Sunday, December 4, 2011

Leif's thoughts on infantry training and the army

Leif had such divided thoughts about the army and his military service. He was deeply devoted to our country and took very seriously his oath to defend it from all enemies, foreign and domestic. He had a reverence for our Constitution.

He was both enormously proud of his military service and very angry and how he was treated because of his asthma. He had leaders he liked and highly respected (though they are not mentioned in the piece below) and those he hated -- the ones he saw as petty dictators who delighted in humiliating soldiers, particularly his best friend; those he felt were careerists more interested in promotion than in the soldiers in the command.

His view of the army was through the lens of his unit and its operations, a micro view, to be sure, but it gives a window into a soldier's experience. Despite his biting criticism of their training (only being allowed to actually fire their weapons twice a year, for instance) and inefficiency, he was deeply proud of the soldiers with whom he served and continued to identify himself as a member of that infantry brotherhood all his life.

What made him so angry was what he continually saw as the monumental wastes of time, when he and the other soldiers had no more assigned tasks, past the end of the duty day, but were not dismissed to go home and had to just sit in the day room for an hour or hours. He hated the busywork that had them polishing floors rather than training, and with his quick mind and gift for strategy, felt that much of the training was wasteful marching rather than learning useful battle skills.

The piece below was written to his brother on February 8, 2001, in email he sent to me to be forwarded. It came in answer to his brother's thoughts on job satisfaction in the Air Force. Leif had been in the army for three years at that point and was deeply unhappy. It was during the period after he returned from service in Bosnia to find that his marriage was over, his health was ruined, and although he was the best machine gunner in the battalion (and had the awards for it) and could meet the requirements of the army PT (physical training test), he was treated abusively and denied promotion and awards because of his asthma, which made him unable to run as fast as that leader wanted his men to run. He was a deeply unhappy man when he wrote this, but it accurately reflects his feelings at the time. He was medically retired from the army a few months later.

During his service in Bosnia, he was not unhappy and he did feel they had a useful mission, and that things went much better when they did have a clear military mission. However, at that time, he still felt that mission had not been a clear benefit to the citizens of the USA or the world. I don't know whether he felt differently about it over the years. He was proud of that service.

With that background in mind, here are his thoughts from early 2001.

The photo of him was taken sitting on his cot in the first camp he was in when he went to Bosnia. I don't know who took it, but it was another soldier in his unit. The date on the photo is September 13, 1999. He was moved from camp to camp during the Bosnia duty. Because of his pose, I hesitated to post this photo, but it is surely no secret that this gesture is used, and the photo seems to fit the sentiments expressed below.

First off, You Weenie! Oh the horror, no shower for 33 hours! Try 33 days, you wimp.

But otherwise I must say that I can in no way whatsoever relate to what you are talking about. As a member of the line infantry, or nation's first line of defense (against whatever your compadres failed to shoot down or bomb into oblivion), I have seen a lot of operations. Many, if not all, cost the taxpayer a very pretty penny. And I have yet to see or be able to say that they served any purpose other than to provide a nice bullet for some officer's OER*.

Hundreds of thousands, even millions, are spent on our training and deployments but I cannot say that we have done a single thing that truly benefited this nation or made us more prepared for war, at least not in any proportion with the monetary expenditure that said exercises required. 
From my limited experience with the Air force, I wish that they could be commissioned to reorganize/realign the army. In Bosnia we spend over a million dollars a day to operate one camp. And in seven months I could not give you one example of a day that I felt I had made a difference.

Job satisfaction? That is a concept so alien to me that I must recall the days when I was a pizza delivery driver, for I made much more difference in the quality of life of the American citizen by getting that pizza to a hungry customer On Time than I did to the people of the world as a soldier in the United States infantry.

Perhaps it is simply the fact that we exist for the sole purpose of all out war and when no such war exists there is no secondary purpose to which our leadership can divert us. Our training is contrived and artificial. Our days are an endless monotony of wasted time and an apparent inability to deal with the "difficult" tasks of peace time life, a waste that only furthers our contempt for the nature of the army. Strangely, the ineptitude of our organization in peace time does not make me fear for war. In war there is no time for career-minded ambition. No worries about the luster of the floors. No luxury of petty superiority.

When those things leave us and a real challenge arrives, we seem to posses the ability to pull together and work toward the common purposes of victory and survival. However, in time of peace we seem to lose our way and become distracted with such frivolous and meaningless pursuits as would befit a janitor or gardener, not the noble warriors that defend our great nation. Countless dollars are spent on floor wax and training exercises that teach us nothing except how to walk blindly with the confidence of a boxer that has never lost a fight. Our budget allows us to perform multi-million-dollar operations that teach us nothing and then deny us the opportunity to fire our rifles more than twice a year.

The sort of efficiency you described is simply impossible in the army. Even a rapid deployment force would take days just to prep and plan for such an operation. Our army is sick. No one on the outside can see its ailments for we proud men hide our flaws andshield our egos from the light of day. And like a proud man our army will not seek adoctor's care.

Only when it collapses will an outsider see how it has deteriorated. Only then, in our darkest hour, when this 'machine' of incompetence and misdirection has broken down will we be able to start again and build the army of tomorrow. Until then our only satisfaction will lie in the fact that no matter how flawed or pointless the endeavors that may fill the interlude between wars, we few men and women of the United States Army volunteered to defend this great nation against all enemies foreign and domestic should she ever need to call on us.

*OER = Officer Efficiency Report (job evaluation for promotion purposes)

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