U.S. Army Changed by Iraq, but for Better or Worse?
Historically, the National Training Center, the Army's premier combat training facility, has focused on simulating combat between tank-heavy mechanized forces in open, high-desert terrain. But over the past year, it has added urban areas, hired some Iraqi Americans to work in them and interact with troops, and even put caves up in the hills where those playing opposing guerrilla forces can hide weapons and other supplies.
If Army soldiers treat the "locals" well in the urban areas, they learn more about those weapons caches. If they don't, they find out about the weapons the hard way. New training scenarios also require Army commanders to handle everything from combat operations to refugee relief simultaneously.
The Army also has added 8,000 slots to the normally 25,000 infantrymen it trains annually at Fort Benning, Ga. To handle the surge, and to replace drill sergeants deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan to train locals there, it has mobilized about 100 reservists to drill the new soldiers.
Even mechanics and clerks now are given training in combat operations, such as defending a convoy or reacting to an ambush, said Bob Seger, acting deputy chief of staff for operations at the Army's Training and Doctrine Command. "This is introductory training for everybody, not just infantry or cavalry scouts," he said. "From initial entry training of soldiers all the way up to general officers, we are designing new courses and doing everything we can to get people ready to go."
Wallace, who is head of the Army's Combined Arms Center, said the changes in Army training are the most significant since the "training revolution" of the early 1980s, when the service came out of its post-Vietnam funk and based its training on realistic mock combat against a professional opposing force with trained observers.
Not everyone is as sanguine. Army insiders report quiet worry in the service about the recent decision to deploy to Iraq the opposing forces from two of the Army's three major training centers. "To move our best trainers to the combat zone proves to you how stretched the Army is," said retired Army Col. John Antal.
Moves like that indicate that the service may be eating its seed corn. "We need to keep our eye on this," said one senior Army general, who worries about the possibility of keeping tens of thousands of troops in Iraq for years. "We'll survive in the short term, but we have to be careful not to inadvertently cut our collective throat in the long term."
The greatest long-term effect of the difficult environment in Iraq may be on the generation of younger officers and soldiers who have led platoons and companies there over the past year. "The complexity, unpredictability and ambiguity of postwar Iraq is producing a cohort of innovative, confident and adaptable junior officers," said retired Army Lt. Col. Leonard Wong, an expert in military personnel issues.
Wong has just completed for the Army War College a study for which he interviewed more than 50 lieutenants and captains serving in Iraq. His conclusion: "Our troops aren't just competent; Iraq also is teaching them capacity -- they can handle a lot more. With all the incredibly bad-news stories you hear out of Operation Iraqi Freedom, this is a good-news story -- if we leverage it correctly."
His concern, he said, is that the Army will not know what to do with those agile, intellectually creative officers, and on their return will simply put them back into the lockstep of garrison life, rather than seek to find ways to nurture their newfound skills. One captain who recently returned from a year of combat in Iraq noted that he was returned to "restrictive training limitations of the past era," making it more difficult to convey some of the hard-earned knowledge he brought back.
But retired Col. Douglas Macgregor, who left the Army last month, has a darker view of the choices those younger officers are likely to make. He said he believes that the situation in Iraq is such a mess, with the Army pursuing "wrongheaded tactics," that, "in the end, our best soldiers, sergeants, lieutenants and captains will leave in disgust, and we will be unprepared for the future regional Middle Eastern war that our weak performance in Iraq now makes inevitable."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company