.'  It’s a wonder we do as well as we do.  Fortunately, the trade--it’s not a profession--and the system attract more good people than bad…

It is indeed a personality-driven process and I believe the accession process and its lack of selectivity and failure to emphasize character are contributors.  There’s no way to eliminate the issue, but we could do much to alleviate the problem.  It is service-related; the various services all exhibit the failure but all vary in degree and methods of coping.  I suppose the stress of deployments may have some impact, but I believe that with better selection and training that issue would not be problematical--certainly not to the extent it now may be.

Over the years, as both a Soldier and a Department of the Army Civilian, you have met a few larger-than-life characters. Who made the most significant impression on you?

Ken Houghton, Lew Walt, Tom Sherburne, Ted Jenes and a host of lesser known persons who just did their jobs very well and without harassment of others – and without micromanaging!

Did you have the opportunity to serve under Houghton with the 1st Provisional Marine Brigade?  He was for sure the stuff of Marine Corps legend, but what actions or traits of his stuck with you the most?

Yep, in First Recon Co briefly.  He was tactically competent, firm but very fair, trusted people, let them do their jobs and would fire incompetents quickly.  Can't ask for any more than that.

You spoke of superiors.  What can you tell readers though about the best man or men who worked for you?  More importantly, what can a serviceman who reads this interview learn from that guy's personality, or the professional traits he lived by?  I'd go to hell and back if I could take a select group of Marines I've known with me.  I imagine you must have a short list of similar studs.

I picked seniors for a reason.  They're publicly known.  I purposely did not and will not name any of the hundreds of peers and subordinates with whom I worked for over 45 years.  There were some losers but not many; there were those I liked and those I did not.  About most I was neutral in that regard--but I respected and do respect all of them.  There are certainly some standouts--just great Marines or Soldiers.  I was fortunate to serve in some really good units under mostly good commanders.  I've seen a number of bad ones, but I only served under two I considered bad.  Good units tend to have good people (and somehow dispose of or change those not so good) so, yep, I do have a "short list" and the majority (but not all) are from Special Forces or the 82nd where I spent the most time, but I won't name any for fear of perhaps slighting even one.  Sorry...

There are a hell of a lot of good people wearing tree suits, they deserve better training, more adult treatment and less foolishness than they get.

When you put your uniform on for the last time and stepped out for the retirement ceremony held in your honor, do you recall what you said to the crowd of folks gathered to say goodbye to a good friend?

Uh, no.  That was in ’77; the memories dim.  Something inane, I'm quite sure.  I do, however, recall what I said at my Army civilian employee retirement--that I thought it was a damn shame that I was more trusted as an eighteen-year old Marine Corporal in Korea than I was as a senior civilian manager in a large Army Headquarters.

Over-large.  Make that Headquarters over-large and over-staffed...

You’ve made mention of your sons and their service, and besides the fact that you must be exceptionally proud of them and their sacrifice, they undoubtedly serve as a great source of information for you about the current state of the Army. Do you worry about the Army they are growing up in?

All three Sons served in the Army, one's still there (he likes that stuff).  Theoretically, there should be no growing up involved; the ‘kids’ range in age from 55 down to 37.  However, all my grandsons-in-law also have served or are serving, as has one granddaughter who went to Iraq as a Medic and whose husband is a serving SF type.  He and the son now in Afghanistan do keep me informed, and both seem to take great pleasure in scaring the pot wadding out of me with horror stories that indicate to me (recall that I'm a dinosaur) the Army has really lost its way in several things--so yes, I worry a great deal about the Army and its future direction.  A very great deal…

 If the Infantry Basic Officer Leadership Course invited you to address a graduating class, what are the top five talking points you would leave with them?

I've done that for an Armor Officer Basic Class--then there were only three points:

Leadership is simple: know your job, do your job, and be fair--with the first and last being of greater and equal importance.  Secondly, doing what's right and needed is far more important than being known as a smart guy.  Both are important, but in combat character is more important than intelligence and combat is what it's all about.  Lastly, trust your people, they will surprise you with what they can do.

I would add two thoughts today.  We under-train our people because we expect them to under-perform.  That is perverse, stupid and a criminal waste of talent.  We arrived at that point for a variety of reasons--some older than this nation--but it is long past time that characteristic be retired.

The personnel system was developed to go to World War I.  It shows.  The Band-aids are coming off...

If you could send a time machine back into history and retrieve one notable figure from the past to spend a day with you, who would you pick?  More importantly, what are some of the things you’d do together and talk about?

Probably no one, really--if the criteria is notable figures.  For some of the admired persons, Subadai, for example, we'd have too little in common due to the time and state of 'civilization' difference to have a sensible conversation.  It’s also been my observation that most notable persons have as many flaws as the rest of us.  In the end, we all have to make our own way.

Remove the notable criteria and it would probably do both of us more harm than good to bring back some good friends for a day...

I figure you for a discerning single malt guy, though I admit I don’t recall the topic ever coming up before on the Council, and could be terribly wrong.  Does a man‘s liquid vice tell you anything about anything?

Gack.  Can't stand Scotch (long story involving a Navy Nurse behind that...).  Bourbon is the nectar of the Gods (plural--I figure everyone is entitled to their own).  No to the question, I've met great folks who were drinkers of everything from Sterno or Torpedo Juice to the single malt and others who didn't even drink coffee much less anything stronger.

You can totally tell me to shove off since this is a kiss-and-tell issue, but Scotch and a Navy Nurse?  Please don't tell me that she drank you under a table.

Um, no.  She was just smarter than I was and left me in the Bed Pan Room on the ward to finish off the last of two pints of White Horse I had smuggled into the Hospital.  Moral of all that is do not drink an excess of bad Scotch when your broken jaw is wired shut...

What was your favorite implement during your service, and does the modern military have it right with 5.56mm as the primary rifleman's round?

Weapons are tools, nothing more.  Having carried and/or used everything from a S&W .38 upward through the M2 and Mk19, I don't really have a favorite.  It's a METT-TC [mission, enemy, terrain and weather, troops and support available - time and civil considerations] issue, and I thought you’d never ask.

The answer to the 5.56 would take more time and pixels than we probably should spend.  I worked the troop test on the Colt AR-15 in 1963.  The outcome of that was a recommendation to DA [Department of the Army] to stay with the 7.62 for worldwide service and buy a few black rifles for special purposes.  That did not survive for political, not military, reasons.  I agreed with our recommendation, did not like the cartridge then and I liked it less after Ordnance 'tweaked' it.  It is barely adequate as a military cartridge and should never have been adopted.  It was but should long ago have been replaced.

I totally understand your points about the space required to discuss 5.56 vs. 7.62mm, but do you think the services have the capacity to actually train, to standard, on a replacement round and weapon system?

Certainly.  We are woefully under-trained.  The troops can absorb and do far more than we tend to credit them.  Our training is mostly designed to be easy on the trainers and to produce 'metrics' (mostly meaningless and of little value) of some sort.  It is not designed to produce competent combat soldiers, Marines or leaders.

The only 'objective' measure of combat performance is actual combat.  Anything less requires subjective but experienced judgment to assess.  We discard that reality at significant cost to ourselves and our people.

Having undergone a switch from .30-06 to 7.62x51 and then to 5.56 in seven weapons over the years, I don't see a problem.  Why should it be presumed there will be one?

If you were a young man again, but armed with the knowledge of service and life you've accumulated, would you join up and do it all over?

Hard to say--probably join but doubt I'd stay.  [A] phone call [came] from Afghanistan recently and it was mentioned that a Lieutenant Colonel from a unit there stopped a Master Sergeant from another unit and told him his sideburns were within the reg, but barely, and that he should trim them.  Between that kind of stupidity and reflective belts, I doubt I'd stay.  Papering over risk avoidance with conformity for appearance sake is just foolish.

From First Sergeant up to include serving as the CSM in two Battalions and two Brigades in peacetime and in combat, I never checked a police call.  I never made an "on the spot correction.“  Both those actions subvert the chain of command--and then we wonder why some junior leaders “don’t do their job.“  I did suggest to a large number of NCOs that their performance in those areas probably needed attention.  I, of course, did that nicely, sweetly even....     

Last question--John Browning or Gaston Glock?

John Moses Browning designed some beautiful firearms that were ultra-reliable.  Glock makes utilitarian tools that are ultra-reliable but have no soul.  METT-TC.

I have owned four M1911A1s and two High-Powers--never owned a Glock but have fired a couple.  As an aside, I think the Glock barrel-to-trigger height is too great and like most of the modern double action large mag [capacity] pistols, it offers no particular advantage.  Most have really sloppy triggers.  If we're going to go Austrian, I much prefer the Steyr MA-1, better ergonomics and trigger by far.

About the Author(s)

Jon Custis is an active duty Marine Corps infantry officer and moderator with the Small Wars Council.



Thu, 07/03/2014 - 6:36am

Ken occassionally visits SWJ & SWC as he has other more pressing demands on his time. He remains alert and knows what you are doing.

There is a Ken White admiration thread on SWC, where brave members have posted their thoughts and to date not one has "fallen down a dark hole". See:

First of all, I compliment the SWJ and Jon for this series on Interviews. It is indeed a great idea.

I enjoyed reading the comments of Ken and it struck a chord. Maybe we are on the same page. It is reflective not only of the state of training and leadership and over dependence on weaponry in the US Army/ Marines, but is apparently a universal issue.

An excellent interview.

I loved it !
Fantastic job by both the interviewer and interviewee.
I had not fully realized (up until now) that I could be Ken’s eldest son ;)