Nothing like drill to make a soldier

Monday, April 15th, 2019

After serving overseas, Sergeant Dunlap found himself training recruits stateside:

Theoretically, we were to give them the benefit of our experience and practical knowledge. Actually, we were not allowed to mention anything not in the training manuals, most of which had been written in the 1920’s. Except for the impromptu bull-sessions, the rookies got the same old marching-pup-tent-pack-rolling schedule the army had been putting on for years. This was late in the winter of 1944, February and March. Some attempts were made to modernize the training, but the rub was that most of the officers still believed that there was “nothing like drill to make a soldier.” None of them realized that this war did not need “soldiers” — it needed fighting and working specialists.


  1. Kirk says:

    The point Dunlap is making is one I’ve made for years… Unlike with the Air Corps/Force, which flowed combat veteran pilots back into the training and doctrine roles Stateside for instruction and development, the rest of the Army was abysmal at this. Not only were replacements and new units not getting the benefit of exposure to actual “war as she is fought” practices, the lack of upward information flow failed to inform the hierarchy that combat was not as they imagined. And, when demobilization came, the majority of those guys who “knew” got out, and what few were left were overwhelmed by the bureaucratic jobsworthies who remained. Didn’t help that the mighty “Atomic Bomb” made the Regular Army obsolete, in most idiot’s minds, either. Just about nobody thought that we’d be fighting conventional wars, ever again–And, that failure of imagination led directly to Korea, and everything after.

    The US Army is manifestly not a “learning organization”. For it to be that, there would have to be flow upwards, in terms of information, practical experience, and doctrine. What we have is the diametric opposite, a top-down system that only works on the rare occasions that the higher-ups in the hierarchy get things right. Sometimes, they do–More often, they do not.

    After my time under the flag, I’ve concluded a few things, among which is that we’re not very good at this stuff, and that while large-scale hierarchical structures may serve well as blunt instruments during times of crisis, they’re a lot better at causing those crises than preventing them over the long haul.

    I’m still trying to make up my mind about what would work better, and I’m feeling my way towards a structure-without-structure of polyvalent, small organizations that come together in order to “swarm” tasks or problems as they arise, and then dissolve back into the woodwork–An “ad-hocracy”, rather than a bureaucracy. If you’ve got a lot of little organizations, when one fails, that’s not such a big deal. Put your faith in one big, over-arching do-all and be-all hierarchy, it’s gonna fail because when you build a powerful structure, it tends to attract people who are more worried about getting and keeping that power rather than getting the job done–Which is where your key points of failure lie, over the life of any of these vast human social reef structures. Keep it small enough that there is no point to being an apparatchik power-monger, and that problem is minimized.

  2. Kirk says:

    Although I am fully in agreement with Dunlap about the over-emphasis on drill & ceremonies, it does serve a valuable role in team-building. Not to mention, leadership…

    I do have to admit that I was pretty much awful at it, having the rhythm and sense of timing you’d expect from an epileptic moose. Nonetheless, I do see its value, in moderation.

  3. Graham says:


    Some of your comments on the issues surrounding SLA Marshall put me in mind of a now obscure Canadian television documentary from the 1980s, “War”.

    You see from that wiki page that it was produced very much from an “antiwar” movement perspective and, although nuclear war specifically dominated only one episode, it is very much an 80s late Cold War piece.

    But the producer and presenter, idiosyncratic Canadian journalist Gwynne Dyer did manage to get what was then, and perhaps still is, impressive access to US military facilities, Israeli spokesmen, and at least one presumably retired [because old] but uniformed Soviet general expounding on the moral underpinnings of Soviet doctrine.

    From 30-year old memory, I can remember:

    A Soviet general explaining, to my surprise as a youth, that their idea of war emphasized the importance of the man more than the nature of the weapons he is using.

    An Israeli [it might have been Dan Shomron] appearing multiple times about the 67 and 73 wars and the experience of being hit with an AT missile.

    Dyer in the pattern room at RSAF Enfield making a moral point about the changing nature of war by contrasting the beauty of a wooden stock bolt action rifle with the stamped parts of an Uzi.

    And a whole episode devoted to the issue of basic training and the ability to kill, structured around extensive coverage and interviews at USMC boot camp. {I remember it as Parris Island, but whatever was the east coast Marine training facility in the 80s.}

    All that may be of interest to you, if perhaps occasionally irritating. But I particularly remembered it now because that Marine training episode included his interviews with a couple of drill instructors who were Vietnam combat veterans.

    Let me tread lightly as someone who has never had anything like that experience. But I remember then being, and still am, struck by their assertion that they had found it harder to contemplate killing than dying or being wounded themselves.

    That would seem to conform to Marshall and Grossman, at least for the experience of those two men.

    I still find that amazing. I don’t want to suggest I would not have a hard time killing. I can’t say other than speculating. But I still think I would be far more scared of getting wounded or killed myself, regardless of my level of horror at doing it to someone else. I am lifelong amazed that this is not a universal perspective. Maybe even worried.

  4. Kirk says:

    Watched the series, owned the book… Read it multiple times, over and over. Along with John Keegan and Marshall, these guys formed a lot of my early opinions.

    Then, I got slapped in the face by reality, in the form of actual WWII vets, and I went back to first principles to try to find out what the hell Marshall had based all his stuff on. There is no “there” there, I’m afraid. Same with Dyer, same with the Israelis.

    Thing is, these guys are going at this starting from the perspective of civilized men, and they’re operating from a state of unconscious bias, in that they’ve (mostly) been successfully conditioned by society and their culture not to want to kill. From that, they’ve extrapolated out that everyone feels that way, and it simply isn’t true. That’s why these dumbasses lose every time they run up against the man who is unfettered by civilization, in one-on-one fights. They’re fighting with their civilized forebrains, not by instinctual drives and needs. Because of this, they misjudge and miscalculate every encounter with the unfettered ones, and this is why the Israelis will never be able to make peace with the Arabs short of genocide. The Israelis think they’re displaying noble forbearance and civilized conduct in war, while the Arabs interpret that as the Israelis admitting they’ve lost the war. In Arab terms, you don’t hold back from crushing the enemy and then offer up tribute if you’ve won, so when the Israelis blast the hell out of Gaza and then help rebuild, all they are doing is sending confusing signals to the Arab subconscious. Sure, they “won”, but if they really, truly won the war, why are they offering concessions and aid to rebuild…? We must have really won!!!, think the Arabs.

    Rinse, repeat. This is going to go on and on and on until either the Arabs win for real, or the Israelis snap and commit genocide on the Arabs. They’re not communicating effectively, in terms of actions.

    One one side of the divide, you have man displaying his essential nature; that of the pursuit predator. On the other, you see what Pratchett described as the “rising angel” of man’s “better nature”. Although, I have to acknowledge that I’m not sure that “better” really means what we think it does, at least in terms of “survival-oriented”.

    The Israelis would likely have peace, had they done to the Arabs what their forebears did to the Philistines… That, the Arabs would have recognized as a clear sign they’d lost their asses, and it was time to come to terms with it all. What the Israelis have been doing, on the other hand…? I can think of no better way to prolong the agony.

    The big mistake in any of this is to ascribe “civilized norms” to people who do not buy into them; civilization is not a norm; it is a hard-fought attainment, one that we must not take casually. And, sadly, in order to defend it, we often have to abandon it temporarily, enter the house of war, and let our nature assert itself.

    Human beings are not naturally nice. Rousseau and Voltaire were utter and complete morons, men who should have had the intellectual integrity to examine their theses in actual environments of “primitive man”. Had they done so, we’d have likely been spared their pernicious doctrines about the “innate goodness of man”, and we’d be a hell of a lot better off. So much that’s gone wrong since the Enlightenment can be laid at the doors of this BS that it’s not even funny.

    Man is a killer, fundamentally. We enjoy it, we revel in it, and if there were no restraints imposed by culture and social conditioning, we’d likely be out there doing self-interested nastiness on the daily. Doubt me? Observe what happens to the brain-damaged who lose their self-censoring faculties, and how they behave. I had a very convincing experience with this, with a friend of mine who was brain-damaged in a really horrid accident–Before, upright and moral guy. After? Oh. My. God. He pretty much lost that chunk of the brain that processes this stuff, and he did a Dr. Jeckyl and Mr. Hyde thing once he was recovered from the injuries, absent changing back. Total dirtbag, no restraints to his darker urges at all. Where he wound up, I don’t know, but he wasn’t the same man I knew before the accident, and I thank God his wife had the smarts to leave him when it became apparent.

    Being a decent human being as we define it? It isn’t an automatic thing, an intrinsic characteristic we all share. It is an effect of a hard-fought battle between our darker natures, and the things that make civilization work. These idiots that say the opposite? Because of that, they abandon the battle, thinking it never needed to be fought, and you can see the results all around us, in the inner cities and “no-go” zones around the world.

    I don’t despair, thinking of how bad we are. Instead, I rejoice, for what we’ve accomplished ameliorating it all, and how far some of us manage to get from that rising ape to being, instead, a falling angel. We’re not all bad, but the good parts of us are a fight, a fight we have to make every single conscious moment.

  5. Graham says:

    Wouldn’t all that suggest, though, that for the majority in societies like the US or Israel, who have had generations of conditioning [and probably no little natural selection] to reduce the desire to kill, the military training really does need to confront that and turn it off for the duration? And that this could pose problems on returning home?

    Not taking the piss here. It just seems like there’s a point of convergence between what you’re saying and the problem Marshall and Grossman or Dyer were supposedly taking as read.

    Unless, by way of rethinking how we frame all this for the benefit of young men and some women who will always confront it, we switch to something more like:

    -killing is part of what humans are
    -it is still hard for many of us for reasons we can to some degree now explain, and that’s good
    -many of you will take to this skill better than others, and that’s ok too because see number one
    - we want it confined to pro social circumstances and here is what those are
    -we require you to be able to do it under those circumstances and will teach you how, when and why
    - whichever group you fall into, we will not fall into too many predetermined assumptions about you when you get back and need to be demobilized/go through post deployment

    Sometimes I am struck by various academics [or youtubers] proposing to answer questions like, “was there PTSD among Roman legionaries?”

    I would have no idea how to begin answering that question even with the period knowledge and analytical software uploaded to my brain. There’s just too large a gulf between a society that arrives at that concept and names it, and Rome.

    On the one hand, they were men living in a human environment. Can they have been that different? On the other, their lives would already have been absurdly hard from our point of view in modern civilian North America.

  6. Graham says:

    It’s funny. I remember Keegan’s The Face of Battle and having read it, but his thesis doesn’t linger in memory at all.

  7. Kirk says:

    I can’t really remember Keegan having much of a thesis, other than that he thought war was an awful thing. With which I’d agree, utterly, except that war seems to be a necessity to answer all too many questions posed by man’s behavior towards his fellows.

    As to your post prior to this one, what I think is that there’s far too much denial and wishful thinking about the “essence of man”. I don’t think we’re necessarily evil or good, intrinsically, but that we have to fight the battle between the two every day we live and breathe. Denial of either half of that equation is both futile, and essentially infantile, because it obviates the need to struggle against our base needs and desires. If you’re intrinsically evil, why try to be good? If you’re intrinsically good, why worry about committing evil?

    Then, too, the problem with the Rousseauian idea that we’re all intrinsically good is that when you start out from that standpoint, and you get the “urge” to do something that’s against social convention, your beliefs automatically lead you into thinking that, well, if I am intrinsically good, and I’m having these desires, why should I resist them…? I’m a good person; why shouldn’t I do this thing?

    And, that’s how all too many start down the path towards actual evil. Calvin may have been an ass, but I think he had a better grasp on human nature than Rousseau ever possessed.

    Self-control is what we need to strive for, as civilized men, and participants in civilization. Without it, anything becomes thinkable–And, that is what I think a lot of the problem is with Islam. Everything within Islam starts out from a premise of “Allah wills it…”, so if you feel like doing something evil, like raping that hussy who dares flaunt her beautiful hair, well… That’s OK; it’s not your fault, you’re under no obligation to demonstrate self-control by not raping her. The true believer in Islam lays everything on Allah, nothing on themselves. Some sects of Christianity do the same, but most follow the dictum that you’re subject to free will, and your choices are yours and yours alone.

    You can see the results in where these two competing civilizations have wound up.

  8. Graham says:

    A tangent, but I’m often struck by one strand of American Protestant Christianity in these times, although I’m not sure what tradition it is. Whichever one seems to produce so many young people who [allegedly] were raised to believe they are good and must be good and so are above-average traumatized by the mildest sinful urge. This sort of thing is fodder for Christianity’s critics, of course.

    Then you get the we’re all damned brigade on the other hand.

    How a religion whose mainstream[s] so long taught that we are all sinners but can be saved got to either point I’m not sure. I can see the role the Reformation played, to a degree, Calvin in particular.

    I can see plenty of room for a version in which we wanted more than paradise, we stepped over the redline, we were ejected as punishment, now we have to struggle with our environment and ourselves, but in turn we got to pursue knowledge, wealth and power for ourselves, and the deity is still willing to take us in at the end, ideally if we conform to a relative handful of requirements [by some standards] but ultimately just on faith in him.

    In my more simpleminded moments that strikes me as both a complete answer to the problem of evil, a justification for the long upward march of mankind, and a rather undemanding, almost soothing religion.

    All the argument is around the margins.

    But beyond that, I see your point on systems that teach a person that they are either damned or good regardless of mind or actions- it’s a license to do anything.

  9. Kirk says:

    And, to get at what you were saying about the dichotomy of it all…

    I think that there’s a bit of truth to what the deranged optimists like Marshall and Grossman want to think; it’s just that the veneer isn’t as deep as they’d like to believe. At. All.

    And, that veneer is in no way a “natural thing”. It is a hard-won artifact of socialization and conditioning from childhood, and if you let up on the factual necessity of doing the hard work of inculcating that stuff in the young…? Well, you get the jungle. Or, your average US inner city disaster area.

    And, make no mistake, men like Marshall and Grossman are dangerous to listen to in the diametric opposite sense–Because what winds up happening then is that young men hear what they say, internalize it, and when they discover that they really don’t have much real compunction or internal conflict about killing “the other”, well… Cognitive dissonance sets in, and flowing from that, we get PTSD effects starting up in the cracks between the ideal and reality. “This should bother me… Why doesn’t it? What is wrong with me…? I’m a bad person…”.

    Truth be told, killing is really easy. Ask anyone who’s worked in a slaughterhouse. Ask any farmer or hunter that butchers their own meat, or the fisherman who cleans his own fish. The really shocking thing is how easy the transition is, once you’re used to the blood–People aren’t all that different from farm or game animals, once you get down to the mechanics of it all. Pulling the trigger on a human isn’t all that much harder than pulling it on a deer, once you’ve gotten over the social conditioning that tells you there is a difference. For some few of us, that’s impossibly difficult to do–For others, the problem is remembering that people are not in the class of “kill when convenient” that things like mosquitoes and vermin are.

    Friend of mine spent a lot of time in an environment where it was pretty much a nonstop, day-to-day thing–His take on the whole thing, once he returned to polite society, was that the hardest thing to remember about the difference between “here” and “there” was that it wasn’t acceptable to dump a box of .50 cal rounds into a car that cut you off on the freeway… Once killing becomes your “go-to” solution to inter-personal problems, which it almost has to, when you’re talking about surviving in combat, then turning it back off is not at all easy.

    The Navajo Indians have an elaborate set of ceremonies they wrap around going off to war, and coming back–You have to get ritually “checked out”, to go do it, and then ritually cleansed to come back and rejoin society. There are clear lines drawn, between the two modes, and that serves to delineate things for the individual. The US Army, however? One day, you’re in Iraq getting shot at, and shooting back–The next, you’re driving down the highway with the kids yammering in your ear, and your wife complaining about some BS that is totally trivial and extraneous to survival (in your mind…), and the dislocation between the two states is enough to rip men’s minds apart.

    Canadian Forces did a deal where they spent a few weeks detoxing in Cyprus, I believe–And, that makes a lot more sense. The guys coming back from WWII and Korea had the time on the troopships to decompress and unpack all they’d been through. Us? Oh, we modern types are so much smarter–We just overnight people between war and peace, and then expect them to adjust on their own.

    The other bit of stupidity was the idea of a mid-tour leave, where you did that same sort of transition, but back the other way. For guys who went outside the wire, that crap was positively insane. Yesterday, you were in combat, today you were with the wife and kids, and tomorrow, back in combat.

    Ya wonder why we have the PTSD we do…?

  10. Graham says:

    Yes, that starts to make things clearer to me.

    It is not about taking a man in his natural state and making him unnatural, but about turning off or dialing back selection pressures and conditioning so he can function. Those to whom it comes hard can be taught and given a context, those to whom it comes more easily need not be shocked nor traumatized that they are somehow outside the human mainstream. If the training and condition process starts with these assumptions, then so can the return process. And there should be no reason the medical services can’t take a decent shot at figuring out which man has which set of reactions and look to provide whatever help, if any.

    I had heard of the CAF detox policy in the mid-2000s when working with CAF people. It sounded then like an innovative approach. I hope it worked- naturally, we did have some PTSD problems still, but perhaps better than it could have been and all to the good.

    I can see just how the US policies you describe could have come about and exactly why many would have considered them brilliant and humane. They still sound insane.

  11. Kirk says:

    You take any personnel policy of the US military, and examine it in any practical, humane detail? It usually looks like it was conceived and implemented by some entity that never, ever met a real human being, let alone took one off to war.

    The Canadian Forces seemed to do it better. The Germans, in WWII, did it better. Were you to inflict the sort of stress we do on our combatants to zoo animals, the SPCA would be all over you for animal abuse…

    I think the whole system very badly needs a fundamental, systemic re-think and re-working, from top to bottom, with particular attention paid to recruiting, preparation, training, and the aftermath of it all. In my opinion, most of the things that go into making someone susceptible to PTSD are both knowable and identifiable; screening should be possible, and carefully implemented. It is not, and they don’t even do the necessary deep study they should be doing in order to learn these things. It’s like they’re afraid to look, because of the implications.

    Were you to ask, most of the guys who did their jobs halfway competently at the level I was at could have identified the “problem children” before we ever deployed; the problem was, we couldn’t do anything about it. There wasn’t anything actionable, until after fate and circumstance broke the man in question. Or, until after you had the incident of misconduct–Bradley Manning was identified as a risk factor by his Security Manager, and they still overruled his ass. The guy who was the ringleader in the Maiwand killings? Identified; overruled again. Same with that poor bastard who went off his rocker at the SF base, and killed all those civilians. He should have never been deployed due to TBI, but they overruled his first-line supervisors, and sent him, ‘cos “bodies”. They needed headcount, you see. Well, they got it…

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