Why I whole-heartedly welcome a return to “garrison life”

General Order #2: I will obey my special orders and perform all my duties in a military manner.
General Order #2: I will obey my special orders and perform all my duties in a military manner.

So this week it was revealed that the Army is going to be tightening up its regulations concerning tattoos.

Well, it wasn’t really revealed. You see, these changes were announced over a year ago.

That didn’t stop reactionary bloggers and talking heads from quickly ripping that juicy headline and repackaging it to fit a popular narrative of a military that is slipping into “garrison life.”

I’ve talked about this before here on this blog. It was actually one of my first posts. It’s a subject I find interesting because I am of the wild belief that the foundation of an effective military is discipline. Discipline is enforced through standards.

As James Joyner points out in his lamentation over the Army’s “misguided crackdown on tattoos,” the Army relaxed its standards to allow more recruits into the Army who may have at one point been turned away because of their tattoos. That’s fair. We needed more soldiers and we relaxed our standards to get them. Now, we’re no longer in that position and we can afford to tighten up. Dr. Joyner also writes about an upcoming prohibition from “eating, drinking, smoking, or talking on cellphones while walking; presumably this is to ensure they’re not distracted from or incapacitated to salute senior officers.” Dr. Joyner’s presumption that this is to ensure they’re not distracted from saluting senior officers seems like a nasty jab at the officer corps, who according to this are very concerned with getting saluted. I would argue that more likely it simply helps to ensure that soldiers present a military appearance. Slamming a Monster and chatting on an iPhone while walking across the street does not present a military appearance.

Paul Szoldra who writes at Business Insider characterizes this return to garrison life as a way to annoy junior enlisted troops to the extent that they wouldn’t consider re-enlisting.

Paul writes:

Single sergeants and corporals, who previously were able to get out of the barracks and be paid a housing allowance, will once again be forced back into the barracks. A place where, the general writes, officers and other leaders are to “regularly conduct visits in the Barracks between the hours of 2000-0400.”

It gets worse. From the email:

4. There will be two NCO’s on every deck in a Barracks and there will be a Firewatch posted on every deck.

5. There will be no TV’s or video games allowed in the Watch standers place of duty.

6. Units will establish an Interior Guard with a SNCO in charge of the Interior Guards training.

“It gets worse?” I never considered active leadership a bad thing. When I was a young soldier living in the barracks, I was always impressed when my squad leader paid me a visit on a Saturday to see if I was doing okay. It showed me that he cared. He’d stay and talk for a minute, ask me what my plans were for the weekend, and then reminded me that I could call him if I ran into trouble.

That experience paid off when I became a sergeant myself. After coming back from Iraq, I walked through the barracks on the weekends even when I lived off post to check on soldiers, who were often getting into trouble. Checking in on your soldiers isn’t “annoying,” it’s  a basic leadership skill.

But things have changed. When I pulled CQ (charge of quarters) duty many years ago, there were no smartphones and the only thing I was allowed to read were military publications. Today, the duty NCO and his soldiers are usually hypnotized by their glowing screens, oblivious to what’s going on right around them. I’ve also seen how it is now common to have giant high-definition televisions and Grand Theft Auto V or Call of Duty running at the CQ desk in the evening after everyone has gone home. One soldier actually didn’t even look at me until I politely asked him to pause the game when I was making my rounds one night.

Maybe I’m just being a grumpy old man, but I think there is value in displaying military professionalism.

Or to put it another way; crazy shit goes down in the barracks. Active leadership and control measures deter that. That, is not a bad thing. That is not “worse.”

When I wrote my post about garrison soldiers versus field soldiers, I had been out of the Army for over five years. Yet I still clung to the notion that standards and discipline are inherently good things that makes the fighting force better. As I read more and more articles of soldiers bummed out about the flaming out of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, there was a part of me that wanted to give those guys the benefit of the doubt. Maybe I had just been out of the game too long.

When I rejoined the Army later I was able to confirm my original notion. Pervasive in the junior force is this idea that rote standards and discipline for its own sake is bad and a distraction from the core mission – winning wars. Ten years of espousing the “warrior” as opposed to the “soldier” hasn’t helped, either.

Everyone wants to play what the Army calls “big boy rules.” An example, we’re not going to hold accountability formation fifteen minutes prior to the formation time because I am going to trust that you can all make it there on time. And then, of course, someone doesn’t make it on time. So you institute a means to ensure that you can accomplish the mission – show up fifteen minutes prior.

Or, I’m not going to physically inspect your foot march packing list because “we’re all grown men and can do it ourselves.” And then, of course, a member of the team leaves out a key piece of equipment, putting the mission at risk.

Or, we’re not going to conduct consolidated physical training because maintaining physical fitness is an individual responsibility. And then, of course, a member of the team who slacked off during PT is now holding back the platoon on a long field movement.

The other day, I was speaking with a young soldier who has been in the Army for about two years. He told me that he is pretty sure that he will get out of the Army when his contract is up. When I asked why, he said it was because he feels like he is in a “garrison Army” and that he feels like he comes to work and is at a “twenty-four-hour daycare.” Meanwhile, this is a relatively new soldier that has never deployed and has had discipline problems in the past. Maybe Paul is right. Maybe he is being “annoyed” out of the Army.

I can understand a seasoned combat veteran getting bummed out about a return to “garrison life,” but most of the seasoned combat veterans I talk with fully embrace and understand the need for it right now. They want it. They see firsthand the effects of years of “bro’ing out” and want their Army back.

This whole project of getting back to the basics is not a function of a downsizing military or a way to annoy people so much that they get out. It is a recognition that a decade of war has eroded the basic soldiering skills that are required of a professional force. To argue otherwise is just complaining.

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