Throughout a 41-year career in uniform culminating as the 36th Chief of Staff of the Army, Gen. George W. Casey Jr. recognized the need for continuous transformation. A graduate of Georgetown University, Casey previously served as commander, Multi-National Force-Iraq, and 30th Vice Chief of Staff of the Army, playing a critical role in leading doctrinal and organizational changes across the force. Here are his thoughts on leading through change and the Army’s continued evolution in the face of crisis.
How has the Army adapted since 9/11 to maintain readiness in a changing geopolitical landscape?
The Army has been adapting constantly since 9/11, but it actually started even earlier. Gen. Eric Shinseki, 34th Chief of Staff of the Army, started talking about the need to transform for a different future after the Berlin Wall came down in 1989. When Gen. Peter Schoomaker, 35th Chief, took over in 2003, we started the Army’s largest organizational transformation since World War II.
Our efforts on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan also drove us to adapt and see the future more clearly. Soldiers in the field were being creative and innovating, and over time those lessons were captured and sent back to the Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC). As doctrine drives everything we do, one of the first things I set out to do as Chief was make Army doctrine more suited to the environments we were increasingly likely to face in the latter part of the 21st century. We published a revised Operations Field Manual (FM 3-0) in 2008, and not surprisingly, it has continued to evolve as we’ve learned more. Multi-domain operations continue to reflect how our thinking has adapted over time.
It’s important we don’t take our eye off the threat and its capabilities. Instability is the norm, and as we talk about a return to great power competition, it’s important to remember that “great power competition” is going to be very different from World War II or Korea. The fight will take place in much different domains than the past, and we must remain conscious of that and continue to evolve in new directions. In the environment we’re living and leading in today, we have to continuously assess and adapt to stay ahead of the threat.
In what ways must the sustainment enterprise and logistical support to operations evolve?
There’s the famous adage about amateurs talking tactics and professionals studying logistics—particularly at the strategic and operational levels, it’s the reality. Everything we do with logistics starts with the systems we design and build. We must think about designing systems that are far more fuel-efficient and effective than those upon which we relied in the past.
As we were working on the Future Combat Systems program, we planned for a hybrid ground combat vehicle. This was great in theory, but technology at that time wasn’t good enough to operate solely on batteries for an extended period of time. We’d still have to continually run the engines, and to top it off, the vehicle wasn’t going to be much more fuel efficient than the M1 tank. There would still be a huge logistical burden. Technology has come a long way, and we need to harness it to reduce sustainment requirements as we design new systems.
We must also be far more creative with technology in preparing our estimates—we’ve all read stories about how much ammunition we shipped back from Desert Storm. In Iraq, we had constant transit of fuel, water, and supplies, all of which was vulnerable on the roads. With better estimates we can significantly reduce that risk, and that’s before you start adding in robotics to remove human drivers from harm’s way.
The last piece is looking at doctrine and designing our forces so they’re able to support in any environment. If we are going to conduct operations over the long haul, we have to be able to sustain it accordingly. We can no longer assume we’re going to dominate any environment or have secure rear-areas, so the structures and processes we design to execute multi-domain doctrine must take that into consideration.
How did the Army respond to the 2009 H1N1 Swine Flu pandemic, and what lessons learned are helping the fight against COVID-19 today?
While Swine Flu was nowhere near the size of today’s pandemic, NORTHCOM had in fact triggered pandemic planning efforts as early as 2006. As President Dwight Eisenhower once said, “Plans are worthless, but planning is everything.” When H1N1 started to break in Mexico and the United States, we had already thought about how we might respond. It was a flu strain we hadn’t seen before and it significantly affected people under 30. When two-thirds of your organization is under 30, you have to make sure you get it right to protect your people.
Through the planning we had already done, we were quickly able to implement intelligent practices that lessened the disease’s spread. While I can’t say we used the term “social distancing,” the things we did—ensuring people stayed home if they were sick, covered their mouths when they coughed, washed their hands, avoided close contact, and touching their faces—are nearly identical to what we’re doing today.
We’re all about accomplishing the mission while protecting our people. As I look at places like Fort Benning, Georgia, with Initial Entry Training, they’re bringing folks in today, putting them in 14-day quarantine, separating those who test positive, and then sending them off to training. The things we did in 2009 are undoubtedly making an impact today. And if you look at countries that had to deal with H1N1 and SARS, particularly Taiwan, Japan, and Korea, they were also better prepared for this pandemic than were others.
What advice do you have for young leaders in leading through a crisis?
We will always be asked to respond to one crisis or another; today is nothing new. From lieutenant to four-star general, the primary responsibility of the leader is to point the way ahead, whether it’s day-to-day operations or a crisis. And in the swirl of our volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA) world, that takes courage: you could be wrong and there could be significant consequences, especially the higher you go. So to succeed at any level today, you must have an offensive mindset.
Our doctrine says we use offensive operations of maneuver to impose our will on the enemy. That means having an opportunistic focus on seizing and maintaining the initiative. Our VUCA environment can overwhelm folks. When you’re overwhelmed, it’s harder to act—and to succeed today, you have to act.
How do you build the courage to act in the swirl of events like today? It starts with accepting your humanity. You can’t read people’s minds, nor can you predict the future. I’ve always said there’s only two types of plans: those that might work, and those that won’t work. Because we’re human, the best we’re going to do is a plan that might work. You have to accept that.
As Sun Tzu said, “Enlightened leaders make decisions with a clear mind and a pure heart.” Always do your homework, dive deeply into the issue you’re dealing with, and then make the best possible decision. At every level, be able to look in the mirror and say, “I have the best information available; there’s some things I don’t know but I have to act, so this is how I’m going to do it.” Then take that action with a pure heart. Do it for the right reasons and the good of the organization, not for yourself.
I built on my experience and failures over time—Lieutenant Casey wasn’t quite as successful at decision-making as General Casey—and it was still hard at every level. But if I felt I had made my decision with a clear mind and pure heart, it gave me the conviction that the plan might work, which gave me the courage to act.
As your career progressed, instability increasingly became the new reality. How did your approach to leadership evolve?
I spent 30 years of a 40-year career learning to fight a war I never fought, and the last 10 learning to fight a completely different kind of war while I was fighting it. After 9/11, we were thrust out of the conventional warfare environment we had grown up in, and into something fundamentally new. Throughout my time in Iraq I closely observed our general and flag officers, noticing our existing ways of doing business weren't preparing them to lead effectively in this kind of environment.
When I got back, I sought to revamp our general officer development training based on these observations. I remember discussing with the Secretary of the Army instructions for the first brigadier general board. He asked what personal characteristics we needed in our generals. My answer? Men and women with vision, courage, and character.
To succeed today, you must have the vision to see around corners, to see something significant about the future that’s not readily apparent to others. You need the courage to act with conviction in the face of uncertainty and risk. And you must have the character to do the right things in difficult times, because only then is your character tested.
I also found we did best when leaders stayed at their level: when I stayed at the strategic level, when the corps commander stayed at the operational level, and when the colonels stayed at the tactical level. Whenever people tried to reach into someone else’s area, we started running into problems. At my level, that meant focusing my efforts on developing and communicating vision and strategy, building the team to execute that vision and strategy, setting the external conditions for success, and preparing the organization for the future. If leaders focus their intellectual and emotional energy on those four areas, it has the highest payoff for the organization.
You followed your father’s footsteps in answering the call to serve. What did you learn from his example?
I wasn’t necessarily intending to follow in my father’s footsteps. Upon graduating from Georgetown and commissioning, my plan was to do my two-year obligation—which I assumed would include a tour in Vietnam—get out, and go to law school. Things got turned around and I wound up going to Germany instead. I realized how much I loved the Army, so I decided to stay.
There were two things I brought with me into the Army that shaped the way I led at every level—one from my father, one from my grandfather. My father, captain of the West Point hockey team and very competitive, said, “George, never be afraid to try to be the very best.” It didn’t really stick at first, but the more I grew, the more it sunk in and I tried to make every organization I led as good as it could be. Whether it was an infantry battalion or a mechanized brigade, I realized if you’re always stretching to achieve something that looks to be out of your reach, you have a much better chance of accomplishing it.
My grandfather said, “George, you’re no better than anybody, and nobody’s better than you—so treat everybody with respect but don’t take guff from anybody.” That shaped the essence of my leadership throughout my career. I tried to treat everyone from private to general with respect, but I stood up for what I believed in.
Arpi Dilanian is a strategic analyst in the Army Logistics Initiatives Group, Office of the Deputy Chief of Staff, G-4, Department of the Army. She holds a bachelor's degree from American University and a master's degree from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.
Matthew Howard is a strategic analyst in the Logistics Initiatives Group, Office of the Deputy Chief of Staff, G-4, Department of the Army. He holds bachelor's and master's degrees from Georgetown University.
This article was published in the October-December 2020 issue of Army Sustainment.