The Army and Change

General Donn Starry and the Army of the 1970s.

Thomas Ricks points us to the second volume of the Press On! Selected Works of General Donn A Starry, superbly edited by Lewis Sorley.

Starry, who turns 86 at the end of this month, is a legendary officer who commanded the Army Center, V Corps, TRADOC, and finally U.S. Readiness Command during the period 1973 to 1983.  He’s perhaps best known for fathering the AirLand Battle doctrine.

What’s fascinating to me about the book, which is mostly a collection of letters and memoranda, is both the biting directness Starry employed–I don’t know whether it was typical in his day but it certainly isn’t today–but how damned little things have changed.  For example, he spent nearly the entire decade–including years as a four star combatant commander–fighting to get berets issued to soldier in lieu of several useless hats then in the uniform bag and getting a decent set of protective clothing for tankers. Both happened well after his retirement.

Many of the arguments on soldier training, the nature of military leadership, and the need to focus on real training by eliminating chickenshit remain just as vital now as then.  I’m especially amused by this at page 875:

Mickey Mouse

Message to Multiple Addressees

6 April 1978

1. Recently I became aware that at several of our installations troops are being required to remove their boots before entering the barracks. I am told the purpose of this is to keep the barracks floors in their spit-shined condition.

2. Whatever the reason for its being, this practice is patently ridiculous. It amounts to the kind of harassment we decided to stamp out of our Army in VOLAR days. Then we called it Mickey Mouse. I thought we were rid of it, but apparently not.

3. Each of you will take the necessary steps to stop the practice immediately if indeed it exists in your command. Further, each of you check very thoroughly to make sure it is not taking place in your command. Don’t just assume it isn’t because you don’t know about it. It’s apparently been going on for some time and I just recently became aware of it—quite by accident. You may be in the same situation.

4. With regard to the spit-shined floors, there shouldn’t be any in TRADOC. Clean, neat, orderly, well cared for barracks are essential. But for every spit-shined floor I find I’ll bet you I can find a host of things that need fixing more than the floors need to be spit shined. Let’s get our priorities straight.

5. Someone will be around to check on this, so don’t be surprised. Get it straight the first time. We’ve a whole bunch of important things to teach our soldiers, and we haven’t much time in which to do it. Spit shining floors and removing boots before entering barracks are tasks that are not on my list of important things they have to learn in TRADOC.

Things in the Army change. But they don’t change fast.

FILED UNDER: Military Affairs,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. John Peabody says:

    It’s true that we had to remove boots during basic trainin at Ft. Leonard Wood in 1977. But that was the last time I saw this issue (excepting a course at the NCO Academy in Bad Tolz in 1987).

  2. James Joyner says:

    John: I’m sure this was mostly a TRADOC thing; it’s not the kind of thing commanders of line units are going to allow but just the kind of chickenshit you see in training situations. Mostly, though, this was an amusing example of both Starry’s straightforward manner and the kind of thing that creeps in if senior leaders let it.

  3. John Peabody says:

    Roger that. I had one great commander who loathed the inevitable chickenshit post directives. It was quite refreshing to hear a guy with bars on his shoulders admit the stupidity of such messages. But stupid orders (at least outside of combat) appear to be part of the military condition. See Army, Roman (183).

  4. Rock says:

    (excepting a course at the NCO Academy in Bad Tolz in 1987).

    At the 7th Army NCO Academy at Bad Tolz in 63, we could enter the barracks with boots on but were forbidden to walk down the center of the hallways because the floor had a mirror finish. It was waxed and polished to that glossy finish daily. We crossed the hall at specific points and walked on a narrow strip along the center of the hall on each side. Somehow we didn’t consider that chickenshit. What was chickenshit was having to duck-walk on police call to find a cigarette butt hidden by a drill instructor.

    Those were the good old days.