• Published
  • By Col. Chris Crawford
  • 21st Space Wing commander
On the first day of the Battle of Gettysburg, Union forces under command of Maj. Gen. Hancock took the high ground to the south of the town. They occupied Cemetery Hill - an outstanding defensive position offering commanding views of the battlefield and a significant elevation advantage for artillery fire. Confederate Gen. Lee understood the value of this position, and ordered Lt. Gen. Ewell to take the hill "if practicable."

Ewell took this order and determined that an assault on the hill was not "practicable." He failed to attack, and the Union solidified their dominance of the high ground - ultimately incorporating the hill as the lynchpin of their battle line. Ewell's failure to act was a key factor in the Confederate loss at the battle. Gettysburg itself is regarded as the turning point of the war and the beginning of the end for the Confederacy. Ewell very likely cost an entire army the war.

Why is this relevant today? Because it all comes back to discipline, and discipline is as relevant today as it was a century and a half ago. Discipline is common in the military vocabulary, but is a term not commonly applied correctly. Discipline is not just a straight gig line, blind compliance, or the administration of punishment. It is a mindset that relies upon critical thinking, problem solving, and expertise. It is the driving force that ensures the job gets done precisely and correctly every time.

Ewell interpreted Lee's order to take the hill "if practicable" shallowly and literally, complying with the letter of the order instead of Lee's true intent. In putting a compliance mentality first - instead of a mission accomplishment mentality - he failed to grasp the ramification of his actions and effectively surrendered the high ground to his enemy.

Critical thinking, discipline, and innovation were present at Gettysburg, though - even if not displayed by Ewell. At the opposite end of the battlefield, on a hill now known as Little Round Top, the 20th Maine Volunteer Infantry Regiment held the high ground against the advance of the Confederates.

On the second day of battle, the 15th Alabama charged up Little Round Top twice. Despite fierce attacks, they were repulsed by the Union both times. Prior to the third charge, Col. Chamberlain of the 20th Maine found his men depleted, stretched thin, and nearly exhausted of ammunition. Instead of retreating, he made the unusual call to fix bayonets and charge downhill at the enemy. He recognized the criticality of his position on the Union flank, had the discipline to hold his ground, and knew how to enact an innovative solution. The now famous charge was successful, causing confusion among the enemy, capturing a good portion of the 15th Alabama, and preventing the Confederates from turning the Union flank.

Within the 21st Space Wing, we uphold the same tenant of discipline (if in a less dramatic fashion) through precise operations, adherence to standards, and mission expertise. It is up to our leaders - at all levels - to ensure that mission execution is thorough and that staff work is complete. Most importantly, leaders must ensure that their Airmen fully understand the "hows" and "whys" of their mission so that they are able to properly execute the intent - and make constructive changes where necessary. We must all be critical thinkers, and we must have a grasp on the ramifications of our actions.

One example of how our wing upholds discipline: by ensuring that our compliance practices are productive, logical, and beneficial to the mission. We use the Requirements Assessment Tool to analyze both the criticality (how important is it?) and the complexity (how much time/energy does it take?) for all the compliance tasks within the wing. While a significant undertaking, we have already validated more than $3.7 million in cost avoidance and an annual savings of 5,000 man hours via this project - with additional positive benefits pending. The benefits reaped by the RAT were made possible by critical thinking and innovations forwarded by smart Airmen and their leaders across the entire wing and Air Force Space Command.

In this sense, and in the example featuring Chamberlain's bayonet charge, discipline is clearly not a strict adherence to rules. It is, put simply, a commitment to get the job done, an expectation to be a critical thinker, and a clear understanding of your role. Though not a member of the military, actress Julie Andrews neatly defined the proper execution of discipline when she said, "Some people regard discipline as a chore. For me, it is a kind of order that sets me free to fly."

We are not infantry or cavalry, but as a space wing we do hold responsibility for a very real and inescapably critical high ground - the medium of space. That medium, and all our associated support functions, will be critical in any upcoming engagement. We must have the discipline to do the mission effectively, and the knowledge to understand the intent of any orders given. No matter what your personal high ground, we need you to be a Chamberlain, not a Ewell. You were not selected for your position to merely take the high ground "if practicable." You were selected to fix (figurative) bayonets and charge obstacles - to be an expert with the freedom to innovate.