Kinder & Gentler Boot Camp - A "Hard Right" or an "Easy Wrong"? 

July 24, 2000

Comment: #374


[1] By Dave Moniz, "This Isn't Your Father's Boot Camp Anymore," USA Today, July 19, 2000, Pg. 1. Excerpt Attached.

The dominant selection pressures shaping the evolution of a military culture over the long term flow from the politics shaped by its normal peacetime environment. Yet the fitness of a military force resides in its ability to compete effectively in the exceptional circumstances of war, the shape of which may be very different from that anticipated by pre-war planners.

History is littered with the corpses of armies that failed to adapt to the evolving nature of war, because they succumbed to and became corrupted by temptations of domestic politics during long periods of peace. Perhaps the supreme challenge of a truly professional military is to avoid the enervating effects of these selection pressures while maintaining a healthy, vital, and constructive relationship to the larger society from which they flow. Some have called this challenge the task of doing the "hard right" instead of the "easy wrong."

Unfortunately, it is becoming evident that the American military leadership is succumbing to the lure of "easy wrong" and is allowing the selection pressures of domestic politics to overwhelm the requirements of a strong and vital military, not to mention a sense of service to the larger society. This can be seen in its acceptance of and participation in the self-indulgent internal political decisions of the military - industrial - congressional complex that have produced the Death Death Spiral which, as past commentaries have clearly shown, is now wrecking the military in body as well as spirit. [Comment #s: 169, 182, 183, 190, 298, 328, 332, among others].

Other outward symptoms of decay include an increasingly bloated officer corps [#372], the zero defects mentality [#206, 302, 345, 346, 348], the exodus of junior officers and the personnel death spiral [#365-371 and referenced threads], PowerPoint dependency and the inward focus on process[#353], and the cheesy proliferation of medals [see #333 & 363].

In Ref. 1, Dave Moniz of USA Today, reporting from Ft Jackson, describes yet another expediency that fits the general pattern of discounting the hard demands of a exceptional future in order to find a painless way of finessing the problems of today.

We all know the military faces a serous recruiting and retention shortfall. One of the quickest and easiest ways to mitigate the effects of this shortfall is to increase the pipeline throughput by decreasing the washout rate of new recruits during basic training. Moniz reports that the military is easing its demands and lowering standards on recruits during basic training and thus making it easier for them to graduate.

But to achieve this end, the military is now graduating recruits who would have been discharged under the prior training regime.

That a lowering of entrance standards is necessary immediately after a highly publicized round of pay raises and generous enlistment bonuses, as well as other forms of bribes like educational benefits, ought to trouble even the most jaded courtier in Versailles on the Potomac.

Will a "kinder and gentler boot camp" produce a better military?

Or will it contribute to disciplinary problems in the future or, even worse, lead to needless American deaths and/or a loss of discipline that results in pointless barbarism or murder of innocents on some future battlefield? Has our military forgotten the lessons of Task Force Smith and the mass killing at No Gun Ri during the opening phase of the Korean War?

I can not answer these questions, but I submit that one of the best ways to gain an insight into the likely effects of a "kinder and gentler boot camp" is to ask the people charged most directly with dealing with the end product of the process - the non-commissioned officers.

To this end, I asked SSGT Kutznikolai (the nom de plume for an active duty army NCO), a frequent and thoughtful contributor to the blaster, to provide us with a personal view of these effects.

What follows is his response:

----------[Email from SSGT Kutznikolai]--------


I read Mr. Moniz's article. I appreciate the balance that he is trying to present. Unfortunately, the numerical bottom is line is just that, a numerical quota to produce soldiers.

Assembly line thinking? Absolutely.

But it has at least two adverse affects:

(1) Once the soldiers leave Fort Jackson, they become the problem of the gaining command. As a Sergeant Major told us last year "Don't worry if that soldier can't pass a PT Test, he will have 4 years to pass one".

(2) The other unfortunate part of the numbers game is that the soldiers going through basic and AIT [Advanced Individual Training] know it is a number games, meaning the army needs them more than they need the army, so they have no fear of punishment.

One of the advantages of the Drill Sergeant as a gatekeeper was he weeded out those who could not hack it. But it is equally important that he also provided an opportunity for the hard chargers to prove themselves. Under a quota system there is no incentive to be a hard charger if a slug gets as much benefit as a hard charger. It is easier to be a slug.

There is no question that basic training has been watered down. Just ask the soldiers if they felt it was hard. By and large they will tell you the answer is no. The reasons are many, political correctness, fear of injury, bad publicity, lack of a "real" war going on, changes in societal values, the Ritalin generation, the Nintendo generation, the works.

But the Army is about battlefields and the battlefield is a very unforgiving place. Sending an ill-trained, ill-prepared, and ill-disciplined soldier into battle is not only irresponsible, it is morally wrong.

Dr. Charles Moskos, a well-known military sociologist, observed that a lack of discipline in the beginning leads to problems down the road. I AGREE.

The murder of PFC Winchell at Fort Campbell is a case in point. The Gay community has chosen to make him a martyr. But his murder, to my thinking begs a larger question: How did his murderer get into the army?

My understanding is that he was not a high school graduate, he was born to a mother who used drugs while she was pregnant with him, he used drugs before joining the army, and had a history of unruly behavior. How did he pass the moral standards to get into the army, pass basic training and AIT, and then get assigned to the elite 101st Airborne Division?

A few other examples: I know of soldiers arrested for distributing cocaine through the mail and a soldier who attempted to rape a female soldier. In the latter case, when CID ran his fingerprints, it was discovered that he had an outstanding warrant for his arrest for murder that predated his enlistment.

If there is a good side to this lack of discipline, the Old Soldiers Home in Washington DC will be getting more money from the fines imposed by Article 15's and Court-Martials.

One of the other problems with our low stress basic training is that soldiers feel that they don't have to do anything that they do not want to do. If a task is too hard, they will say I quit. And frequently, nothing will be done about it.

I don't have any solutions to these problems. But I do know that many of the soldiers have images of basic training as portrayed in Full Metal Jacket and An Officer and A Gentleman. They feel that type of challenge is what they need to help them out in life. Unfortunately, they are not being challenged. And our armed forces, and our country are the worse for it.

SSGT Kutznikolai

-------[End Email]------

Chuck Spinney

[Disclaimer: In accordance with 17 U.S.C. 107, this material is distributed without profit or payment to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving this information for non-profit research and educational purposes only.]

Reference #1

USA Today
July 19, 2000 Pg. 1

This Isn't Your Father's Boot Camp Anymore

Short on recruits, the armed forces ease their approach to basic training - an effort that some observers fear will mean softer soldiers.

By Dave Moniz, USA Today


  • One of two Marine boot camps (the other is in San Diego), the legendarily tough Parris Island has cut its failure rate for male recruits in half, from 20% to about 10% in the past two years.

  • Female attrition there has also plunged, from 29% in 1993 to 18.8% last year .

  • The Army's failure rate for all basic combat training fell to 8.7% as of May, down from 13% in 1998.

  • The same trend holds for the Navy and Air Force, although the decline in recruit failures isn't as sharp. While the Navy dismissed 17.1% of all recruits last year; this year it is failing 15.2%.

  • The Air Force's overall failure rate of 8.3% this year is down slightly from 8.9% in 1999 ...

"What we're doing is bringing young people in the front door of boot camp who make perfectly good sailors, except they lack some fundamental tool," says Rear Adm. Ed Hunter, who commands Navy basic training at Great Lakes Naval Training Center near Chicago.

It could be that a smart but out-of-shape enlistee can't run 1 1/2 miles in 14 minutes, as the Navy requires. So instead of cutting him loose, Hunter says, the Navy will immediately put him in remedial training and take the time to ensure that he passes his fitness test ...

But there are concerns that the armed forces are flirting with danger. Charles Moskos, a military sociologist at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., says the military "may be increasing problems down the road." One potential outcome of a gentler boot camp, Moskos theorizes, is an increase in future disciplinary problems.

"If you're going to have attrition, it's better to have it early. Every attrition case in a standing unit is a pain in the neck," Moskos says.