“Did the Wars (Iraq, Afghanistan) make US Forces soft?”
I know this is a counterintuitive question, but I’ve actually had a couple senior servicemen suggest this. The argument was that with the total focus on deployments, many day to day, but important, soldier skills, including fitness, non-theatre military skills, declined. Also, because so many guys were needed, many were kept and promoted who wouldn’t have made the cut in tighter times.
A couple years back, we asked this question to our subscribers and facebook followers. Their responses are below…
– Rob Shaul
Like everything I think the answer is “it depends.” I know that is a cop-out, but look at the pros gained from over a decade at war:
- -Combat experience that cannot be replicated in training
- -Learning how little we actually know about other people’s languages,
- culture, and religion – and making attempts to fix it.
- -Realizing that most PT programs are not good enough for preparing you
- for combat situations (sprinting, climbing, dodging – while in full
- kit). I have seen a huge emphasis on units now doing things like
- Military Athlete, CrossFit, etc.
- -Multiple other Lessons Learned
Now we get to the Cons:
-Combat experience let soldiers think they didn’t have to train as hard or continue to learn, because they have “been there, done that.”
-Relaxed standards meant that we let in people we would not have normally and we are paying for that.
In my opinion the pros outweigh the cons. We are in the process of getting rid of a lot of guys that should have never been allowed in. Do I think guys didn’t PT as hard overseas? I think it depends on thier situation. I know when I was at a nicer FOB with access to good food, I would lift and work my ass off. When I was out at a firebase with nothing but MREs and a prison gym set-up, I still worked out, but not nearly as hard.
I think Iraq made us soft overall. We got too lazy. We lived on big FOBs and drove everywhere. I think SOF lost focus of it’s mission for years and instead of training HNSF, everybody wanted to be a door kicker and do night raids.
I feel differently about Afghansitan. We walked most places. The terrain was shitty. We slept in the dirt. The enemy fought hard, but we fought harder.
I guess all-in-all the changes coming are from a different generation of soldier and not from the wars. These younger soldiers are more educated and used to a life of easy living for the most part. We don’t really make things as a country anymore so they get used to white collar jobs and immediate gratification.
Sorry for the rant.
I’m a Sergeant First Class 18D in 5th Special Forces Group with seven combat tours. I joined in 1999 and remember the pre-war army.
Regarding whether or not the wars have made the army soft, soft is the wrong word. There certainly is a certain percentage of personnel who would have been chaptered out for a failure to meet standards prior to 9/11, but the majority of these personnel are in support positions.
The fact is, on September 10th, 2001, we knew a lot about spit and polish and very little about real combat. While serving in the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) in early 2002, I recall going from just above sea level at an airbase in Pakistan to combat at 9000 feet in Afghanistan in less than 48 hours. In addition to struggling with altitude sickness (along with everyone else), I had only the old school army small first aid dressing on my person, and was depending on the platoon medic to treat me if injured. My high and tight sure looked good though. My uniform was straight too.
In the intervening years, we’ve accumulated incalculable combat wisdom. The typical enlisted man in light infantry and SOF units is fitter, smarter, and infinitely more experienced in combat than his predecessors from 15 years ago. Many of our senior leaders pine for the days of boot shining and “breaking starch” in our BDUs. In my opinion, that is because it is easier to assess subordinates through superficial measures of competence such as haircuts or ability to refrain from placing their hands in their pockets. Actually getting to know your men and assessing their combat relevant abilities is much harder, and many leaders can’t be bothered because they are too busy occupying a swivel chair and doing PowerPoint battle drills.
As a young Sergeant in Baghdad in 2004, I realized the army had a unique opportunity to build a cadre of combat hardened future leaders in the NCO and officer corps that would lead the Army to never imagined levels of tactical and technical competence. Unfortunately, the bureaucratic nature of Army service drove most of our most stellar junior officers and NCOs from the service because, generally speaking, initiative and creativity are punished, and “Yes Men” and those who prioritize style over substance are rewarded. I’m not a bitter guy with an axe to grind. That’s just the way it is.
Most laughable is the idea that fitness has fallen by the wayside due to the wars. The fact is understanding and application of combat fitness has leapt light years in the last decade. CrossFit, Gym Jones, Military Athlete, THOR3, and similar programs have revolutionized functional fitness for tactical athletes.
A decade ago, the regular army was running three plus miles four days a week, rucking once, and doing random amounts of push ups, sit-ups, pull ups, dips, and rope climbs. Special Operators were largely doing Muscle and Fitness Chest/Tri and Back/Bi splits combined with tons of steady state running and rucking.
Today, if you walk into the 5th SFG training facility, you see strong, fast guys performing functional movements with excellent form, giving lie to the old reputation of Green Berets as old, fat guys.
By and large the bureaucracy and command climate within the Army leave much to be desired, and we place innumerable constraints on ourselves as a force. Conversely, the generic guy on the ground within SOF is as good as he’s ever been.
It’s not the wars… it’s the over-arching culture of sensitivity and compliance that begins in initial entry training. Its the Commanders who are risk-averse in garrison and let malingering or otherwise non-performing Soldiers pull various cards to do less work or get over on the system.
NCOs outside of line units don’t push their Soldiers to their limits. As such, I don’t think they fully indoctrinate them. I see a lot of today’s NCOs as more of supervisors than leaders. As a Commander, I want to empower those NCOs to lead their Soldiers in such a way that enables the unit’s overall success. If that includes ‘smoking’ or physical corrective training, so be it. However, I’ve seen entire chains of command relieved for ‘knowledge of’ “hazing”… which would have been entirely acceptable just a few years ago. The powers that be chalk this up as positive change – claiming that it isn’t necessary to train our forces. The uncomfortable truth is that we (Army leaders) are in the business of making people do incredibly difficult things. By making, I mean: compelling, influencing, motivating, inspiring, etc… but sometimes just MAKING. The discipline we establish in garrison will save our ass in Combat…. but we aren’t establishing discipline because we aren’t allowing leaders to LEAD. We are crippled by special interest, soft-skill-centric policies and restrictions.
I’d agree with the original comment… but it isn’t because of the wars. Over 60% of my formation has never deployed.
The answer to the question of whether GWOT deployments made soldiers soft is a decisive no. To even insinuate otherwise indicates that someone was out of touch or assumes, wrongly, that only they maintained a high standard and skill-set Of course the military recruited, promoted and retained people that it shouldn’t have, but so does everyone, and it’s a repetitive cycle of every war the US has ever been involved in.
As to the proficiency, short of D&C and the other kind of non-sense incompetent garrison commandos and conventional Marines put an enormous amount of emphasis on, let’s just say that it’s impossible for someone to become a lesser warfighter by being in theater.
Depending on which units you’re talking about, you will see the same tendencies, good and bad, amplified through the stress that deployments bring, much less exposure to hostile fire or continual combat engagements. Any generalization about detriment or improvement has to therefore be met with a critical eye, to be honest.
For the last ten years, and actually ending with my return to Jackson in January of this year, I served in an organization directly combating terrorism in both theaters. Most of the troops I worked with were SOF, and often SMU’s, but we did integrate with and use conventional forces at times.
Something I observed is that the boys (and few females attached to them) would get their workouts in when they woke up, usually in the late afternoon. If we were around units that had junior troops, such as Blue and Red, I routinely observed team leaders running their men through different drills and actively training at the range prior to the night’s festivities.
Those were my observations downrange but when those units rotate back out of theatre they don’t go home, kick up their feet and wait for the next call. Instead they go back, and depending on their leave rotation, usually take a few days to two weeks off. Then it’s right back into a train-up for war. This is the main reason why so many marriages fail – there is hardly time for anything else but training and preparation in a conventional unit, much less a SOF unit.
For comparison’s sake, I left the Regiment when high and tights still ruled the day and we were training for war on a daily basis. It was a never-ending cycle of RRF1-2-3. We were sharp and ultimately many of the senior leaders in place helped transform the Regiment into the unit it is now, one which very easily blurs the lines between white and black SOF. I can without a doubt state that the modern day Ranger is not only stronger and more proficient at combat than I ever was, but also a more accomplished professional.
The same can be said for conventional units, in which soldiers often didn’t have training budgets, but out of necessity now get range time both during deployments and back at the their home base. They have had to and the funds have been allocated, thus far, for that to continue for another few years. Of course the current administration and their RIF’s will create enormous issues for conventional units, and will impact SOF as well, but the latter to a lesser degree overall.
While the guys will bitch that they can’t go to courses only SMU’s used to get, they’ll still get more range time than anyone else in the big mil. It’s an unfortunate cycle, but war is the best refinement any warrior can get – it’s the ultimate competition, testing skill, courage and ability.
Even though you were asking about the US military, I thought I’d throw in my opinion, for whatever it’s worth.
I got out earlier this year after 12 years in the Aussie army. I spent the last 6 years in SOF, did a bunch of trips to the ‘ghan, etc.
Even though I’m out, I still see the boys daily (I didn’t move away) and keep caught up on what’s going on with the unit. This year there has been a huge emphasis on getting back to ‘regular army things.’ After years of constant deployments, with little to no dress standards overseas, they’re trying to get everybody back into wearing cams, not wearing hiking boots, shaving, and all that usual army BS. “Even though you’re SF you’re still in the army” is the catch-cry of this year.
I think this is a big part of the ‘non-theatre military skills’ that are apparently lapsing. The other part is (in my opinion) just the usual ‘soldiers these days are too soft, not like we were’ that SNCOs always believe. I joined before AFG/Iraq, and that was already the view.
As one of the comments on facebook pointed out, the idea that years of constant war made us softer than years of peace and mil-skills competitions seems a little silly.
As for the idea that guys who would ordinarily get push out were allowed to stay in due to the op tempo, I couldn’t really comment on the US military. All I can say is that the Americans I worked with in my time were awesome guys, and I’ve got a heap of respect for them.
I know you asked about the US, but the Australian army is in a bit of a similar position right now.
Just giving you some of my opinions on the effect on physical fitness during this wartime from the SEAL Team perspective. I know from my standpoint that it hasn’t made SEALs soft, by majority, and most of my teammates and other operators would agree with me. Even during deployments to both theaters team guys hold themselves to a high standard. When they are not operating, depending on how long in between ops, guys are eating, sleeping and hitting the gym. What I have noticed with SEALs is we take a few different concepts of how we workout. Me personally, I have done the horsemen program early on in my career, and for the past three years I have followed military athlete. Others either go the “meathead” route, triathlon style PT, or crossfit. There is also the Tactical Athlete Program ran by Josh Everett that some follow. Whatever it is guys keep up on it.
All for the most part during our workup and deployments do not let themselves get soft. Even the older more seasoned operators are usually very fit. I am young, at age 24, so I haven’t dealt with the “long haul” injuries or other physical problems. Although, just personally I haven’t let up, and I am in better shape than I was in BUD/S. Although team guys seem to “break” at a certain point in their careers whether it be a back, knee, or shoulder related issue. But I believe there is much more knowledge with training and injury prevention now then there was back in the day so there should be a decline in injuries. That’s why I like how much of your programming is focused around durability. Even during long workups guys are keeping up on PT, and long training hard training blocks where guys aren’t working out as much it is made up by the training itself. For example, land warfare we do very long immediate action drills that include lots of down man drills that are a real gut check. Same goes for deployment. So I guess where I’m getting at is in our community guys haven’t gotten soft. Only sustained injuries over a long career.
We definitely beat up our bodies and I’ve seen that take a toll on the older guys. Even then, after a surgery guys usually bounce back and you never would have known they got hurt. Even dealing with achy joints and backs etc. Then again the mental toughness and never quit attitude has a lot to do with it. Some guys come back from deployment maybe a little skinnier and beat up but are back at it. Also you have to look at our deployment length compared to Army. Traditionally we do 4-6 month deployments on average, and Army usually much longer. So that may have something to do with this theory that these wars have made guys soft but that’s just speculation. There is a standard held in this community and if guys are soft or being mediocre that’s usually not put up with. It is also a great liability. So sorry for the long winded jumbled explanation here. Just kind of throwing all my thoughts on paper. Bottom line guys aren’t getting soft unless they are letting themselves get soft. Not because of these deployments. No real excuses in my book. Only hinderance towards physical fitness would be injuries I mentioned prior. Hope this gives a little insight.
I don’t think it was the wars themselves. I believe the wars identified weaknesses already in place due to the archaic PT regimen the Army utilized. The PT was structured for peacetime physical “maintenance”. The birth of the Crossfit raze and other “functional” training methodologies brought to light a lack of knowledge on the part of those responsible for implementation of Army PT standards. (I use Army because I haven’t the experience to speak for other services. Though it does seem the Marines realized the need for a more specific and functional PT methodology before anyone else did.)
With the duration of combat operations in 2 different theaters with differing physical challenges, it seems that those who were in the positions requiring sustained/high physical output realized the need for something better than what the Army was prescribing. I think the advent of Crossfit and more importantly your system, Military Athlete, it helped correct or mitigate the deficiencies. I give you credit due to the fact you realized that the military performance requirement is truly sport specific. Crossfit is fine but it’s for a more broad spectrum of fitness rather than keying in to what the military requires.
All that being said, I believe any weakness or softness in our military forces is either due to lack of training time which is dictated by operational requirements. I know guys will do what they can when they can but without a steady regimen it’s easy to lose what you can’t maintain. That doesn’t mean they are out of shape as a whole but they certainly aren’t at peak. The other issue is from those that hold on to the “old ways” of thinking in relation to PT. “Why aren’t pushups, sit ups and running enough?”. It’s all they know and change scares them is my guess. I think over time those that have utilized the functional/sport specific mindset when training will become those charged with creating a new PT regimen and with any luck it will bring us around to a more fit and durable force.
I am not sure the Wars themselves made the US Forces soft, but I think the concession of producing quality personnel in order to build up the quantity of personnel needed over the years made the US Forces soft. Couple that with numerous people being promoted too quickly, in order to fill in the gaps where quality members left the military or retired (medically or non medically), there has been a compromise on everything from fitness to leadership.
Mission accomplishment should be the fundamental focus for all US Forces. Unfortunately complacency and a lack of accountability has set in and it runs rampant through all branches and this comes from a focus on self promotion and political games within the military. These also made our US Forces soft.
My first two deployments where to Ramadi Iraq as a JTAC. The mission and working out is all there was to do and the only food was at the chow hall or MREs. You didn’t have all these fast food, internet café, AAFES shops. On my third deployment to Mosul I finally saw what was offered at a large FOB, I was utterly disgusted by the lack of focus on the mission and the wide spread of complacency. My only saving grace was my SNCO and mentor, he kept us focused on the mission and our fitness (both mental and physical).
Hahaha day to day soldier skills, non theatre military skills ? Sounds like code for bullshit like haircuts and no tattoos and clean uniforms…
Fitness is driven by self motivation, it shouldn’t suffer because of deployments. I’ve heard this before “this generation isn’t as tough as the ‘greatest’ generation”, and I agree with that for the populous as a whole but maybe it’s time these guys are given some credit. 12 years of continuous war made them soft? I’d say the complete opposite. I’d say tired and mentally beaten but not soft. IMHO
Maybe soft isn’t the word I’d use, experienced and less tolerant of garrison life for sure. The doctrine and regulations of each service and unit has been put through the test of multiple deployments, and those whose conduct is most heavily regulated by policies, regulations and doctrine (a guideline frequently misused) are fed up with activities not essential to locating, closing with and destroying the enemy. If anything, I’d say there’s a bit of an identity crisis with the fight occurring between the worn-out combatants, and the garrison folk.
In my opinion, 1. The Wars showed our vulnerabilities 2. We, as a nation not the Force, became less aggressive and 3. Our international reputation and credibility are lower.
Not shining boots didn’t make us soft. Politics made us soft. I would take any Falluja or Sangin vet over a Desert Storm vet any day.
When you say promoted, why wouldn’t they get promoted and why did they get promoted. And when you say soft, what are you saying, that the leaders aren’t doing their part? Let me know cause I can take you down a none political rabbit hole.
I want to start this by saying I am speaking generalities. I agree, I would not say soft, however our priorities as a military have changed. What was a spit and polish military went thru wartime changes. The military relaxed it’s policy on recruits. Because of the necessity to fill gaps. Tattoo’s were the least of the issues, preexisting mental illness, abuses, legal issues so and so forth. PT has always been a challenge for this newer generation. Instead if playing outside they are playing inside a network. We have had to soften our approach with this new generation. Because the lack parental motivation. But every generation goes thru it’s changes. Technology forces us to change. At some degree technology along with society has made us (US) soft. But that not something the military can fix. Remember the military is nothing but a condensed version of the US.
So the definition of being “Hard” is living the garrison lifestyle? Really? Somebody please set me straight . Garrison life breeds cowards and the ” leadership” of do as I say, not as I do. Or what we like to refer to as; the only standard is the double standard. Garrison life is political and soft, with no real danger of Mr. I hate America wielding an AK-47 and screaming ‘ I like man love boy sex and farm animals, now I kill you ‘. Garrison life always attempts to replicate deployment stress through training exercises but always falls short because of CRM’s and ego measuring fuck, fuck games, dog and pony shows and someone sucking his next rank from someone else’s cock. Society has grown soft.
You can always maintain a standard… You just have to enforce it
I agree….its a cycle….you build your soldiers up physically, mentally, and skill wise in peacetime so they will prevail in the fight. Extended operations take a toll and grind down a soldier physically and mentally….(Extended operations = poor nutrition, sleep deprivation, daily mental stress and boredom)….if you want to test that, get an athlete to try working with 3 to 4 hrs of sleep per day, change their diet to limit their calories and intake of fresh fruit, vegetables, quality protein, and replace those calories with processed foods high in sugar and fat. While doing this, have them maintain their physical fitness training regimen. Within a few weeks, you will start to see a decline in their fitness and performance. I think the key to all this is making sure that your soldiers are cycled out of the operational environment for adequate periods so that they can be built up again.
Does going to the desert every other 6 months, the inability to have the same schedule for longer than two weeks, emotional/mental stress, divorce, heavy drinking and bad dieting all have a negative effect on physical fitness? Yes. Do we have the war to thank for a massively increased focus on strength and conditioning programs that were designed specifically for guys whose entire job is to carry weight on their back and shoot bad guys in the face? Also yes. I could be wrong, but I don’t think we had thor3 (and whatever the other services have), military athlete, gym jones, etc. prior to September 11th. We’ve suffered a lot, but we’ve also learned a lot.
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