Army Basic Training: Weeding Out the Weak

By Vexen Crabtree 2006

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Basic training serves to weed out those who cannot increase their fitness, those who are weak-willed, and individuals who cannot act as part of a team. I first set out a very idealistic description of such training. Despite the theoretical effectiveness of Army training, gaps exist in the applied process. Some are a result of societal and political pressure on the Army.

1. Stress Builds Mental Endurance

The first century historian Josephus commented that discipline and obedience makes the Roman army superior. That they have a hierarchical class of commanders makes them tactically supreme, and constant vigorous training means they never break or panic.

"The Jewish War" by Josephus [Book Review]1

The pressures on a soldier in training are immense and relentless. There is constant harassment, loud shouting and insults and endless tests. This is all endured whilst tired and exhausted from the ongoing physical-fitness regime that continues in tandem with the psychological workouts. Civilians complain of long hours and a difficult week... but it is nothing to the 18-hour day that the trainee soldier wakes up to every morning. This isn't every morning for a week... but for multiple months. Half of all recruits cannot cope and drop out.

Those who drop out are those who are not suited for the stresses of war. Soldiers will spend time living in a time of constant readiness, with enemy who are waiting to exploit any slack or weakness, possibly for months at a time. If a soldier cannot endure this stress in his own country, in a friendly climate, (s)he will not be able to cope with the increased stress of living in war in foreign climates. To this end, stress that seems unnecessary or superfluous can actually have a use, in preparing a person to endure it when it occurs on tour. In an untrained person, stress can be debilitating even on simple tasks:

Performance on almost any task is affected adversely at extreme levels of state anxiety. [...] Patrick (1934a, b) used an apparently simple task, in which subjects had to discover which of four doors was locked. As the same door was never unlocked on two successive trials, the optimal strategy was to try each of the other doors in turn. When the conditions were non-stressful, approximately 60% of the solutions were optimal. This figure dropped to 20% when the subjects had cold water streams directed at them, or had their ears blasted by a car horn, or were given continuous electric shocks until they found the right door.

"Cognitive Psychology" by Michael Eysenck and Mark Keane (1995)2

Training is supposed to be stressful. The seeming pointlessness of some of the routine and training elements all add up to create an atmosphere that is testing. It should be impossible to complete basic training if you cannot adapt, take anything on the chin, and carry on. When everything goes wrong, a soldier needs to continue; not break down. If, after a day's physical and mental punishment, a recruit still can get it together to iron their kit, clean the block and socialize with others, they will pass off the parade square at the end of training as a capable soldier. If they cannot, and they find themselves constantly whinging about the overloaded routine, bringing others down and bemoaning the difficult life, they should not be allowed to finish training because in times of war they are a detriment to the willpower of their unit.

This is not to say that trainees don't break... nearly all do, but that as a result of the break they learn to have their pride stripped and still carry on regardless. With a break should come a disciplined, arrogant will to continue. Those who lack this or do not develop it from a break will fail to pass out.

One girl with whom I did basic broke one day, under pressure and stress she cried and stopped functioning, she dropped out of the daily routine. Many break in this way. Her response was, as with others, that she wanted to leave and give up. After some days, she still wanted to leave. Although she continued doing the daily routine she was uncaring and sad. She left, and the staff let her. A different girl who broke in a similar way, however, came out of it saying that she didn't care what people thought of her crying and breaking: she was going to "show them all" by passing out. She accepted her own weaknesses and tried her best nonetheless to succeed.

Those who find themselves weak and give up are not suited to a field army. If everything goes wrong and you fail yourself in the field, you HAVE to find the strength to carry on anyway and to somehow find ways around your own weakness. Those who find themselves broke and think this means they cannot continue are no good. In a war, everything goes wrong. Those who equate personal failure with lack of hope will not try and will lose the war for us. Those who continue in hope despite their own imperfections are those who will find the unforeseeable ways to complete tasks with broken equipment and numerable obstacles.

2. Tackling Problems: Command Tasks

In training recruits are sometimes put into groups and given "command tasks". With seemingly inadequate equipment they are asked to achieve a military goal. In one case this was to get eight men over a high electrified fence, without touching any part of the fence, using only a log. And to do it safely. Some of the recruits would bemoan the impossibility of the task, and when the natural leaders came up with ideas they would criticize them. Although criticism is useful, some people actively give up without trying. Others attack the problem aggressively, trying to complete the task even though they don't know how it might be possible. Also useful to any group are those who cannot think of a feasible plan of action, but who dutifully follow a plan thought up by others. Leaders must deal with the nihilistic nay-sayers, quickly obtain the following of those who don´t know what to do, but also they must temper the aggressive go-getters who may mislead the group into an ill-conceived course of action.

If you have the discipline to follow a plan you do not understand then your own stupidity or lack of foresight is no longer a disadvantage. The worst person is one who has no plan and yet does not fall in line with the rest of the team. They will disable the team. You need people who can think of plans and use their brains... you need leaders who can make everyone (even the thinkers who think otherwise) follow a plan, and you need those who are not leaders and not thinkers simply to follow the team and get on with it. All these types of people should pass training. Those who will not pass are those who cannot think of a solution and therefore do not act, yet who also do not follow others who might have a solution! These nay-sayers serve no function other than to drag the unit to a halt. In civilian life such people can get on with normal jobs where the challenges are not so unfair or uncivilized!

The stress, harassment and relentlessness of training effectively weeds out those who will not be able to continue performing a useful function in extended periods of war readiness.

3. Gaps in the Sieve

  1. Some weak individuals have laddish social skills that make them popular, despite inadequacy. These people will pass out, but will continue to be a detriment. These socialites, secretly incapable but publicly boastful, are generally known as `blaggers´, and are despised. But some hide it well, or are particularly charismatic, that their shortfalls are rarely brought to the attention of seniors. Such people can have long and safe careers in the army, much to the chagrin of their more conscientious workmates.

  2. But more important than this shortfall in ideal training, is the shortfall in the overall structure of training. Despite the best efforts of the Army hierarchy, different Platoons receive different qualities of training. The troop I attended and to which I have as a point of reference, was particularly orientated around constant physical exercise and approached the ideal described on this page. Other troops had more rest time, more time off, more recreational time and therefore, were more peaceful and less overbearing. I would hazard a guess that such troops wedge the door open for those with less endurance. Although such troops might also allow through those who have other qualities useful to the Army, that could not pass out of troops that are as physical as others.

  3. The third gap in the sieve is political. The Army is pressurized to achieve certain targets and the one that has most practical significance is the issue of women soldiers. The Army reduces its fitness requirements for women - they have to do fewer pressups and run slow, and are judged much less harshly, than their male compatriots. This is required because women bring skills and mentalities to the Army that would otherwise be lacking. Diversity is strength, so to attain that diversity women are set a lower barrier on physical tests. But this temperance also lets through those who genuinely should not have passed training - and as they say.

  4. Fourthly; certain character types are seemingly immune to the stress of training. You might think that this is a good thing; except for the specifics of the character types involved. Those who cannot take it seriously, who consider it a joke - yet still 'play the game' to a minimal extent - will pass out. But the training cannot differentiate between those of this type who are genuinely stress-resilient, or those who are 'blagging it'. Nonetheless, this fourth weakspot of training is more ambivalent than the others.

These shortfalls significantly decrease the effectiveness of the rather utopian description of training that I set out to start off with. All people can change, and after training many people grow to be a different person to the one they were in basic. Sometimes, perfectly capable soldiers are discovered to have done terribly in basic training. Some people just react badly to the training. It would be good to be able to have different types of training for different types of people, but there is no adequate test that can foresee what character-types people will be. Some of the ones who excel in basic continue in their career as poor soldiers. Training does not guarantee that soldiers will remain soldierly; merely that they once were.

Current edition: 2006 Jul 09
Parent page: The Responsibility to Defend the Developed World

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References: (What's this?)

Eysenck, Michael and Keane, Mark
(1995) Cognitive Psychology. 3rd edition. Published by Psychology Press, Hove, UK.

The Jewish War. Paperback book. 1981 print of 1970 revised edition. Originally published 1st century. Current version published by Penguin Books. Translated by G. A. Williamson.. Book Review.

Patrick, J. R.
(1934) Studies in rational behaviour and emotional excitement: I. Rational behaviour in human subjects. Journal of Comparative Psychology, 18, 1-22. Ibid, II. The effect of emotional excitement on rational behaviour in human subjects. 153-195. In Eysench & Keane (1995).


  1. Josephus p195,197.^
  2. Eysenck & Keane (1995) p454.^

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