Infantry: Lessons Learned And Forgotten

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November 13, 2008: As always happens when there is a war, the U.S. Department of Defense (particularly the army and marines) are compiling lessons learned, and applying them to the training given to troops headed for combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. Many of these lessons are the same ones picked up in every war the U.S. has fought in the last century. But this wisdom gets polluted, diluted and forgotten during peace time. If you are patient, observant, and not too old, you can watch this process repeat itself over the next two decades.

Meanwhile, the military is taking its reality check seriously, and making the kinds of changes that make a difference. First there is the training, especially the initial instruction for recruits. Make sure all troops have their basic infantry skills down cold. This means insisting that, during Basic Training, the civilians you have recruited get that necessary mental adjustment needed to deal with stress and combat. Unfortunately, Basic tends to get watered down in peacetime, mainly for political reasons. Too many (or just any) injuries during training can get the media and politicians in an uproar. During the 1990s, there was a major flap over the problems female trainees had keeping up with males. It wasn't fair. For the moment, everyone is getting pretty strenuous Basic, but that will change one peacetime returns.

For best results in combat, you have to keep troops together long enough so they can operate as effective units. That means that units should have at least three months, and preferably six months, to train together before heading overseas. That also means, no moving a lot of people in or out of the units during that time. New people are not trusted for a while, and have to train with the veteran members of in their unit to build trust. Also important is keeping a unit together for a few months after it gets back. This is a big help for troops dealing with combat stress issues. The people you most want to talk to about the stress are the people you went through it with. Getting a unit filled up with troops, and keeping it that way, is tough. Especially for the personnel (er, "human resources") crew. In war time, you can insist that it be done. In peacetime, you can still insist, but will largely be ignored. Bureaucrats rule, unless you can point a gun at them. Thus Stop Loss (keeping troops about to retire or end their enlistment, in up to a year more so that a unit going into combat has all its leaders) has been used for units headed overseas, but will be dropped once the war is over.

To avoid problems with troops coming under fire for the first time, let the troops fire their weapons a lot, with real ammo, beforehand. Marksmanship is a perishable skill, so you have to find the time, and money (for the ammo and building enough firing ranges) to do this. Gunfire is unpopular in peacetime, no matter how important it is. In wartime, it's easier to get this done. Which is why the U.S. Department of Defense has, since September 11, 2001, been buying three times as much rifle and machine-gun ammo for training. Come peacetime, the amount of ammo bought will shrink, as will all that damn (to the increasing number of civilians building homes near military bases) noise.

Every combat zone is unique, so make sure special skills needed for a particular combat zone are taught. Troops going to Iraq needed to practice convoy protection. Combat units going to Afghanistan should practice tactics in hilly country, so they don't drop from exhaustion the first time they have to chase some bad guys up a hill. In peacetime, you have no specific area you are sure you are going to fight in. So specialized training tends to fade away.

Pass it on, the sooner the better. That means having the troops briefed by those who have just got back. This should be a "relaxed" briefing, because you want the briefer to tell the troops how it really is, not what the current official word is. Nothing scandalous here, but this briefing will be contradicting some regulations (like on what equipment troops should leave behind, to keep weight down, when going into action, or what civilian gear they should consider buying, to replace less capable military issue stuff.) In peacetime, there's no place to be coming back from, although the U.S. Army Special Forces has a good program of keeping in touch with potential hot spots. This, however, is political/media dynamite, so the Special Forces activities are kept as quiet as possible.

The troops themselves have used the Internet to get in touch with their fellow soldiers who are in combat, and used message board, email and listservs to communicate. Makes a big difference if you can ask questions of those who have been there, or are there. The U.S. Army has now set up official Internet based communications services for this. There is also an effort to capture the "lessons learned" and insure that this valuable information does not fade away (as it usually does.) Time will tell if the current efforts to preserve useful memories will work.

 


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