THE MINDS OF OUR TROOPS

John Lemon has asked me in the comments section of an earlier post to blog a bit on what the troops are going through right now. I’m a little hesitant, given that there are people actually in the war zone right now who are blogging and my experiences are now 12 years old and clouded by hindsight. But a few thoughts, nonetheless. . .

One question I’ve heard half a dozen times today is, Are they scared? Well, some of them are. Certainly, if they are under direct fire, they’re scared as hell. Or if they hear, “Gas! Gas! Gas!” and are rushing to put on their masks. Adreneline will certainly rush and hearts pound during such times. But you have to remember that most of our troops over there are 18-22 years old. They’re like the kids at the colleges many of you are attending or teaching at. The difference is that the soldiers are both self-selected–it’s been an All-Volunteer Force since 1973, after all–and indoctrinated trained. In some ways, the mindset is much like a football team. (Think “Remember the Titans” or that ESPN movie on “The Junction Boys.”) The Army and Marines (I can’t speak much for the Air Force, which is a radically different culture), despite a significant number of female troops in the ranks, are very macho organizations in the same locker room sort of way football teams are. There is enormous pressure to fit in, to be a tough guy, not to give in to weakness, and all of that. Furthermore, whether because of self-selection, the training, or some other factor, there is a strongly honed sense of duty (a way in which soldiers are radically unlike most of their cohort attending college). They very much want to perform well. They don’t want to let their unit members down, don’t want to look bad in front of their peers, don’t want to be weak in the face of danger and then feel like cowards afterwards, or otherwise not measure up as men. There is definitely a John Wayne ethic among soldiers.

As Tom Petty once noted, the waiting is the hardest part. Soldiers hate nothing more than sitting around waiting for the action to start. The troops that had been sitting over there for months, the early deployers, were almost certainly relieved to finally get to go into action. The unit I served with, the 1/27 Field Artillery (MLRS), missed out on most of that. Some units of the XVIIIth Airborne Corps went over in August of 1990. We didn’t get notified that we were going until early November and it took us six weeks to get our stuff loaded from our kaserne in Germany and shipped via boat to Saudi Arabia. So, we got in theater in mid December, only a month or so before the war started. And even then, morale was hard to maintain because there was too little to do and too much time to do it in. Light infantry units can at least train; heavier units can’t do much of that because the equipment breaks down too easily and it doesn’t make sense to render your equipment inoperative and create a drain on the spare parts supply chain when hostilities are imminent. So, people have time to get bored, get on each other’s nerves, and miss the folks back home. Leaders try to devise ways to occupy the troops with busy work, which at least gives them something to bitch about. Soldiers love to bitch and complain. (Indeed, I’ve always thought that the more elite troops–Army Rangers, Special Forces, airborne personnel actually on jump status, light infantry, and Marines–maintain such high esprit de corps precisely because their training is tough and they have more to bitch about. It is actually a point of pride among soldiers about who has it the worst.)

One of the strange things about the military mindset, looking back on it, is the eagerness to put one’s training into action. While there are some sick individuals who actually look forward to war and the prospect of getting to kill the enemy, they are thankfully very small in number. Indeed, the service does everything it can to weed these people out. But, if there is going to be a war, most soldiers–and, especially, young soldiers–want to be part of it. I remember when Operation Just Cause broke out in Panama in 1989. I had just taken over my platoon in Germany. To a man, the lieutenants were all frustrated because we were stuck in Germany and were going to “miss out on the action.” Again, I don’t think any of us had any desire to go and kill Panamanians or even a desire to be “heroes.” But it was frustrating to know that we were Army officers, our country was at war, and we were, to use a phrase my commander used a lot, “as useless as teats on a boar hog.” And that was among a group of fairly intelligent, 23- and 24-year old college graduates. This feeling tends to exist among at least the younger enlisted soldiers as well, although maybe not in as finely honed a sense. (I should note that, a few years later, as a jaded graduade student in my late 20s, I came to question to utility of the war in Panama and now routinely refer to it as Operation “Just ‘Cuz.” Which is why we recruit young men for war. They’re a lot less cynical.)

In contrast with the eagerness that young soldiers have is the mixed mindset of the older soldiers, especially those with families. (In the military context, “older” means 25, maybe 28, and up.) One of the most difficult challenges I faced as a young leader in Desert Shield/Storm, especially during the aforementioned waiting period, was keeping the spirits of my mid-level NCOs up. The young guys were fine, just bored. My platoon sergeants (I had three, for reasons too complicated to get into here) were also fine, as they were older and mature enough to at least hide their emotions. Plus, they had enough responsibility to keep them occupied. But my young sergeants and staff sergeants, who performed superbly when there were actual missions to shoot, spent a lot of their down time missing and worried about their families. This was in an era before cell phones were what they are now and there was no way for soldiers not stationed in the rearmost areas to talk to their wives and kids. Mail call was very important and rather sporadic. My understanding is that the troops now have more opportunities to call home. A very good thing.

I will note that one big difference between this war and mine is that virtually no one in my unit had any combat experience. Vietnam, at last US involvement in it, was 18 years in the past. Only a handful of the most senior NCOs in the batallion had been there, and that was as young privates. We had maybe two or three people in my whole battery who had been in Panama or Grenada, which were relatively small operations. So, we were all in the dark about what combat was like or how we would perform. Things are much different now. Desert Storm is 12 years past, which is a long time by military standards where even most “lifers” stay only 20 years. But there have been so many lesser conflicts since then–Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo, and a few others–that most units are leavened with leaders who have been to war at least once. I’m not sure what that means in terms of the mindset of the unit.

I mentioned the fear of having to don gas masks under hostile circumstances earlier. I can speak to that one personally. My most significant additional duty was as battery NBC officer, so I was better trained than most of the other soldiers in NBC operations. Still, none of us had actually had to use the equipment in a real environment; the closest we got was having to go through the CS tear gas chambers. Several times during the early stages of the air war, our M-8 chemical alarms went off. Thinking that you will die a rather agonizing death if you don’t get your mask on quickly and properly adds a certain extra stress to an activity that was otherwise routine. On one particular occasion, the alarm went off, I grabbed my mask, pulled it over my head, and attempted to tighten and seal it. I couldn’t. For reasons I still can’t explain, the straps on one side of the mask had come out of the buckles. There was no way that I could have tightened them in the two seconds or so that I had remaining, so I didn’t even bother. That and the time I got run off a highway doing 70 miles an hour by a semi truck were as scared as I’ve ever been. Fortunately, it was another false alarm. I suspect the troops who were hearing “Gas! Gas! Gas!” this morning in Kuwait were having similar thoughts.

FILED UNDER: Iraq War
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.

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