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.
|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.