By Vexen Crabtree 2006
Inspection parades are occasions when soldiers "form up" into a "squad" and are inspected "in open order". To 'form up' is to stand in a regular grid pattern, which is then called a 'squad' or simply a 'parade' (amongst other things). 'Open Order' is the type of command given that results in the soldiers in the front row moving forward, and those in the rear row stepping backwards, opening up two channels down which inspecting officers can walk, facilitating the inspection of every individual. Uniform has to be perfect. Boots have to be properly polished, creases have to be perfectly sharp, there have to be no loose threads, dirt, marks, ruffles or abnormalities on any of the kit or soldier. There has to be a straight vertical line from the middle of the soldier's heels, up to his trouser zip and button, through his shirt buttons and aligned with his face. Erect, regular, symmetrical and neat. The beret must be brushed so it is absolutely spotless with no fluff. Soldiers must be shaved, rear necklines must be visible so girls must have their hair properly in a bun and males have suitably short hair. These are merely the most important elements of a soldier on parade. If every soldier was a CGI-duplicated copy of this ideal in a perfectly regular grid, the inspection would be flawless.
It is said that you can never achieve perfection for an inspection. If the inspecting officer looks hard, (s)he will always find something wrong. But you can discourage criticism by exuding confidence, looking straight ahead firmly, standing properly and tall with the chest out. By looking like a soldier you will pass. Sociological research has shown that standing tall and looking confident, even if you are not confident, is a good way to become confident1. Also, by behaving 'like' a soldier, you to affirm to your self-identity that you are one and will therefore act like one: The inspecting officer knows this, so, he can tell if you are 'playing the game' or not. If you are not, you will be 'picked up' during the inspection. If you look the part; in other words, you are on the right track to being right for the part.1. If questioned or spoken to, speak back directly, confidently and briefly: This will not only make yourself more confident, but it will prove to the officer that that is how you want to be.
The attention to detail, ironing, and "admin" that precedes inspections can sometimes be quite extensive and time consuming. Parades in basic training are partially a way simply of using up time, but mostly they are the principal method of ensuring every soldier can dress themselves perfectly. For in later times, we will be on public display and will need this level of professional dressing to be second nature. No civilian is ever subject to such precise dress codes. Parades, in later army life, die down, but the skills learnt in excessive ironing and kit preparation result in a permanent ability to produce very neat and tidy appearance. The training is overkill so that on-the-day, the result will always be acceptable.
Most evenings during Basic Training recruits have to do "block jobs" before an evening block inspection. The recruits' room, toilets, wash room ('ablutions'), the troop corridor, any stair wells all have to be clean, polished and scrubbed. Dust was acceptable nowhere. Any metal fastenings have to be shined and the glossed floor had to be polished and buffed. Frequently such block inspections are failed. If it had to be done by 8pm, then at that time everyone is to be stood to attention near their assigned area. If anything was substandard, the entire Troop would be on a re-inspection at 9pm. And then at 10pm, etc, until everything was done perfectly. They can always find something wrong, as the entire escapade is an impossible endless task; the result of which can never be perfection.
The level of preparation required for perfectionist parades and inspections have positive and negative results. On the plus side, the administration of kit and uniform preparation can stimulate genuine teamwork. The troop will discover that some people are naturally excellent at bulling boots or ironing kit. Then, people will ask them to do these things for them and in turn will do some other service for that person. A service-exchange economy develops: This is teamwork. Sometimes returned favours are as little as going to the shop for someone. At most it'll involve money. This level of teamwork is an essential skill: The troop allows the experts at a particular task to do that task, which is a commendable communal function. But there is a downside.
On the negative side, those who are terrible at bulling boots or ironing will tend towards always getting others to do it in return for other favours. So the pressure can result in a polarisation: people can come to be very good or very poor at particular jobs. Specialisation occurs. Some people can therefore pass training without some of the behind-the-scenes skills that they do need. In reality you do end up with some people who are good at everything. People who are poor at everything normally fail training and don't progress, as they don't really obtain respect and can't act in the team. A meritocracy emerges, where those with fewer skills get helped less and begin to be actively purged from the social group.
Beyond training, inspections are carried out on military equipment regularly. The seemingly pointless trials of basic training translate into a practical skill when it comes to maintaining vehicles, radios, weaponry, etc. It can be testing to step through a list of three hundred items on a piece of kit; and if such perseverance is not learned during basic training then soldiers would not be natural at adopting the required mentality for such procedures.
Army equipment is some of the most dangerous. There are explosives, hazardous materials, weapons, heavy duty equipment and clunky vehicles of every kind. In addition to this there is the never-ending security, checks and inventories designed to keep everything safe, available, accounted for and ready to go. The safety procedures are lengthy, precise, delicate and sometimes completely obscure and confusing. If security and safety procedures are not followed to the letter, the serious consequences do not affect only the negligent soldier in question but his whole unit and potentially the health of many people. Even if the soldier doesn't understand why all the procedures are as they are, or why they have to be done in a certain order or in a certain way, it is the soldier's duty to carry of the procedures exactly as required without deviation. This skill is learnt during basic: Hopefully, those who cannot follow procedures like this, will not pass training and become professional soldiers.
If he believes he knows a better way, a more efficient way or a different way to what is laid down the soldier must not simply go do his own thing. The simple fact is that expert specialists lay down the procedures, and although there may be a better way and the soldier can raise an issue with his superiors, the chances are that there is some unforeseen element that the procedure takes into account that the soldier doesn't know about. Because the soldier is not a specialist he must therefore follow the procedures to the letter. Soldiers must be trained to, without doubts or hesitation, follow set procedures without being tempted to alter or adapt them when not authorized.
Towards the aim of training soldiers to have the correct mentality, many aspects of training and army life have a beneficial effect. During basic this includes such seemingly mad requirements such as folding and stacking clothes in particular ways, having recruits' entire lockers laid out in precise ways ('the locker layout'), having exceptionally clean rooms, selves, blocks and equipment. All this builds towards making sure a soldier can slip into the perfectionist, obedient mentality required of anyone who has to sometimes perform mission-critical tasks as part of daily routine. All the inspections, which appear to merely test soldiers' patience, in addition provides background training to enable soldiers to carefully and consistently carry out safety procedures.
A civilian who, without training, attempted to perform the same set of precise actions all day every day would fail very quickly, whereas a trained soldier has done it for months non-stop during hir basic training, and kept up strict protocols consistently since then. Much of what seems pointless in training and army life actually goes towards essential psychological training.
Recruits generally don't understand these underlying reasons and see it all as a test of patience and a test to weed out those who are weak or disobedient. Which it is, of course, but that's the most shallow aspect of Phase One training. Many Officers and NCOs also don't know the underlying reasons either. They merely follow traditional methods of recruit training. I'm sure there are people who actively realize the behind-the-scenes mental training that occurs, and even people who design protocols in order to maximize the development of soldierly skills, but sometimes it does feel like there is actually no-one in charge of the whole process... it just happens to work.
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(1999) Social Psychology. Paperback book. 6th ('international') edition. Originally published 1983. Current version published by McGraw Hill.