In a trend that began over sixty years ago, during World War II, basic training for American troops has been modified to reflect the kind of fighting recruits will encounter right now. Basic training has, for the last century, concentrated on turning civilians into soldiers. More specifically, infantry soldiers. A century ago, most troops coming out of their basic training would spend the rest of their military career as infantry. But now fewer than ten percent do so. During World War II, it became common practice to get practical tips, and combat veterans as basic training instructors. This practice was continued during the Korean and Vietnam wars. It saved lives, as it created troops who could show up for duty already knowing some of the fatal mistakes to avoid.
The latest modifications to basic training are largely a result of the Iraq war. In Afghanistan, most of the troops were very well trained combat specialists (Special Forces, paratroopers, marines and so on.) The training for these troops back in the states was also modified as a result of Afghanistan experience, but these guys were long out of basic.
Iraq was another matter, because a lot of non-combat troops got involved in the fighting. The ambushes and attacks by Iraqi irregulars revealed that U.S. Army basic training was pretty light on imparting practical combat skills. This was no secret in the army, where throughout the 1990s there was enormous pressure from the White House and Congress to make the army a friendlier place for female soldiers. This included watering down basic to accommodate women (who could not serve in combat units.) The army quietly set up a separate basic training system for guys going into combat jobs.
The basic training for everyone else is still pretty soft, but a number of new subjects have been added;
- How to function in a convoy under attack. This is a first for basic training. In the past, this was part of the training for non-combat units. But many troops will come out of basic, go through another few weeks or months of technical training and then find themselves in Iraq with a non-combat units. Too late to train them then, so now "convoy combat" is part of basic training.
- Much greater emphasis on how to keep your rifle clean, and how to use it on foot and from a vehicle.
- Much more training one how to spot roadside bombs, booby traps and all the other improvised explosive devices found in Iraq and Afghanistan.
- Peacekeeping Basics. Instruction on what to expect in peacekeeping operations, especially how to deal with exotic civilians, and hostile fighters who try and blend in with local civilians.
- Training on other weapons, like the SAW (5.56mm light machine-gun), .50 caliber machine-gun and AT-4 (rocket launcher).
- More first aid training, with emphasis on the types of wounds most commonly encountered in Iraq and the new medical gear available to troops. In the past, a lot of emphasis was placed on dealing with chest wounds, which could be fatal if not quickly treated. The new protective vests make such wounds less frequent, but there are more wounds to arms, legs and head, especially from roadside bombs and RPGs.
While some items (like a lot of the touchy-feely stuff introduced in the 1990s) could be removed from basic to make way for the above items, this was not sufficient. Basic training has been extended several more weeks, and more training now takes place on weekends. Traditionally, the troops got Saturday afternoon and Sunday off. No more, or at least not every weekend. But the recruits don't seem to mind. If they end up in Iraq, this weekend training could save their lives.
Finally, in a custom going back centuries, combat veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan are being sent to serve as instructors at basic training centers. This impresses the recruits, and makes them pay closer attention. There's nothing like getting life-saving tips from someone who's been there.