Lead with the best version of yourself.

Don’t Look the Part, Be the Part

by Oren Abusch

In the early spring of 2020, my Battalion ran a two-week marksmanship course. Each day, NCOs would go to the range to hone their shooting skills and, on one particular range day, I noticed an NCO kitted in the most expensive after-market gear money could buy: an OpsCore helmet, Peltor ear-protection, a water-cooled plate carrier, Lowa boots, and a Crye-Precision Combat blouse and pants. Simply stated, he looked the part of a tried and tested warrior. 

However, he was struggling to zero. Finally, in a fit of frustration, one of our more senior NCOs looked at him sarcastically and said “all that Crye, and no precision.” 

His remark captures a core issue in our current army: a culture that values looking lethal over lethality itself.

The current conventional United States Army has too many soldiers who would rather invest in their appearance than their competence. They believe they are “too cool for (Army) schools” and that they are above self-development through tough realistic training. They eschew the value of mastering skill level 1 tasks. They mock collective training. 

The conventional Army has reached a point where many of its small unit leaders don’t want to change, grow, or leave their comfort zone. This dangerous attitude is a blindspot in our Army, of course perceptible to senior leaders, but likely worse than they realize. It may cost us in our next war. There are many people out there who do not ascribe to this philosophy, but they are fighting an uphill battle, and our future is at stake.

Eschewing the Basics

While I have not served in Special Operations, I have spent time with many NCOs who have. Time and time again when I ask them the difference between the conventional army and Special Operations, they explain that they take the time to master the basics. Many NCOs from the Ranger Regiment have told me stories of their time as Privates. Their NCOs would blindfold them and give them a crate full of parts from various weapons. They would race their peers to have the fastest time assembling and conducting functions checks on multiple weapons systems. In time, with decisive feedback from their superiors, they gained mastery. 

Too often, we see ourselves as above practicing these skill level one tasks. Loading an M249 is more complicated under NVGs and with an elevated heart rate than when you’re sitting out on a range. As such, it is imperative that we practice under all conditions, so we are capable in any mission profile. 

Likewise, the first time jumping out of a plane is terrifying. But if you do it frequently enough, it becomes second nature. I have spent over a year as an officer in reconnaissance units and watched half a dozen soldiers attend Sniper school. One of the most failed events is the shoot-in, in which Snipers must demonstrate extreme accuracy with an M4 iron sight zero at 25 meters. After our unit had a rash of failures, one of my NCOs who had previously passed the school came and spoke with me, explaining that many of the people who had failed had done only cursory preparation for this while he had done washer and dime drills every day for months before attending Sniper School. Sadly, many leaders think they are above training the most simple basics day in and day out even though training like this requires almost no prior planning or resourcing. 

Too Cool For School

In my formation, I have all sorts of Paratroopers chomping at the bit to go to “cool” schools such as Air Assault or the Foreign Weapons Course. However, few of them are willing to invest in the schools that provide the toughest, most realistic training (or provide the unit with the greatest value). 

A few months ago I had a new Infantry NCO tell me “I want to spend my career proving that I don’t need a Ranger Tab to be successful.” What he failed to understand was that his unwillingness to learn and grow was closing him off from the hard-learned lessons of Ranger School. The same lessons that may very well keep him, or his men, alive in combat–and some lessons which he might not learn outside of Ranger School. Young soldiers who return with their Ranger Tab may have an (earned) air of arrogance about them, but they distinguish themselves in training as field-seasoned soldiers who take the basics of patrolling seriously. Conversely, many of their peers have been toiling in the aforementioned training starved environments, and struggle to master their job’s tactical tasks.

I have spent my Lieutenant time in an Airborne unit, where mobility schools are vital to our mission requirement of rapid deployability. None more so than Jumpmaster school. Being a Jumpmaster is an additional duty, and it can come with extra work, but there is no difference between Jumpmaster duties and the additional responsibilities inherent in being a leader. Jumpmasters are the ones who command Aircraft, check the aircraft’s safety, and who conduct PCC/PCIs on their Paratroopers before sending them out of the Paratroop door mid-flight. Yet, any Airborne leader can tell you that convincing Paratroopers to go to Jumpmaster school can be like pulling teeth. Once again, the prevailing attitude is that individuals are above these simple schools.

My Brigade recently held an Expert Infantryman Badge train-up and testing, and I was disappointed with the overall effort displayed by many. During our train-up week, many of the Junior leaders complained that the training was not worth serious effort. They argued that, because not all the blocks of instruction were perfect, because there were so many candidates to graders, and because many of the sequence standards are arbitrary, that the Expert Infantryman’s Badge was degraded in value and not worth the effort. EIB, like many of the other hard training the Army offers, is not perfect, and can feel like a game at times. Graders would sometimes say “I know you may do this differently in real life but this is the standard we are grading against.” Yet the training was tougher and more realistic than most I have done in the Army, and forced me to train 30 different skill level one tasks to a near perfect standard, either teaching me new skills or refreshing old ones. After two weeks, I am confident I have emerged a better Soldier and Infantryman for it. Yet many of those who criticized the training did not take it seriously and did not want to master patrols, weapons, and medical care. Many failed the initial physical fitness test on day one, and some certainly did so on purpose.

Overvaluing the 6th Principle of Patrolling

According to the Ranger Handbook there are 5 principles of patrolling: planning, security, reconnaissance, control, and common sense. The often joked about 6th principle of patrolling is looking cool. The joke has gone too far. We now train and operate in a culture where we value the 6th principle over the first five. With the emergence of kitted out pictures on instagram, veteran operated facebook pages, morale patches, and flags, parts of the military community have leaned into the importance of image. Many people explain that they are investing in their profession, dumping thousands of dollars into lighter, more comfortable kit, and other non-issued equipment. There is no direct issue with that, but many of them subconsciously compensate for other professional shortcomings. While I have purchased a few non-issued pouches, the top investments that I made were a squat rack and an Audible membership. 

In truth, these arbitrary gear purchases are an attempt to appear like a Special Operator. People want others to look at them and think that because only above-average soldiers wear this gear, they are inherently above average. The reality is that many of them want to posture as above average rather than taking the time to improve themselves to be above average. Instead of exceeding the standard, we take time to simply appear as if we have done so.

We Only Have One Army
On the front of my office door is a quote from The Centurions, a book documenting the fight of French Paratroopers in Algeria. The quote unpacks the dichotomy between an army that looks good, and an army that fights good.

“I’d like to have two armies: one for display with lovely guns, tanks, little soldiers, staffs, distinguished and doddering Generals, and dear little regimental officers who would be deeply concerned over their General’s bowel movements or their Colonel’s piles, an army that would be shown for a modest fee on every fairground in the country.
The other would be the real one, composed entirely of young enthusiasts in camouflage uniforms, who would not be put on display, but from whom impossible efforts would be demanded and to whom all sorts of tricks would be taught. That’s the army in which I should like to fight”

The great irony is that many soldiers and junior leaders think that their investments in fancy kit and equipment puts them in the latter category, those who care about fieldcraft and lethality. However, expensive gadgetry is just the newest version of the army for display, while those committed to mastering the basics are the real enthusiasts. Those are the soldiers with which I should like to fight.

Oren Abusch is a First Lieutenant in the Infantry at Fort Bragg. 

5 thoughts on “Don’t Look the Part, Be the Part”

  1. The same reason gear doesn’t make you a good soldier is the same reason ranger school doesn’t. Nothing in ranger school is only taught in the school house that isn’t taught elsewhere. Your mastery of your job makes you a good soldier and you can master your job without schools; however the schools do help accelerate the process and allow for rapid self improvement, extensive job knowledge taught in a course period, and career progression. This is the same reason you don’t need collage to make you knowledgeable or qualified to do a job. Of course you may need the piece of paper/diploma to be “Qualified”, the same thing applies to the military. Real life experience will always surpass what you learn from a textbook. A tab or badge is just a piece of cloth at the end of the day, it’s the training, knowledge, and experience that makes a good soldier. There are plenty soldiers who graduate from these schools who simply want to check boxes and progress their career while not caring about the subject matter, and this is indicative that it’s not the schools(or gear like you said) that make the soldier. (And yes people go through military schools and learn enough to pass/get by only to braindump and not care enough to use the knowledge learned from the course). The Modern army has become too political and bureaucratic(especially during peace time). We as an Army focus too much on looking cool as you said, but also focus on “going to the____course” simply to progress your career on paper. The lessons learned from previous conflicts are being lost and forgotten along with the leaders and those who learned them first hand. Personally I have been to many military schools and learned many great things from instructors and things they taught a lot of which shaped me and my career. My leadership growing up in the army however, taught me more then I could ever learn in a school. Like you quoted “The other would be the REAL one, composed entirely of young enthusiasts…”. That being said I agree that the gear doesn’t make a soldier. The school doesn’t make soldier; however, it can certainly help. Schools aren’t bad and you can learn from them and become a fantastic soldier. It’s also doesn’t mean your unmotivated or lazy if you don’t go to schools; however, it can in a lot of circumstances. If the Army has taught me one thing it’s to always keep an open mind and never stop learning, so yes it may be beneficial to go to schools but certainly not the only way to learn or be a great soldier.

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  2. Dime and washer drills may be valuable but were worthless to me as an Infantry recruit. I could fire multiple times and cock and shoot again without losing my dime on the m16 at OSUT. But I could not zero very well at OSUT and it took more than 20 times to qualify on the range. I did better at Ft. Carson but the times and pride I spent on dime and washer drills was wasted because I couldn’t do the same when I needed to actually shoot. I often question my qualifying on the target range later because there was no way to tell the targets were hit except another soldier saying I hit that one. The pop up targets were not often popping down when hit so it took someone with binoculars and I often wonder, did I really hit anything.

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  3. While there is real value to the argument that soldiers don’t want to attend schools because they see no value in them, the whole picture is much more nuanced.

    For every troop who doesn’t see value in a particular school, there are a dozen a step lower on the order of merit who could benefit more from similar lessons taught in-house.

    The author greatly underestimates the perceived additional duties a jumpmaster adopts; he casually dismisses them as no more than those of any other leadership position, but they are in addition to such – not a substitute. It’s a cooler version of UPL – you don’t have to handle their pee, and you get a cool badge, but you’re still busy while everyone else is getting laid or playing video games

    If you have junior joes who don’t want to attend Ranger school or earn their EIB, it’s either a problem with that individual (plenty of cowards in all branches) or with command climate. Incentive is easy to manufacture, in either case.

    Spot-on, but dated, with the PX-Ranger observation.

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