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.
FIELD TESTED: Recruits focus more on clearing houses, spotting roadside bombs, and other lessons from Iraq.

Armies throughout history have used punishments,  beatings, and occasional executions to maintain  discipline. From the Romans to the Prussians to America’s Civil War armies, soldiers knew and feared the whip, the stick, and the fist. But for as long as leaders have smacked and flogged their men, their contemporaries have urged a rethinking of the paradigm. In 1879, for example, Army Major General John Schofield told West Point cadets that ill treatment breeds not respect and compliance but resentment:

The discipline which makes the Soldiers of a free country reliable in battle is not to be gained by harsh or tyrannical treatment. On the contrary, such treatment is far more likely to destroy than to make an Army. It is possible to impart instruction and to give commands in such a manner and such a tone of voice as to inspire in the Soldier no feeling but an intense desire to obey, while the opposite manner and tone of voice cannot fail to excite strong resentment and a desire to disobey.

Schofield’s quote is popular in today’s Army. Soldiers learning to be drill sergeants read it in Army Regulation 350-6, their handbook on training recruits. The nine-week Drill Sergeant School mirrors the basic-training cycle; its students, who usually have at least five years in the Army, live like recruits. They wake by 5 a.m. and prepare rooms and uniforms for inspection. They do everything the recruits will do—first performing the task and then teaching it. They learn techniques for controlling and motivating recruits and for managing stress—both the recruits’ and their own. The school’s training philosophy—“Insist and assist”—centers on explaining the standard and then helping recruits achieve it, mirroring the Army’s push for drill sergeants to be coaches and mentors, respected rather than feared.

But new drill sergeants step into a climate very different from even their own basic-training experience, and many have accepted the changes only reluctantly. Until recently, recruits in their first several weeks of training had no choice in what they ate; they simply took the next available plate in the serving line. Now they can choose, from the first day. They can also eat dessert—formerly a privilege to be earned—and drill sergeants can no longer keep overweight soldiers from eating fattening foods. Many drill sergeants find ways around this restriction, hovering near the desserts, arms crossed; their presence is deterrent enough. Such old-school sergeants also adjust the new physical-fitness standards. The program, designed by sports physiologists to maximize fitness gains and minimize injuries, uses graduated exercises to build strength and endurance. But one company commander told me that if he stuck strictly to it, many recruits would fail their physical-fitness test. Instead, he follows the outline but increases the number of repetitions. Many drill sergeants also order their recruits to do exercises before or after meals and before bed. To graduate, a male soldier in the 17-to-21 age bracket must score at least 60 percent in each category of the test. That’s 42 push-ups in two minutes, 53 sit-ups in two minutes, and a two-mile run in 15:54 or less.

After four Fort Knox drill sergeants were prosecuted in 2005 for abuses of basic trainees—including punching and hitting them, dragging one by his ankles, and ordering another to swallow his own vomit—the Army reevaluated its treatment of recruits. Investigators from the inspector general’s office interviewed recruits at several training posts. Many described their drill sergeants as role models and father figures, but others were less positive, complaining about physical and verbal intimidation. The Army tightened its prohibitions of vulgar or abusive language and treatment that could be interpreted as hazing. My own drill sergeants’ two favorite names for us were “Dick” and “Weirdo.” (They told us Dick was an acronym, for Dedicated Infantry Combat Killers.) Now recruits must be referred to as “private,” “soldier,” or “warrior,” or by last name.

Several drill sergeants told me the quality of technical- skills training today, preparing recruits for imminent combat, far exceeds what they received in basic training. But they also say the climate shift has led them to second-guess themselves and to worry that their actions may be misconstrued. “Drill sergeants have their hands tied behind their backs. They’re scared,” says one, now in his third year of training recruits. “In the past we never had to look over our shoulders.” He feels drill sergeants are discouraged from introducing too much shock too fast and from making the environment too stressful. “What are we trying to do here, produce combat-effective soldiers, or are we thanking them for joining the Army, and letting them slip through the cracks because we need numbers?” There are ways to tweak the system and keep the pressure high, he says. “But someone shouldn’t have to be in this position, figuring out ways to get around stuff.”

Many drill sergeants have found ways to jettison the old-school ways and still remain effective. Staff Sergeant Ernest Rodriguez, who is the father of five daughters, spends a lot of time pondering how to motivate and encourage while maintaining control and how to discipline without demoralizing. He served four years in the Marine Corps, going through recruit training in 1991, and that experience influences his style as a drill sergeant. “When I went through, it was nuts. We used to get ‘smoked’ all the time,” he said, referring to any number of exercises used to discipline soldiers. “Now I try to use my time a little more wisely. You don’t want to crush them all the time, because in the end you have a person who’s not confident in himself, as a man. You’re not just making a soldier; you’re making a man.”

I hadn’t seen Rodriguez since I left the Army a year ago, after our second Iraq deployment. He had been my squad leader during our first Iraq tour, and I knew he wanted to be a drill sergeant. Beyond his louder-than-normal voice, he seemed made for the job. As a boss, he yelled very little but was strict and respected. I met his basic-training company, Foxtrot 1/50th, at the “confidence course,” a series of log-and-rope obstacles in Fort Benning’s vast pine forests. The recruits, now in their sixth day of basic training, are in the initial three-week phase, known as Total Control. Drill sergeants direct the recruits from the moment they wake up until the lights go out. In a few weeks, the cadre will select recruits as platoon leaders, and the group will be given more autonomy and responsibility. But for now, drill sergeants control everything, marching recruits to meals, telling them when to shower and when to drink water.

“First of all, I’m going to show them I’m crazy,” Rodriguez says. “They’ll know that right off the bat, because that adds to my power base. If they think you’re like them, you’ll get no respect. When you’re by yourself and you have 56 privates against one drill sergeant, and you don’t get any respect from the get-go? Buddy, you’re going to have a hard time.” He builds this power base by taking away their freedom to scratch their heads, stand with their hands on their hips, hum a song. “This is my house. You live by my rules,” he explains to me. “The average person at home doesn’t understand what we’re doing right now. What we’re trying to achieve in the end is a well-disciplined soldier with military bearing. And you cannot get your military bearing just by simply telling them the rules and saying, ‘Hey, you can’t do this and you can’t do that.’ Fifteen seconds later, they’d be doing it again.” But if he gives them a speech while they’re in the push-up position, he says, they’ll listen because they want the pain to go away.

Rodriguez, as one of the demonstrators for the confidence course, runs through the obstacles, climbing ropes, scaling towers, and vaulting over logs. Sweat slides down his face as he finishes. The recruits wait, anxious to start. This will be their first opportunity in a week to act individually, without mimicking the actions of the group. Here, in very controlled form, is a bit of freedom. “We’re going to burn off some baby fat today, hooah?” Rodriguez yells. “Hooah!” his platoon thunders, using the Army’s all- purpose “yes” response. “You got some fear, right?” “Hooah!” “But you need to get the mission accomplished.” “Hooah!” “You need to find that switch. You need to control that fear. And I’ll help you find that switch.” “Hooah!” The recruits attack the obstacles with war cries, cheering and encouraging each other. Rodriguez watches, pleased.

Gone are the days of trying to jam recruits into the Army’s mold and discarding them if they didn’t fit. And so, Army leaders devote ever-increasing amounts of resources and brainpower to understanding today’s youth. This leads to some strange and surprising conversations that feel like marketing-strategy sessions. And in an odd role reversal from the civilian world, many of the younger Army leaders and trainers I spoke with favor harder training and a return to some old-school tactics, while those who are older and more senior are quick to point out the positive attributes of today’s youth and to try new ways to reach them. “They can handle a very chaotic environment probably better than us older types,” Colonel Scott Henry, the Infantry Training Brigade commander at Fort Benning, tells me. “I’m still of the mind-set that I need to have quiet to write a paper or an evaluation, to collect my thoughts, but these young cats can handle it. And that’s very similar to the battlefield. They’re very bright. Maybe not as fit, but that’s something that can come around.”

Henry has graduated 40,000 infantrymen, and during his tenure, he says, he has reined in what he describes as fraternity-type hazing practices. To teach his recruits, Henry focuses on what they know. He’s stored dozens of movie clips on his computer, scenes from everything from The Last Samurai and Black Hawk Down to Rudy and Remember the Titans. Each deals with one or more of the seven Army values: loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honesty, integrity, and personal courage. Many also address tolerance and the importance of learning from other cultures—here Henry uses Kevin Costner’s character in Dances With Wolves. The recruits will see a half dozen or more clips at various briefings during their training.

One of Henry’s favorites comes from Saving Private Ryan, when the title character, having just learned that his three brothers were killed in combat, tells Captain Miller he doesn’t want to leave his comrades. Henry clicks his mouse. The scene rolls on the flat-screen television hanging on his office wall. “Hell,” Private Ryan says, “why do I deserve to go? Why not any of these guys? They all fought just as hard as me.” “Is that what they’re supposed to tell your mother when they send her another folded American flag?” Miller asks. “Tell her that when you found me, I was here, and I was with the only brothers I have left,” Ryan says. “And that there was no way I was going to desert them. I think she’ll understand that.” Henry turns back to me, shaking his head, wearing a look of awe and reverence. “I’ve seen this over a hundred times, and I get choked up every time,” he says. “It resonates. It’s the quickest way. Now with officers and NCOs, you can have them read a book. But for the young guy in training, this connects.”

Yet Henry’s office is also crowded with books on military history, and he laces his speech with references to Spartan warriors who started their military training at age 7 and Roman soldiers who were expected to march 20 miles in five hours, and 24 miles in five hours at the quick step. (The Army standard is 12 miles in four hours.) He talks admiringly of the famed Union Colonel Joshua Chamberlain, who marched his men more than 20 miles to Gettysburg, in heavy wool uniforms, through the wet July heat. They held the Union’s left flank on Little Round Top, fighting off several Confederate advances and then counterattacking with a bayonet charge. He knows that young people in past generations were physically tougher, but he still wants his soldiers trained in the ideals of the samurai, the Native American warrior, the citizen-soldiers of Athens. “How do we create that mind-set?” he asks, with a missionary’s fervor.

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Brian Mockenhaupt is a freelance writer and former infantryman.

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