Army Strong, or Army Wrong?

Today, I may make some people mad. But what I want to address is vitally important.

I have been a drill instructor in a prison boot camp (an adult penitentiary down South) for over six years now. We train and rehabilitate non-violent offenders using a 105-day military style boot camp. Before that, I served for 21 years in the regular Army and worked a gig for Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) anti-terrorism training organization for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

During my military career, I served two tours in South Korea (one of which was retro-actively considered a combat tour because of the unanticipated battle on 23 November 1984), one tour in Germany, two Middle East combat tours, and a total of five and half years as a paratrooper and jumpmaster. I say all this not to spout out my resume, but so that I can assure you that I am absolutely qualified to make the statements I am about to make.

In the last six and a half years since I took on this job, I have been studying to become a drill instructor. Where did I go for my research? The Marine Corps. 
I have always been fascinated by the Marines. In fact, I have served alongside them on several occasions. I began reading articles, watching hours and hours of video, and speaking with many Marines (drill instructors and non-drill instructors alike).

Over time, I have become a bit of a self-proclaimed, self-educated expert on Marine training: what they do, how they do it, why they do it, when they do it, etc. In the process of studying their training, I have come to several conclusions. I have also come to several conclusions about the Army, some not so good — some are downright scary.

Here are the things I have learned through my extensive research:

1. The Army runs a softer, “human dignity based” reception and receiving when the recruits arrive. The reception is so weak that it sets a very bad tone for the remainder of not just their training, but for their whole career in the Army. Recruits show up to a firm welcome by the drill sergeants and staff, but it’s not the controlled mayhem of a Marine Corps Recruit Depot (MCRD). In fact, it seems to comfort and reassure soldiers as if to say “calm down and relax, it’s going to be all right.” Now that is all right if that is a message from your mother, but it’s not okay when we are trying to build the next generations of Spartans.

Marine receiving, on the other hand, is a “shock theater” from the minute they get off the bus through their graduation. The mayhem starts when their feet hit the “deck” and it never ever lets up. The discipline and stress is through the roof! The Army reception staff occasionally get perplexed as if to say “silly Private, get over here…shucks, what are you doing?”

In an MCRD, the recruit would be screamed at: ”GET OVER HERE! TOO SLOW, GO BACK! GET OVER HERE! STOP EYEBALLING ME! GET YOUR HEELS TOGETHER! Hey there was something you were supposed to say when told to do something, WHAT WAS IT? RESPOND!…AYE AYE SIR! RESPOND!”

See the difference? Here’s what I always say: weak pick up, weak recruits, strong pick up, strong recruits. That means if you “go in punching,” so to speak, the recruits know you mean business, you are not playing, and you are tougher than they are. You want them to be nearly peeing their pants from fear and stress.

The Army feels we need to treat people with dignity and respect and that people will shut down if screamed at too much. If that were true, the Marines have been doing it wrong since about 1952. That’s around the time that the Smokey bear hat and the structured chaos of boot camp kicked into gear. Don’t get me wrong: the Marines always wrote the book on discipline, but during the 1950’s the MCRDs really stepped up their game.

2. The tone the Army sets in basic training is wrong. The Army trains; the Marines indoctrinate. Do you see the difference? The Marines initiate the recruit into a culture, the Army trains them in tasks. Sure, the Army has core values that are really good. The values make sense and they are motivating, but the Marines ingrain it deeper into a youngster’s soul.

While the Army does change the person’s life, it does not instill the intrinsic values in the same way that the Marines do. Unless you are in an elite Army unit like Infantry, Airborne, Rangers, Special Forces, or Delta, you just don’t have the warrior ethos that the Army claims it builds. If you are a motivated gung-ho individual and you are not in an elite unit, the Army (or at least fellow soldiers) treat you like an oddball. How do I know this? I have spent a total of about 30 years around it, and I have been in Airborne, Infantry, and attached to Special Ops units, as well as regular units. In the Marines, gung-ho motivation is business as usual. You stand out if you aren’t highly motivated.

3. The Marines base their training on indoctrinating the individual into the core values of the Marines. Their training relies heavily on close order drill. They believe that drill instills a sense of teamwork and attention to detail that no other activity can. Drill teaches an individual that there are immediate consequences for an individual’s actions on their group. In other words, when one guy messes up a movement, it doesn’t go unnoticed. That soldier makes his squad look bad, that squad affects the platoon, and so on. Have you ever seen one guy in a formation either doing something late or doing the wrong movement? It sticks out like dog balls!

Now take this concept — that my actions affect the group as a whole — and apply it to war. If I move and am seen by the enemy, I may not just get myself killed, but my whole squad, platoon, company, etc. When you train with that kind of attention to detail, you are disciplined.

The Army conducts impeccable training in close order drill. In fact, the largest source of failure for students at the drill sergeant school is testing of the drill modules. So why does the Army not march as well as the Marines and why is marching not as high a priority in the Army?

4. The Army introduces combat skills earlier than the Marines do. The Army trains more combat tasks in its basic training that the Marines. Now while this may seem like a good idea, it’s really not. Teaching combat tasks before a person is fully indoctrinated in the love of corps and country is a very bad idea. It’s like letting a kid who just learned how to drive enter a NASCAR race. The kid may have great skills, coordination, and reflexes, but the reality is that they have only been driving less than a year.

The Marines realize that indoctrination in the love of God, Country, and Corps has priority over learning “nuts and bolts” training. In fact, if a person is properly indoctrinated, they can be taught the other skills too, ultimately mastering them with more zeal than a person who had not been indoctrinated.

Keeping this in mind, the Marines focus on just a few things in boot camp but they drive those few things home. Drill, core values, marksmanship, fighting spirit, physical fitness, and teamwork are really all you learn in Marine Boot Camp. If a recruit masters these, the rest is strictly academic. They learn the more advanced combat skills in a course called Marine Corps Combat Training (MCT).

The Army on the other hand doesn’t get as in-depth with marksmanship, although they do get proficient at shooting, but then focus on assaulting objectives, fire and maneuver, and other combat tasks Marines don’t see until much later. The Army has removed bayonet fighting from basic training based on the rationale that you are not issued a bayonet downrange (slang term for deployed combat area) and no one uses bayonets in combat anymore.

The Marines approach this concept differently. The Marines believe that bayonet drills and bayonet sparring (pugil stick fighting) instill a killer instinct that can be obtained no other way. The Marines then integrate their bayonet fighting into their own indigenous martial art called MCMAP (Marine Corps Martial Arts Program). This fighting system employs the concept of “one mind, any weapon.” A motivated Marine can pick up a shovel and kill the bad guys like Sampson swinging a donkey’s jawbone. Why? Because he is indoctrinated in the art and mentality of a warrior. The Army trains warfare — make no mistake — but it takes the front seat over indoctrination.

5. Everything in Marine Boot Camp is done with speed, intensity, and volume. In Army basic you are required to move very fast, but the tone is different. The Marines “count down” every task in boot camp. That means they say “go” or “ready move” and then you have an allotted amount of time to accomplish the task. If you don’t finish in time, you do it again, and again, and again. I saw more count downs in Airborne School than Army basic training. 
I think the reason we don’t do this in the Army as much as the Marines do is because of time constraints. We have much bigger platoons and companies in Army basic training and fewer drill sergeants (or DI if you prefer) than the Marines do. You have somewhere to be and you have more skills to learn and there isn’t enough time to keep putting pants on in less than 30 seconds. But look at it this way: the Marines take a longer period of time (13 weeks in the Marines versus the Army’s 9–10 weeks) to train fewer skills and indoctrinate the mind, body, and soul of the recruit.

This might also explain why we do not spend as much time on drill in Army Basic Training. There are lots of skills to be taught and very little time to do so. Every Army unit I have ever served with has been weak in drill. Sure, we can march from point A to point B, but anything beyond that and we need to rehearse. Why? Because in the Army we do not emphasize drill like we ought to. Drill needs to be on the training schedule like PT or any other task. But we do it in basic training and then we let it go.

6. The Marines use a “rebirth system,” so to speak. Marines are not called Marines verbally or in any other way until they have “earned the title.” The Army calls their recruits “soldiers” from day one.

The Marines understand that you are not a full-fledged Marine until you have earned the insignia of the Eagle, Globe, and Anchor (the EGA as Marines call it). This is not done until the very last week in which recruits participate in an event called The Crucible. This is a 56 hour “gut check.” Recruits undergo a hell week, a series of combat team tasks over that 56 hour period on very little food and sleep.

These tasks are not complex. We are not talking about a huge military strategy here. We are talking about moving ammo cans over an obstacle course, evacuating a casualty under fire through the sucking mud, and getting a squad over a distance with obstacles and difficult terrain.

The crucible awards a “badge” or “award”… the EGA. There is a “becoming” associated with graduating Marine Boot Camp. It’s like a caterpillar emerging from a cocoon as a butterfly or in this case, emerging as an elite warrior. This attitude follows the Marine for the rest of his or her life. It is a significant and emotional event that is never ever forgotten. In order to get that similar effect in the Army, you would have to go to Airborne or even Ranger school.

We must find a way to raise the bar in the Army. We must find a way to make the Army an elite concept. It must become more than a catchy slogan “Army Strong” and a way to make money for college. We must return to the Spartan roots that made us great. Because right now? We are not great.


Originally published at www.rallypoint.com.