Lower the Bar and You Soften the Soldier

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It was those customer-satisfaction surveys....

According to Wednesday's USA Today, boot camp ain't what it used to be. At Fort Jackson, S.C., the Army's largest basic training facility, attrition rates, which stood at 23 percent in December 1998, are expected to dip below 10 percent. The recruits aren't any better — it's the training that's become more merciful, holding on to would-be dropouts with "a raft of programs to help woebegone trainees graduate."

Like fat camp.

That was the name we had for the Physical Training Remedial Program when I went through basic training at Fort Jackson for nine weeks last fall. It was (to us) the dark and hopeless purgatory for the chubby, lazy or just physically confounded who couldn't pass their PT test the first, second, third or seventh time. People went there and disappeared from view, but they rarely went home. The Army, strapped for recruits in the economic boom times, wasn't about to lose anybody just because they couldn't hack it right away; they were willing to wait as long as it took.

In the USA Today story, debate rages over whether this newly sloganized "insist and assist" attitude — set the standards and bend over backward helping everybody get through — constitutes a lowering of the bar or an enlightenment of philosophy. In the age of push-button wars and untold desk jobs, isn't the Army just being smart by being patient? Or is a 10 percent failure rate — from serious injury or mental incompatibility, usually — an insult to the supposed test of mettle that boot camp was once supposed to be?

We had the same debate in the barracks, and "It's too easy" was one of my main complaints in the dispatches I sent home from Fort Jackson (that and the boredom, and for a while my sore feet). Ask drill sergeants, and some blame gender-integrated training, others the "doggone Nintendo generation," others the end-of-camp customer-satisfaction-like surveys that actually ask departing trainees what they thought. (Somebody does read them, and the squeaky wheels are apparently getting the greasing.) The saddest part came at the end, when, after two months of taunting us with threats of expulsion for our weaknesses, the drill sergeants finally had to admit that hardly anybody was going to fail after all.

Phasing out failure has helped keep the Army's enlistment numbers above water. But its absence tends to have the unfortunate side effect of diminishing a soldier's pride in his success.