Army Basic Training Going Soft?

Marine Captain Josh Gibbs recently visited an Army basic training ceremony. He did not like what he saw.

After nine weeks of rigorous military training, those young men and women should have been molded into the type of professional soldier this country has come to expect. But I saw little to no military bearing during even the most routine of formations. I saw uniforms worn with almost no regard to regulations. I saw no pride in what should have been a life-changing event for these young adults.

[…]

I asked my friend to let me in on some of the good and bad points of Army basic training. Surprisingly, she had more negative comments about her recent experience than positive, and these were not complaints of early mornings or sore muscles. She told me about rampant theft in her squad bay. Despite the fact that her platoon was in its ninth week of training, she said it still struggled with the most basic of disciplines, such as not moving or speaking in formation. She told me how these infractions went either unpunished or were confronted with a soft hand rather than an iron fist. She said this truly felt like the “kinder, gentler Army” with less yelling and less overall stress.

Such coddling of enlistees does them a disservice and fails to prepare them for the harsh realities of combat. The major problem with the new low-stress basic training is that recruits seem to feel that they don’t have to do anything they don’t want to do without fear of punishment.

Contrast this with leatherneck standards.

Marine Corps basic training instills an immediate obedience to orders through close-order drill and constant supervision. It is a process in which mistakes incur the verbal wrath of drill instructors, who serve to correct a recruit’s shortcomings. Over time, a recruit learns to obey orders without hesitation, and it is this Pavlovian response that allows us to be successful in battle. Decisions are made quickly, and orders are carried out without question.

To be fair, Gibbs was at Fort Jackson, South Carolina and witnessing a group of female graduates. He may well have seen something quite different at Fort Benning, Fort Knox, or Fort Sill, homes, respectively, to the Infantry, Armor, and Field Artillery branches.

Gibbs ascribes most of these problems to the Army’s lowered recruiting standards and need to avoid washing out of substandard trainees in order to meet its goals. Those criticisms are legitimate, I think, but solving them requires more than simply getting tough.

The Marine Corps is comparatively tiny. It can easily meet its recruiting needs by targeting a small segment of the population that wants to measure up to its cultivated image as the toughest branch. Because it relies on the Navy for its service support, it is predominately male and combat arms oriented. Further, all its officers go through the same courses at Quantico together and all its enlistees go to Boot at Paris Island or San Diego, forging an esprit de corps and common bond.

The Marine model is simply not scalable to the Army, which needs too many soldiers in too many different skill areas. People join the Marine Corps to be Marines. While many come to love soldiering and make it a career, most join the Army to learn a skill and get money for an education.

During wartime, Marine recruiting is actually easier because those attracted to the Hoorah factor have all the more incentive. Conversely, the Army becomes less attractive, because those joining for career incentives are reasonably going to weigh the rigors of deployment and the chances of getting killed or wounded in their calculations. In an all-volunteer force, that means lower standards, unfortunately.

FILED UNDER: General
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Triumph says:

    To be fair, Gibbs was at Fort Jackson, South Carolina and witnessing a group of female graduates. He may well have seen something quite different at Fort Benning, Fort Knox, or Fort Sill, homes, respectively, to the Infantry, Armor, and Field Artillery branches.

    This guy is a total crumugeon. And I think you hit the nail right on the head with regard to the female graduates.

    Newt Gingrich had it right that the army is no place for dames.

  2. Wickedpinto says:

    I wouldn’t say he’s a curmudgeon.

    I was a Marine, and I did a lot of screwing up by their standards (and mine) but when I was at the army signals school,(as a fresh boot) even the birdiest of us were amazed at the comparative lack of discipline in the army.

    Later, I told a friend of mine who was an 11 mike in the army, and his response was “cuz they ain’t fighters, you don’t get it cuz you ain’t no EFF’n pogue”

    Thats the primary diffference, and I think James is right, you can’t treat everyone in the army like they are about to be grunts, even if they are going be soldering under a microscope, since the army is about 2 1/2 times larger than the Marines, but the variations in training,in terms of the army, I would say, has more to do with the huge reserve and NG component that, even now, don’t take the training quite as seriously as the people who are gearing up for war.

    I think maybe the army would benefit from keeping more experienced combat guys back home, and let the infantry be more direct in the training of recruits in boot.

    One day, I’m gonna start formulating my opinions before I start typing, and double-check my spelling and my grammar, but not really. 🙂

  3. I can tell you the navy boot camp equivalent made an impressive change on my nephews deportment. After his graduation, the family went to a theme park to ride the rides. He was wearing his dress whites and got a small smudge on them. He was horrified at the thought of being in his dress whites with less than perfect presentation. He kept trying to hold something over the spot until he could get back to the base to change. This from the kid who would wear the same clothes without washing them if his mother didn’t intervene.

    I also wonder if the Army training scandals might not have an unintended consequence here. If you remember a few years ago, several army sergeants got in trouble for enjoying the intimate company of some of their recruits. The army cracked down hard. I imagine that a drill instructor who was a little harsh on his charges could find himself in a world of hurt at just the accusation of impropriety.

  4. Wayne says:

    The Army went down hill a long time ago. Basic training was meant to be an introduction into the Army with all personnel getting a taste of what the primary branch they will support which is the Infantry goes through. It takes greater discipline to be in the combat branches than the support branches. The Marines get the majority of their support from the Navy. Never less, with the introduction of coed basic and the crying to their Senators for not being able to handle basic training, training standards went down the drain. Same thing happen with the Army Airborne School. Once women were allowed into the school, most couldn’t handle it. Therefore the Army was force to greatly lower their standard and women still wash out at a greatly higher rates then males. The recruits no longer get a real taste of what a infantryman goes through.

    AIT is different depending on what AIT you go to. Cadet Advance Camp or like most refer to it “Cadet land” is lame and base off unrealistic ideals. IOBC is the first taste of reality for an Infantry Officer.

    I would like to see the tougher standard be reinstated but in this PC country, I don’t see it happening. The ironic part is vast majority of the recruits would like to see it happen too, especially the Airborne School.

    This is not issue that happened because of the current conflicts. It is the results of PC and has been happening for at least 20 years that I know of. I personally don’t have a problem with women going to Airborne School or some coed Basic but they should have to meet the standards or fail. If they want a soft basic for the weak personnel, that is fine too but don’t drag everyone down to the weakest link standard. However that would offend the weak.

  5. djneylon says:

    Some years back, I heard the then commandant from Camp Lejeune (Marine basic) speak. He told a story that I’ve often remembered as I’ve heard stories like this (by the way, I served 14 years in the Navy). It seems he was in the habit of touring the base (post?) on Fridays after basic training graduation, ending up at the end of the obstacle course, where he would watch future Marines finish the course. One afternoon, a Marine who had obviously just graduated was also sitting on the bleachers. The young Marine saluted, the commandant asked why he was there (something about a late flight) and the two went back to watching. “Well, Marine, what do you think?” the commandant asked as the last recruit finished. “It was tougher when I went through,” said the new graduate.

  6. Wickedpinto says:

    Wayne,

    While I was in, I had a reputation of being anti-BAM, which I wasn’t. I was anti-incompetent, and there were more women, as a ratio, than men. But those women who could “hang” had absolute respect from me, not that thats a great accolade considering my own problems, but never once did I mistreat the women who could hang, and in fact, I had something akin to admiration for them, because I knew that they overcame basic geno-physio-sexual hinderances to live up to the Title.

    I even treated the failures well, as long as they didn’t blame anyone, but the ones who went all al sharpton were prime targets for my wrath, just like the male birds that malingered, but thats to be expected. . … . .for men.

    In addition, Wayne, you don’t think that the large rotation of NG and reserve “half army” (no offense to most ng and reserve) doesn’t help drag down the discipline?

  7. Wickedpinto says:

    djneylon,

    That is bravado, not specific. My old man (vietnam era) told me a story that one of the commanders he was attached to had the back of his CP a gladius, a breastplate, and a leather studded skirt, and there was a sign that said “if this wasn’t our deuce gear (or was it 782? one of them reaches back to vietnam era) you aren’t old corps.”

    Or something like that.

    Bravado is fundamental to all branches, but honest criticism is. . .well, honest criticism.

  8. Wayne says:

    Djneylon
    Good story. I have known many people like that. I also known people like myself that would get into extra trouble just to do extra push-ups, nothing too disruptive. The DI use to in good nature hassle me extra just so the two of us would have something to do. I try not to put too much of my personal perspective in comparing time periods. I use number of days in field, length of runs, tolerated conditions, and allowed treatment of personnel to make my judgments. Also in IOBC we would run five mile in time we would run 2 in Airborne school and Airborne School once was considered more physically intensive then IOBC.

    Wickedpinto

    I have similar perspective as you stated. Someone who can hang with high standards, I’m fine with that just don’t lower the standards.

    As for the NG and Reserve statement, it doesn’t apply here as we are talking Basic Training. As for NG and Reserve rotation and reserve overseas, it brings down discipline a little but not that much. It would help if the military were better adept with treatment of NG and RC. The Army claims the treat them the same as Active components but don’t. Plus NG and RC do have some unique needs.
    That said, on the job, it was hard to determine who was NG, RC or AC. Many mistook me as full-timer as I did others. There were some problems with a few individual units but the same could be said for a few active duty units as well. AC did typically came up to speed faster then NG and RC but that is to be expected. There were a couple of NG Engineer units that kick some but.

  9. Eric MacLeod says:

    If I might be allowed a comment from an allied country it would be this. Male or female, whatever the standard, nine weeks is not enough to change a civilian into a soldier.
    Cheers.
    Old retired fart.

  10. Wickedpinto says:

    Eric, I would say it depends on the treatment.

    A guy who went to SERE (is that the acronymn?) school told a story about how it was fun for a while but 3 days of being a “prisoner” he turned into something like an animal. 3 EFFING DAYS!

    It is the intensity of the experience, Marines have it, grunt army have it, Hell, navy on their first blue float have it.

    Time is less significant than intesity. Time gives those who are mediocre the opportunity to be extra-ordinary, but it is only the best who can make it through chaos and exit with discipline and order, and not blame others for failure.

  11. legion says:

    Wicked,
    Indeed, SERE (Survival-Evasion-Resistance-Escape) is an incredibly intense program meant for people who have a big risk of being cut off & captured by the enemy… AF flightcrew types get it, and I’ve know a pilot or two who’ve said they’d turn in their wings rather than go through it a second time. That says a _lot_! I’ve never had to do it myself, but I’ve heard from a number of first-handers that the sequences the SEALs went through in ‘GI Jane’ were a pretty good depiction.

    But again, you can’t train 100% of your force to the same standards; some compromises & targeted training will always happen. And the Marines, as James notes in his original post, have an inherent advantage in their recruiting pool & their structure – ‘every Marine an infantryman’ is a big part of their philosophy, and they also have the ability to rely on the Navy for some support structure they’d otherwise have to take out-of-hide. I believe, for example, the Navy still provides all MDs and Chaplains to the Marines.

  12. James Joyner says:

    Wayne,

    But Airborne School is supposed to teach its students how to put on a parachute, exit the airplane (while in flight), check to ensure the ‘chute deploys–and what to do if it doesn’t–and hit the ground with a decent parachute landing fall in order to be able to complete the mission. Everything else is just sadistic bullshit.

  13. Wayne says:

    Eric

    The nine weeks is just a basic course, an introduction to the military and a common experience for all troops. They go through more courses for their individual job requirements. Most of what they learn including how to be a soldier happens at their units not at some classroom or course.

    James
    Airborne school was supposed to an introduction into an Airborne unit. There is much more about being in an Airborne unit than the ability to jump out of a plane. That is the easy part. Airborne units are meant to fight light infantry tactics behind enemies’ lines which takes a great deal of physical intensity. Airborne School was suppose to give an introduction to physical requirements and was usually the first chance to weed out some the weak. Once upon a time only Airborne unit personnel went to the school then some more infantry were added. Then some were allow to go to test themselves as a reward. Then someone complain that it help to be airborne qualify for promotion reason. Then women were added for same reason. They had over 98% washout so the school was force to lower their standard. Airborne and light infantry jobs are sadistic but it is no bullshit.

  14. James Joyner says:

    Wayne,

    I’m not sure that it makes a lot of sense to send those going to non-airborne units to the school. And I say that even though I went from getting my wings pinned on to a heavy artillery unit.

    I’m not sure how the school has evolved in the 17-odd years since I graduated but it was fairly demanding at that point. Not so much because it had anything to do with life in an airborne unit, which it didn’t, or even because the PT was all that tough–it wasn’t even compared to my ROTC unit–but because of the daily grind. Not to mention learning to perform despite one’s natural fear of heights.

  15. tylerh says:

    Marine Capt Josh needs to travel more…to Israel.

    The Israeli army is incredibly informal. Most Israeli’s, included the all the officers I know, regard the “discipline” Josh fixates on as a silly anachronism left over from European conscript armies. I don’t think a Paschendale would be possible using Israeli soldiers. Yet the IDF has not lacked for success during its 60 years of existence.

  16. Wayne says:

    James
    It doesn’t make much sense for those not going to an airborne unit to go except maybe those that have a fair chance of getting snag during a war to fill out an airborne unit such as light infantry, FO, FIST or someone along those line. Which was my point in last post. Now it all about being PC and for promotion instead of what is good for the military. Having a very few slots for support or whoever so they have a tiniest concept of what it takes to be airborne can be useful. However the school has been weaken so much that they no longer get that benefit. Nobody does.

    I went through roughly same time period you did. It was a joke. The soldiers who have gone through it since (granted almost all infantry) that I’ve talk to have said same thing. Now all you learn is to jump from a plane and check your chute.

    Even that part is much tougher in the real world. Set in cramp quarters with 70 to 100 pound ruck (technically you not suppose to jump with 100# but sometimes you do) on your leg for hours hoping your chute doesn’t get mess up. It takes physical discipline. Then jumping into the dark hoping that the pilot told you if he decided to drop you off at one of the alternate locations (only happen to me once, pilots are usually pretty good about it). Now days I’m sure the units carry GPS units with them except in training. Then humping all night long on bruised legs while keeping mentally alert. I can go on and on but without experiencing it, it is hard to realize.

    It is like going through SERE course. If you take out the physical hardship part, you lose out on most of the learning. It has little to do about being miserable but how people react when they are in miserable situations.