Dereliction of Duty: Training for Failure

There is an old quote that’s origins are debatable:  “The warriors, more than anyone, pray for peace.  For it is they, more than anyone, who must bear the greatest burdens of war.”  It is precisely this burden that dictates we strive for excellence in the training we provide to our warriors.  

My affiliation with the United States Armed Forces has spanned a period of 24 years, with a few breaks in service over the years.  I have served in two branches of the military; the U.S. Army, and the U.S. Navy.  I have also served in three separate components;  active duty, reserve, and the National Guard of two states.  I have trained with the Army, Navy, and the Marine Corps at various times on a wide variety of subjects over those years.  Needless to say, I’ve been around.    

As a former military instructor, I am very discriminating with regard to the training we provide our troops in today’s war-weary environment.  I have high standards when it comes to training and I learned those standards first hand in the active duty army many years ago.  Over the last seven years I have watched with disbelief as today’s troops are pushed through training sessions that I would struggle to even classify as sub-standard.  

Today’s low standards are not entirely restricted to the reserve components.  The active duty side of the house has also been impacted.  I have seen active duty training, conducted on a TRADOC post, that not only projected a “close enough” mentality, but taught improper tactics.  There are many factors that have played into the lowering of these standards;  political correctness, an entitlement culture, poor parenting and discipline, and a generation of young people uninterested in anything physically demanding.  This has created a culture designed to meet the lowest standard rather than produce the highest quality possible.  


The first disappointment I encountered upon my return to the military after an absence was that Drill Sergeants are no longer involved in AIT schools.  The old days of continuing that Drill Sergeant discipline all the way through initial training until you are sent to a gaining unit are gone.  AIT is now more similar to attending a boarding school than it is the tough and demanding world of Armies past.  The AIT students I have encountered in recent years, with some exceptions to be sure, don’t resemble soldiers of previous generations at all.  

Unmotivated, undisciplined, disrespectful, and poorly trained seems to have become the norm, at least it has in the reserve components.   Most new recruits in AIT are so pampered, undisciplined, and out of control, that weekend passes are a rarity.  The powers that be can’t seem to keep the kids from being stupid, getting arrested, or getting pregnant if they are allowed to leave the training area, so they simply keep them locked down for the duration of training in most cases.  This is not only a commentary on today’s young people, but a commentary on what I can only refer to as a fundamental lack of leadership.   It’s a direct reflection of our society itself. Everybody gets a trophy.  Nobody fails.  

The world of the warrior used to be an exclusive club.  Only those qualified and properly trained could join their ranks.  No more.  The only wash-outs that I have heard of in the last few years were those who either didn’t want to be there, or were caught committing a crime, usually drug related.  Otherwise, you can fail weapons qualifications and never pass a physical fitness test and still graduate basic training.  Not bad enough for you?  You can continue that failure through AIT and still be sent to your unit as an MOS qualified “soldier.”

I have seen this with my own eyes.  It is the exception, but the fact that it happens at all is a sad commentary on the state of the current generation.   My first experience with this reduction of standards came from my own flesh and blood.  When my son returned from basic training referring to his training post as “Relaxin’ Jackson” I knew there was a problem.  As luck would have it, I had the occasion to spend three months at Fort Jackson myself the following year.  It was very disappointing.    

During some down time I sat and observed as an “Instructor” was drilling a platoon on reacting to indirect fire.  They road marched along the grass between the buildings in two columns, weapons dangling in their hands as if they weighed thirty pounds, and spread out a whopping two or three meters apart.  Occasionally the “Instructor” would yell, “BOOM” and the troops would drop to the ground attempting to take up firing positions, if that’s what you wanted to call it.  At no time were any of the troops corrected for not reacting properly.  At no time were they told to spread out so they weren’t clumped together within the kill radius of a hand grenade.    

A combat experienced infantryman came over and sat next to me. “Whatcha doin’ Sarge?” He asked.  

“Watching someone teach people how to die.”  I said.  It was all that needed to be said.  He simply nodded.  We old timers have a very hard time dealing with these issues, especially when we attempt to correct them and are told to mind our own business.  Welcome to the new army.    

When I voiced my concerns to the training cadre, I was stoically informed that, “Well, we aren’t training infantry here.  These are all admin people.”   Wrong answer.  It doesn’t matter what your primary MOS, or secondary MOS might be.  You deserve to be trained effectively and correctly.  There is never an excuse for providing someone with inadequate training.  If by chance, and anyone who has spent more than a minute in the military knows it to be true, you happen to find yourself in a position to need those skills, your service owes it to you to ensure that you were trained in the same manner as someone who does it on a daily basis.  Especially in today’s combat environment, where there are no front lines and the attacks often occur in what used to be considered the rear echelon, every soldier needs to be taught how to fight and survive as if they are an infantryman.      

It has long been my belief that good people can be born, but good soldiers have to be made.  They have to be trained, disciplined, motivated, encouraged, and occasionally beaten down in order to forge the steel necessary to create an effective weapon.  If we aren’t providing them with those things, then we are allowing them to remain mediocre.  We are training them to fail.    

Drill Sergeants were typically the military’s method of providing this necessary guidance.  My first military school was Military Police school.  From day one of basic training, until graduation day as the Army’s newest soldier-cops, we were awakened by a too wide awake Drill Sergeant rolling his baton around the inside of a metal garbage can as “Bad to the bone” blared over the PA system.  Drill Sergeants were like mythical creatures to us in those days.  You did not cross them, you did not lose your military bearing, and you lived in fear of what they might do to you should you try to resist their demands.    

Having that character around you on a daily basis, someone to admire, something to aspire to, a guide to what it takes to be a good soldier is invaluable to a young person’s development.  We need to return to that process.  Unfortunately, due to political correctness, and the fear of perhaps injuring some poor kids self-esteem, Drill Sergeants have been neutered to the point of ineffectiveness.  God forbid a kid we are training to fight and possibly die for his country might get his feelings hurt.    

Now soldiers are monitored by school cadre with one of them pulling charge of quarters duty overnight.  The level of supervision is nearly nil and the youngsters are left to their own devices far too much.  This accounts for far too much freedom to do stupid things and get in trouble during the training cycle.  

These monitors may make you do some pushups, or give you a good swift talking to, but they will not yell at you, insult you, or elicit the kind of fear a gruff, powerfully built Drill Sergeant could elicit from a young MP.     The removal of the discipline is directly responsible for the lack of professionalism I have seen in today’s military.  We allow them to be sub-standard privates, then we promote them and allow them to be sub-standard NCOs.  In some MOSs, they are in such need of NCOs that promotion to E5 is automatic, based on time in grade.  Yes, that’s right, you no longer have to earn your stripes in some military occupations.  To top it off, its very easy to enter the military at the grade of E4 today, so occasionally, you get an E5 with two years of service, no experience, and no leadership skills who is now supposed to effectively lead troops.  

This reduction in standards has infiltrated the NCO academies as well.  The expectations are now so low that I have yet to hear of anyone actually failing WLC (formerly PLDC).  Based on my own observations, I know of several who should have failed, but they weren’t allowed to fail.  No NCO left behind.  

RESERVE VS GUARD:  different boss, different problems  

Over the years I have served in both Reserve and National Guard units.  Although the work schedule is more or less the same, the issues faced by the two entities can be very different.  National Guard troops have the benefit of their state determining a budget for training needs.  In my time in the Reserves however, typically it seemed as though we were given the scraps that were left over after the Active duty component was satisfied.  I served as the training NCO for one unit and it seemed like an endless struggle for resources and funding.  At virtually every turn, if we developed a great training plan, we would be shot down in the end by the dreaded reply from above:  “Sorry, there’s no funding left in the budget.”  

At one Naval Reserve unit it was typical for a standard issue of uniforms to take up to 18 months to arrive for a service member.  This was always blamed on budgets and funding, but I’m sure some of it had something to do with administrative incompetence.  I had the ability to purchase my own uniforms when I arrived at the unit, so, although I had never been issued any, I was always properly attired for all duty occasions.  I reminded my unit every drill weekend that my uniforms had not arrived and I always received the same response:  “We have to wait for more funding.”  

In the reserves I learned to be creative.  The Admiral was coming for a visit and a basic inspection of our unit one cool fall morning and, of course, he wanted all of his SEABEEs in their dress uniforms looking sharp.  I shocked everyone by showing up to the muster in civilian clothes.  I chose a nice suit.  I think it was blue, if I remember correctly.  The Admiral, however, did not appreciate my fashion sense.  

“Why aren’t you in uniform, Petty Officer?”  

“I’ve never been issued uniforms, Sir.  I was told to buy my own, but I’m waiting on funding.”  

The Admiral was not amused.  I received my uniform issue the following week.   The funding issues were always looming over us.  If you have never gone through the trouble of sending an entire battalion to a post for weapons qualifications only to be told upon your arrival that there were no rounds left, you haven’t lived.  I saw this happen twice in four years.   In the National Guard, we always seem to have the rounds necessary for qualification, but the resources to allow the troops to fire their weapons between qualifications doesn’t seem to exist.  For most troops in the Guard units I’ve encountered, their only chance to handle and fire live ammunition is during annual individual weapon qualifications.  I consider this a great disservice to our troops.  Those of us who are avid shooters, and have the resources to manage our marksmanship skills on our own, are the minority in most units.    


For all of the great accomplishments of advancing technology in our society today, my least favorite would have to be online training for military personnel.  As with many great ideas, the monster that was created eventually devours its master.  I’ve seen this time and again in the civilian corporate world as well.  Someone develops a great idea, creates the online resources to implement it, and rolls it out to the masses.  It starts as a way to reduce manpower costs, but once the program becomes mandatory, the tracking of that program’s participation and success must be documented.  

Eventually, the program becomes about tracking the program and loses sight of its original intent, which was to provide low cost, informative, and easily accessible training.  Today, there are so many mandatory online courses that a reserve or national guard soldier can’t complete them during a drill weekend.  

Much of the online training is expected to be completed on your own time, which means most soldiers aren’t going to do it.  This results in a mad rush to complete the training so it can go into a tracker to make someone with shiny things on their uniform happy.  Entire drill weekends throughout the year are dedicated to completing this training for the sake of tracking it.  Not only is this a complete waste of time for soldiers, but the subject matter generally has nothing to do with soldiering at all.  

Most of it is EEOC, sexual harassment, drug and alcohol education, or non-combat related safety training.   We spend more time educating troops on keeping their hands to themselves, like a bunch of third graders, than we do teaching them how to shoot, move, and communicate.  Again, it’s a reflection of our current society as well as a reflection of the lack of discipline that seems to infect it.    

These non-combat related, non-MOS related classes take up a tremendous amount of our training time in the national guard.  The result is that most drill weekends are spent completing required human resources and administrative tasks, completing an endless string of online classes, or generally doing anything other than actual military training.  Those actual military skill related classes that do occur are generally taught by unqualified persons and are done without the proper resources.  There simply isn’t enough time during the weekend to draw weapons, take everyone out for a full day of tactical training, clean your weapons, and complete all of the other tasks required by the powers that be.  So, since the hard thing is the easiest thing to get a consensus on neglecting, it never gets done.  Little or no actual training occurs on “training weekends.”  


Pre-deployment training consists of a lot of revisited basics that should be second nature to every qualified soldier.  Common tasks training (now called AWT), marksmanship, and things like MOUT training take up much of the process of preparing troops to go to war.  If we concentrated on those basic skills and missions during our supposed training time in the reserves and national guard, pre-deployment training time could be reduced accordingly, and total deployment time would follow suit.  Unfortunately, in today’s environment, most reserve and guard soldiers answer the deployment call more familiar with the meaning of quid pro quo harassment than they are the operation of an M249.  

This is not to say that all military training has fallen by the wayside.  There is still some great training available.  In fact, the U.S. military establishment is still the best provider of world-class combat skills training in the world.  I have participated in many excellent training courses and have had the pleasure of knowing some outstanding military instructors.  But, over the last few years they have been the exception, not the rule.  Courses that are left to the devices of the reserve and guard components are the ones that seem to be lacking the most.  

Before 2001, it had been a long time since the U.S. military was involved in a protracted ground war.  Our tactics and training in the 80’s and 90’s were still based on our experiences in Viet Nam.  Now, due to our pursuit of terrorists wherever we find them, our military is acquiring new skills, new equipment, and new tactics that will be passed along to the next generation of soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines.   If our current war provides us with nothing else, it will provide us with an entire generation of combat experienced warriors who will be the teachers, trainers, instructors, and mentors who can propel the standards of combat training to new heights.  It is my hope that the military establishment allows them to do so.  

This article was intended as a warning call.  As Warriors, we should never accept anything less than training excellence.  As instructors, we should be ashamed if we provide anything less.  We must not neglect our troops and we must not fail to provide them with the skills necessary for success on the battlefield.    

About the author: Ross Elder is a freelance writer and military reservist with over 20 years of combined experience as a trainer for both military and civilian organizations.