Lessons on discipline from military forefathers

The "Year of Leadership" takes place from September 2008 to August 2009. (U.S. Air Force graphic)

The "Year of Leadership" takes place from September 2008 to August 2009. (U.S. Air Force graphic)

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- "Nothing is more harmful to the service than the neglect of discipline; for that discipline, more than numbers, gives one army superiority over another." -- George Washington

What is it about discipline that would inspire such words from our first commander in chief? Certainly today's Airmen continue to be the guarantors of our nation's liberty, but recently we've seen cracks form around our acquisitions processes, our equipment oversight and with the surety of nuclear weapons. 

It has been said that the Air Force must become more disciplined, but to truly appreciate the relevance of General Washington's wisdom, one needs to understand the context of the quote.

In its most general sense, discipline refers to the systematic instruction given to an individual or team. I think it is in this sense that General Washington made his remarks about discipline. 

In the winter of 1778, Lt. Gen. Fredreich von Stueben arrived at Valley Forge to find a rag-tag American Army that paid little attention to commanders, fought their own fight, and saw themselves as volunteers who could come and go from the battlefield as their own personal circumstances dictated. 

Sanitary conditions at Valley Forge were deplorable, soldiers lacked the proper winter clothing and many didn't even have a weapon. Change was REQUIRED!

General von Steuben set to work and established his "model company," a team of 100 hand-picked NCOs which he vigorously trained to become the nucleus of the new Continental Army. Eventually these soldiers were sent to brigades across the Continental Army and they repeated the process for the soldiers in their brigades. 

Simultaneously, General von Steuben stopped the practice of assigning new soldiers into units before they received any training and made company commanders responsible for the training that their best NCOs conducted. Over time, his training and discipline took hold and transformed the Continental Army. 

On June 28, 1778, American troops fighting under General von Stueben engaged British forces at Monmouth Courthouse and turned the tide of battle. Eventually, the Continental Army carried the day at Monmouth and went on to win at Stony Point, aided Nathaniel Greene in his Southern campaign and eventually led a division at Yorktown.

Today, General von Steuben isn't remembered for the divisions he led or the battle he won at Monmouth. He is remembered for establishing the discipline the Continental Army required to defeat the British Army; discipline that has become the hallmark of our great Air Force. 

Recently, our Air Force has struggled to maintain the discipline that won the Cold War and made us the 21st Century's premier instrument of national defense. It is this very loss of good order, lack of attention to detail and poor discipline that has rendered us susceptible to mistakes. 

In turn, these critical mistakes have reflected negatively on our military's reputation. We have neglected the very discipline that made us superior.

No single individual is to blame for the Air Force's recent struggles. These struggles have been brought on by a systematic failure to uphold good order and discipline. It is time to get back that which General von Steuben taught us years ago. 

Commanders, we are responsible for the training our NCOs conduct. We need to know the Air Force Instructions, what our NCOs are training and ensure it is being trained appropriately- details matter! 

NCOs, as the backbone of our Air Force you are responsible for training our Airmen and enforcing the standards that govern our conduct. Airmen, listen to your NCOs, take their guidance, and learn your job. Know AFIs that govern your responsibilities and be the subject matter expert. 

Your own self-discipline needs to match or exceed the institutional discipline the Air Force requires. We all need to pull together to raise the bar on discipline our nation requires it!