Infantry: How Things Will Go to Hell in Peacetime


December 30, 2005: In yet another case of déjà vu, the U.S. Department of Defense is compiling lessons learned from getting troops ready for combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. The lessons are the same ones picked up in every war the U.S. has fought in the last century. But this wisdom gets polluted, diluted and forgotten during peace time. Let us examine how this is done. Here are those valuable lessons, and the reasons for each of them getting dumped once the shooting stops.

@ Make sure all troops have their basic infantry skills down cold. This means making sure that, during Basic Training, the civilian recruits get that necessary mental adjustment needed to deal with stress and combat. But Basic tends to get watered down in peacetime, mainly for political reasons. Too many (or just any) injuries during training can get the media and politicians in an uproar. During the 1990s, there was a major flap over the problems female trainees had keeping up with males. It wasn't fair. For the moment, everyone is getting pretty strenuous Basic, but that will change one peacetime returns.

@ Keep troops together long enough so they can operate as effective units. That means that units should have at least three months, and preferably six months, to train together before heading overseas. That also means, no moving a lot of people in or out of the units during that time. New people are not trusted for a while, and have to train with the folks in their unit to build trust. Also important is keeping a unit together for a few months after it gets back. This is a big help for troops dealing with combat stress issues. The people you most want to talk to about the stress are the people you went through it with. Getting a unit filled up with troops, and keeping it that way, is tough. Especially for the personnel (er, "human resources") crew. In war time, you can insist that it be done. In peacetime, you can still insist, but will largely be ignored. Bureaucrats rule, unless you can point a gun at them.

@ Let the troops fire their weapons a lot, with real ammo. Marksmanship is a perishable skill, so you have to find the time, and money (for the ammo and building enough firing ranges) to do this. Gunfire is unpopular in peacetime, no matter how important it is. In wartime, it's easier to get this done. Which is why the U.S. Department of Defense has, since September 11, 2001, been buying three times as much rifle and machine-gun ammo for training. Come peacetime, the amount of ammo bought will shrink, as will all that damn (to the increasing number of civilians building homes near military bases) noise.

@ Make sure special skills needed for a particular combat zone are taught. Troops going to Iraq need to practice convoy protection. Combat units going to Afghanistan should practice tactics in hilly country, so they don't drop from exhaustion the first time they have to chase some bad guys up a hill. In peacetime, you have no specific area you are sure you are going to fight in. So specialized training tends to fade away.

@ Have the troops briefed by NCOs who have just got back. This should be a "relaxed" briefing, because you want the briefer to tell the troops how it really is, not what the current official word is. Nothing scandalous here, but this briefing will be contradicting some regulations (like on what equipment troops should leave behind, to keep weight down, when going into action, or what civilian gear they should consider buying, to replace less capable military issue stuff.) In peacetime, there's no place to be coming back from, although the U.S. Army Special Forces has a good program of keeping in touch with potential hot spots. This, however, is political/media dynamite, so the Special Forces activities are kept as quiet as possible.




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