Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Time Magazine's Hatchet Job on Army Training & Readiness

This weeks Time Magazine's Cover asks "Why Our Army Is At The Breaking Point." Inside the cover, Time's lead story, Broken Down by Mark Thompson, is some of the worst journalism I have ever read. This post will only address allegations that training is suffering because of the Iraq war. Here are the opening paragraphs of the story written to show that our troops are not being trained and, as a result thereof, they are being killed in combat.

. . . Shortly after midnight on Feb. 2, [Private Matthew] Zeimer had his first taste of combat as he scrambled to the roof of the 3rd Infantry Division's Combat Outpost Grant in central Ramadi. Under cover of darkness, Sunni insurgents were attacking his new post from nearby buildings. Amid the smoke, noise and confusion, a blast suddenly ripped through the 3-ft. concrete wall shielding Zeimer and a fellow soldier, killing them both. Zeimer had been in Iraq for a week. He had been at his first combat post for two hours.

If Zeimer's combat career was brief, so was his training. . . . After finishing nine weeks of basic training and additional preparation in infantry tactics in Oklahoma, he arrived at Fort Stewart, Ga., in early December. But Zeimer had missed the intense four-week pre-Iraq training--a taste of what troops will face in combat--that his 1st Brigade comrades got at their home post in October. Instead, Zeimer and about 140 other members of the 4,000-strong brigade got a cut-rate, 10-day course on weapon use, first aid and Iraqi culture. That's the same length as the course that teaches soldiers assigned to generals' household staffs the finer points of table service.

The Army and the White House insist the abbreviated training was adequate. "They can get desert training elsewhere," spokesman Tony Snow said Feb. 28, "like in Iraq." But outside military experts and Zeimer's mother disagree. The Army's rush to carry out President George W. Bush's order to send thousands of additional troops more quickly to Iraq is forcing two of the five new brigades bound for the war to skip standard training at Fort Irwin, Calif. These soldiers aren't getting the benefit of participating in war games on the wide Mojave Desert, where gun-jamming sand and faux insurgents closely resemble conditions in Iraq. "Given the new policy of having troops among the Iraqis," says Lawrence Korb, a former Pentagon personnel chief, "they should be giving our young soldiers more training, not less." Zeimer's mother was unaware of the gap in her son's training until TIME told her about it on April 2. Two days later the Army disclosed that Zeimer may have been killed by friendly fire. "They're shipping more and more young kids over there who don't know what they're getting into," Janet Seymour said quietly after learning what her son had missed. "They've never seen war other than on the TV."

The truncated training--the rush to get underprepared troops to the war zone--"is absolutely unacceptable," says Representative John Murtha, the Pennsylvania Democrat and opponent of the war who chairs the House Appropriations defense subcommittee. A decorated Marine veteran of Vietnam, Murtha is experiencing a sense of déjà vu. "The readiness of the Army's ground forces is as bad as it was right after Vietnam," Murtha tells TIME.

As a threshold matter, all Americans should be honor Private Zeimer's service and the fact that he gave his life for his country. We are all indebted to Private Zeimer, and we owe both our condolences and our gratitude to his family and loved ones.
As to the allegations of the article, it is crystal clear that Private Zeimer's death had absolutely nothing to do with a lack of training. What the Times author has done is take a tragic story of a soldier who was killed very shortly after arrival in Iraq and attempted to turn it - and by implication the entire system of military training - into something it is most decidedly not.

One, Private Zeimer died while behind cover of a three foot thick concrete wall. You can be the most well trained soldier in the United States Army, you can be Airborne and Ranger qualified, but if you take cover behind a 3 foot thick wall, and if an explosion gets through it, you are going to be seriously injured or die. Moreover, taking cover behind a three foot concrete wall woud be considered adequate cover by every soldier in the U.S. Army. Thus, as a threshold matter, Private Zeimer's death had absolutely nothing to do with his alleged lack training. But there is much more.

Two, in fact, the other soldier who died with Private Zeimer was a soldier who had a total of fourteen months in country. Certainly, there is no question about that soldier having sufficient training and experience in Iraq. Yet it is ignored by Time Magazine. This from Army Times explains the situation and describes what happened:
Spc. Alan Eugene McPeek was just days away from completing his 14-month tour in Iraq. Pvt. Matthew Thomas Zeimer had been at Combat Outpost Grant for less than two hours.

Close to 1 a.m. Friday, on what was supposed to be his last night at Combat Outpost Grant in central Ramadi, McPeek and his fellow soldiers came under attack. It was an intense and coordinated attack launched by insurgents from nearby buildings and streets. McPeek, 20, and Zeimer, 18, ran together to the roof to fight back.

McPeek took Zeimer, a member of the 3rd Infantry Division unit set to replace the outgoing soldiers, under his wing. He coached him and stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the young private as they fought for their lives.

But a shot fired from what commanders believe was a recoilless rifle blasted through the reinforced concrete wall near McPeek and Zeimer. The impact killed them both.
Note well the training going on at the spot of actual combat. A more experienced soldier taking a new soldier under his wing is the laguna franca of the military system. Somehow, the Times reporter misses all of this, whether by intetion or just by being grossly incompetent, I am unsure.

Three, the Times is either lying or being incredibly sloppy in its reporting about the training Private Zeimer received. As the Times states, Private Zeimer received nine weeks of Basic Training. What the Times does not tell you is that Private Zeimer then attended another 12 weeks Advanced Individual Training in his specialty in the Field Artillery. See here. (In another piece of sloppy reporting, the Times says that Private Zeimer was trained in the infantry. That is another factual inaccuracy). Moreover, this degree of training is what all enlisted soldiers receive upon entering the service. It is no less then what the Army has been using to create the best trained soldiers in the world for at least the past thirty years. At the conclusion of that training, a private is prepared to perform his mission in combat, and he is sent to his unit.

Four, the Times premise that missing a brigade level training exercise somehow constitutes throwing soldiers into combat untrained is ludicrous and displays a fundemental lack of how military training is accomlished and how the military replacement system operates. Outside the Beltway explains it with good clarity:
[T]he idea that soldiers customarily get a month-long “rehearsal” before deployments and that failure to do so means they’re “untrained” displays a woeful . . . [misunderstanding of] the military.

Soldiers rotate in and out of units on a constant basis. New soldiers join the program already in progress and their leaders get them up to speed as soon as possible. Young Zeimer had “a few weeks” with his unit at Fort Stewart before deploying to Iraq, which is more than many get.

Units tend to be manned below their authorized strength, for a variety of reasons. When they get deployment orders, it is usual for them to quickly get new soldiers and equipment to get them up to warfighting form. During Desert Storm, several new junior enlisted soldiers and NCOs joined our unit while we were staging in Saudi Arabia, some a few days before the ground war got underway. In Vietnam, Korea, and World War II, green recruits constantly joined units in the midst of combat. That’s how the Army works.

I would only add that the authors criticism of the ten day training period given to the new recruits who entered after the four week brigade exercise also displays a fundemental misunderstanding of what is important in the military. Individual training is important. Equally important is unit cohesion - i.e., working within your individual squad, etc. I am sure beyond any doubt that, if you look at the Brigade training for four weeks mentioned by this author, you will find not only individual training, but training at the unit level. Likewise, I am absolutely sure that the individual training that the private received duplicated the individual training thought necessary in the Brigade level exercise. Then he was put in his unit - something obviously necessary for developing unit cohesion. For the author of this hit piece to denigrate that training and claim that it shows that Army training is somehow less then what it should be is both idiotic and unrealistic.

Five, this Time's author has no clue about the National Training Center. I've gone through rotations there. The NTC is designed to train the commander and staff at brigade and battalion level. Company commanders through platoon leaders and platoon sergeants get a work out also. Precisely zero individual training goes on during an NTC rotation. While a private may benefit from going through an NTC rotation, not having been with a brigade when they went through does not in any way constitute a lack of training for a private in the Army.

Further, the concepts and principles of warfare do not change from the NTC in the Mojave Desert to Ft. Stewart, Georgia. Fire and maneuver based on available cover and concealment, fire support, etc. - nothing changes. The author's waxing poetic about "gun jamming sand" utterly ridiculous. The Mojave is not a desert of sand dunes. It is mostly hard tack and rock. It gets dusty, but so does everywhere else in the world when you have tanks and tracks running through dirt trails - which is what tanks and tracks do. I do not recall once having a gun jam while at the NTC, nor my soldiers having any problems with their individual weapons.

Furthermore, while the NTC is an excellent training tool, it in essence duplicates the Army Training and Readiness Program (ARTEPS) that are carried out at each individual post. Passage of annual ARTEP's through battalion level are what determine whether a unit is "combat ready," not a rotation through the NTC. For example, units in Korea and Germany never rotate through the NTC. That does not mean that they are untrained or not combat ready. The NTC is a good tool, but not going through the NTC does not and never has constituted inadequate training.
This brings us to the question of why Time Magazine relying on Jack Murtha for quotes about unit readiness? With all due respect, Jack Murtha has proven himself an incredibly partisan figure with a very specific anti-war agenda. Why choose him rather then a senior Army commander who could have explained precisely the training situation of the military - and of the unit to which Private Zeimer was assigned. The reason, I think, is completely clear. The author is equally partisan and unfair, and the only conclusion, based on all the inaccuracies discussed above, is that the author started his writing with the intent of supporting the far left position trumpeted by Jack Murtha. This is a hatchet job of the worst kind.

But it still gets worse. That the Time author would trouble the grieving mother of a dead soldier with his allegations that lack of training somehow caused his death just to get a reaction out of her for this article is utterly despicable and indefensible. That act encapsulates the very worst of professional journalism. It is something that I doubt even a tabloid would do. Honest to God, I hope she retains counsel and sues for emotional distress. It just puts ethically challenged cap on what is already an atrocious and partisan piece of reporting.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I have a friend who is a Green Beret, stationed in Colorado. His unit was set to leave for Iraq about 6 weeks ago. He was so excited for his first tour of duty.. he felt prepared for it.

For some reason, however, his unit ended up not going. I don't know the details but they were told that they were now going to Iraq next year.

So, they started training for a new mission, and in the middle of that they were told that they were in fact going to Iraq this year... He left today.

Unfortunately, his excitement about going completely disappeared because he says they did not finish their training for this new operation and he feels very unprepared. Now, rather than being excited about going, he's terrified.

So, I'm going to have to trust the Times on this one. The Army is seeing a shortage and I wouldn't put it past them to rush some of their men out there unprepared.

Pretty sad though if you ask me. The least we can do for these guys who are putting their lives on the line is prepare them the best as possible.


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