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.
CLIMBING HONOR HILL: Recruits mark the coming end of basic training at a torchlight ceremony.

The first real test of whether today’s changed approach to basic training works comes after graduation, when the new soldiers move to their duty stations. If they’re lucky, they’ll have several months before heading to combat. To see how the Army’s new privates are assimilating, I visited my old unit with the 10th Mountain Division, at Fort Drum in upstate New York. The area is known for brutal winters, when frozen tears glue your eyes shut during morning exercises. But in June, when I visited, thoughts were on the sand and the heat as the company loaded gear into shipping containers for an August deployment to Iraq. Of the 124 men now in Alpha Company, 2nd Battalion, 14th Infantry Regiment, nearly half were still in basic training when I had returned in June 2005 from my second deployment in Iraq. When I came back to Drum a year later for my visit, about a third of the company members were older soldiers in leadership positions, so in the lower ranks, more than two-thirds were new. Several had arrived with the deployment just two months away. The youngest, at 17, couldn’t leave for Iraq before his birthday, in October.

New soldiers are issued gear, assigned to a platoon, and expected to catch up to the rest as quickly as possible. The stronger and more disciplined they are, the easier their transition. The runs and road marches are longer and faster than in basic training; one morning during my visit, they ran 12 miles. The field exercises are more elaborate, and soldiers are given less room for error. Most of the new arrivals are good soldiers, but too many are falling short, says First Sergeant David Schumacher, the company’s senior enlisted soldier. In the past month, the company had received six new privates, four of whom failed to meet one or more of the minimum Army standards for weight, physical training, road marching, or shooting. “It’s hard to train a soldier that is out of shape, out of the height and weight standards, and doesn’t want to be here. And I’ve been seeing more and more of that side of the spectrum lately,” Schumacher says.

Every platoon sergeant and squad leader I spoke with told me a version of this story: Many of the new privates are smart and eager; they’re quick learners and they know what they’ve gotten themselves into, joining the infantry in wartime. But too many are physically weak, are undisciplined, or have mental and emotional problems that should have gotten them screened out at basic training, if not earlier by the recruiter.

Those on the training end, people like Colonel Shwedo at TRADOC, insist that these complaints are nothing new and do not reflect the overall quality of soldiers coming out of basic training. They say that some minority of Army leaders will always contend that their new soldiers are weak or undertrained. “We’ve been doing this since the beginning of time,” Shwedo told me. He acknowledges that in an organization that trains thousands of recruits each year, some who don’t measure up will slip through the cracks. But, he adds, once they arrive at their unit and have more focused, individualized attention, they quickly adapt and improve, or the system weeds them out.

Yet as a deployment nears, training time focuses almost solely on collective tasks—conducting raids and ambushes as a platoon, moving through a town while taking fire, clearing houses, and reacting to IED attacks. A company has less and less time to work on individual soldiers who are physically weak or can’t shoot well. “They’re basically putting the burden on us, because now we have to slow everyone else down to bring [one] guy up. And it’s kind of hard for us because instead of hurting one guy, we’re hurting everyone,” says Sergeant First Class Terrell Blackman, the platoon sergeant for 3rd Platoon. “I’m not trying to say, ‘Don’t send us soldiers,’ because we need them. Pretty much what they’re doing is setting us up for failure.”

Alpha Company senior leaders see a more pervasive problem, beyond the handful of soldiers who can’t do enough push-ups. They say the Army’s initial training falls short on instilling intangibles like discipline and drive. “I get a lot of guys that are just whiners,” Schumacher says. On many mornings, he’ll have a line of soldiers waiting to see the physician assistant for sick call, especially when a long run or road march has been scheduled for physical training. Schumacher, who fought as a private in Somalia in 1993, says he would not deny a soldier a sick-call visit for a legitimate injury. Often, though, the complaints are minor. “Back then—I’m not sure when ‘back then’ was—but if you went on sick call, you were a dirtbag in front of everybody,” he says.

Schumacher and Captain Joseph Labarbera, Alpha Company’s commander, have discussed the subject often, and they’ve drawn the same conclusions. “They’re never challenged. They’re not driven,” Labarbera says. On a recent 12-mile road march, a new private quit after two miles, saying he’d gotten a blister on his foot. Labarbera ripped the American-flag patch off the private’s shoulder and stuffed it down his shirt—since he quit, the captain said, he wasn’t worthy of being an American soldier. “It’s not unreasonable that a kid can road-march 12 miles in less than three hours,” he says. “It’s not unreasonable that a kid can pull off a 20-mile movement during a day. It’s not unreasonable that a kid can shoot expert with his rifle. It’s not unreasonable that a kid is disciplined, that no matter what I tell him to do, he’s going to do it at double-time. That’s what I want of a new recruit. These kids don’t do shit at double-time.”

To instill the hardness he felt his men lacked, Labarbera started “Born-Again Hard” events. Every six weeks or so, the soldiers leave the barracks around nightfall carrying weapons and wearing body armor, web gear, helmet, and full rucksack. By dawn they will have walked as much as 20 miles. Navigating with map and compass, they find their way to a half dozen stations around Fort Drum, setting up ambushes or raids, searching and questioning prisoners, and practicing calling in medevac helicopters. For the station they call the “House of Pain,” they return to the barracks and don boxing gloves and headgear. In two-man teams, they face off with two of the unit’s older, stronger soldiers. One man starts doing push-ups: The idea is that he’s covering his buddy by providing suppressive fire. The other man is free to hit the two soldiers, who cannot hit back so long as the first man does push-ups. As soon as he stops—once the man has failed his buddy—the two soldiers can hit back. “Most of them have never been in a fight in their lives. They’re almost docile,” Labarbera says. “They want to be men, they want to be soldiers, they want to be aggressive. They’re just never shown how. We’ve got to instill that in them.”

New soldiers in Alpha Company speak of Labarbera’s events with disbelief and dark humor. They speak of shared misery, like walking for hours on minus-15-degree nights. But they speak of shared accomplishment, too. They trade favorite stories, about falling through ice or being knocked out cold in the House of Pain. Many say their basic training prepared them for their arrival at their duty station, but their impressions of training follow a pattern: Those who came to Alpha Company below or barely at Army standards told me basic training had been as stressful as they had imagined; they said they were pushed to their limits, and felt they improved because of it. Those who exceed the standard, who don’t draw the ire of their leaders, were more apt to describe basic training as lacking in intensity and quality control.

Private Leland Shanle started basic training with a head full of stories from his uncle, who had been a drill sergeant. “He was telling me Full Metal Jacket is pretty damn accurate,” he says. Training “still sucked, but it was a lot easier than I thought it was going to be. It got me in better shape, but not nearly as good of shape as it should have. And they graduated everyone but four people, no matter how big of shitbags they were, no matter how terribly they flunked the PT test. One guy graduated and he couldn’t do four push-ups. Four. What the drill sergeant said was, he can’t do anything—he can’t weed out the shitbags, the people who will not make it in the Army and are a danger to other people. After a while, they were just so frustrated. I felt bad for them.”

Basic training, by necessity, caters to the lowest common denominator, bringing the weak up to a passing standard. The struggling recruit receives the most attention. If the program were too rigorous, the standards too high, the Army would graduate very good soldiers, but too few. Ask anyone who has been through basic training—five years ago or 50—and he’ll still know the names of those who shouldn’t have graduated, but did. We had ours. The most notable, for his effect on the platoon, I’ll call Private Smith. Weak and careless, he antagonized other members of the platoon and rejected any sense of shared responsibility. At first, our drill sergeants focused on him and punished him for his mistakes and shortcomings. Then they punished us. The platoon’s animosity toward Smith was a cohesive force. People watched Smith, how he acted and how he was treated by others, and realized they’d all soon be responsible for each other’s lives. They realized how much they didn’t want to be the person to let down their buddies.

One Sunday afternoon, I stood in the bathroom with most of my platoon and watched one of my good friends beat Smith. He threw him to the floor, punching him on the way down, then slammed his foot into his ribs. “Do you want pain?” he shouted. “I’ll give you pain!” Nobody cheered, nobody laughed, few people even spoke. We just watched. We knew this moment was coming, had been for weeks. Smith bawled. His eyes darted, terrified, searching for an ally. Another recruit stepped forward. “Every time you get in trouble, it comes back on us,” he said. “So from now on, we’re going to put it back on you, tenfold.” The beating subdued Smith. He sometimes stumbled during his final weeks of training, and we were sometimes punished. But he graduated and left for his duty assignment. Watching him progress, we learned a truth: The great majority of recruits, unless they sabotage themselves or suffer a severe injury, will graduate training. This is not survival of the fittest, nor is it intended to be.

In Iraq, I had two soldiers with non-combat-related mental problems in the team that I was leading. One said he imagined killing his comrades, myself included. This admission came to light on a dusty village backstreet, minutes before neighborhood kids threw a grenade at another section of our patrol and a passing car sprayed the soldiers with gunfire—a terrible time to find out you can’t trust one of your men. The other soldier said he was depressed and had flashes of uncontrollable anger. Both told me they’d had these conditions since childhood. One had informed his recruiter, who told him not to worry about it; the other had lied because he knew disclosure would keep him out of the Army. I took them to appointments with counselors and psychiatrists, and they met for several hours with their platoon leader and the company commander and the first sergeant, who each had to take time away from coordinating and conducting combat operations. Both soldiers had their rifles taken away—they couldn’t be trusted with firearms—which left our platoon short-staffed for combat patrols. Both were kicked out of the Army shortly after we returned from Iraq.

These two soldiers surely could have passed through training 10, 20, or 50 years ago. Moreover, today’s Army undoubtedly includes some excellent soldiers who couldn’t have enlisted under the older, more stringent criteria. And some of the new training methods—like having recruits spend more time carrying, shooting, and cleaning their weapons—are effective, and were long overdue. But when the Army softened the culture of basic training, it did so not to attract better recruits, but to get more bodies into the service and keep them there.

At the same time, the Army is putting soldiers onto more-complex battlefields, where a single soldier’s actions can hinder the war effort in far-reaching and long-lasting ways. The Army wants soldiers who see themselves as more than just trigger pullers, soldiers who understand subtleties and can apply critical analysis to a situation and adapt. But by letting the intensity and rigor of their early training waver, the Army is in effect asking them to think outside the box before they’ve learned how to operate within it.

The Army’s problem, however, is really just the nation’s problem writ small. The number of Americans serving in the military has steadily shrunk from more than 1 in 10 during World War II to fewer than 1 in 100 today. The all-volunteer military has allowed most Americans to distance themselves from national service, forcing the Army in particular to work harder and spend more to get the people it needs. As former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said in another context, “You go to war with the Army you have. They’re not the Army you might want or wish to have at a later time.”

Until more Americans are more willing, more able, or perhaps more compelled to serve, the Army must maintain an effective all-volunteer force with the people it has and the limited number of additional people it can recruit. And that larger conundrum is beyond the power of any generals, captains, or drill sergeants to solve.

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Brian Mockenhaupt is a freelance writer and former infantryman.

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