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.


Photos by Mike Haskey

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.

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BLESS 'EM ALL: Recruits at Fort Benning get a little time off on Family Day in November 2006.

In demographic terms, at least, the Army should have no recruiting problem. Since the end of the draft, in 1973, the U.S. population has grown by almost 100 million. Meanwhile, with the end of the Cold War, the active Army shrank from 780,000 members in 1989 to fewer than 500,000 in 1996. (The Army expects to have 512,000 soldiers at the end of 2007; Gates’s plan would raise that number to 547,000 by 2012.) And many more jobs within all the services have been opened to women, who now make up about 15 percent of the Army.

But in reality, the numbers game is stacked against recruiters. In the prime age group for recruitment (17 to 24 years old), 7 in 10 are ineligible for military service, Army officials say. More than half the members of this youth cohort are disqualified for moral, mental, or medical reasons: They have had too many run-ins with the law, or they have gang-related or extremist tattoos; they have had psychiatric treatment for severe mental problems or antisocial behavior; or they have been diagnosed with one or more of a staggering list of medical conditions, from heart murmurs to obesity. Other potential recruits have too many dependents, scored too low on the Army aptitude test, or lack high-school or general-equivalency diplomas. Take out those already serving or joining other branches, those who are disclosed homosexuals, and those who are smart and healthy but have no intention of ever entering the military, and the pool shrinks further. From 1976 to 2001, the number of male high-school seniors who say they will definitely join the military remained constant, at about 10 percent. But those saying they would definitely not serve has risen, from 40 percent to 60 percent.

To expand the pool, the Army has in recent years added thousands of recruiters, more than doubled certain enlistment bonuses to $40,000, and granted more enlistment waivers for medical problems, past drug and alcohol abuse, and criminal records. (In the past three years, the number of waivers for criminal conduct jumped by 65 percent, to 8,129 in 2006.) The Army has doubled its admittance of recruits who score between the 15th and 30th percentiles on the Army aptitude test—up from 2 percent of total recruits—and now accepts some recruits with tattoos on their hands and necks. (The Marines, meanwhile, just instituted a rule significantly restricting tattoos allowed on forearms, describing them as unprofessional and contrary to the Corps’ traditional values.) In the past year and a half, the maximum enlistment age was raised from 34 to 40, and then to 42.

But finding willing and qualified candidates remains slow, tedious work. For every potential soldier a recruiter sends to training, he’ll talk to 150 to 250 people. He’ll find them by making hundreds of cold calls, visiting high schools, and walking through malls. Of these contacts, the recruiter will conduct 20 face-to-face interviews. Four of those applicants will take the Army aptitude test and physical exam. Just over half will score in the top half on the aptitude test. Fewer than half will pass the physical. So by the time recruits make it to training, the Army is keen to keep them there.

To this end, the Army has shifted the culture of basic training away from the demeaning treatment and harsh indoctrination that have always characterized standing armies. Drill sergeants are supposed to act more as coaches and mentors than as feared disciplinarians. They yell less; swearing and abusive language are no longer tolerated. “We don’t have to break a person down to make him a great soldier,” says Colonel Kevin Shwedo, the director of operations for the Army’s Accessions Command within the Training and Doctrine Command, or TRADOC. “As a matter of fact, you are going to find that tyrannical treatment is absolutely the wrong way to go. The most effective teams don’t focus on breaking you down; they focus on building your skills up and developing your self-esteem and ego.”

At the same time, Shwedo sees today’s recruits as the product of a society that can’t quite figure out how to raise its children. “Most kids coming into the Army today have never worn leather shoes in their life unless it said Nike, Adidas, or Timberland. They’ve never run two miles consecutively in their life, and for the most part they hadn’t had an adult tell them ‘no’ and mean it. That’s bizarre,” he says. “Our society says you can’t count in a soccer match, because you might hurt somebody’s feelings. Every kid is going to get a trophy, whether or not you ever went to practice or ever won a game.” But these societal shortcomings can be leveraged in the training environment, Shwedo says. “If you go up and do something as simple as slap a soldier on the back and tell them they are doing a good job, you are giving them the recognition that society hasn’t given them besides those cheap trophies.”

The less-threatening and more-respectful environment helps recruit new soldiers and lowers the attrition rate. About 6 percent of today’s trainees fail to complete their first six months in the Army, down from 18 percent two years ago. Advanced-training programs that prepare soldiers for groups like the Army Rangers and Special Forces can afford washout rates of 60 percent or more. Applicants for these special units far outnumber available slots, and a high failure rate maintains the groups’ elite mystique. Perhaps most important, the Army doesn’t lose these washouts; it sends them back to their old units or to new assignments. But when the Army loses a new recruit out of basic training, that body is gone, along with the invested time and money. By the time a soldier graduates from initial training, the Army has spent more than $30,000 on recruiting and training. An attrition rate of 18 percent would thus cost the Army $360 million a year.

Some attrition is unavoidable. Most of the recruits kicked out during their first six months in the Army have preexisting medical or mental conditions that were hidden from recruiters or simply overlooked. One recruit showed up at Fort Benning, one of the Army’s five basic-training posts, with fresh sutures from open-heart surgery. Another had a glass eye. Another was suffering from heroin withdrawal. Others have had mental breakdowns or homicidal thoughts. But many of the rest are kicked out for “failure to adapt,” and these losses are seen as preventable. Along with making the training environment more tolerable, the Army nowadays also gives more second chances. Before being kicked out, a recruit with attitude problems will often be recycled one or more times to an earlier phase of training with another company.

The Army has also changed its physical-training regimen to retain thousands of trainees who might have been lost each year to injuries. It has scaled back the runs and road marches and shifted its focus to gradually building up weak bodies. Moreover, trainees injured today go to special rehabilitation units; in the past, injured recruits were sent home to heal, and many never came back.

In addition to shifting to a kinder and gentler approach, in late 2002, TRADOC pulled together an Army-wide group to study whether recruits were gaining the right skills. The study group asked field commanders what their new soldiers lacked, and it incorporated lessons learned from Afghanistan. Since then, the Army says, the training of recruits has become more directly tuned to combat situations than ever before. In early 2003, training posts started issuing rifles in the first days of basic training. Previously, weapons were stored in locked rooms and drawn out only for trips to shooting ranges and for field exercises. Now, recruits carry their rifles everywhere—to physical training, breakfast, lunch, dinner, and the bathroom—just as they will while deployed. This change has cut down on accidental shootings in Iraq and Afghanistan, Army officials say.

When recruits leave the company area, they load blank ammunition, mimicking combat. They wear body armor in the field, getting used to its cumbersome weight. They conduct convoy live-fire exercises and train more than previous recruits did on administering first aid and on operating in urban environments. They kick in doors, clear rooms, and react to gunfire and explosions while walking through fake towns. They fire the heavy machine guns and automatic grenade launchers they’ll use in Iraq, and they study pictures of improvised explosive devices, or IEDs. Drill sergeants leave items out of place around the barracks, encouraging recruits to pay close attention to detail, preparing them for combat patrols. Last summer the Army introduced more-intensive training on escalation of force, and soon every recruit will have to administer and receive an IV—a task that, for novices, can involve puddles of spilled blood.

Assessments of today’s basic training span from praise for producing smarter, more effective, and more adaptable soldiers, to criticisms that new soldiers are insufficiently disciplined and arrive at their units unable to meet minimum standards. “The standard when you go to combat doesn’t change,” says First Sergeant David Schumacher, who oversees an infantry company from the 10th Mountain Division, now in Iraq. (I deployed twice to Iraq with the same company.) “You still have to wear the same heavy gear. You still have to fight under the same conditions. The weather doesn’t change. The vehicles don’t change. What you do on patrol doesn’t really change. So why should your initial entry into the military change? Why cut that down early, and then all of a sudden there’s a gap between where they are when we get them and where they have to be? That gap is what needs to be taken out.”

Anytime soldiers talk about basic training, one theme recurs: Every generation of soldiers says they had it so much harder—their road marches were longer, their drill sergeants meaner, their punishments more severe. Their complaints, in turn, are dismissed as age-old bellyaching. I’d heard plenty about the new face of basic training, mostly from old comrades griping that recruits had gone soft. But I wanted to see for myself how this new approach works, so I recently spent time with the Infantry Training Brigade at Fort Benning, where I had trained for combat in 2002. No women go through basic training at Benning, and most Army soldiers have jobs outside the infantry. But plenty of clerks, medics, and truck drivers have found themselves in firefights lately, and if standards have changed for frontline troops, the ones kicking down doors in Ramadi, then training for the rest has surely followed suit.

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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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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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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.

Brian Mockenhaupt is a freelance writer and former infantryman.
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