Guns N’ Roses’ “Welcome to the Jungle” begins to blare through the trees behind us. “On your feet!” a drill sergeant shouts at the hundreds of men from Alpha and Charlie companies lining a street at Fort Benning. It’s 4:30 a.m. Down the road, the first soldiers from Delta Company, 2nd Battalion, 58th Infantry Regiment bob into view. After marching through the sticky Georgia night for hours, they’re finishing the final field exercise of their 14 weeks of basic infantry training, and their fellow recruits, who are only halfway through their training, are here to cheer them on. Sweat-slicked hands clutch rifles. Their backs ache from 35-pound rucksacks. They stink, and their feet burn. They rumble past, some smiling, others tight-lipped, eyes straight ahead.
They turn into the woods and snake up a torch-lined road onto Honor Hill. Dipping canteen cups into a barrel of blue Gatorade, they pass under an archway into the compound, a circular clearing surrounded by an 8-foot wall of railroad ties. They form up by platoons in a horseshoe before a stage flanked by bonfires. A giant American flag hangs as a backdrop. Eight torches flicker, each representing a war the U.S. Army has fought. A ninth torch, soon to be lit, represents wars to come. “This generation’s into multimedia—the big show and the big production,” Captain Christopher Rusack, the battalion chaplain, tells me. “So we do it up for them. It gives them a sense of the lineage, the heritage.”
The music changes to the score from The Last of the Mohicans. First Sergeant Michael White steps into the horseshoe. “Our mission is to seek out and destroy the enemies of this nation on orders!” he shouts. “That is now your mission. Do you understand?”
“Yes, First Sergeant!”
The men raise their canteen cups and toast to fallen comrades, to the infantry, and to the United States of America. Their drill sergeants move through the ranks, pinning the coveted crossed-rifles insignia of the Infantry onto their left collar tip. Next week, they graduate. Within a few months, many of them will be walking mountain passes in Afghanistan or riding in Humvees through Baghdad. A few might be wounded. A few might be dead. For now, they are giddy and glad to be done, high on adrenaline and proud to be real soldiers. I know how they feel: I was one of them five years ago, a new soldier ready for war. As Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” from Apocalypse Now plays, they pass back through the arch, which bears the inscription: From This Gate Emerge the Finest SOLDIERs the World has Ever KNOWn. They believe this, because it is what they’ve been told: They are the strongest, hardest, most disciplined, and most dedicated soldiers in the world, part of the most rigorously trained, best-equipped army in the world.
But stagecraft and slogans belie the complexities of turning America’s youth into a skilled fighting force. Since the end of the draft, more than 30 years ago, this is the first time the all-volunteer military has faced sustained combat, and the demands on its human and material resources have been heavy and relentless. At the same time, a relatively prosperous economy and certain larger societal changes have made it harder for the Army to meet its recruiting goals. As Lieutenant General Michael Rochelle, the Army’s deputy chief of staff, testified to Congress in February, the confluence of challenges in recruiting, training, and retaining soldiers is “unparalleled in the history of the volunteer force.”
To ease the deployment burden and give the military more options for dealing with hot spots outside Iraq and Afghanistan, Defense Secretary Robert Gates wants to boost America’s boots-on-the-ground combat power for the Army and Marine Corps by nearly 60,000 over the next five years, adding 7,000 soldiers and 5,000 marines each year. The Marines have a somewhat easier time recruiting; this is partly because they have religiously maintained their elite status, drawing many who want to see if they are good enough for the Corps, and partly because the Marines, as the smallest service branch outside the Coast Guard, need the fewest bodies. But the Army doesn’t have the luxury of selectivity in filling its expanded rolls. It needs 80,000 new soldiers this year and must find them in a populace that is in many ways less willing and less able to serve than earlier generations were. Young people are fatter and weaker. They eat more junk food, watch more television, play more video games, and exercise less. They are more individualistic and less inclined to join the military. And with the unemployment rate hovering near historic lows, they have other choices.
Yet now, more than at any time since Vietnam, the Army needs strong, quick-thinking, highly disciplined soldiers. Combat units are being sent onto battlefields that are more gray than black-and-white; soldiers on patrol in places like Afghanistan and Iraq must understand something that the Army itself has had a hard time learning: put bluntly, when to shake a hand and when to shoot someone dead. Today’s soldiers must synthesize more information than any American fighters before them, combining their knowledge of tactics with an awareness of the cultural landscape and an appreciation for the strategic implications of their actions.
Turning civilians into soldiers and teaching them to kill has always been difficult work, but these new challenges and demands have made it harder still, so the Army has made sweeping changes in the basic combat training that every recruit must go through. Drawing on the experience of battle-hardened veterans, the Army is incorporating the lessons learned in Iraq and Afghanistan. But at the same time, its overwhelming need for more soldiers puts limits on how tough its training can be. What if the physical and cultural demands of becoming a soldier intimidate potential recruits from signing up, or cause too many to wash out once they join? After all, many of today’s military jobs require more brainpower and technical skill than warrior ethos. (The tooth-to-tail ratio of combat soldiers to support troops has dropped steadily since the Civil War and is now less than 1-to-7.) Is it worthwhile to make a soldier march 20 miles, even though his or her actual job may never call for such a march? The Army’s answer to these questions, for now, is to offer its recruits a less hostile environment that won’t scare off as many people or make them quit: less shouting, less running, more encouragement, more understanding.
Some weak or undertrained soldiers have always gotten through basic training. When they show up at their assigned units, their comrades usually bring them up to speed. But doing so takes time and detracts from a unit’s overall preparedness. And now the Army finds itself facing a double bind: Not only does the new approach to basic training let greater numbers of less-fit soldiers get by; today’s accelerated deployment schedules give units less time for collective training, let alone remedial attention. This winter, for example, two combat brigades had to skip their counterinsurgency and desert training at Fort Irwin, California, in order to deploy to Iraq as part of President Bush’s “surge” strategy. So far, there’s only anecdotal evidence that the changes in basic training are infiltrating more of the weak and the incompetent into the Army’s frontline units. But as the demand for more boots on the ground continues to grow, imposing more pressure on the Army’s ability to recruit, train, and retain personnel, so, too, will questions about the long-term viability and strength of the nation’s all-volunteer force.