In the last few months the U.S. military has lost fifteen marines and SEALs in training accidents. Commanders are bracing themselves for the usual flood of demands from media and politicians that something be done. Often the result is to forbid dangerous training activities and subtly let it be known that any officer associated with a fatal training accident can expect problems with their next promotion. Yet a decade of war has reminded many in the military that strenuous (and often dangerous) training saves you even more casualties in combat. This is nothing new. For thousands of years experienced combat troops have known that, "the more you sweat in peace, the less you bleed in war." During World War II the U.S. Army surveyed the troops to see what they thought about their training, leadership, and a host of other items. One of the more surprising things to come out of these surveys was the feeling among combat troops that their training wasn't tough enough. World War II "basic" was generally quite intense, more severe than anything recruits experienced in the last fifty years. But actual combat quickly revealed that even more intensity in that training would have been a big, often life-saving, help.
During wartime the troops get better. Practice and experience definitely have an effect. But during peacetime something worse happens. Not only does the lack of practice make the troops less ready to survive actual combat but the commanders have a vested interest in denying that this is happening. The rot sets in rather quickly after a war has ended. Training for combat is not only a lot of work but it's also dangerous. Realistic training means some of the troops are going to get hurt or killed. This is a political no-no, at least in democracies. At the same time, a democracy demands accountability from its elected officials. If the taxpayers are going to fork over billions a year for defense they want to be reassured that the money is buying real, kick ass, combat power. That often results in unpleasant truths being hidden or just ignored.
When American troops entered combat in large numbers during the 2003 Iraq invasion, it quickly became clear that many troops were not ready. The reason for this was simple but generally ignored by the media and politicians. It all began in the 1990s, when basic training was changed from a conditioning process that turned undisciplined civilians into disciplined soldiers into something far less. Discipline is essential for military operations. In life and death situations, failure to act promptly and efficiently when ordered to will get you, and others, killed.
This destruction of basic training was not done on purpose but to accommodate the decision in the early 1990s to integrate men and women in basic training. For decades male and female recruits got their basic separately. By putting them together it became obvious that the women could not compete physically and psychologically with the men. But a new policy, pushed by many in Congress, declared that men and women were equal on the battlefield and should take the same basic training. When the military found this did not work, they (with the exception of the Marines, who resisted the political pressure and continued separate training) lowered the standards to suit the weakest women. Much of the yelling and verbal abuse delivered by drill sergeants was also eliminated, for while it turned the men into disciplined soldiers, it encouraged too many women to quit. After all, women did not join the army with any thought of combat but for a job. Most of the men did not get combat assignments either but everyone was aware that in a tight situation the non-combat soldiers might actually have to use their rifles, and the place to make that point was basic training. In effect, 1990s basic became the old, but kinder and gentler, female version that taught you how to wear a uniform, march in formation, and provided some familiarization with basic infantry weapons.
This change in basic training had a profound effect that no one wanted to admit. Basically, the troops were much less disciplined and required much more supervision. This meant, among other things, that officers often did supervisory tasks that NCOs used to handle. And the men going into combat jobs, in effect, did basic over, the old fashioned way, when they were given their additional training for specific jobs (infantry, artillery, tanks). But the rest of the troops were less soldiers and more like civilians. It became harder to keep the troops on the straight and narrow.
As a result, all services liberally used "administrative discharge" (ie, they fired troublesome soldiers) to get rid of most ill-disciplined troops or those who simply could not come to terms with being in the military. But this made it more difficult to keep units up to strength. Commanders were encouraged to fire fewer troops and, in effect, put up with many of their young men and women who had not been convinced by basic training lite that they were now in the military.
It got worse. The shrinking budgets in the 1990s generated a situation where more money could be put into developing new weapons, keeping unneeded bases open, upgrading barracks and family housing, funding the needs of single parents, or training. Something had to give and it was training, which was needed more than ever. But then, the loss would only be noticed if we went to war and American politicians were very much against any American casualties. Can't have a real war without someone getting killed, so training costs were cut. There was less money for using tanks, aircraft, or ships. Fewer spare parts were bought (a lot of spares were needed if you used equipment a lot). There was another reason for reducing training, doing it energetically tended to get troops killed or injured. This was more of a problem now that so many recruits were getting eight weeks of coed camp instead of basic training. So combat training for non-combat troops was avoided.
When there was a military operation, like Kosovo, units worldwide were stripped of competent troops and working equipment to fill the need. While much was said about having armed forces that could fight two wars at once, it turned out that the U.S. was barely able to support a few months of air operations over the Balkans. And the subsequent occupation of Kosovo with ground units left far more units elsewhere incapable of combat operations.
All that began to change after September 11, 2001, and the change accelerated after 2003. The combat deficiencies of non-combat troops became painfully obvious during the advance into Iraq. But now the trend is to back off on training and go back to getting the troops less ready for combat, so that we can repeat the same cycle again and again. What goes around comes around, it surely does.