The Army We Have

To fight today’s wars with an all-volunteer force, the U.S. Army needs more quick-thinking, strong, highly disciplined soldiers. But creating warriors out of the softest, least-willing populace in generations has required sweeping changes in basic training.
THANKS, COACH! The Army wants drill sergeants to act more as mentors than as feared disciplinarians.

Joining the military shocks the system. And the further society drifts from the ideals of the Army—shared hardship, individual sacrifice for the collective good, institutionalized adherence to notions of integrity, loyalty, and duty—the more alien the world of military training becomes. Recruits on their first day shuffle through a line—everything from now on will involve lines—and into the barber shop, where they sit in a chair for about two minutes and rise without hair. It’s the quintessential shedding of civilian identity: Now they look like everyone else. Soon they’ll be dressed alike. And once they learn the jargon and lingo, they’ll sound alike, too. There are no more choices, only following. They’ll live so close together—showering, eating, and sleeping next to each other—that they’ll soon forget what privacy means. They’ll be given a weapon, and they’ll marvel at the power they hold. They’ll stab dummies with bayonets and subdue each other in hand-to-hand combat. They’ll slowly unlearn one of society’s cherished mantras: Sometimes, they’ll come to understand, violence is the answer.

At Fort Benning, the journey starts at the 30th Adjutant General Reception Battalion, where every recruit goes through several days of in-processing—haircuts, uniforms, shots, paperwork—before being handed over to a basic-training company. On this summer day, long lines of recruits, some still wearing long hair and civilian clothes, wind through the building. Because of the surge in volunteering that follows high-school graduations, 30th AG swells with 2,000 men.

I’d come to see a handover ceremony and the first day of training. The recruits stand in formation in the sun. Their new drill sergeants gather in the shade, trading stories about IEDs and RPG attacks in Iraq and Afghanistan. Golf Company’s commander, Captain Claude DeWitt Revels, stands to the side, surveying his new recruits. “Now the fight over there is so decentralized that every private has the opportunity to affect the strategic impact of the entire operation, either negatively or positively. Look at Abu Ghraib,” he says. “The Army’s done a good job of recognizing that every soldier has an impact, and we try to drive that into them here. You matter.”

Today, Revels will be in the minority among his fellow basic-training company commanders throughout the Army: He’s running his recruits through the “shark attack,” a longtime Army rite that’s frowned upon at higher levels. At several basic-training posts, word was passed down curtailing the practice, which is seen as excessive in an already-stressful environment. But many in the Army consider the shark attack a key step in snapping bonds to the civilian world. “If we go easy on them here, it would be catastrophic over there,” Revels says. “They expect these guys to be hard on them, and we owe it to them.” The coaching and mentoring will come later, but today is pure shock therapy.

At the battalion barracks, where the recruits will live for the next three and a half months, a dozen drill sergeants station themselves at intervals along the wide walkway that runs from the road to the company area. They pace and wait. Three trucks pull up and disgorge the recruits. The chaos starts at once. “Let’s go! Let’s go! Get off the bus! Get your butt over there, private! Hurry up, you!” The 220 recruits scramble, frantic, knocking into each other, reaching for bags from a pile dumped beside the road. They sprint up the walkway, some with bags, others without. Then they form up in three rows, facing a long cement stairway that leads up to the company formation area. They stand at attention, chests heaving, sucking down air in ragged gasps. Some tremble. Their eyes dart. Many faces show terror. The drill sergeants stalk up and down the lines, their faces fixed in hard masks. They stop behind recruits, inches from their ears, and yell. Every command given today will be many decibels too loud. “What is wrong with you? Why are you moving? Answer me! Why? Don’t think, private! Why are you moving? Is it because you can’t stand still?” “No, Drill Sergeant,” the recruit says, his voice soft and breaking. “Then why are you moving? Don’t frigging move!”

Most of the recruits clutch duffel bags to their chests, straining from the effort. Inch by inch, the bags drop lower. “Hold the bag up! Hold it up! Get it up, you turd!”

Some bags are coming on another truck, so many recruits stand empty-handed. “Everybody without a bag, face toward the right! Since you ain’t got a bag to hold up, you’ll hold up those heavy-ass palms you got! Get your arms straight out to your sides! Palms up!” Rivers of sweat race down flushed cheeks. After several minutes, arms quiver. Neck and shoulder muscles burn. “The air’s getting pretty heavy in your hands, huh private?” a drill sergeant shouts. “Heels together! Arms straight out to your sides, shoulder level! You guys are unable to hold your own arms out? Stand up straight, like a proud person!”

As each name is called, the recruits step out of the formation, heckled by drill sergeants on the hill, and race up the stairs and into the company formation area. They throw the bags into a massive pile and are divided into four platoons. Sergeant First Class David Duchene, the company’s senior drill sergeant, steps to the front of the formation. His voice booms. “Discipline is the key to success here! Discipline is doing what you are told, when you are told, no questions! Do you understand?”

“Yes, Drill Sergeant!”

For all the evolution in military tactics, weaponry, and organizational structure, the basic aim of military training—producing strong, disciplined soldiers, skilled with their weapons—remains constant, and the core methods are simple. You must look like everyone else. You must act like everyone else. You must perform like everyone else. If you don’t, you will be punished. Or worse, the group will suffer for your mistakes. To instill this obedience, the Army taps into young people’s basic desire for acceptance, and their abhorrence at being singled out for punishment or critique.

The threat of collective punishment for individual infractions is one of the most powerful motivators in military training. I learned this lesson early, and repeatedly, in my own basic training. One night as we slept, just a few days into our training, two recruits left the barracks and walked toward town, looking for a convenience store. A drill sergeant driving home picked them up a short distance from the barracks. We were awakened, told what had happened, and told we would be dealt with later. We fell back asleep knowing the morning would bring pain.

“So you want to play games?” one of our drill sergeants said. “OK, we will play games.” He ordered us to squat and hold out our arms. The two recruits stood in front of the formation, watching us and looking sheepish. “Don’t be mad at me; be mad at your friends standing up here,” the drill sergeant said. He spoke in quick, clipped sentences, through a heavy Puerto Rican accent. “I am not doing this to you—they are doing this to you. Are you tired? Do your legs hurt? You can look toward the sky and say, ‘God, why is this happening to me?’”

The other platoons filed past, stealing glances, on their way to breakfast. We groaned and gritted our teeth. Sweat soaked our clothes. “I want you to be pissed at your friends. They did this to you. They don’t want to be part of the team,” the drill sergeant barked. “Now you are in Afghanistan. Twenty of you are dead inside your security perimeter. Another 20 of you are prisoners of Osama bin Laden, because two soldiers who were supposed to be on guard duty decided they wanted to go get something to eat.” The morning dragged on like that, for what seemed a very long time.

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Brian Mockenhaupt is a freelance writer and former infantryman.

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