Von Steuben’s Ghost

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Friederick Von Steuben was a former Prussian General Staff member under Frederick the great. Von Steuben found himself out of work after the Seven Years War, but America required his service. George Washington brought him on board to straighten up his rag-tag Continental Army, prone to showing up drunk at work, possessing little respect for authority and generally having no idea how to be a professional army.

Von Steuben, wielding the myth that he was once a Prussian General, put America’s Army straight. Despite being only a former Captain under Frederick, the Prussian still possessed an excellent purchase on what it takes to get men ready to fight. And the Prussian system of order and drill was the best in the world. He understood the utter necessity of delegating in a military environment. Instead of merely assigning men to train an entire regiment, he first sent Soldiers to the School of the Soldier, a type of basic training, and then on to their regiments where they were drilled by hand picked Sergeants.

Since the US did not have the luxury of sending marginal Soldiers out of the Army, it was forced to make do. Mal-uniformed, undisciplined, often drunk and lacking any close quarter battle skills, the Continental Army now faced another enemy other than the English; the belligerent Prussian Drill Master, Von Steuben.

Frustrated by his marginal command of the English language, he had his personal translator march up and down the formations cursing at the Soldiers in English.

Von Steuben, along with Nathaniel Greene, wrote the Blue Book, outlining drill and ceremony.

Even today, Von Steuben’s vitriolic method of controlling unruly troops survives. For instance, while eating lunch one day at the NCO Academy, one of the Cadre from C Company marched in and explained loud enough to be heard over the buzz of chow conversation: ” If you’re Bravo Company, get the fuck out! Charlie is coming in. ”

Von Steuben's Ghost haunts these hallowed halls
Von Steuben's Ghost haunts these hallowed halls

In any other job, this would clearly constitute a hostile work environment. Imagine your boss doing this to you as you at your lunch area. In the Army, while not an every day occurence, I would not say this is uncommon. As Bravo Company 1St Sergeant, I maintained a rank higher than any other Soldier in training. I thought about how to handle this. Many in Bravo Co. were grumbling and complaining about this apparent show of disrespect. I myself would have preferred that the Cadre member simply approach me and ask me to tell the troops to eat quickly and move out so that C Co. could eat. By delegating, he would have handed me the responsibility and since I had a better feel for how the people I was with would react, I could give them the order in a tactful manner. The Army itself describes tact as a way to communicate a message without giving offense.

There are of course, times when tact must be thrown out the window. The more immature the Soldier, the more tactless belligerence is needed to make him obey an order. I can assure you that there are many undisciplined troops. For instance, while standing in formation at parade rest or at attention, a Soldier is not supposed to talk. Many though, take the relative silence as an opportunity to draw attention to themselves; the quiet makes them stand out if they crack a joke or yell something out. I’ve seen over and over where a Sergeant must repeatedly make an entire formation do pushups because a few rabble can’t shut up.

On another occasion, we were threatened with negative counseling statements–something that would eliminate a Soldier’s chance for Honors–if we talked in formation. During morning PT (physical training), the Senior Cadre told us:  “If you don’t be quiet, I’ll PT you until your noses bleed.” I believed him.

Some of this type of talk used to offend me. I was capable of being quiet when told. I saluted smartly and moved out when given an order.

Slowly though, I began to realize that this type of speech was not intended for me. My skin got thicker. I saw that if I merely did what I was told, I actually stood out against 18 year old imbeciles who think everything is a joke. That, combined with competency at my job and excellent physical conditioning, have put me on a fast track. Now, when I hear an NCO cursing at someone, or even a whole formation I’m  in, I know he’s not talking to me so much as the lowest common denominator.

But I’d like to remind these NCOs that you’ll get far more from your troops in the long run if they love you, not merely fear you. You can only get down in the gutter with them for so long. In the end, they must believe that you hold some special knowledge, capabilities or moral high ground. If they see you cursing too often, they’ll think you’re just like them, and thus they’ll lose any sensitivity to your commands and presence.

And I still hate Drill Sergeants.


One thought on “Von Steuben’s Ghost

    Michael LaBossiere said:
    May 18, 2010 at 8:56 pm

    There is a similar, though less extreme problem in education: how do you teach people when you have a mix of people who want to learn and others who just want to spend the class texting and otherwise misbehaving?

    It is a real challenge to reach down while avoiding getting stuck down there.

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