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.

You mentioned that technology is one factor that has changed the Army’s makeup. Do you envision technology continuing to take the burden off ground troops and reduce our need for sheer numbers in the field?

There are two answers to your question. Technology will keep developing. A few months ago in the Atlantic, Robert Kaplan wrote about these pilots who fly Unmanned Aerial Vehicles known as Predators. These vehicles are in Iraq, firing missiles at targets there (in coordination with actual frontline troops who are on the ground spotting targets). But the people operating them go to work every day in Las Vegas. Technological developments like that give us the ability for more pinpointed attacks, which is fantastic.

The firebombing of Hamburg or Dresden or the firebombing of Tokyo or multiple other cities in Japan were seen as being necessary at the time. But look at the results. These bombings killed tens of thousands of civilians. In a counterinsurgency situation, it doesn't do any good to blow up a whole neighborhood. You’re only going to create more insurgents. People who were sitting on the fence may be less likely to help you now or more likely to give comfort or support to the other side. It’s great if you can look through a camera and see people moving around and hit them when they're digging a roadside bomb.

At the same time, the hope was that technological sophistication and the power of weaponry would reduce the need for an old-school military with soldiers walking their beats and breaking down doors. But I think we've lately seen a little bit of a pushback. One of many lessons learned from Afghanistan and Iraq is that if you rely too heavily on technology, you’re not as prepared as you should be for dealing with counterinsurgencies. You see over and over how much you need people who can go out and do the hard and dirty and at times scary work of walking through neighborhoods, talking to people, attacking buildings when necessary, and making split-second decisions based on the training they’ve been given.

I’m curious about the research that the Army leadership is doing to study what speaks to this generation of young people. Are Army leaders conducting sociological studies or basing their conclusions on anecdotal evidence?

The Army has always devoted time and resources to studying the best way to recruit, train, and motivate people. But that effort was ramped up in 2002. There are fewer people who are able who are interested in serving. There’s been a change in social norms and changing notions of duty and obligation. So the Army has spent a lot of time looking at how young people today are different from how they used to be and what you have to do to adjust messages: how to appeal to them and how to train them. Some of the changes the military has made have been good. But for the most part, they were forced to make them. Change comes out of necessity.

In a lot of ways, young people today are much more adaptable and better able to deal with complicated situations with a lot of data coming at them from different directions. That’s what enables them to listen to an iPod and text message and do something on the computer all at the same time. On the other hand certain trends do not bode nearly as well. I recently read a book called Generation Me by Jean Twenge, a psychology professor at San Diego State University. She suggests that this generation is more assertive, more individualistic, and feels more entitled than any past generation. In generations past, people were much less likely to say that the pursuit of happiness was most important to them. Instead they would name things that involve duty or obligation. These findings don’t jibe very well with traditional notions of military service.

You describe infantry commanders’ and drill sergeants’ use of multimedia—soundtracks, movies—to connect with soldiers. Should we be concerned about the fact that movies tend to appeal to our emotions and sometimes glorify war and death?

I guess there are two ways of looking at that question: Are you using films to introduce these concepts to recruits, or is this the world they’ve grown up in? Is this a way you can relate to them?

Soldiers have seen all of these movies. You’re not showing most of them Dances with Wolves, Saving Private Ryan, or The Last Samurai for the first time. Colonel Henry uses scenes from Dances With Wolves to talk about cultural tolerance. Most of the recruits have probably seen the movie, so Henry is starting from a point of common experience. Whether or not they drew a lesson in cultural tolerance from the movie before, they now have a different stake, as participant instead of observer. Within a few months, they may be in Kevin Costner’s position, in a foreign environment, relating to people to whom he’d had no previous exposure.

I think Henry saw clips from popular movies as the quickest way to impart those messages. What you’re asking really gets into the underlying notion that the Army is working with what it’s got. You can’t blame the Army for trying to grab soldiers at this level by showing them what they know. It’s how they’ve grown up.

Have recruiters’ messages changed as a result of changes in young people?

You can see a little bit of that in the Army slogans. They went from “Be All You Can Be” to “Army of One” to “Army Strong.” They’re getting away from that idea of what your Army can do for you, moving towards the idea that you can be a rock upon which the institution is built. You’ll also notice that a lot of the Army commercials that are playing now are about parents having conversations with their children. A daughter or son comes up and says, “I’ve been thinking about joining the Army. They can train me. I can get money for school. What do you think?” The Army is encouraging parents to engage with their children in this conversation because they’ve found that often it’s the parent who shuts down a kid’s interest.

You wouldn’t think that the Army has as much of a recruiting problem as it does. I’ve talked to some recruiters about the fact that a lot of areas of the countries are hurting. I live in Detroit, which has one of the highest unemployment rates in the country. With the slow demise of the auto industry, there are very few places that you can go where you are guaranteed a pension. The military is one of those last few places. As long as you’re somewhat conscientious and not a complete screw-up at your job, you can stay in for twenty years. You can retire with a pension. You get free health care the whole time. You get money for college. You don’t even have co-pays for your health care. And yet recruiters in Detroit have just as hard a time recruiting people as other recruiters do around the country.

So that says something about the environment in which the Army recruits people. It’s tough. And as I point out in the story, recruiters talk to a lot of people for every recruit they get.

You end your piece by observing that young Americans are “less willing and less able to serve than earlier generations were,” and you suggest that the solution to this conundrum lies outside the military. Whose responsibility is it to ensure that we have sufficient and competent ground troops?

I was reading an old story from April 1981 by James Fallows about the civilianization of the Army. At the end he equates the draft to taxes and argues that it should be handled in roughly the same way. We live in a democracy and people pay taxes. If we had complete freedom, I would say, “I don’t want to pay taxes.” But living in this country affords us a lot of great opportunities, and we have to pay taxes.

As much as it sounds like the pickup truck bumper stickers that you see: “Freedom Isn’t Free,” we could handle service the same way by putting an obligation onto it. This is a perspective of mine that has probably changed after having been in the military. A lot has been said to suggest that a disproportionately small part of the population is bearing the burden of this war. It’s a flawed comparison to invoke Rosie the Riveter. Because of the scope and the scale of World War II, so many people were needed, and so many goods that people were mobilized on a massive scale. But I do think there’s something to be said for promoting an idea of shared responsibility and sacrifice.

It’s incredibly easy to live in this country. You don’t have to do anything to contribute to the world around you or your community. You can if you choose to, and many, many people are involved civically or through government service or through charity. And we rely on the people who volunteer. But in the context of military service, the result is people who are on their third or fourth deployment in Iraq. National Guard brigades were notified recently that they’re going to be deploying to Iraq again even though they were told originally that they would be deployed only once. And yes, that is what these people volunteered for. They volunteered to be in the military and to serve their country. But at the same time you have to wonder how many times we will send the same people to war.

What would have to happen in order to bring about change? Do we need to reinstate the draft?

It could work many different ways. But there are many steps before we reach that point. Public officials could call on Americans to serve or be involved. We really haven’t seen this. Politicians talk about the importance of sacrifice for the war on terror, but unless you’re in the military or you work for homeland security, there is no sacrifice asked of you. Our political leaders could say, We’re in this tough situation now, so we need to rally together. They could call on the resources of the country.

I think there’s a lot to be said for the idea of national service being required in an equitable way—whether it’s military service, or service in a national park clearing trails, or working as a community police officer. Compulsory national service could be a draft of sorts, with people getting selected by having their numbers get picked. You get a lot of privileges and benefits from working in this country. So if you’re called upon, you should be able to give back and do some service for the country.