The Backbone of the Army: How Vietnam led to the Non-Commissioned Officer as a Combat Leader « The Armed Historian

An excellent thumbnail sketch of the development of the NCO corps of the US Army.

It has often been said that generals win wars. There is a lot of truth in this statement; however, the Non-Commissioned Officer wins the battles that ultimately claim victory for the general. The Non-Commissioned Officer trains the Soldier and stands next to them in combat. It has been like that since the Revolutionary War. As time has progress, though, the role of the Non-Commissioned Officer has changed. This change can be tracked to many different events, but such is the case with any significant adjustment in the Army. The reality of the turning point, the realization of the need to change directions, came during the Vietnam War. The Vietnam War brought a dynamic change to the Non-Commissioned Officer corps which led to Non-Commissioned Officers taking on an active role as leaders in combat.

via The Backbone of the Army: How Vietnam led to the Non-Commissioned Officer as a Combat Leader « The Armed Historian.

Update: I can’t believe I posted on the history of the NCO corps without linking Ernest Fisher’s excellent history Guardians of the Republic.

19 thoughts on “The Backbone of the Army: How Vietnam led to the Non-Commissioned Officer as a Combat Leader « The Armed Historian”

  1. Interesting read. One area it short-changes, though, is that the role of the NCO varies widely, with in my opinion by far the most required from the infantry and the scout’s NCOs. Most NCOs will never lead in combat (real or simulated) by nature of their duties. Even my tanker NCOs could never grasp that when I was an E4(P) or E5 squad leader, I was tasked to conduct a point ambush far on the flank of a company-level operation in order to secure it. In other words, a mission entirely separate from what my platoon and company were doing, but in support of it. The typical tanker SGT is a gunner or maybe tank commander, in charge of 3 men and doing nothing requiring much original thought beyond moving in a platoon formation and executing battle drills in support of a company operation, while finding and killing enemy targets. (I say this from the older paradigm of maneuver warfare, as opposed to COIN warfare. Certainly, tanker NCOs are getting a greater workout the last several years in Iraq, but still not the same as infantry or scouts.)
    )

    1. There’s a lot of truth in what you say.

      I think too a large part of the increase in the role of the NCO as a combat leader is due to the increased lethality of the battlefield, with forces far more widely dispersed than before.

      As you note, a light infantry squad might be some considerable distance from the main body of the company or platoon, whereas mounted elements are rarely outside the immediate span of control of the platoon leader.

      I’d say that my burden as a combat leader in mech units was lighter, but my burden on the training and supervision side was much higher. There is a lot more stuff to take care of in a mech platoon!

    2. Yeah, considering that pissant load of equipment you just listed out for the light platoon….
      Concur on the dispersed nature of the battlefield leading to the powering-down of combat leadership. It is exactly the same at the officer echelons, with junior officers stepping up, and generally doing a pretty good job of it.

  2. At first glance, I’d say the author is lacking sources to back up the premise. The decentralization cited and reliance on NCO leadership at the small unit level was present from the start of the 20th century. We might debate if that was due to changing tactics or technological advances, or both. But I would say one needs a thick rug to attribute that change, in the singular sense, to the Vietnam War.

    1. Without doing any research, I am inclined to think that Vietnam is probably a pretty good match. Consider the nature of the fight, which was largely COIN, not unlimited war, which requires greater engagement with civilians at the small-unit level, tougher and compartmented terrain, largely small-unit (CO/PLT and below) operations, the more rapid turn-over of officers leaving NCOs as the collective “old-timers” (by doing a year instead of six-month officer rotations), the rise of a professional NCO corps and NCO education system during the 50s-60s, and the experiences of NCO-centric organizations such as SF, LRP/LRRP/Rangers that were pretty much only NCO operations in the field, etc. The tactics also were NCO staples, squad ambush and patrolling, instead of those of Korea and before, being large-scale day/night attack or defend at the battalion and above, which required NCOs to do nothing more than execute officer-directed battle drills by rote as opposed to exerting leadership. All of these elements, which exemplified Vietnam, are NCO-centric.

  3. I knew several NCOs from Vietnam in my TNARNG Tank Company. According to them Vietnam almost destroyed the NCO Corps. So much NCO business was taken over by the ossifers they really didn’t have a lot to do except take a lot of grief if something went wrong.

    While I was in my Battalion did one admin motor march to Camp Shelby and back. Of all people the BC was in charge. The BNCSM should have run the thing. I hope things have changed a lot in the active Army as the ARNG was still feeling the sickness from ‘nam.

    1. I’d say that the role of the NCO corps changed in Vietnam, but yes, the quality of the corps took a dive as well. Multiple deployments led to a serious drain of mid-grade NCOs who figured two deployments were enough, and got out of the Army. Those NCOs were future 1SG’s and CSMs, Their loss hurt quite a bit.

      I think the cultural changes of the All Volunteer Force had some impact as well. The Army at first was desperate to hold any manpower it could, and tried to make life as easy as possible for junior soldiers. This lead to poor discipline and a diminishing of the status of NCOs, with disastrous consequences. Fixing that lowered status was the work of a generation.

      By the time I arrived at the 25th ID in 1986, most of the damage had been overcome. And in preparation for our conversion to a light division, they really stacked the division with the cream of the NCO crop. In my company, the 1SG, all the platoon sergeants, and most of the squad leaders were veterans of either Vietnam or Grenada, and every one of them was a Ranger school graduate. I was in awe of them.

      Sadly, there are only so many NCOs with those qualifications. As that set of ringers started to rotate out, their replacements were a far less impressive bunch.

  4. Again, not to bust anyone’s bubble, but the reliance on NCOs planning and leading has been a distinct skill set cultured by the US Army almost since the end of the Civil War. Yes, Vietnam is one place to highlight the application of such. But it is not the ONLY place in the Army’s history where that occurs. Nor is it the best historical instance of such. Anyone saying otherwise just has not read enough of the primary source material.

  5. Not busting bubbles, but while the army encouraged the use of NCOs, for decades it was a commander’s responsibility as to how he used them, what he did with them, etc. The army conducted ALL of its NCO training on an ad hoc unit / regional basis with no standardization until in 1969 they developed a concept of a formalized, institutionalized program of instruction, which they implemented in 1971 as the army NCO Education System, which continues. Prior to that there was no requirement for standardization other than what a local DIV CDR or whatever might choose to enforce or support. While the NCOs might be doing great things, it was not because of an institutional culture, that was fostered by the big Army, but because of NCOs stepping up.This army decision to standardize and institutionalize NCOES was a direct result of the fight in Vietnam which had put greater challenegs on the NCO corps than they had seen in previous wars. . As for planning, as opposed to combat leadership, I agree that my commo NCO was directly involved in commo planning when I was an XO, but my operational NCOs in the S3 shop at both squadron and BCT were loath to “plan” with the exception of the master gunners, and even though they are fully capable, for some reason, most officers do not make them participate, which is a waste of good talent. Once they realize they are doing it, they step up and do great things, but too often they aren’t required to.

  6. “The army conducted ALL of its NCO training on an ad hoc unit / regional basis with no standardization until in 1969 they developed a concept of a formalized, institutionalized program of instruction, which they implemented in 1971 as the army NCO Education System, which continues. ”

    Um… in a word… no.

    I don’t know who is passing this around, but it is simply not based on factual research. Period.

    I just got through with a ten part look at the formation of the artillery arm in the Army of the Potomac in 1861. One of the point made AT THAT TIME was training of battery NCOs. The chief of artillery, working in the name of the army commander (analogous to our Army Chief of Staff today), directed the trainers conduct their work IAW the established service regulations. Those regulations served as a baseline from which Sgts. commanding individual pieces could determine how best to employ the weapon and crew. In short planning, executing, leading in the absence of their commissioned officers. (There are plenty of examples where that training paid off during the war.)

    And I could go on for several pages with more examples of standardized, formalized, and institutionalized NCO training in the army well, well before 1971.

    “This army decision to standardize and institutionalize NCOES was a direct result of the fight in Vietnam which had put greater challenegs on the NCO corps than they had seen in previous wars.”

    Again, NO. The Army partly reverted the NCO training system to what was in place back before the 1960s. The disaster that was the Pentomic Army also put a “technical” orientation to NCO training. Such was the root of ills in Vietnam, producing SGTs. who were not prepared to lead.

    “…but my operational NCOs in the S3 shop at both squadron and BCT were loath to “plan” with the exception of the master gunners, and even though they are fully capable, for some reason, most officers do not make them participate, which is a waste of good talent. ”

    I can name three NCOs that shared the same “battlespace” as we did in the early 1990s who are direct contradictions of this observation. On the other hand, I worked in some units where your generalization seemed to fit – NCOs who would not step up to participate in the planning. And often responding with “I have a better idea” when the mission was briefed. It is what it is, I guess.

  7. My contention is not that NCO training did not exist across the army, but that it was not standardized until 1971. Show me the first army-wide, DA-sanctioned, generalist NCO training system in use in the army prior to 1971 that was designed to produce NCOs with standardized skills. Don’t reference the artillery arm in the Army of the Potomac unless you can show me that this was adopted by the entire Union Army and not just the batteries and crews. I get it that NCO training existed throughout the army and it was designed to develop training, leadership and planning skills. Every DIV/Corps/Army seemed to have its own school and POI, but it was not standardized at the DA level. Show me that date. Even the NCO Candidate Course, developed ISO Vietnam was a good start at the DA level, but was not instituted across the army, and their POI did not match whatever was being taught in Korea, Germany, Hood etc.

    I would go out even further, though, and say that during my PLDC and BNCOC I did not get “planning” skills trained, other than what was appropriate for those grades, i.e. can produce a basic WARNO/OPORD and FRAGO, and can apply Troop Leading Procedures. And I speak by observation and experience when I say that, as a BCT AS3 twice, squadron S3, squadron XO, HBCT S3 and XO during four operational deployments, officers make poor use of using NCOs to assist in planning, which was a fight I have had with three different OPS SGMs now to overcome. (This is not a slight on NCO capabilities, but officer’s fixations.) Most come from the line units and are willing to confine themselves to “Battle SGT” or “I set up the TOC” etc, until pushed, but once pulled in to the planning team, they generally participate. However, there is an institutional mindset that says that officers do the planning, and NCOs don’t, and it is promulgated by both sides of the divide, and this is a horrid misuse of the skills, and it is not made better by the POI of any NCO education system school except, from my understanding, the SGT MAJ’s Academy. Even the battlestaff NCO course is more about battle-tracking and TOC functions than it is about planning and decision-making.

  8. “Show me the first army-wide, DA-sanctioned, generalist NCO training system in use in the army prior to 1971 that was designed to produce NCOs with standardized skills. ”

    Field artillery instructions of 1861.

    1. For this and the below reference, are these generalist NCO training references, or technical skills? From the titles you show me, “Instruction” and “Treatise” are indicative of branch-specific doctrine and technical skills as opposed to training and general NCO skills. I still maintain that there were not standardized NCO schools, but I will modify my earlier stance to agree that there was army-standard special skills training available as opposed to the NCOES that is currently available. I suspect that the curriculum available was highly specialized and technical as opposed to development of the NCO as leader.

  9. We can go back further too….
    “Elementary Treatise on Advanced Guard, Outposts, and Detachment Service of Troops”

    First published in 1847.

    1. I don’t think Esli would argue that there has long been a school of thought that the NCO corps needed to be professionally developed.

      But no matter the directives published, until the promotion of senior NCOs was centralized at DA, it didn’t matter what publications were published, the 1SG and Sergeant Major were the officer’s man. The commander would select his NCOs, and fire them at their pleasure. There’s something to be said for giving the commander that power, but a level of consistency in their training isn’t one of them.

  10. Guys, I’m not saying that some NCOES course existed in 1860. What I am saying is that there was, contrary to what you are saying, a NCO training system standardized at the Army level well in advance of the 1972 changes you mention. Those are facts. We might debate the effectiveness of the artillery school (which I am most familiar with), but that doesn’t change the fact that it existed in the pre-Civil War army. And it trained many future combat leaders for the test of 1861-65. The Ordnance and Engineer corps likewise maintained similar programs, though not as elaborate.

    I’d further add that the NCO advanced training preceded analogous programs for officers. In the “old army” when an officer made Captain, he just continued to study the professional books the “old man” subscribed to. The Captain didn’t go off to special service schools. So the training, or lack thereof, for NCOs should be considered in context.

  11. Wow. It is nice to know that my article sparked so much debate. If I may make a few points in the defense of my writing.

    To start off with, this piece was written as a final for a survey of American Military History course that I was taking. As I found the topic interesting and relevant to my current duty position, I decided to give it a permanent home on the internet and the military history blog that I was starting. It is meant to be a brief overview. My sources were not included in the blog post as it would have been distracting to the overall aesthetics. However, I assure you that all of my sources where either official military publication or sponsored by the Center for Military History in Washington, D.C.

    Now, as much as I love the field artillery (believe me, as a fister, I really do), the branch was all but dead before the revitalization under brevet Major Samuel Ringgold just before the Mexican War in 1846. While you do cite the artillery training of 1861, one must also remember that rank was regimental at that time. This meant that a transfer from one regiment to another meant immediate reduction in rank to private.

    Also, as is the case in the modern military, the level of training varied from unit to unit. To draw on the artillery example once again, there were batteries that believed in the term “area effects” and could still barely hit that area. On the other hand, there were batteries, mostly in fixed positions granted, that had a degree of accuracy to the point were the infantry had little opportunity to prove themselves in those battles.

    However, the article was speaking in global terms. The “total Army concept” if you will. It was not until the establishment of TRADOC that a true baseline of learning was established for the NCO Corps. It was Vietnam when the need for NCOs was recognized to the point that replenishment from within the ranks would not accomplish the mission.

    I will admit that I probably was not as clear as I had hoped in linking the rise of the NCO’s battlefield authority and presence was linked to the disintegration of “front lines”. Despite the referencing of the Field Artillery Instructions of 1861, artillery placement and implementation were still at the discretion of the Officer Corps. One can argue that it still is with the only piece of FA least effected by officers being the actions of the 13F while he is on the hill.

    One could argue that because of the practice of battlefield promotions to officer ranks, the NCO has always held the potential for leadership authority. It was not, however, an authority that was given to the NCO until they were given that little bar for their lapel. This was the philosophy that I was attempting to attack. Vietnam was chosen, not as a start point as much as a point of no return in the ever changing role of the NCO, because of the recognized need for knowledgeable and competent NCOs.

  12. “While you do cite the artillery training of 1861, one must also remember that rank was regimental at that time. This meant that a transfer from one regiment to another meant immediate reduction in rank to private.”

    And transfers were very rare inside the officer postings, much less within the enlisted. More likely the entire battery was posted at different installations during the service-man’s career. Again, one must appreciate the way the Army operated at that time to understand the context under which training was provided. With batteries from different regiments posted to Fort Monroe, and others temporarily posted, there was ample opportunity to focus and direct training under the eyes of the “school.”

    Times two for the NCOs assigned to the ordnance branch (who for all practical purposes filled a role similar to today’s Warrants). Every individual biography of ordnance NCOs I’ve come across notes at least a year’s worth of time at Fort Monroe at some point in their careers.

Comments are closed.