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Saturday, December 21, 2013

A Brief History of Military Training & Discipline

The history of military training & discipline is an important but often neglected part of military history. Soldiers must be trained and training camps and war games are as old as war itself. Modern military training carries on traditions of exercise, drill, and hazing that have been passed down from ancient times.

Roman military training consisted of running, marching with packs, and sword practice. The bulk of armies for most of history were infantry, so the emphasis on marching and formations then and later makes sense. Roman soldiers who failed to perform adequately in training were punished by being fed less food or worse-tasting food. See De Re Militari for more details.

Sun Tzu wrote much on the importance of discipline. He said that armies that have greater consistency in rewards and punishments are more likely to win. No matter how clever a general is, he cannot win unless he can get his subordinates to obey his orders.

Frederick the Great famously said that he wanted his men to be more afraid of their own officers than the enemy. His army had the harshest discipline of any in Europe at the time and it did correlate with battlefield success. So the conventional military wisdom is that troops must obey and they are trained to obey through rewards like medals and promotions and punishments like beatings, forced exercise, getting yelled at, etc. The shared experience of being hazed also helps for group cohesion.

Discipline is important. But like weapons and tactics, it needs to be updated from time to time. I suspect that there are many aspects of modern military training & discipline that are pointless and counterproductive.

Saluting is a good example of this. Since the advent of snipers, saluting has been avoided in forward areas to avoid attracting attention to officers. Saluting began in the middle ages when knights would have to lift the lids on their helmets so they could speak clearly. Even after soldiers stopped wearing helmets with face shields, the gesture lived on. My view is that this is a silly tradition that serves no purpose and should stop.

Running is another traditional and obsolete training practice. In the days when infantry was king, many battles were won when one side made a mad charge at the right time. In other battles, soldiers survived by running away at the right time. These days however, most of the running is pilots rushing to aircraft or other very short sprints. Most modern military personnel travel almost entirely by vehicle. The long-distance torture running the military likes so much served little purpose before and none now.

And then there is the hazing, yelling, etc. I have heard that one purpose of this is to get people used to the kind of stress found on the battlefield. Getting hazed is no doubt stressful but I really doubt if it is anywhere near the level brought about by actual battle. I don't think there is anyway to safely simulate the fear from life-or-death situations. The other reason for the hazing is to break down a person's will and make them obedient. It is very hard to make people into robots and soldiers who can think for themselves fight better.
There should been a few clear orders and strict enforcement of them.

I have often wondered about how I would run a boot camp. Everyone who wanted in would have to pass a fitness test first. After that, they have to retest once a year similar to what the military does now. Why waste time getting people in shape? Save time and only recruit fit people.

I think instead of training people in platoons, I would set up a series of stations that could be completed in any order as an individual or small group- sort of like a summer camp. I predict that most recruits would go to the weapon stations first. Why not? Let them have some fun.

There would be stations for rifles, pistols, grenades, first aid, map reading, rules & regs, booby traps, secrecy, and an infiltration course. Once all their boxes are checked, they get a medal and move on.

No running, no marching, no rifle-flipping, no saluting, no obsessing about uniforms. You go to learn a few basic tasks in a week or two and then you move on to more specific training. There are only a few things that all troops need to know so basic training does not need to be long. In the past almost everyone was infantry so basic training was all the training they got. These days, military jobs are so specialized there's not much point in traditional basic training.

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