Interviews June 2007

The New Recruit

Brian Mockenhaupt talks about the men and women who enter basic training today, and how the Army has adapted to meet their needs.

There was a time when battlefields were simpler, enemies were more predictable, and young people lined up at the draft office ready to serve. Today, the Army is struggling to train its all-volunteer force of half a million active-duty soldiers, many of whom are less prepared for combat than their predecessors were. Efforts to attract 80,000 new recruits are proving equally daunting. But as Brian Mockenhaupt argues in his June Atlantic story, Americans must make due with “The Army We Have.”

Joining the armed forces means shedding individuality and obeying leaders who might ask a soldier to take lives. In the past, basic training was primarily about building brute strength and learning to follow orders. But new times call for new methods: drill sergeants are increasingly softening their barks, incorporating multimedia, and lowering the bar on physical fitness tests. In order to attract—and keep—new soldiers, the Army has resorted to fueling late-night field exercises with Guns N’ Roses music and allowing their charges to eat fatty desserts.

The changing nature of warfare is also responsible for shifts in basic training. Fighting counterinsurgencies requires walking door to door and making split-second decisions about the danger a situation poses. Enemies are no longer recognizable by the color of their uniforms.

Should the Army continue to bring soldiers into its fold through basic combat training? Operations in Afghanistan and Iraq rely heavily on technology and support units; support troops now outnumber their combat counterparts by a factor of 7. For recruits who will never set foot on a battlefield, traditional training methods have begun to seem somewhat superfluous. As Mockehaupt writes:

What if the physical and cultural demands of becoming a soldier intimidate potential recruits? ... 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.

Despite these dilemmas, Mockenhaupt believes that lowering standards during basic training could have drastic consequences for national security. “Now more than at any time since Vietnam,” he writes, “the Army needs strong, quick-thinking, highly disciplined soldiers … 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.”

Careful reporting and extensive conversations inform Mockenhaupt’s writing. His detailed chronicle of the military’s changing approach draws on his own basic training at the Infantry Training Brigade at Fort Benning in Georgia, as well as his experiences serving two tours of duty in Iraq. In conversation, he tends to move from objective observations about the armed forces to firsthand experiences from his military service. Ultimately, he would like elected officials and the public to reflect on the privileges of being an American and recognize what it means to serve one’s country.

Justine Isola

What inspired you to enlist in the military?

I grew up—as I think a lot of people do these days—not knowing many people who were in the military. No one in my family was in the military other than an uncle who was in the Navy and a cousin who was in the Navy a long time ago. But only a couple of people I went to high school with went into the military. It wasn’t very common. Most people did as I did and went on to college. I had thought briefly about joining the military when I was younger. The thought came back to me later on, but by that point I was well along on the journalism path, so it was relegated to an “in another lifetime” notion. I hadn’t written about the military before, other than the random feature story that might come up here or there. But I was always struck by the huge gulf between American civil society and the military. As I thought about this gulf, those two paths came together with the opportunity to see this rather closed-off world from the inside and use that experience to write about it in a way that might add more nuance than had I been seeing it as an outsider.

How would you characterize the main purpose of basic training?

The idea of basic combat training—as the name suggests—is to get everyone to a basic level of combat proficiency. Drill sergeants teach specialized skills—marksmanship and first aid—and bring soldiers into the general culture of the military through drill and ceremony. The military is so different from the world that most people live in. It has to introduce soldiers to an environment in which they have to ask permission to do things or wait to be told to do them. As a soldier, you learn over the course of weeks that there’s a reason why you’re not able to go out and do it the way you want. It’s because you don’t know what’s best. The military gradually instills in you this basic foundation of military bearing and understanding of the military environment. Then, once a certain amount of time goes by you are given a little bit more freedom to make decisions on your own, based on the decision-making skills you’ve learned.

How do drill sergeants teach soldiers these nuanced decision-making skills?

It’s really difficult to teach people—especially young people or people new to the military—when to fire on someone and when not to fire on someone. We are very fortunate that our country hasn’t seen war on its soil for a good many years. When you see things like the shooting massacre at Virginia Tech, it’s so otherworldly. It’s so out of place. That’s how we look at violence and death. We look at the people who perpetrate that violence—in that case a guy who was so utterly out of sync with the world around him—as people who need to be in prison or mental health institutes. That’s our understanding of violence. And so it can be hard for people to make the jump that the military is going to try to train people to practice violence when necessary and to do it on your behalf and at your behest.

One of the things the military teaches you is to shoot with one purpose. You’re shooting the targets because, whether in an offensive situation or in self-defense, someday you may be called upon to kill another person. And that is obviously not the way things are done in the society we grew up in. There are other answers. There is rule of law and our judiciary system. People are put in prison for shooting other people. So drill sergeants have to introduce soldiers to the idea that it can sometimes be quite necessary to kill someone else.

But at the same time the drill sergeants are going to explain that situations will arise when shooting is not the answer because it will turn against you down the road. It might be really hard, especially when you’re under fire, and you’ve been taking casualties, and you feel that a neighborhood might be against you. But to win in the end you need to exercise extreme prudence and restraint. For someone who has only been in the military for a short time, this can be a difficult lesson.

You tell the story of the soldier you refer to as Private Smith who made mistakes and did not feel responsible when the whole group was punished for them. But punishing your platoon for his shortcomings had significant consequences for him. He was beaten by a fellow soldier. Would he or your platoon have been better served if he had been taken out of basic training?

I don’t know what became of Private Smith. He might be a good soldier. It’s really tough to make judgment calls about when someone should be taken out of the group or talked to or sent to an earlier time in training. And I think it’s more likely today that someone who behaves that way will get more chances than they might have in the past given that the military does need numbers and can’t afford to lose a lot of recruits.

An unexpected and intangible result was that it definitely increased my unit’s cohesiveness. He was certainly not the only person and there’s always a lot of people who do those things. If you’re lucky it causes people to look within themselves and pay more attention to their own actions and it can thus improve everyone’s actions. All in all those situations are unfortunate; it’s definitely not the best way to go about doing things, I think sometimes those situations just arise.

That practice of punishing a whole group of recruits for one person’s mistake strikes me as somewhat unfair. But you put it in context when you quote a drill sergeant who barked at his men after two of them went off to find a convenience store during the night: “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.”

When you’re being collectively punished for what a small group of people did, one of the things that goes through your mind, or at least that went through my mind, is, “Geez, I really don’t want to be that person who’s standing up there and who feels responsible for what I’m going through right now. It’s painful doing these push-ups. I’m sweating like crazy. I’m not real happy. But, wow, I don’t want to be responsible for getting people killed, heaven forbid that ever happens.” So I think it can be effective.

There are a lot of people who say that collective punishment is the wrong way to go about things. But I found it to be effective because it mirrors what can happen in a combat environment. If you have people on guard and one person is responsible for each direction—someone looking north, someone looking south, someone looking east and west—it really doesn’t matter how vigilant the people looking in the other three directions are if the person looking west falls asleep or isn’t paying attention. That one person is responsible for all the people who are in that security perimeter. And hopefully it never comes to that. Hopefully people never learn those kinds of lessons.

What other tactics are particularly effective?

I believe that over 60 percent of drill sergeants are combat vets. And that is hugely beneficial because they are speaking from experience. Nothing resonates as well with these new recruits as someone saying, “This happened to me when I was walking down the street in Ramadi. I saw that thing and it saved a whole squad.”

You write that 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.” Why are there more and more soldiers who never face combat?

In wars past, armies were primarily composed of infantry and cavalry. In the Civil War, for example, large armies faced each other on battlefields. Support channels consisted of people who ran hospitals or moved supplies and involved fewer people than the combat army. Today, we have ever-expanding infrastructure that supports troops. Technological advances in the lethality of weapons have also contributed to having fewer teeth and more tail. You need more people to build these weapons and to maintain them. Combat troops continue to conduct what you would consider frontline operations and patrol every day. Support troops overseas are responsible for vehicle maintenance and logistics and communications in secure areas. The people here in the United States who work at the Pentagon and on different training bases are also considered part of the support network. This all adds up to a significant group of people to support our frontline troops.

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Justine Isola is an Atlantic staff editor.

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