Knowledge is power and a weapon of war

  • Published
  • By David Easley
  • 341st Missile Wing
I am sure that almost every Air Force Global Strike Command Airman has learned the value of finding mentors to help guide careers and assist in the development of leadership and other professional skills. Through my 23 years of service in the Air Force, I have also learned that we can be mentored by studying the great military leaders whose lives and talents are detailed in the pages of history. As an Airman I study and try to follow the examples of heroes such as Eddie Rickenbacker, Ira Eaker and John Levitow. I have long been a student of America's Civil War. One of my favorite historical mentors comes from that famous conflict.

Those who have read "The Killer Angels," seen the movie "Gettysburg" or watched the Ken Burns PBS Civil War Documentary series are undoubtedly familiar with the story of Union Lt. Col. (later Maj. Gen.) Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain. Colonel Chamberlain won the Medal of Honor for leading the 20th Maine Regiment's heroic defense of Little Round Top during a key turning point in the pivotal Battle of Gettysburg. The 20th's position on that famous hill marked the extreme left of the Union's defensive line. As long as Little Round Top was in Union hands, the left of the line was likely to be secure. If Confederates took it, they would have had access to the Union's rear and been able to pry the Federal army from its position. Once the Confederates held the hill, the line would have to be abandoned. It was as simple as that. This would have cost the Union the battle, if not the entire war.

Therefore, even though his regiment was at less than half of the authorized strength, Colonel Chamberlain was told to hold his ground at all costs. Despite heavy losses, the 20th Maine held through three charges by multiple Confederate regiments that outnumbered the Northerners by more than 2-1. As the Confederates prepared to charge yet again, Colonel Chamberlain realized that his men were almost completely out of ammunition. This, combined with the casualties already suffered by the 20th, could easily have justified abandoning their position or even surrendering it to the enemy. Instead, Colonel Chamberlain ordered a maneuver that was considered unusual at that time. He directed his left flank, which had been pulled back to repel an earlier attack by the Confederates, to advance with bayonets. As soon as they were in line with the rest of the regiment, the remainder of the 20th charged downhill like a great door swinging shut. This unexpected maneuver surprised and routed a good portion of the enemy force and drew unlikely victory from the very jaws of disaster.

What can all this obscure maneuvering on a 19th Century Pennsylvania hillside teach us about doing our jobs in the 21st Century Air Force? More intensive study of Colonel Chamberlain taught me several interesting lessons that would serve as good guidance for anyone in our country's service.

First and most obvious was his devotion to duty and his willingness to go above and beyond to fulfill the responsibilities of his mission. This is all the more remarkable in his case because Colonel Chamberlain was not a professional soldier. He was a college professor that volunteered to serve his country in its hour of need; then was prepared to give (in President Lincoln's famous words) the "last full measure of devotion" to his mission. He, himself, had already been lightly wounded twice during the battle. Many other leaders would have reasoned that without ammunition and after sustaining such significant casualties, his men could not be expected to continue fighting against superior odds. However, Colonel Chamberlain was devoted to the mission above all, and followed his order to hold his ground at all costs.

A second lesson to be learned from his story is the importance of being able to creatively think outside of the box, and rapidly reassess strategies and tactics as the situation demands. Colonel Chamberlain's downhill charge from a fortified higher position went against all tactical doctrine at that time, and many would have failed to even consider it as a possible course of action. The ability to creatively think of new and better ways to do a job is valued in our Air Force and no improvement or innovation should ever be seen as too small or not worth considering.

Finally, one of the most important lessons I learned from studying this great leader was it's not enough to have the will to fight, you also have to possess the skill to fight. The 20th Maine was only in the position to make its famous charge because Colonel Chamberlain had successfully resisted the previous assaults. The defense of his position would have been impossible if not for the fact that its commander had continuously re-deployed his men while under fire with a series of textbook tactical maneuvers. He is particularly praised for ordering his unit to perform a relatively obscure maneuver known as "refusing the line," rather than the far better-known "change front."

But how did a university professor who had never been to West Point or received much in the way of formal military training become an expert on battlefield maneuvers? Quite simply, he had made it his business to do so. Colonel Chamberlain had originally been offered command of the Regiment some two years earlier. However, knowing he was not prepared for the job, he turned it down in order to better learn the intricacies of soldiering under a more skilled mentor. Then he went out of his way to seek instruction from more experienced soldiers, as well as spend his off-duty time studying manuals and other textbooks, in order to become an expert at his job. He continuously exceeded the required formal training for his position and did so on his own initiative. Then, when he finally assumed command in an hour of great need, Colonel Chamberlain was able to skillfully perform his duty.

We never know when or if our country will ever require us to take charge in a situation as dramatic as that faced by Colonel Chamberlain. If we study the great leaders of our military past and learn the lessons embedded in their examples and sacrifices, we will be that much better prepared should that day ever arrive.