Angry drill instructors

Eugene Sledge, With The Old Breed:

I’ll be the first to admit that not all of my instructors have been realists and perfectionists. Some have been bullies, some have been jackasses, and some have been straight-up morons. But speaking generally, there is a method to the madness and that method is to help the trainee adapt to a difficult lifestyle as fast as possible.

Just do a Google search on that and you will find videos where say British soldiers talk about American marine corps training.

I’m not a military man, but I’d argue that it’s not the harsher basic training environment that makes the average Marine what they are vis-a-vis the average Soldier, but rather the institutional traditions, expectations and knowledge that are part and parcel of being a Marine.

In other words, they’re taught that a Marine does X, Y and Z, and Marines do not do A, B and C. And those things are backed up by 200+ years of being a more or less small, high quality volunteer force, along with a multitude of good invididual Marine examples and unit examples to look back on. They also set themselves up as an elite club, so to speak- not everyone can be a Marine, so you are special. But with being special, comes certain responsibilities and expectations. And so forth… Most of the rah-rah macho Marine stuff isn’t actually aimed at the outside world- it’s aimed internally.

Contrast this with the Army, who has a sort of fundamental problem relative to the Marine Corps- in peacetime, it has historically been a similar small, volunteer force for the most part, but its biggest fights were fought with mostly conscript and militia forces, and since WWII it’s been pretty large. So it’s probably harder to instill that same level of professionalism and esprit de corps in all those people- you can’t make that exclusive club argument, and a lot of the historical examples look more random than triumphs of Army values and traditions, because they were random draftees who happened to be heroic, or units of self-selected draftees led by draftee officers who turned out to be terrific fighting units (for example, Easy Company of the 506th PIR as chronicled in “Band of Brothers”).

The harsher boot camp is just part of reinforcing that “otherness” of being a Marine- I kind of suspect it’s not harsh for its own sake, but for that reason.

I can remember my dad give a serious ass chewing to an employee that seriously deserved it … almost 20 minutes without any foul language. I was in deep awe over it. He retired after 30 in the army having started enlisted and going into the officer program after 5 years enlisted. Awesome man.

Me? I swear like a ground pounder. I attribute it to my original work being in a male dominated environment with guys with no inner filters…

Oh yeah. I remember back in my Army days, the drill sergeants could reduce a man to a blubbering pool of tears without even resorting to innuendo or physical threats. That really made an impression on me, the ability to exercise that kind of rhetorical restraint while giving someone a serious dressing-down.

But this is far afield of the OP question - for elite/volunteer units, the fear of failure is generally enough to motivate people. There’s basically no humiliation or chastisement required at that level.

Ask him about Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii. That’s where they train, since around the early 70s.


Dude, you ever been to High Wah Ya?

I don’t get that training method. Why undermine your troops’ self-confidence instead of building it up? I mean, even if they pass the course, won’t they still have doubts? Seems like a recipe for impostor syndrome.

I mean, I get the idea - the trainee is supposed to “prove them wrong.” I think, though, that it can backfire on them, and probably does. Better for instructors to tell them that they CAN do it, that they have faith in them, and thus force the trainees to work hard to prove them right.

And will they actually learn anything? Someone may say “oh, an academic setting is different”, but I never met a teacher that put the students down who could teach worth shit. A person that you know to be fair who points out your specific fail points while saying “but I know you can improve” is both better motivation and actually… actually pointing out things where you need to do better, not just coming up with shit that’s got nothing to do with your actual ass.

I think part of the deal is creating soldiers who believe that the DI can make them do anything, and obey automatically, without question. When given a hand grenade and told to charge a machine gun, they won’t say, “Hey, wait a minute!”

After Navy Officer Candidate School (which is run by Marine drill instructors, and in my understanding is as tough as Marine boot camp), I went to a series of technical schools for nuclear submarine officers. None of them involved yelling aside from a few instances in which someone majorly screwed up.

You don’t need to demean people for that.

No, but if it works…

Basically the entirety of military history would indicate otherwise. The goal is not just to make someone obedient (although that is extremely important) but to generate stress and noise and confusion. When you see a soldier being screamed at by three people at once, they are deliberately trying to confuse and disorient the trainee. The goal is for the trainee to adapt and get them to focus on what they are supposed to be doing, despite the fact that they are surrounded by screaming antagonists.

As to whether you actually learn anything… Don’t overestimate the importance of basic training. The point of basic training is to indoctrinate the soldier in a new group culture, build a focused and attentive mindset, and teach them the absolute basics of how to march and shoot. You actually learn very little in basic.

The real learning does take place in classrooms. (And there are classroom portions in BCT). That’s a big part of why you have a clear distinction between the “basic” training phase and the “advanced” training phase. You will notice that basically every school starts of with lots of screaming and indoctrination, but when they want you to actually learn something the Drill Sergeants very noticeably step back and calm down. There is a method to the madness. By the end of the training cycle, the Drills actually raise their voices very seldom.

But you can scream at people without abusing them. I was screamed at a lot during basic training - stuff like “Move! Move!” or “They’re shooting at you!” - as well as stuff like trying to tie a tourniquet while one of my squad leaders was slapping me on the helmet and shouting. Stress is fine, but it doesn’t have to be abusive. The only insults my squad leaders and platoon sergeant would use were those pertaining to our young age (infancy, actually), in experience, and general state of shock; all things that we could grow out of if we tried. Our officers, who played Good Cop to the NCOs’ Bad Cop, would never shout at us, of course, unless we did something that posed an operational risk to ourselves or others (poor range discipline, for instance, would be guaranteed to get a fast, effective ass chewing from our lieutenant). At most, they would let us know they were disappointed in us.

IMHO, blind obedience is the lowest form of discipline. This isn’t Napoleonic times, when all enlisted men had to do is march in rank, shoot and charge. Today, it’s never “Take that machine gun nest”; instead, it’s either “Follow me, we’re taking that machine gun nest!”; or “Grab two guys and take that machine gun nest.” In the first case, the soldier goes because his commander has faith in him and trusts him to watch his back; in the second case, the soldier is in charge, which means he has to think of a solution; in both cases, a disciplined soldier does it because it’s his job and because doing so could save his friends’ lives.

Soldiers follow orders under fire not blindly, but because they have faith in their commanders, because they know their jobs, and because they can tell a good order from a bad one.

Elite forces aren’t likely to find themselves in stressful situations where they will also be getting encouraging affirmations from others. Motivation has to come primarily from within, and in spite of exterior forces discouraging mission completion. Everyone has doubts and insecurities–sometimes doubts about self, sometimes doubts about working with a team, and these can be more detrimental to success than physical weakness. If you’re in a Ranger or SEAL type school, it’s a good bet you’ve got the physical toughness to succeed, but those inner demons need to be crushed or at least enslaved and redirected. Instructor is just echoing your own doubts, laying them out in front of you, making them real by saying them so you have to confront them. If you graduate there is no doubt you deserve it and that your ass is truly bad.

It is understood, even early in Basic, that Drill is not the enemy so much as the personification of forces working against you. Once that sinks in even the harshest instructor becomes a mentor who just happens to know about more types of curve balls life is going to throw at you. I found myself laughing a lot in Basic when Drill would change the rules just as we were getting good at the routine. It was funny because life is exactly like that. There are so many unknowns that are beyond your control that you need to be thinking and assessing the situation all the time. You can’t always anticipate what the change is, but anticipating some kind of change keeps you from getting caught completely off guard.

And it’s not like there is never any positive reinforcement, they just don’t dwell on it. You can finish a complex task, and do it well, and you will hear, “Good. NEXT!” You’re walking on clouds for the rest of the day.

And just to be clear, I did Basic as an old man (26 years old) so I was a lot more philosophical about it than the 17 & 18 year-olds who took everything personally. My info on the advanced training comes from discussions I’ve had with SF, SEALS, Rangers, and Delta so it’s second hand, in a way. These same people were my leadership and mentors, and helped me to craft training techniques for my crew.

That’s why it’s Basic Training. It’s to get a baseline standard for all of those who are in the process of becoming soldiers. The Marines throw an EGA at them after boot camp. The army recognizes that they aren’t fully qualified soldiers until after advanced training. Mine was an additional 17 weeks and there was little yelling.

For me, it was 18 weeks of basic training followed by 8 weeks of advanced infantry training, although it was the same company with the same command staff in the same base, so the difference between the two courses was mostly a formality. The shouting died out gradually as the weeks past, so that by the time we deployed, we had developed into a regular infantry company, albeit a junior one.

There are some tasks you have to learn to do while people are shooting at you. Some of this training is done in a stressful environment, because you have to learn to do things in a stressful environment. But (1) some militaries work mostly in environments where people aren’t shooting at them. (I put the Israeli military in this category), and (2) even for the shock troops like the US marines, there’s a lot more to being in the marines than just being shot at.

The Israeli military is known to do less yelling and intimidation than the US military. For whatever reason. But I think that the reason might be partly that they mostly do guard duty, and occupy their own country: entry level grunts need to be trained to be polite to people, and to operate at peak efficiency in places where nothing is happening for long periods of time.

My Daddy used to say the first week of boot camp was like kindergarten, learning how to walk inline, crying for Mommy and pee-ing the bed. If you made it to week 2 you were probably gonna succeed.