Soldier’s Learning Curve

1 Jun

THE INFANTRY SOLDIER’S LEARNING CURVE – A DANGEROUS SLOPE

This is from a conscience-driven concern for the young men and women we met at various Army bases … soldiers in ‘basic’ Infantry training. We saw the best five or ten percent, chosen for their physical excellence on apparatus and obstacles. We saw others for whom performance standards seemed too low, no matter the needs of their specialties. In time they would ‘shape up’ to look good. We saw ourselves from long ago, with much emphasis on looking good. I was often among those who performed for visiting brass and foreign observers. They admired our composure, muscular abilities, clean clothes and stamina. They, shook our hands and went to lunch. There was much they did not see.

Time: spring of ’43. “You see this? You pull it – nothing happens.” We sat like stones; watched and listened. He knew his stuff, this razor sharp teacher with chin and shoulders squared. He could turn us into what looked, walked and talked like soldiers. We could be like him. In sad fact, he was a superb snake oil showman, one of many instant expert/specialists chosen to preserve and train us – to live and be combat competent. He said, “if you pull this (a second safety) you will blow your ——– head off, plus kill or wound everyone within twenty yards.” “I’d never do a dumb thing like that.” In time, we and I did dumb things like that.

He ‘accidently’ pulled that second ring as we expected, “Incoming! Take cover!” Pandemonium. The grandstands cleared. Many of us who went through basic infantry training will recall similar first hand experiences. This one was staged with a deactivated personnel mine. A dummy. There was smoke, jittery laughter, little reasoning or learning.

In another camp, thirty men died. The mine was live. The instructor was the dummy. He proved the truth that effective infantry training calls for risks up to the edge of calamity. At that point, reality takes over and demands lives, wounds and mutilations. We always learned the price after the error. Every combat veteran knows that when the real stuff hits the fan, the rules and odds change … but the training, for good or bad, skittered over or misdirected, sticks with you.

On a recent visit, we were awestruck by a whole new infantry world: electronic topography, computer animation. satellite targeting, drones with hellish missiles, on-screen mission simulation and hi-tech instructors. They surely preserve lives, time and money. However, video games, no matter their rapid action, noise and hi-def images are sophisticated trickery. They do not deliver sweat, freezing fingers, dry throat, the pungency of burnt powder or reek of rotting vines and fermenting mud. They do not demand reverence for their dreadful dragon power. They don’t demand jittery nerves and private prayers, so essential to learning the deadly arts; live fire is missiles, rockets and bullets in the air, not electronic flashes, tinny sound effects, acrobats and digital score sheets on a screen. Errors are corrected with the return key and the mouse. There are no penalties for losers. “This isn’t your grandfather’s infantry,” the young major told me. Down deep in tradition, I suspect it is.

So, how do you otherwise create an artificial field of artificial battle without mortal risk? You don’t if, as in ’43 each day demands another boatload of ‘proud, hardened, combat ready’ soldiers. Imagine going into the fray with high spirits and eight weeks of training under playground rules – against armies with five to ten years of bloody, robotic experience and dug deep in their home turf. Thousands of our young people went forward unable to un-jam a rifle or machine gun. I applaud all teachers, past and present who sincerely cared – even those who misinformed their students, had no idea of how best to teach, knew little about motivating, testing, reinforcing and proving… and did their best under a by-the-numbers pressure cooker system that penalized its critics. We continue to extract awful penalties for flaws, faults, baseless instruction, misjudgments and vital knowledge congealed in the upper crusts. “The way it was is the way it will be.” Ego-centered authority, hubris, pretense, and blind attachment to tradition and sacrosanct hand-me-down practices have no merit in training when lives are wagered.

I recall crawling through muck over deafening noise and under non-stop machine gun fire. I heard a yell. A man stood up, alive, then he was dead. In time, with support and in stages he could have learned to control his panic, today, it’s called fear management. But there was no time. Had he given a sign that he would break we would not have seen it. We expected that one standard of fearlessness applied to all, no matter what, where or when. Yet, tough, focused veterans panicked, too, ran the wrong way or frozen in place, they threw away their lives. Recently, an officer told me that field work no longer requires crawling face-in-the-mud under bullets or lying doggo in a swamp for a night. “Things aren’t like that anymore, (old fellow,)” he said. Like what? Reality? Or, is the reality of the infantry in 1918 and 1943 unreal in 2008? I guess so.

On a sound-and-light night-assault demonstration (viewing) for officers (seated, eating and smoking) on a rise, we would ‘capture’ a road crossing. We, the “aggressors” were to infiltrate from a known direction. A nearby gully was mined to simulate mortar hits. Our platoon leader opted for… the ditch. Several of us were severely hurt in the blasts. It was our first experience with friendly mortar fire. Had it gone right, a valuable experience would have been missed. We learned to “expect the unexpected; what can go wrong will; be wary of ego centered heroes.” The maneuver was staged for new leaders to criticize. I told the story to a young major and asked him how people are trained to expect and deal with the unforeseen; a trick question. “What?” The Boy Scouts have one answer. “Assume nothing,” is also a good one. You know the little house is empty because the door is open, so you look around and close the door. That’s when your head flies away without you.

The old battalion commander (’43) liked me, believed I had promise and said -literally, “O.K. expert, go to it.” Name your tune: weapons, tactics, support fire, mapping, bridging, demolitions. I got some sharp pants, tailored shirts and the cold eyes of competence. I studied fiercely from booklets designed for the semiliterate and out-of-date fly-sheets. Help came mostly from the company cook and a kindly National Guard supply sergeant from my home town who supplied munitions, caution and foresight. Incredibly, my mistakes were minor. I lived to deny them.

“We won’t forget that one,” said a trainee. We set a low-grade booby trap, a grenade under a swinging gate. We poured out the powder, set the firing device and cap so it would blow skywards and it blew. The powder had not emptied completely. I should have known. Repeat – I should have known. Boom! Nobody hurt, but dirt flew and a lesson was learned on the margin of calamity. “Beware instant experts.” Some good resulted. Much of our hand-me-down explosives supply had never been ‘turned to redistribute the liquids.’ The camp should have gone up. Yes, I pulled other dumb stunts like that. I had the look of certitude.

In conversing with a general officer at a specialist school, (nobody wore rank so he didn’t know I was nobody) I was hurt by his insensibility toward training the regular GI infantry rifleman. What does he need to know? “He needs only to be strong and fast, march, load and fire his rifle, dig a hole, eat and sleep when he can, get up and run forward. Make him strong, fill him with spirit. That’s the main thing.” It was the only time I heard it out loud – but the superficiality in our training was already clear. Physical conditioning, iron discipline, instant response to orders, weapons skills, mouth shut, keep in step and for Cripes’ sake, look good. In Rome (43BC) we spear carriers ran day and night to a distant battle, attacked without rest, survived and kept the empire glued together. We needed to cast, slash, thrust, stab and parry; move as squares and phalanxes. In 1943AD we were still ancient infantry. Technology and psychology had not yet arrived. We only had more of what they had in 1917.

I saw a civility between ranks at today’s camps: toughness without threats; respect and encouragement in place of humiliation. I think it was real. We also saw much that was merely ‘good enough.’ Perhaps too much tolerance and permissiveness. Not much leader potential evident in the lower ranks, though I know it was there. Combat chews up leaders by the minute. Recruits on the conditioning course were allowed to by-pass three obstacles. I suggested (unasked) that they be brought up to scale gradually. Bit-by-bit. “O.K. old timer, we’ll think on that.” I know that most obstacles are mind-set, the ‘I-can’t’ impairment, fear of being-seen-to-fail. “Better to quit than flunk.” “I can’t climb a forty foot rope or hike twenty miles.” Nonsense, climb twenty feet ten times. After many failures I tossed my gawky body over an impossible wall. Then a hundred times more to show others how. “I did it,” is a terrific motivator. Trainers know this. “I walked away,” spoken silently is the first step in a down slide. Among the bitterest memories in combat is the one in which you walked away.

We had few experts to manage the training demands of our innocent, immense, stratified and diversified army of ’43. The ‘old army’ guys who wore campaign hats seemed overwhelmed by our numbers and their own self-importance. I don’t think they believed we were going to war. For we amateur instructors it was assumed that if you looked-the-leader you could teach any cockamamy stuff the orders required. A platform, chalk board, good voice and pointer gave legitimacy to ignorance. I never equated image and authority with competence and integrity and still don’t. Junior officers at my sessions believed they were getting something deep from an old hand. They should have been laughing. My small-unit-fundamentals were not taught at all in OCS or ROTC. During my short stint in OCS, we learned to conduct the manual of arms and endless close order drill “to insure discipline” (of St. Joan’s pike men?) It occurs that I was booted out after six weeks… for asking questions.

We had little idea of what constitutes transference and productive learning. That science came years later. We didn’t know that the act of training and implanting knowledge are different things. Looking back, I see that our teachers (with good sense and good intent) were ‘cheerleaders.’ Reading the nomenclature and hearing the drone did not equal using the thing effectively by instinct and intuition while running fast and ducking for cover. There were questions from troublemakers, dimwits and misfits but our “lessons” were streamlined like chow time, one-time-through-the-line. We did our best with little reinforcement or performance testing. We feared violating the D.L rule book or the hard-and-fast hourly schedule. When the whistle blew, we were done with it. Teaching the “whole person” was years away. It may still be years away. I wish I could convince the Department of the Armythat “whole person” learning, three thousand hours during enlistment, not after, would tempt a very high level of volunteers and teachers. It would produce an excellent, educated, disciplined civilian cadre, a whole army of dedicated citizen-soldiers.

In basic, we wanted to believe that everyone was locked onto the show and tell. Yet, people dozed in the heat, lost in the monotony, afraid of being ridiculed, minds set on the weekend, worries about home – or unable to savvy stage one thereby failing all that followed. We never felt that the two hundred people in the stands didn’t know or care. What should amaze us, is that we did so well. Too often, a first-experience with a weapon came in combat. That speaks for the character of our young Americans who became soldiers, and not for their training. I believe that sharing experiences immediately after combat, before the emotions harden are the best, most effective kind of training. We did not do much of that back then. There was a lot of presumption. One night we learned that our substitute machine gunner had never fired a machine gun at night. We lucked out.

Where did I last see that kind of hollow ‘field’ instruction? Last year in several leading camps using the same kinds of charts and apparatus we had in ’43 and probably in 1917. I heard a young soldier say, ‘I don’t get it but that’s my problem, I guess.’ “No, when you don’t get it, it’s everyone’s problem.” However, I also learned to not doubt instructors – or junior superiors. In a venomous criticism of my bunker-construction crew, a new graduate took charge of what I was doing and made himself ludicrous. I paid for that until he was shipped out. Mostly, the graduate officers were serious, well-educated, tolerant and open minded, realizing that our trainees were their internship. Some privileged or insecure ones worked at being distant and disdainful.

We did learn a lot that was useless, even laughable. We had a painful lecture and demonstration on bangalore torpedoes. In seven months of combat I never made or used one, and neither did anyone else. We had lots of bayonet drill and hand-to-hand combat which was fun. Every week, our regiment turned out for hours of grass cutting with bayonets. In Japan I beat a twelve year old in a Kenji bout. He collapsed laughing. We learned to clean the barracks floor with toothbrushes. At Bragg, I got a fifteen minute course in tank driving. In the next minute, I threw a track. We also had some” street fighting” in which many people were harmed. We never had a sensible drill for taking a gun bunker or a cave, or securing a perimeter at night.

However, I spent high-priced time teaching people to hit a distant bull’s-eye from prone, sitting, kneeling and standing (off hand) positions. In the O.K. corral you seldom got your rifle to your shoulder and your target was often close in; running at you or hidden, silent and deep. Far better had we been taught to shoot from the hip doing a broken field run; reload reload without thinking and do it again. In basic I threw one live grenade, badly. It was like handing a kid a fizzing bomb and telling him to go and play catch. We should have thrown hundreds. Anyone heaving a grenade from the classic Olympic javelin pose was suicidal. Naturally, we marched, jogged and did pushups. We built hard bodies. I would rather we’d had an hour or two on personal resourcefulness, individual problem solving and decision making. Perhaps a short course in scavenging and innovative K-ration cooking. “Are you nuts?” The young Ranger captain didn’t use those words.

Before I entered the Army through the State Guard, I read my father’s WWI Infantry Drill Regulations. Aside from the Manual of Arms and the Soldier’s Code, (today’s seven qualities) it hadn’t changed in a hundred years except for uniforms and weapons. The book I got had the same grey blue cover and crude line drawings. The soldiers all looked like MacArthur in riding breeches.

We had drill sergeants who’d been in Panama, Hong Kong, Hawaii and the Philippines – who knew the exercise but had never fired a shot off the range. Many came out of the cavalry and horse artillery. See the movie again, ‘From Here to Eternity.’ Along with the songs of glory and bawdy, we learned tradition, bar fighting and how to keep ranks while bayonet charging like the folks at Breeds’s Hill and Gettysburg. In ’43 we had little feedback from those who knew what we would have to learn. Our combat veterans who bought time for us, were dying in prison camps.

Many good but book-bound commanders believed that the infantryman’s trade was best taught by platoon sergeants and squad leaders. It was quickly evident that they rarely knew anything beyond the hand-me-down old movies. It’s a given that we prepare for the last war. NCO schools were being phased out and should have been strengthened. In time, combat officers understood the deeper values of sharing experiences in small groups in the dirt. Too much knowledge never came down the pipeline. It bogged down and cost lives. Captain Ringler found time to be one of us and discuss happenings and missions. He openly gave credit where due. Chewing out was private. Sergeants Bill and Leo used their time outs to make sure that we could use and service our weapons in the real world. They told us clearly what to expect, things that we would never ask how to listen and watch, scan a field and pick out cover on the run; questions were freely asked and answered, one to one. The fine art of give and take dialog should be drilled into all non-corns as a central responsibility. Unhappily, some of our best combat non-corns were so wrapped up in themselves that they couldn’t talk freely to their own people. Some think rightly that the best infantry training is combat. It’s a quick learn if one passes the first course. We did not have a “rifleman’s survival manual,” but we knew that the longer a man lives the longer he is likely to live, if you set chance, lunacy and accident to one side. He gathers knowledge and intuition not taught. For example: we were never taught to lay still in a nest of ants. Don’t raise your head if someone calls your name. My friend did, took a bullet and gave us his experience. Count three before tossing a sputtering grenade? They don’t teach how to throw it while lying on your back, left handed. Don’t fire your last rounds at night. Silently replace a clip before it’s empty and goes ‘ding.’ Tracers at night, or anytime show your position. If something doesn’t smell right, it’s rotten. Learn to listen at night? Pick out the enemy’s voice and language amid the noise? Never heard of it. The rock we saw an hour ago is not there now. Why? The plank across a stream may hide a big shell with an exploder in the nose. Avoid setting out trip-wires in the dark, make a mental map and put the pins in your pocket. Spread out. A tree normally does not stop a bullet but it will explode a mortar shell in its branches. Presume like an ostrich that if you can’t see your enemy, he can’t see you. Don’t put your helmet on the dirt mound of your foxhole. Be sure automatic weapons are operable before they’re needed. Carry spare firing pins. Don’t look down a mortar tube. Spread out, always. Know where your buddy is, or should be. When in doubt, knock it out; empty your magazine. Banana trees can’t stop a thrown rock. How do you cross open space without touching the ground? Hundreds of survival tricks can only be taught with feedback, up the ladder and down again. We needed what the sergeants explained over coffee after we’d dug in. I don’t know if the Army has a Department of Cumulative Education for dirt soldiers. It should. Learning on the job could be fatal. Not everyone carries a laptop computer and cell phone into battle.

We spent a month in a New Guinea staging area before shipping up to Leyte. We loaded ships, sat around and drank, went swimming, saw movies, marched and jogged. We should have been climbing mountains, making roads and digging holes, demolishing real bunkers, shooting at shadows. We paid later for those good, sunny days. We should have been listening to the Aussies who had been there.

We had a latecomer officer who demanded we do machine gun and mortar drill in rest camp. He was well hated and went home with a minor injury, but I believe he was right. We should have been tuning up for the invasion. We were clumsy and sloppy; we should have been quick and slick. In Manila, our ‘machine gunner’ didn’t cock his weapon and ducked out when it failed to fire. A few grenades well tossed by Frank Flanagan … chased the bandits away. In a shootout with an AA gun, the spotter for our mobile artillery piece had never done it before and his accents and uncertainty made his instructions unintelligible. A bullet hit his radio and the next guy, a near-illiterate, did the job perfectly.

Our advanced training camp was run by a tough Brit commando officer who despised Americans. He demanded super realism except for the enemy. We were our own enemy. I trained assault teams to a razor’s edge, playful and forgetful. One man walked into a bazooka back blast. Another didn’t notch his rocket properly and lost his ear. It was common to test one’s batteries with a rocket in the tube. A scared stiff kid blew a phosphorous grenade trying to “bounce it” into a dummy bunker. How many satchel charges blew unexpectedly? How many went forward to find out why it didn’t? Grenade launchers were treacherous. I unloaded a trouble maker by letting him fire one the ‘wrong way.’ One of our people emptied a carrier full of sightseeing foreigners in our live fire training field. No road barriers out. No harm done. On the mortar course we almost deleted another company doing the same thing. A live 60mm ground looped during show time and cleared the watchers from the stands. On a night hike, we wandered fifteen miles off course; our leader couldn’t read a map. A BAR trainee with a new weapon was told to figure it out. His trainer didn’t know either. When it began bucking he froze on the trigger and sprayed the range. Instructors and range safety people had the highest casualty rate in our camp. I recall one ‘talk-through’ on cannibalizing rifles and automatic weapons. The class was a joke. On two of our air-assaults, many of our personal weapons were damaged or destroyed. Luckily, we had daylight and no serious opposition.

On company scale, we had minor accidents every week. We also sent people home for the duration. On regimental scale the losses were indefensible. In eight weeks a dreamy farm boy could be made mean, tough, fast and lionhearted; could load, aim and shoot a rifle; throw a grenade; dig a hole in a rock, and run like a deer. I was told to work on essentials, “that’s all they need. They’ll learn as they go along.” I regret not doing the job as well as I should – but, each week the classes moved down the conveyor. We never saw them again. How do you tell a parent, ‘your son was hurt in a stupid training accident,’ caused by an anxiety driven comrade, schooled by a well-meaning instructor who learned the deadly skill he was teaching – the night before. From the tenth row, they had gained something of value. That’s a lie and a damned shame. “Sit at my feet. I will teach, you will watch, listen and learn.” Aristotle, that is wrong.

We visit Camps out of our past, proudly wearing our unit emblems. We see young men and women at their essential training, before they go on to specialties, like electronic weapons, world wide internets and satellite maps. Those chosen for exceptional intelligence, knowledge, judgment and skills, do things we never did as well, with weaponry we could not have imagined. There seems to be little urgency, some sloppiness and grab-assing, no battles cutting them up as fast as they can be trucked forward. I watch them jogging, singing. The leaders are awesome, inspiring and I remember myself at their age. I believed every sacred word the old timers gave us, and confidently passed it on. “Trust me, recruit, I’ve forgotten more than you’ll ever know,” or – “I’ve been here a month longer than you. I read the book on this thing – twice.” “You question me one more time, and you’re busted.” Whoops! I watched classes and heard no questions. Tom Kelly was my best friend, funny, generous, always a little in debt and newly married. After a live fire / grenade course, Tom lined up to turn in his rifle for inspection. He slapped open the bolt, ejected the clip to show the piece was empty – and died standing up. The man behind him, exuberant and careless, fired his last round into Tom’s brain. He didn’t know about the one in the chamber and may be suffering with that ugly mistake to this day.           I know I am.

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