Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The US Military: Is it bereft of discipline?

There's a saying in the military that "There are no undisciplined soldiers.  Only untrained soldiers."  Well, if this is true, the military should immediately mandate sensitivity and ethics training across the armed forces.  Recently, a video surfaced showing four Marine snipers urinating on dead Taliban soldiers.  Now I know there are no classes entitled, "Don't pee on your enemy." But these soldiers' actions forces one to question whether these soldiers had any training at all on the laws of war.  These soldiers, who have performed one of the most disrespectful and disgusting acts possible to deceased humans, seem incomprehensibly undisciplined.  But this brings us a broader point: Why are US soldiers behaving in this manner?

Speak with any drill sergeant and they will tell you that the military has gone soft.  They'll tell you that training is less rigorous, shorter, and that current recruits are lazy and spoiled.  But that aside, shouldn't recruits come to basic training with a minimal respect of humankind?  Well apparently not.  Maybe video games and the lack of basic social and communication skills  really have corrupted our youth because they just don't give a damn.

So basically it's military basic training versus the video game/twitter/facebook generation.  This is a generation that does what it wants, when it wants, and how it wants. Oh yeah, and then they put it on YouTube for the world to see.  In addition, this generation has the attention span of the venerable fruit fly.  So, do the actions of the four Marines highlight a unique problem with this generation?  I say yes.

When I went to basic training in 1997, it had changed a bit from the Vietnam era that my dad trained in but it maintained the same spirit of yesteryear's warfare.  For example, we slept in World War II-styled barracks, we learned to navigate the jungle using only a map, compass, and intellect, we negotiated obstacle course that simulated conditions Vietnam, and we wore only standard issue clothing -  none of that fancy insulated technology-laden clothing today's soldier wear.  And oh yeah,  NO ONE had electronic devices to communicate with loved ones.  The only connection to the outside world was a land line phone, and it was a gamble on whether we could actually use it or not.  Oh yeah, there was also snail mail.

Today's soldiers train in relative comfort, with new barracks, Wi-fi, revamped obstacle courses, and high tech gear.  In addition, they have a myriad of electronic devices in which to get emotional support from loved ones on a daily basis.  If  they don't have access to their fancy Ipads, they could always send their instant messages home via emails.

Now I know some of our Vietnam-era readers and older may laugh when I say this but we were trained to be tough because we did without.  Even more importantly, training made us mentally tough.  For example, when you walked up to the 50 foot rappelling scaffold and the Drill Sergeant screamed, "Turn around and walk down that wall," you didn't ask questions, you moved out.  When you only had food for two days but you were in the field for five, you learned to do more with less.  Through all of this training, we achieved the most important thing of all - discipline.  Highly trained soldiers equal highly disciplined soldiers.  I fear that this has been lost on many in this current generation of soldiers.

I can't honestly say I didn't hear about similar break downs in discipline in Desert Storm or campaigns like Operation Just Cause.  We just kicked tail and came back home.  Sadly, my generation is this generation's middle management.  My generation, the Majors and Lieutenant Colonels, basically trained the first line leaders, Lieutenants and Captains, of today's soldiers.  So where did our leaders go wrong?  Or, to be specific, which leaders went wrong here?

Let's turn to my personal hero, the great military strategist Sun Tzu, for guidance.  Regarding military leaders, Sun Tzu stated, that if a unit trains and gives instructions and the soldiers make a mistake, it's the fault of the generals.  But, if the generals retrain and reiterate instructions, and the soldiers make another mistake, it's the fault of the lieutenants.  Since these words were written over a thousand years ago, let me help you update them.

Today's modern military has two types of officers and two types of enlisted soldiers.  Since some branches have different ranks, I will use Army ranks for simplicity.  In the officer corps there are field grade officers (Major to General) and company grade officers (Lieutenant to Captain).  In the enlisted ranks there are junior enlisted (Private to Sergeant) and senior enlisted (Staff Sergeant to Sergeant Major).

Now, when Sun Tzu refers to "generals," he is referring to field grade officers and senior enlisted soldiers.  By "lieutenant," he is referring to company grade officers and junior enlisted soldiers.  So to make his reference a little clearer:  When the soldiers eff up once, it's the more experienced leader's fault, when they eff up again, even after training and instructions, it's the junior leadership's fault.  So, since this is not the first time US soldiers have embarrassed the entire military based on lack of discipline (think Abu Grahib, the Bradley Manning leaked video, and the murder of three Afghan Civilians by the "kill squad"), the junior leaders are at fault.  And it's clear that military leaders believe this as well, as they are calling for the heads of the four marines (    

In any case, military senior leadership may need a different strategy to prevent damaging acts like this.  These four Marine snipers have put the entire military at even more risk of deadly attack than they already are.  In addition, they have provided fodder to a motivated enemy who recruits its troops with the heathen American message.  Furthermore, they put citizens in our land at risk because of Taliban sympathizers who may plan strikes right here in the US.  Let's not even mention the damage done to diplomatic relations.

In my opinion, more than a few heads need to roll for this.   Although the military will most certainly take action against the four  Marines, I say, "Why stop there?"  I think leaders up to the General in charge of Afghanistan should answer for this.   Lack of training displays like this completely set back diplomatic advancements our country has made, which is a crucial element in defeating our elusive Taliban enemies. 

The military chain of command, across all branches, cannot simply play the blame game and pray these types of actions won't happen.  Leaders need to constantly train and constantly engage soldiers beginning at basic training.  They have to take an active role in preventing behaviors exhibited by the four Marines by integrating substantive ethics courses into training.  Most importantly, leaders must understand the unique mentalities as well as the unique stresses of today's soldiers and provide the necessary resources to deal with their issues.  To do any less ignores the realities of war and in some ways makes them complicit.  So, in order to mitigate the damage done by this vile act, as well as the other atrocities done during our wars in the middle east, our military must change, and they must change today.


1.  What's your take on how the public image of the military has changed?

2.  What actions do you think the military should take in response to the actions by the four Marines?

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