Brass Stars and Butter Bars

What should the Army’s oldest and newest members expect from each other and for the country?

As of today, I’ve spent my last weekend in the woods as an Army Reserve Officers’ Training Corps cadet, taking another large step closer to commissioning as a U.S. Army second lieutenant next month. I am certainly excited and honored to be charged with the privilege of leading American soldiers, but I would be lying if I didn’t also acknowledge a few hesitations and worries about entering the profession of arms.

Along with many of my commissioning peers, I am wrestling with the fear that I will be an inadequate or insufficient leader who cannot earn the respect of her soldiers. No one is going to care much about the “small liberal arts school outside of Boston” printed on my diploma, nor about my senior thesis topic, nor about the final club fiasco. They will see through any pretending or pretense in an instant, and the road to earning the respect of my subordinates and superiors will become far longer and harder.

A brand-new lieutenant will not only outrank all the enlisted soldiers in their unit, but will be expected to train those same soldiers who have decades more of collective experience in the force. They will be expected to mentor and counsel younger and older soldiers on not just military competencies, but personal and family issues as well. I have received some excellent training over the past few years, but I will still not be fully prepared for the first time a private younger than me with a spouse and child comes to me with a marital problem. (Which will happen.)

In addition to these personal, micro, and routine requirements of platoon leadership, a lieutenant must understand how smaller platoon and company missions nest within higher echelon battalion and brigade missions. Our seemingly small-unit leadership never happens in a vacuum, but is encased in large-scale operations that ultimately serves some grand strategy.

I don’t have many qualifications to wax poetic about foreign policy, and I don’t think I could tell you what that grand strategy or broad vision of American power is (or has been in the last few decades). But I’m not alone; many military members and civilian commentators (who are much more intelligent than me) have expressed concerns about the costs of America’s strategic fog. Everyone is wont to make everything about Donald Trump nowadays, but some observers argue that much of our current void has been the product of three decades of vaguely defined campaigns in the Middle East and an intensely high operational tempo that restricts our long-run vision and posturing.


The U.S. military produces no shortage of strategic documents and statements outlining our future desired capabilities or describing those of our enemy, but as self-sufficient and initiative-seizing as it professes to be, the U.S. military is not simply an autonomous force that exerts its own will or vision. The creed of every U.S. Army soldier includes a promise to serve the American people, and the military is ultimately at the service of civilian leadership.

We will have to make hard decisions and set clear conditions for American influence in a challenging post-counterinsurgency environment, and our civilian leaders must be a critical part of that effort. I see adversaries willing to play the long game with greater coherence and cunning, but fewer qualms, than we are. I see a rising China willing to wait us out to achieve hegemony in the Indo-Pacific region while also aiming to be the world leader in artificial intelligence by 2030. I see the signals of an active state of cyber war with Russia, an actor who I also believe has out-maneuvered us in the Middle East.

If the lowest echelons of my platoon are expected to know and understand their “butter bar” lieutenant’s desired end-states and conditions, I expect even more from the “brass stars” of military and civilian leadership to articulate the same for grand strategy.

Time is not necessarily on our side. General Mark Milley, likely the future chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has warned that “the faint clouds of a coming storm are visible on the horizon.”

I do not want to be dour or doomsday-cometh here. None of these strategic fears will diminish my enthusiasm for training and developing my future soldiers. I intend to execute every lawful order given to me, and to become a tactical master of the art of artillery before waxing too non-poetic about strategy. What this new “butter bar” will ask of the “brass stars” is a vision to guide the force and the country through its current strategic fog, and in return will do whatever it takes to lead her soldiers to that place.

Grace M. Chao ’19 is an Economics concentrator in Mather House. Her column appears on alternate Mondays. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of Harvard’s ROTC program, the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.