The Sergeant Major

[Excerpts from article by Sergeant Major Robert B. Begg, Army magazine, January 1966]

Man of two worlds, a sergeant major's success depends on how well he straddles them. A visiting colonel asked me to define the sergeant major's job. "I always get a different answer," he complained. I gave him one more. I'm afraid I didn't answer him well. I was confused about my own job.

The reason for my confusion, and the confusion of almost everyone else in the Army, is that the sergeant major has the characteristics of a chameleon. He is different things to different people. Each fails to see him from all points of view. The sergeant major himself may at times confuse his mission. If we believe in the integrity of our noncommissioned officers, it is important that we understand the role of this key figure. Here he is as I see him.

To the Commander

To the CO, the sergeant major is the one person close to him, other than his wife, who without fear of retribution by efficiency report runs counter to the commander's known or suspected feelings. Like the boy in the fable, the sergeant major can say, "Look! The king has no clothes!"

The sergeant major is an opinion-maker, an interpreter, and at times an apologist. He can, and will, explain the commander to the troops in language they can understand.

In one command where I served there was grumbling discontent over an order that scarves and neckties would be worn during very hot weather. I went to the commander about the matter. He said, "I don't like to see hairy chests and yellow t-shirts. I'm an old man with few idiosyncrasies. Allow me this one." That was such a human remark that I repeated it verbatim to my key noncommissioned officers. The grapevine took over, the grumbling stopped. The men felt closer to the commander and proudly repeated an "inside story" to men in other outfits. The Old Man gained real affection.

I have made weak officers (and we have a few) look strong to the command; I have made martinets look like straight-shooters. I have done things by emphasizing or tempering their orders. I have done it out of loyalty to them as individuals but also out of loyalty to an image of the perfect commander that has evolved over my 25 years. Every good sergeant major does the same thing. Frequently his boss is fully aware of this and depends upon his sergeant major to preserve his good image.

The sergeant major, in turn, realizes that he is the man in the middle and must answer to the commander if his orders are not properly carried out. The sergeant major puts his own judgement of his boss and the situation on the line every time. To irresponsibly repeat the Old Man's orders without interpretation is to betray him. What commander, in response to a call from a higher staff officer, in a fit of pique has not exclaimed , "Oh, tell him to go to hell!" How many wanted the message repeated?

The sergeant major is a confidant. He can be told the real, sometimes personal, reasons for decisions. He can be counted upon to connive to put a good face on something unpopular. He can be a sounding board for ideas, a critical audience. He can maintain absolute silence.

With some commanders, the sergeant major can become a real friend at work, someone on whom the commander can unburden himself. I have had many fine relationships of this sort and feel lasting affection for these officers. A good sergeant major is perceptive. He understands the Old Man's moods and respects them. A good sergeant major never  no, never  presumes upon the affection and respect the commander feels for him.

The first definition of a sergeant major I ever heard was from a young enlisted man giving us our recruit training in the early forties. The soldier pointed out to us the Battalion Sergeant Major (then a master sergeant) and told us, "He is the eyes , the ears and the voice of the Old Man."

One sergeant major I know used to get up at 0500 daily while in garrison. He checked the MP blotter and took notes on incidents of the night before. He stood behind the reveille formation at a different company each day. He ate breakfast at a different mess hall each day. At 0730 daily this sergeant major was standing tall in front of the general with a list of things that had happened the night before. At 0800 the general was on the phone to his commanders asking them about things in their own outfits of which they were still ignorant. Finky? Some thought so for sure! The important thing is that the general used his "eyes" the way he wanted to and got exactly the results he wanted.

In recognizing and stopping personal derelictions ranging from indebtedness to infidelity, the sergeant major can be a valuable tool to the commander. I have been told many times, "You tell him to cut it out before it comes to my attention officially." I have seen such a warning save men from self destruction.

Being the Old Man's eyes can be distasteful. The sergeant major may find his loyalties split. I have let my sympathies sway me into warning a friend before the axe fell. A good sergeant major will weigh the value to the command of any piece of information and will evaluate the commander's probable use of that information and will edit his reports accordingly. A good commander will see right through such a lack of objectivity, understand his sergeant major's motive, and temper his judgement accordingly. Between men, these things are understood.

To the Troops

The sergeant major is a port in a storm, a refuge in time of need. He embodies approachable, sympathetic wisdom. He is a grizzled old head who knows people and regulations. His advice and counsel can prevent a lot of grief.

Unfortunately, many young people in personnel management are motivated by self-righteous determination to enforce every jot and title of the regulations. Theirs is a spirit which inquires, "What is wrong with this?" rather than "What is right with this?" I went through this stage myself. I delighted in finding flaws in personnel actions and proudly wrote erudite endorsements all shouting No! Tolerance for the shortcomings of others has come of age, and I now use this same knowledge to find ways of saying Yes! The young soldier down in the motor pool is adrift in a paper sea. Just telling him to "put it in a 1049" is tantamount to saying "No." He doesn't know where to begin.

In a good outfit, he starts with the first sergeant. The first sergeant, coming up against something beyond his experience, sends the soldier to the sergeant major. Here is where the sergeant major's knowledge of staff work, their capabilities and foibles, comes into play. He must help the man if he can. He must preserve the delicate balance of power, position and prerogative that exists. He must allow faces to be saved. He must not use the general's name or imply the general's interest when it does not exist. He must see that justice is done. He must be sure that the soldier has exhausted his normal line of appeal. He must, above all, use judgement and, when necessary, tell him that his case is bad and he had better forget the whole thing.

The sergeant major is a symbol of leadership. The men should be proud of him, proud that he is their sergeant major. He must have dignity, command presence and intelligence; he must be the best leader in the unit and have the most thorough knowledge of leadership principles.

The sergeant major is a disciplinarian. It is he who should keep the troops straight on such matters as haircuts, saluting, and attitude. The sergeant major is the only person who can properly take a senior noncommissioned officer aside and tell him his frayed uniforms aren't going to make it to retirement. It's the sergeant major who first knows and counsels the noncom who is hitting the bottle  or his wife. It's the sergeant major who helps the private collect the ten bucks he shouldn't have loaned in the first place.

The sergeant major is a representative of the men to the front office. He is there to look after their interests. He is an enlisted conscience among the brass, a union leader without strike powers. He is duty-bound to speak in behalf of the men. He does so at the risk of falling into disfavor himself.

To Himself

The sergeant major is torn apart. His sympathies extend in two directions. He lives by principle, searching his conscience daily and making decisions based on tolerance, humility, understanding, and real affection for all the men and officers concerned. He wants to perform well in the role that time has written for him.

More than any other person, the sergeant major respects the fitness and necessity of the status quo. At the same time, he burns to see change and adjustment benefit the individual soldier. Deaf ears in both the officer corps and the enlisted ranks have thrust him into the role of interpreter. He belongs in two worlds. How well he does his job depends upon how well other people understand what it is.

These excerpts were first published in the May 1997 issue of The Red Dragon, the newsletter of the 2nd Chemical Mortar Battalion Association.

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