Leadership: September 3, 2002


A culture of safety is killing American troops. The U.S. military has long been a leader in training safety. Considering the large number of vehicles (both for cargo and combat, on land, sea and air) in the military, and relative youth of the drivers, the death rate from accidents is quite low. Through the 1990s, the smaller post-Cold War U.S. military (about 1.4 million troops) lost between 100-150 people a year to training accidents. Most of these are caused by vehicle mishaps, few by weapons. Not counted are the few who die from suicide or homicide. However, off-duty accidental deaths generally run to 300 or more a year. This is nothing new, for since World War II, with more people in the military (because of the draft) and more people driving cars (because of the booming post-World War II economy), there has always been more off duty than on duty deaths. Yes, most of the off-duty accidents have been caused by automobiles, usually accompanied by the use of alcohol. 

But on duty, safety has been increasingly, year after year, a major consideration. Often, it is the only consideration. Getting useful training done is a distant second. This can be seen in Afghanistan, where helicopters have had to learn some dangerous flying maneuvers on the job, because they were "too dangerous" to do in training. Pilots have long fought with the safety crowd, and civilians annoyed at low flying aircraft. The pilots have been losing, leaving them to fly low, fast and in the dark during wartime, but without much peacetime practice. This is particularly dangerous for helicopter pilots, for the jet crowd has been able to keep their warplanes way up high (because we have destroyed the enemy air force and anti-aircraft missile). The choppers still have to get down low, and in Afghanistan this has been particularly dangerous because of the weather (hot and stormy or cold and icy) and altitude (two miles or more up in mountains, where the thinner air reduces a helicopters effectiveness.) Active duty pilots rarely complain publicly, as that would be a career threatening move. But many ex-military pilots periodically remind everyone that the problem has not gone away. And sometimes lawsuits, by civilians trying to ground the low flying aircraft and helicopters, brings out the need for dangerous peacetime training.

Less visible has been the increasing safety restrictions put on ground troops. In particular, the strenuous, and often dangerous, training infantry must undergo has been softened over the years in the name of safety. For example, rather than let the troops learn how to get by with less water during Summer training (because water is not always readily available in combat), ample water is always on hand and training is often halted if it gets "too hot." When there's a war going on, the enemy never allows for such solicitous time outs. Same thing with cold weather training. Except in the elite units, where the "safety rules" crowd has not penetrated, getting ready for combat is second to piling up a better safety record than you had last year. 

If you examine the record of training for combat versus survival in combat during the last 60 years it is obvious that putting safety first (no matter what) is absurd and counterproductive. But this is a hard sell, especially when the media jumps all over training accidents to loudly proclaim that "the government is killing our troops." While it's true that some countries, like Russia, does "kill it's troops" due to inept and incompetent leadership, this has never been the case in democracies (with a few rare exceptions). Through the 1990s, the United States developed three levels of troop training; lite, traditional and tough. In the middle is the traditional strenuous, but not very tough, basic training. These guys, and a few women, learn to use some weapons and are periodically given some refresher training. This is what most males in the army get, all marines and a minority of air force and navy recruits. And then there's the tough training. The only ones that get this are the elite infantry and marine units. There are some "super tough" units as well (commandos, rangers, Special Forces). And then we have the newest type of training; "lite." Nearly all women in the military, as well as many men in the air force and navy get this. It barely teaches these people how to dress and act as part of the military. Combat training is minimal and quickly forgotten. In the navy, sailors assigned to a ship that takes damage control seriously, get lots of additional physical and practical training in this dangerous task. But for an increasing number in the military, a confrontation with armed violence is met by panic and flight. On the other extreme, the training for elite infantry has become even more rigorous. But it's the people still getting the "traditional" training that are being most affected by the "safety before readiness" movement. These are the lads who ran into these training shortcomings when they started operating in Afghanistan. Many of these troops and NCOs (and some of their officers) are looking for solutions. One obvious solution is to push the troops more in training, even at the risk of a career threatening "training accident." Even a case of heat stroke, frost bite or some broken bones can turn into a call for some commander's leaders head. Unfortunately, the current trend towards "danger free" training is not likely to stop, even after the Afghanistan wake up call. It will take a nationwide realization that realistic, and dangerous, training saves more lives than it endangers. And that is not likely to happen either. The ancients had a good way to put it; "the more you sweat in peace, the less you bleed in war."


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