"YOUR JOB is to kill the enemy and take ground! After you finish four years here I want you to realize all of your training comes down to that bottom line. That is what your job is as a platoon leader in combat."
I made that statement during a lecture on "Leadership" I gave to military students in the spring of 1986. I had looked out over the young faces of the men and women cadets and it suddenly struck me that these innocent, naive, almost-officers could soon be in charge of an infantry platoon, preparing to fight the enemy. I mused how woefully unprepared they were for the reality of what they would be facing. And so I hit them between the eyes with my remark about killing.
Needless to say, I got their attention. I also got the attention of someone else in the audience, a high-ranking officer who had been sitting in the back of the classroom during my lecture. Afterwards, I was admonished: "We do not call it 'Killing the enemy.' We call it, 'Servicing the target.'"
That struck me as absurd. In a lecture to some of America's future military officers, the phrase "killing the enemy" was regarded as impolite. That attitude illustrates a lack of mental preparedness for war within the U.S. military that ought to bother all of us -- especially at a time like this when our armed forces could be drawn into combat in the Persian Gulf or Central America.
I have given enough lectures at military schools and Army forts and have talked to enough active-duty Army officers and ROTC instructors to know that lots of these bloodless euphemisms abound in the modern Ar-my's classrooms. Not only are words being used to hide the reality of combat, but the hard-learned lessons of platoon leadership in Vietnam has been practically ignored for all the years since the war ended.
A few officers, at risk to their careers, have ignored the Pentagon's desire to forget the Vietnam War. Ontheir own, they have fought to include in their teaching the lessons of leadership learned in Vietnam. However, this has been an individual effort and not official Army policy. The official Army policy has resulted in an MBA-style approach to management.
This amnesia about Vietnam is bad for the Army. It is also grossly unfair to our inexperienced young officers. It leaves them unprepared for combat and means they are more likely to make the kind of mistakes that get their own people killed.
The Army these days is teaching management, not leadership. This may be appropriate for all of the administrative jobs the Army does, but it is not appropriate for the combat units: infantry, artillery and armor. You cannot manage men in combat. You must lead men in combat, and we do not have enough officers today who are ready for that job.
If I were in charge of training combat officers, I would start by establishing a class called, "The Dark Side of Command." It would be about the basic realities of combat: killing the enemy and taking ground. This is a side of command that is rarely discussed within the military. It's hard to talk about because it involves subjects that are taboo in our society -- subjects like death, fear, ego, destruction, and mental illness.The "dark side" assumes that in war, there are no universal truths except the will to survive and the need to live with yourself afterward.
An officer's first job is to keep his men under control. That is complicated, because men in combat are on the ragged edge, and if they sense weakness on the part of an officer, or if he condones an immoral act, they will lose respect for him -- and he will lose control. He is the one who must set the standard. His conduct determines whether his men conduct themselves with dignity or become a mob, operating with a mob mentality in which all common sense and decency are washed away.
An officer must also understand how to deal with human nature under stress. He must be aware of each soldier's motivation, philosophy, personal habits and beliefs, peer-group pressures, and societal background. And he must balance these mental factors in an environment of sleepless nights, fatigue, hunger, thirst, bad weather, stress, anger, anxiety, killing and dying.
In the perfect platoon, most of the men will be law-abiding, moral, decent people. And it is this premise on which new officers' training and preparation as soldiers is based.
But the perfect platoon does not exist, and officers should be taught that from the outset. They need to know that within their platoon there may be people who gamble, drink, take drugs, sleep with prostitutes, get into fights, are racists, deal in the black market, defy authority, connive, malinger, are stupid, have mental illness, are major felons, rapists and killers, are petty criminals, have violent tempers, have a propensity to be undisciplined, are of low character, are defiant or just plain hard to get along with.
How a young officer is going to handle these type men and situations is something he should be thinking about ahead of time. A new officer is very vulnerable and these are potentially dangerous situations. He should be as prepared for the dark side of command as he is for the tactics and weapons he must utilize in getting the job done. To do that he must fully understand the dynamics of a combat platoon.
Officers need to understand that the dynamics of command change in wartime. An all-volunteer, peacetime, Army isn't much like a wartime Army of draftees. In a peacetime Army, there is enough stability for a new officer to become accustomed to his role as platoon leader. Everything works pretty smoothly. There are experienced officers in solid chains of command, there are experienced NCOs within the units and there is a force of well-trained men who are there because they want to be.
The dynamics change radically in a draftee Army in wartime. The orderly way of doing things is disrupted as the Army expands rapidly with new units, new officers, new NCOs and new men, all of whom are pushed through training and rushed to the war zone or to support units.
The young infantry officer who must take command of these draftees particularly needs lessons in the dark side of command. He is probably an amateur himself, unaware of the tensions and undercurrents that can cause trouble in a platoon. This inexperience can be deadly. I'm convinced that most "fragging" instances occurred because the Vietnam-era Army had such a large percentage of draftees, under the command of young inexperienced officers who did not realize or know how to cope with these undercurrents.
After I graduated from OCS Ft. Benning in February 1967, I was sent to train new draftees at Fort Gordon, Ga. I was very surprised at the slice of life represented by the young recruits. Many of them were good men, but a few were sociopathic killers -- the sort of people who could easily rationalize "fragging" on officers. Some of them should have been in jail instead of in the Army.
Young infantry officers were put in charge of platoons in Vietnam containing men of this caliber. The chain of command was counting on the officer for success of the mission and the men were counting on the officer to survive the mission. The men did not give a good hoot in hell whether the officer came from West Point, ROTC, or the moon. They wanted the officer to keep them alive and not do anything stupid.
The men in a combat platoon are looking to their officer every minute of the day, constantly measuring him up, critiquing every decision he makes. The young officer must stand alone through it all during combat -- as he struggles internally between his raw emotions of fear and self doubt while trying to project to his men the calm, confident aura of a man who is in charge of himself and the situation.
The officer's job is to control the spectrum of emotions within himself and his men. He must guide the men toward completion of the mission and survival. As I mentioned in my lecture, in wartime that mission means that men must die.
Killing is the Army's major function during war. Yet, it is the least understood, most ignored, and least discussed aspect of a young officer's training as a combat platoon leader.
When I was an OCS student at Fort Benning, Georgia in 1966, we were taught how to kill using weapons and our bare hands. We understood and expected that some of our men would be killed. But no one taught us what would happen to us when we actually killed a man. What would our men feel like when they killed someone? What would we think about later? There were no discussions about how we would feel, nor did our instructors exhibit any concern about this issue. We were the infantry, and we were supposed to kill the enemy. In 1966, at least, the Army was forthright about that. No "servicing the target" for us.
An infantry lieutenant is unique because the infantrymen he leads participate in the most personal of killing that is done in wartime. Only a few men in his platoon will be natural killers, men who accept killing as part of the job and think very little about it other than that it must be done in the most effective way. There may be an occasional psychopathic killer in a platoon, but they are dangerous, unstable and unreliable. Their need for killing is not derived from survival or as a wish to serve their country or God, but from craziness.
The majority of men in the platoon will kill out of necessity and in the heat of battle. But they will go through a number of psychological questions and challenges afterwards because they are bothered by what they have done.
A combat platoon is composed of young men who have been raised with a moral sense that killing is wrong. Parents, religious leaders, teachers and government officials have all taught us that it's wrong to kill. The sixth commandment, "Thou shalt not kill," is basic to our society. It is not easy to break that command, nor is it easy to live with the results afterwards unless the man is reassured that the killing was okay. The guilt may still be there years afterwards and may be a burden that is carried to the grave. (That's part of why I think parades are so important for Vietnam veterans. They are a sign that society thinks that what these men did -- kill others in the heat of battle -- was okay.)
An officer must also understand that in his platoon, there will be men who will not be able to kill, and who will do anything to get out of combat. Most of these men should have been weeded out before they get into a combat unit, but the officer must be aware that some will get through the screening. And many of the rest, who don't want to kill but can be forced to do so, will need constant reassurances that they are doing the right thing. They will look first to their immediate officer for their absolution from guilt.
Killing is easier when you aren't an infantryman. Men in artillery, air and naval units are much more willing to participate in the destruction of a target such as tanks, buildings, ships and aircraft because in their minds actual human beings are not involved -- except in an abstract sense. The infantryman, in contrast, often sees the man he kills.
Whether a soldier admits it or not, the killing he does affects him. This is not to say all soldiers carry guilt the rest of their lives, most don't. And this is not to say that the military should hold sensitivity classes during basic training. After all the infantryman's job is to kill and take ground. What I am saying is that a young officer should expect different reactions from the men in his platoon to killing and he should be prepared to deal with these reactions appropriately.
A combat officer must also expect that some of the men under his command will be killed. The manuals teach that an officer can expect to lose a certain percentage of men on any particular action. The casualties will be 5 percent, 20 percent or 50 percent, and military strategies are developed on the basis of men killed. To the small unit commander, however, those will not be percentages but faces and names of men who cannot be forgotten in a lifetime.
The young officer must realize that the losses among his men will already have been factored into strategic planning. Even if the officer does his job perfectly, he will lose men. He will make mistakes which will kill men. He will lead his men out to face the enemy knowing full well some will die. That is his job. Some combat officers will not be able to assume such responsibility for very long. Some will handle it well. To increase his chances of success on the battlefield, the young officer must know about the dark side of combat before the shooting starts.
Fred Downs, a former Army officer, was wounded four times in Vietnam and lost his left arm on the battlefield. He is the author of "The Killing Zone."