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Why I Got Out: Physical, Not Mental

(On July 22nd, Michael C officially left active-duty U.S. Army service. In an attempt to explain why, he started a series about the Army’s culture, its successes and its failures. Read the rest of the “Why I Got Out” series here.)

When I deployed to Afghanistan, I couldn’t speak Pashtun. I went to meetings and drank chai as my interpreter translated...everything. When I deployed to Iraq, I couldn’t speak Arabic, and I was an intelligence analyst. (As I’ve written before, this was a personal failure.)

As Major Douglas Pryer wrote for The Best Defense a few weeks back, the Army needs to train its soldiers better in language skills and cultural empathy. (I would add Major Pryer to my “Blogging Commission to Assess the Long Wars”.) The capability of our people will always mean more than the capabilities of our trucks, tanks and guns. In the messy, irregular, counter-insurgical wars of recent times, language training gives our forces a greater tactical advantage than any sensor, drone or bomb. (I have been writing this since our first posts, like this one comparing to hypothetial battalions.)

But I don’t want to rehash my usual points about language training. Today, I’m targeting why we don’t emphasize language training: it’s the culture. When I started “Why I Got Out”, I specifically said the Army’s culture influences its priorities. Simply put, the U.S. Army emphasizes physical fitness over intelligence. (Intelligence broadly defined as innovative ideas, academic learning, critical thinking and the ability to write well.)

When I started On Violence, I didn’t tell anyone else in my brigade, especially my raters; I just don’t think it would have helped. When I published an article in Infantry Magazine, I told my rater, and I don’t think he told anyone else in the battalion. No one really cared. So when it came to evaluations, being seen as “a writer” just didn’t seem like it would help.

I do believe, though, being seen as an athlete would have helped. On every OER, the rater must check whether or not the rated officer passed the APFT. Most raters usually include the score too. If you ran marathons or competed on the combatives team, the rater would probably mention it. I always felt that raters valued physical fitness over any other skill. Sure, they evaluated leadership, but it all felt a lot like Moneyball: battalion and brigade commanders looked for people who looked good in a uniform, and could run--the two skills over-valued in baseball too.

The selection of officers had this same bias. In ROTC, fifty percent of the evaluation criteria is grade point average, but physical fitness still affects something like 25% of the rest. Besides GPA, ROTC doesn’t test its students on any other academic standards. At advanced camp in the summer--where cadets are tested on physical fitness, leadership, land navigation, and marksmanship--Cadet Command doesn’t test them on military history, writing, doctrine or any other intellectual skill.

And the Army writ large doesn’t test academic learning. Only one badge (worn on the uniform) really tests its students on mental thinking, the Pathfinder badge. All the other “hooah schools” have elaborate physical fitness hurdles, not mental. (I will admit, Jumpmaster school has a strong academic component, but it is also about just getting in the jumps.) Think Ranger, Airborne or Air Assault schools. Ranger School (accurately) bills itself as a leadership academy, but it gets press for the physical challenges. Meanwhile, graduating in the top ten percent of one’s Basic or Advanced class doesn’t get much as much praise.

This translates into hobbies. Most of my peers ran marathons or trained in mixed martial arts. Too few wrote papers for academic journals; even the ones that are published often seem like mandated tasks from battalion commanders, or the paper written for ILE, not a desire to share. (Eric C’s favorite example: we were turned away when Frost/Nixon came to our base at Vicenza, because there weren’t enough people to show the film. We used our free tickets on Fast and Furious, which was a packed house.)

(Starbuck is the fantastic exception to this. Same with Mike Few and Douglas Pryer. But how rare are those dual bloggers/officers?)

In the end, the military needs balance. Officers need physical and mental fitness. The Army needs physical and mental fitness. But the pendulum has swung too far--in my opinion--in one direction.

As a result, the Army still cannot crack the foreign language training nut. Every year or two the Army releases a report describing our failure. Yet, ten years into these wars, two wars in nations speaking foreign tongues, we still don’t field enough language trained soldiers. (I wrote about this before. So has the SWJ, multiple times) As a result, we have to rely on contractors to fill the gap, a huge fiscal and counter-intelligence weakness. At some point, the Army should acknowledge that the problem isn’t a lack of funding, or bad planning, but a flaw in the culture.

So let’s bring it back to myself, and why I got out. I am better with my mind than I am with my body. At Infantry Basic course I got pretty swoll. I took down Ranger School. I ran a 12 minute two mile. (Once.) I ran a sub-seven minute five mile. But I probably won’t ever get back there. If I am great at anything, it is writing. I excel at that, and analyzing problems. I probably won’t ever excel at physical fitness. If I wanted to make even Battalion Commander in the Army, I feel like I would need to excel at physical fitness, and my writing wouldn’t really help--if anything it could hurt.

I’ll always stay in shape. (I love playing competitive basketball for example.) But I can’t devote time to excelling at physical fitness. Nor do I want to. Instead, I need to find a culture where physical fitness isn’t one of or the top priority. I won’t find it in the military.

six comments

I wholeheartedly agree on this one.

Do you know how hard it is to get language proficiency pay? I can speak/read Dari at a 1/1 level. It isn’t great, but I use it on a daily basis. Speaking enough to introduce myself and break the ice before using my interpreters has greatly increased the amount of influence I have here (having a sweet beard helps too). But the Army won’t give me incentive pay (yet – though other branches do get paid for 1/1).

Now – were I in an airborne unit, I’d sure as hell be getting my hard earned jump pay…

This all related to the type of wars we see ourselves fighting. For the ‘war is war’ types, it makes sense to not care about the mental aspect. A Soldier needs to be able to carry out violent orders – physical fitness obviously assists with this. Mental agility? Not so important.

Not to mention, with language proficiency pay the rules change constantly and I have heard rumors that officers aren’t eligible, then they were, then they weren’t. It is too confusing. Jump pay is a good counter.

This has since changed but when I went to OCS in the summer of 2010 the very first PT test was worth 40

Wow. And I guess that proves my point. I was referring to ROTC, but OCS is still one of the three main commissioning components.

Yes, it’s true that the Army puts a premium on physical fitness. And you know the answers why: the Army requires a high level of physical fitness and it is easily testable and easily scaleable (it only takes a few months of tough training to bring someone to a 300 APFT – how much time do you think it takes to bring someone to a 2/2 in Arabic?)

Now you are slamming the Army for not focusing hard enough on developing or encouraging thinking officers – officers who write or develop language skills – but what is the recommendation? How would you fix it?

I’d argue that the nature of language learning and writing isn’t scaleable in the same way that physical fitness is. There are officers out there that care about those things, I am willing to bet they are taking their careers in their own hands and worming their way to the positions that will best utilize their skills. Yes, it would be best if big Army identified those individuals and placed them where they would best serve the Army, but in lieu of that, initiative is required from officers.

You can be physically strong, a writer, and a linguist. These are not mutually exclusive.

So our responses tend to turn into posts that go up in weeks or months from the original post. (We have a calendar of posts going into February right now.) So here is my quick response. First, I totally agree with your initial statement, physical fitness is easily testable and scalable.

That is a problem inherent in all metrics. Here’s an easy example: in counter-insurgency, the easiest statistic to measure in US casualties. In fact, we measure and track that statistic (especially in the media) more than any other. However, US casualties are one of the worst metrics to stake our performance on.

Change is exceedingly difficult. It requires completely revamping the culture, and right now I do not know how to do that. If anything, I believe stronger physical fitness standards will be implemented. Here are roughly my ideas, though they aren’t original:
1. All West Point and ROTC cadets must have a language skill.
2. Bonuses return for officers with language skills, bonuses greatly exceeding 1-2 thousand a month for difficult languages. (Mandarin, Cantonese, Urdu, Persian, Arabic etc).
3. All SF soldiers must have 3-3 proficiency or immediately leave the SF community.
4. Start four year intensive scholarships with mandatory time commitments dedicated to learning languages. If we had started a thousand officers on these every year since 9/11, at this point we would have a core of officers speaking 4-4 in vital languages flooding the Army. The cost of one FCS system would have covered this.

In short, the Army must ask: what is more important, trucks or knowledge? Right now, the answer is guns, trucks and helicopters. We need to increase the scholarship opportunities for languages. However, public and private academic institutions have no where near the lobbying presence of defense contractors. That is the real problem.