For thousands of years, experienced combat troops have known that, "the more you sweat in peace, the less you bleed in war." But basic training, that initial two or three months of intense instruction that tries to turn a civilian into something resembling a soldier, is falling apart in the U.S. military. This is particularly sad in light of the American experience with "boot camp." 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. The surveys were published after the war in a two volume work called "The American Soldier" (Stouffer, et al, still available via Amazon.com.) 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.
Why has basic training gotten less effective since those surveys were taken? For the same reason it is so difficult to explain what a "warrior" is and what it takes to turn citizens into efficient killers. Combat is an experience far from everyday life. It's very difficult to explain it to those who haven't been there. But a growing problem is the changing composition of the military, with less than ten percent of the recruits headed for exposure to combat. A combination of ignorance and nonchalance creates an attitude that considers the rigors of effective basic training, well. A bit much. Many of the kids complain, and in peacetime the parents are less likely to see the need for all the stress and danger of realistic training. They too complain to politicians (usually a members of congress), who will contact the Pentagon and demand an explanation. The brass, not willing to offend someone who votes on the military budget and approves their promotions, will too often take the easy way out and tell the training NCOs to cool it.
Another problem is that the men who conduct the training, specially selected NCOs, are not always able, or even allowed, to explain to Congress, or the public, what they are doing and why they are doing it. The NCOs have a particular interest in training the recruits to a high standard, for duty as basic training instructor is a temporary one. Eventually these NCOs go back to units that have to make use of troops who went through basic training. If it's a combat unit, the NCO instructor's own life is at stake, for badly trained recruits will make mistakes in combat that will get themselves, and their NCOs, killed. But to most the civilians, all the running around and shouting "kill" by the recruits is, at the very least, distasteful and, to an increasing number of voters, not really necessary.
With the officers putting a brave face on it, and the Pentagon not in the least interested in measuring what effect bad training is having on combat readiness, the issue will stay buried until the next war. The troops that then come out of combat complaining about the inadequacy of their training will get some attention. But with the return of peace will come a return to business as usual. The cycle will begin again, some recruits will complain, the media will do a story or two about the needless stress and brutality of basic training, and the standards will be cut down again.
How bad has it gotten? Let's take the stress angle. This is what aggravates most recruits. But it's supposed to. The primary purpose of basic training is to prepare troops for the stress of a combat situation. You learn to keep your wits about you in a chaotic situation by having NCOs create non-lethal situations that mimic the chaos and pandemonium of combat. This includes physical exhaustion and being forced to react quickly and automatically to certain situations. Like getting shot at, or being fired on my artillery. Well, you can't do that with live ammunition in peacetime, but the military has found relatively safe ways to recreate it. And all the time, your NCOs are shouting orders at you, and correcting your mistakes. In combat, your mistakes are usually fatal, with no opportunity for your NCOs to point out your error and advise you on the correct procedure.
In the last few decades, yelling at recruits, except in the Marines, has become a no-no. If the weather is too hot, too cold or too wet, then training is cancelled that day. If a recruit seems stressed out, officers (rarely NCOs) will intervene to ease up the tempo of training. The current feeling is that the recruits should feel comfortable as they go through their training. The officers in charge of recruit training have gone for this low stress approach in a big way, for they get unwanted attention from politicians if they do not, and nothing bad happens to them if they turn out troops unready for war.
The combat units know better, and try and make up for the deficiencies of basic training. After basic training, soldiers get specialized training. Combat troops get, in effect, another few months of basic. But this advanced training is supposed to concentrate on perfecting their combat skills, not teach the basics of discipline and dealing with stress. The infantry, armor and artillery troops passed from advanced training on to combat units sacrifice their training in practical skills for remedial training on how a soldier is supposed to react in combat.
Another important purpose of basic is to teach discipline and the ability to respond quickly and effectively to orders from your NCOs and officers. The emphasis on not "stressing the recruit" means that find that what they are getting are a lot of surly, undisciplined wimps. Even non-combat units suffer from this, for even support troops are called on to work crazy hours or suddenly move themselves and all their equipment thousands of miles on short notice. Without discipline this becomes difficult, and often the units are unable to do their job adequately. In any situation short of a major war, you can hide these problems, and that's what happens with increasing frequency.
Welcome to the low stress 90s.
August 22 , 1999; NATO Armies Abandoning Conscription: With the exception of
Britain and the U.S., which had abandoned compulsory military service
decades ago, most NATO nations have used conscription to fill their
ranks. But that is changing. France, which introduced the concept of
mass conscript armies more than a two centuries ago, at the height of
the Revolution, in 1792, has announced that it will abandon the practice
in the near future. Although reserving the legal obligation of all
adult male citizens to service, France has announced that by 2005 its
armed forces will be composed entirely of volunteers.
France is not the only NATO country moving in this direction. Like
Britain and the U.S., Canada and Luxembourg abolished compulsory service
quite some time ago, while the Belgian, Danish, and Portuguese armies
are now almost entirely composed of volunteers. The Netherlands has
declared that it will end conscription shortly, while of all of the
other larger NATO armies are implementing plans to gradually reduce
their reliance on conscripts. Italy will probably be the next power to
abolish conscription. Although until recently only about 18-percent of
the Italian Army was made up of volunteers, by 2005 plans to increase
the proportion of volunteers to about 75-percent. The Spanish Army,
also seems to be moving in the same direction; While formerly only about
26-percent of the troops were volunteers, by 2005 the Spanish Army plans
to be nearly half. Of the remaining NATO powers, Germany has been
hovering around 50-percent volunteers for about two decades, while
Norway, Greece, and Turkey still rely largely on volunteers to fill
their ranks. This trend is largely a consequence of declining size of the military
establishments in most NATO countries, --A.A. Nofi