Should We "Humanize" Basic Training?Kinder Gentler Military Training…A Good Idea?
I saw a TV news bit featuring the new wave of Army Basic Training. Read this blogpost from “Guidons Guidons Guidons!” for an overview; especially peruse the predictable remarks from veterans worried about the quality of newly graduated troopers from this new brand of kinder gentler training. Some of these guys are not averse to using foul language though, so please be aware.
When I first saw the TV news item I shook my head thinking the Army had lost its mind, then I thought again. After all, I’ve always prided myself on being a contrarian thinker, so I gave it a second round of consideration in my old brain box. I remember my Marine Bootcamp training and the sheer sadistic cruelty all of us recruits endured under the pretense of toughening and remolding our old soft civilian selves into rough and tough leathernecks. Here’s an overview of what I’m talking about:
Our bus pulled into the Recruit Training Depot from The San Diego International Airport some time just before midnight. We could see a horde of drill instructors wearing wide brimmed “Smokey Bear” hats waiting just outside the bus. One of them leaped through the door as soon as it opened and began screaming guttural unintelligible things. I dimly understood that we were to leave the bus and IMMEDIATELY.
That’s when the panic began. A handful of my fellow recruits tried to slither out the windows and a couple actually made it, thudding hard to the pavement. Bright searchlights blinded us as a half-dozen DIs screamed that we were to stand on painted footprints, only to have another one yell that we were to go somewhere else and pick up a milk carton full of uniform items. The first DI then came back wanting to know why we deliberately disobeyed his orders of a moment ago.
I soon realized that what they were doing was nothing more than entertaining themselves at our expense. They were hazing us, pure and simple. And I must add that they didn’t just scream orders, they used the foulest language that I had ever heard in my life. The vileness of their speech was more disconcerting to me than the physical abuse. Was all that ridiculous posturing and caterwauling supposed to make us better marines?
Later that night, after many more hours of foul epithets having been heaped upon us, we were allowed to fall asleep in our racks, but at the position of attention. Just as the last of us passed out, the DIs descended upon us again. It was about 3 a.m. and our first full day of training was about to begin. Two of them rolled and kicked trashcans down the center of the squadbay, while two more screamed instructions at us to get up and stand at attention in front of our bunks. We were so terrified that all 150 of our knees refused to steadily support our body weight. From the corner of my eyes I watched every man in sight continuously buckle at the knees, including mine. Then, I heard water splashing to the floor from several points around me. A handful of my fellow recruits had lost control of their bladders. I said a silent prayer of thanks to God for keeping me from that ignominious lack of body function control. The DIs made fun of us for our obvious fright and they made the weak-bladdered fellows do push-ups in their own urine. Did that make us better marines?
When I went through that training in the mid-70s, drill instructors still had tacit approval to hit and punch us. As long as we didn’t turn them in, they could get away with it. Personally, I was punched in the gut, kicked, and knocked to the ground with what’s called a butt-stroke from the stock end of an M-16 rifle. How did that improve my status as a good leatherneck?
We suffered a lot of stupid physical torture, all administered under the guise of training, throughout the entire 3 plus months of training; but what really upset me was the abominable language and the things said with that language. One of their favorite subjects had to do with the description of sexual deviancy. For instance, the most shocking thing I heard was an instructor describing having sex with a toddler, and he included all the sickening details. I’m sure it was entirely untrue, but it was said to a bunch of teenage kids who were entirely captive to his verbal depravity. I cannot for the life of me see how that kind of spoken immorality could enhance our fighting abilities.
(I understand that now in Marine Basic Training the instructors are no longer allowed to use foul words or foul language of any kind. If this is true, it is a victory for common sense and decency, and I hope all Marine DIs follow this policy without trying to undercut it or get around it. Good going Marines!)
During our sessions of hand-to-hand and bayonet combat training, our instructors seemed to think that telling us that we should WANT to do certain things to our enemy opponents would make us more willing to perform these deeds in war. More than one of these fellows described how, if we were lucky, we would get a chance to cut a man’s stomach open, reach into his warm bloody body cavity and remove organs with our bare hands. That was just the beginning of their gory spiels. They also told us gleefully how to extract eyeballs, teeth, intestines, and how to cause the most pain possible to our future enemies. I find it hard to believe that inducing that sort of viciousness into the hearts and minds of young future American combatants is going to make them more able to follow the Geneva Convention or any level of Rules of Engagement.
The question is this – is it truly necessary to brutalize trainees both physically, morally and mentally in order to make them more willing warriors? My opinion is that we can train more effective fighters and make them far more professional by training them professionally. If we brutalize them, they will practice brutality. If we deprave them, they will indulge in depravity.
The common argument is that combat is brutal and vicious; therefore we must toughen our young men and women to the point that they will not be paralyzed by the harshness of it once it smacks them for real in the face. I totally disagree. Much of our combat training was devoid of abuse, although it included yelling instructors and lots of combat noise, explosions, smoke and really tough combat scenarios. All of that stuff was valid and didn’t require punching us, kicking us or teaching us how to want to do more than what was necessary to defeat potential adversaries. We must not give our military trainers carte blanche to abuse and torture their charges just because that is what happened to them when they went through it. It is a false paradigm anyway, and I applaud the U.S. Army for figuring this out. I don’t normally agree with my sister service on a lot of their policy, but I do on this one.
Ponder this. One of the bravest, toughest, most respected fighting organizations from the last 200 years is the British Brigade of Ghurkas. These diminutive warriors are traditionally recruited from a tiny region of Nepal and they are unique in a number of ways. Aside from being a part of one of The First World’s last mercenary outfits, the French Foreign Legion being the other, Ghurka training does NOT consist of any harsh yelling or abusive treatment whatsoever. Yet, these tough little fellows are considered to be the epitome of warrior and their long successful unit history bears out this claim through countless battles and dozens of wars. So, what is their secret?
At first the Brits tried to use the normal style of training, the brutalizing kind most of the world has used for centuries to turn normal men into willing warriors. They soon learned that with Ghurkas that style was counterproductive. These men, who average just above 5 feet in height, just did not respond well to yelling and maltreatment. These boys were already in incredible physical shape by virtue of their homeland’s steep mountains and tough lifestyle. The hardest things to teach them were the concepts of time, footwear, silverware, and the use of toilets.
Another problem was making them understand the nuances of following orders. For example, during WWI a battalion of Ghurkas was traveling to battle on a troop ship. One Ghurkalese soldier was instructed by his British officer to guard an artillery piece and to stay with it no matter what. The ship was hit by enemy fire and sunk. The officer was forced to dive below the waves and force the young man to let go of HIS field gun, which he held in a death grip with both arms wrapped tightly around the barrel. The moral of the story: you tell one of these fellows to do something, and it WILL be done. So, be careful what you tell them to do! Such is the nature of the Ghurka.
No one has ever screamed foul words at a Ghurka, or forced one to do pushups in their own urine. The British trainers of these perfect warriors do not try to dehumanize these fine little fellows, and it shows; you will never run into a more obedient, more polite and soft-spoken soldier anywhere in the world. Yet, put these guys into a war and they will fight it exactly as they are told, following all the Rules of Engagement, while at the same time dispatching every enemy before them as soon as one comes within range of their rifles or kukris (the distinctive fighting knife of the Ghurka).
Over the last 60 years of American military history, our leaders have been forced to make change after change. Truman forced us to integrate blacks and all other ethnicities and that worked out fine, even with all the old-timers naysaying and shouting their objections of doom. My own daughter went through Army basic training in 1998 and did so with a completely coed platoon of men and women. These guys and gals trained totally together in all phases of instruction – they exercised together, went into the field together, and trained in hand-to-hand combat together. One day, my Marie fought a young black fellow who out-weighed her and was obviously stronger, and not unexpectedly he was able to reach in and tag her full on the nose. Being a Spear, she lapsed into what we call “Spear rage” and proceeded to clean the young man’s clock; the instructors having to intervene and pull her bodily off the surprised and now horizontal fellow. The Army knows that women like my daughter will probably not face another woman in combat, thus they should be trained to fight all comers. Good job Army! Now if we can just get the Marines to follow suit and get their “gals” to train coed. Today’s conflicts have no lines of battle; it can and will reach out and grab you no matter where you are in a theater of war. New situations mean new mindsets and attitudes when it comes to training -- that is the point.
The colonel in charge of implementing the kinder and gentler training concept at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri supposedly has been forced to do this to keep down an unacceptable washout rate. I say: “The washout rate be damned!” His is a good idea for a whole lot more than increasing soldier throughput. It’s only common sense that we need to train up people based on their level of physical ability when they report in. I was a distance runner when I reported to basic training, but most of my comrades were not. Forcing someone who has never run more than a few steps before to suddenly run a mile is ridiculous. This colonel gets this principle, and well we all should. Why destroy a potential soldier’s body rather than building it up to the point that he or she is able to withstand the rigors of war? That is just plain ignorant. I applaud the colonel’s idea enthusiastically. My daughter had never been a runner as a girly-girl civilian, yet she was made to run on untoughened feet, ankles, knees and hips. Eventually, she broke down and now she will be permanently compensated by the government for the totally avoidable damage done to her during her four short years in uniform.
Yelling in the military is unavoidable, but doing so to humiliate is inexcusable. Actually, teaching how to do it effectively is something that MUST be taught. Soldiers, Marines and Sailors will have to use their diaphragms to impart orders or warnings to their comrades on a continuous basis, especially those in combat arms, around engines or those working with aircraft. But, screaming abuse and teaching verbal baseness and cruelty is NOT what we need to be instilling in our impressionable young military members. Instead, they should be taught how to be gentlemen and women, how to fight professionally without any underpinnings of base cruelty, and how to treat everyone around them with respect and dignity. That is how we have always expected our men and women to behave, and yet hypocritically, we have trained them in a fashion that encourages just the opposite behavior.
The bravery and commitment of the ferocious yet gentle Ghurka should be the standard OUR armed forces strive for; not the immoral and cruel way we have traditionally trained them down through the centuries. It’s time to end the confusion we are apparently inducing into the impressionable minds of our young marines and soldiers, and start “Ghurkalizing” the training principles of ALL our armed forces. And yes, that means the Marine Corps as well, ESPECIALLY the Marine Corps.