Maintaining High Standards

  • Published
  • By Brig. Gen. Darryl W. Burke
  • 82nd Training Wing commander
In Glastonbury Green Cemetery in Connecticut, near a memorial to Congressional Medal of Honor recipient Sgt. John Levitow, is a Civil War monument called The Standard-Bearer.

With his flag--his standard--cradled in his left arm, the Standard-Bearer's right arm is poised to draw his sword in defense of the flag. It is a meaningful image to any student of the Civil War.

To a Civil War soldier, the regimental standard was more than symbolic. The standard-bearer set the pace for the unit during a march. Positioned in the center of the regiment, soldiers used it to maintain formation and keep from being separated. In the smoke and chaos of combat, the standard was the rallying point for the regiment. It was considered a high honor and responsibility to carry the regimental standard. If the regimental colors fell, the unit would typically break and retreat.

The story of the 20th Maine provides a great example of the importance of the regimental standard during the Civil War. The regiment anchored the extreme left of the Union line at Gettysburg on a small hill called Little Round Top. If they failed to hold their position, the Confederates would take the hill, place artillery on it and shatter the Union force with enfilading fire.

Alone at the end of the battle line, the 20th Maine held off charge after charge. Its commander, Col. Joshua Chamberlain, wrote of the battle:

"In the very deepest of the struggle ... I saw through a sudden rift in the thick smoke our colors standing alone. The cross fire had cut keenly; the center had almost been shot away; only two of the color guard had been left... fighting to fill the whole space; and in the center, wreathed in battle smoke, stood the Color Sergeant Andrew Tozier. His color-staff planted in the ground at his side, the upper part clasped in his elbow, so holding the flag upright, with musket and cartridges seized from the fallen comrade at his side he was defending his sacred trust in the manner of the songs of chivalry. It was a stirring picture..."

Inspired at the sight, with his regiment running out of ammunition, Colonel Chamberlain ordered his men to fix bayonets and charge down the hill. This bold action so surprised the Alabama Brigade that some broke and fled and others surrendered. The end result was the flank was protected and the hill was secured.

The English word "standard" dates to the 12th Century and is literally translated "to stand fast." It was used to describe a spear stuck in the ground as a rallying point in battle. That standard evolved into a flag, and as monarchs began establishing fixed values for weights and measures, "the royal standard"--the monarch's flag--was used to represent an accepted, official value.

And so when we talk about standards today, we're usually not talking about flags, but about accepted codes of behavior or conduct. But we can learn a lot by connecting this modern usage of "standard" to the word's military heritage.

We are an organization of standards, from fitness standards to technical orders to standards of dress and appearance. Some of our standards are set by laws and regulations, and others are set by custom and tradition.

Just as Civil War regiments marched to their standards, we perform to ours. They looked to their regimental standards to maintain formation; we look to ours to ensure we are doing the right things, at the right time and in the right place. They ensure we are properly oriented and focused.

The regimental standard served as a rallying point in battle. In the chaos of combat or the chaos of everyday life, our standards are our rallying point--they remind us of who we are and what we have promised to do. They focus our vision on what really matters. Our ability to maintain the standards we've trained to keeps us strong and ready, and enables us to perform in any circumstance.

Carrying the regimental colors took enormous courage--standard-bearers were prime targets and suffered a high casualty rate. Today, when a sense of entitlement seems more common than a sense of responsibility, maintaining high standards also takes courage. When you hold to high standards, you can expect that someone will take aim and try to shoot you down.

But we can't afford to let our standards lapse in the face of a threat, whether the threat is to our lives or to our careers. Just as the fall of the regimental standard usually meant the collapse of the unit, we invite failure when we compromise our standards.

Standards are created to be met, not waived. The road to mediocrity begins with the first compromise of standards. Each succeeding compromise becomes easier than the one before, and the end result is that mediocrity becomes the standard.

When your commitment to high standards is challenged--and it will be--let Color Sergeant Andrew Tozier be your example. He held his standard high and kept fighting against all odds to defend his sacred trust, and in the end inspired his unit to victory. We must do the same.