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The Tale of the Camelbak and the Soldier

I contemplated calling this article, “Why Generals have no clue what Soldiers on the ground want/need” but I thought that title was too long. That, and Eric C doesn’t like putting a thesis in a title. With this clarification, the point stands: Generals--the people with the final say in military acquisitions--have no clue what Soldiers want or need.

For example, when I joined the military way back in 2003, I assumed the epitome of hydration systems was the canteen. And not some new fangled canteen, the same canteen used by our troops in Vietnam. Roughly a quart of water, made of hard plastic, and carried on the front of your functionally-named “Load Bearing Equipment” (LBE in Army jargon).

I assumed this, because until I started infantry training in October of 2006, I was never issued anything better. Even after 2006, at every equipment draw, at every base I went to, I was given 2 one-quart canteens.

This is ridiculous. As deployed soldiers, hikers, climbers, hippies or anyone else “wilderness-y” knows, when it comes to hydration, canteens suck at life.

Everyone in Iraq and Afghanistan uses a Camelbak. For those who don’t know, the Camelbak is a soft canteen worn on the back like a backpack, with an extended drinking hose. It took several years, but it has mostly replaced canteens because it doesn’t make noise, fits comfortably on body armor, and enables the wearer to drink water hands free. To be clear, the Camelbak isn’t just an improvement on the canteen; it is light years ahead.

So the military saw these advantages, and soon Camelbaks were plentiful in Iraq and Afghanistan...after the Iraq war started. In fact, even in 2006, I heard stories of Sergeants Major and Lieutenant Colonels banning Camelbaks and going to combat with canteens. Basic training dragged their feet too. This isn’t just the Army either, I have heard these stories from Marine veterans as well.

Even worse, Camelbaks had been around for years before the Iraq war, but mass adoption didn’t occur until after they had proved their usefulness in combat. Even Robert Heinlein, in the book Tunnel in the Sky, describes something almost exactly like a camelbak, in the fifties!

The story of the Camelbak is just one example of many technologies or changes that wilted in the military bureaucracy, illustrating several disheartening truths about the Pentagon’s acquisitions process:

- Real change in the military only tends to happen under fire. Thus, for much of the 1990s, when the military should have been testing, adapting, improving, it was stagnating. No one saw a need to change to a better canteen because bullets weren’t flying.

- Generals only adopt programs that kill more bad guys or have a “gee whiz” technical aspect. This is why new vehicles get so much attention and canteens do not; it is also why the Army adamantly refuses to upgrade the M4 to one of the piston-driven versions. Despite its atrocious jamming record, and massive maintenance needs, from Vietnam through to Iraq to Afghanistan to Iraq again, the Army/Department of Defense have steadfastly refused to replace the M4. While they started tests on new models, it will be years before full-scale adoption of a new rifle, and adoption will probably occur after our current wars have ended.

- Uniformity is king, which kills innovation. We’ve written about this before. The boot the Army wore into the two expeditionary wars of the 2000s sucked. It was ill-fitting and hot. Civilian hiking boots hiked circles around it, but no one knew any better because everyone had to wear the exact same footwear. The same with canteens. The problem is many Sergeants Major believe that every soldier should look the same; in their minds, a non-uniform army is an undisciplined army. This uneducated view of uniformity hampers innovation.

Before the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq started, the idea to swap canteens for Camelbaks wasn’t sexy, and it wouldn’t make a General’s career. At least, not in the same way getting a ultra-expensive vehicle like the Comanche scout helicopter or the Crusader self-propelled howitzer or the Future Combat System; all systems that cost billions for research and development, to out fight enemies who couldn’t out fight us right now; all systems that have since been cancelled.

fifteen comments

Exum has a pretty wonky interview about something military adaptation. Expect us to write more about this in the future.


When I was at Fort Bragg in 2003-2006, we were issued Camelbaks, but our brigade command sergeant major outright banned them. Crew chiefs would work on aircraft in the burning sun, but they wouldn’t be allowed to have a camelback with them to drink water.

Instead, the brigade command sergeant major decreed that all Camelbaks (even in combat) must be carried in the hand. The left hand, mind you, so that you could salute with your right hand.

What’s funny is that the 82nd Airborne Division’s “Blue Book” specifically granted the CSM the authority to permit the wear of Camelbaks (though he didn’t). Not to mention the fact that Camel-BACKs were standard issue—isn’t this a misuse of government funds if troops aren’t allowed to wear them?

Don’t get me started on the hoopla surrounding those black fleece jackets, either. Around 2003, Fort Bragg issued those black fleece jackets—very comfortable and warm—but wouldn’t allow them to be worn with any known uniform. I wound up using mine as a civilian jacket.

@ Starbuck – Cue forehead slap.

I’m surprised I don’t have permanent palm marks on my forehead from my time at Fort Bragg.

Reminds me of getting to my first unit back in 2000/2001. The Command Sergeant Major there actually ordered sweet camelbaks with the 2 pouches on them for everyone. Great idea. His primary reason was so we could enter and clear buildings and rooms without getting hung up on doorways. Pretty epic move on his part. Sadly he is retired and NOT the Sergeant Major of the Army now. Unfortunately he is not the norm and too many Senior NCOs are more worried about uniformity than accomplishing the mission.

I am surprised the Army uses canteens still. Maybe they just switched from Buffalo stomachs? A very telling article about the government method.

Pentagon Wars is the classic movie about this phenomenon.(You tube)

I served from 2002-2007 (tours in ’03 and ’05) and my story is essentially the same; any attempt at adapting to your environment, any evolution in the uniform or SOP is met with steadfast refusal unless you’ve found yourself in a Special Operations support unit or your command is responsive to the innovative potential of soldiers. One potentially cost effective step regarding uniforms would be to create separate manuals—one for the field, one for garrison—in which decentralized decision-making at the platoon, squad or platoon level is encouraged to promote real-time adaptation to the threat environment.

A correlary to this is what I refer to as the “black velcro” phenomenon.

Once something looks cool and is advertised as a “special forces” piece of equipment, sergeants major will clamor to have it.

As a former HHC commander, I spent long hours listening to my CSM bemoan the fact that he didn’t have an M-4 with a laser sight or a pistol with a laser sight because he didn’t want to be one-upped when he went to his weekly CSM meetings on the COB (not a FOB, but a COB).

It’s like the “GI Joe with a Kung-Fu Grip” syndrome for middle-aged men who don’t have the money for a BMW.

Yeah I have a few more examples, but Eric said to wait for future posts.

@Joseph Carter- There was a conference by SSI that talked about the nature of war. In there, a general made that exact pitch and I totally agreed. Our nation was built by innovators, which needs competition. But we don’t have it and we try and build a one-size fits all military, and it doesn’t work.

@Cincinnatus- Have seen Pentagon Wars and it captures the need for Big over Useful. Great, great film.

Though I’m only a lowly ROTC cadet and not in the ‘Big Army,’ the situation seems quite the same. Camelbaks are authorized in the field, however only if you are also wearing the canteens on your LBE (both full, mind you)…

Being that we’re in the San Fernando Valley, sometimes we’re training in temperatures in excess of 115 degrees. I asked, because of this, if we were able to wear the Army Combat Shirt while training in such (relatively) hot circumstances. “Cadet Command has stipulated that only issued gear is authorized” was the response. Apparently they just conveniently overlook the Camelbaks and Oakley boots, eyepro and gloves that every cadet is wearing.

You’re not alone guys.

In the Falklands war 14% of hospitalized British casualties went down to trench foot. Had the land battle not been so quick that surely would have been much greater.

The units that mostly avoided TF were Royal Marines who wore non-issue Lundhags.

There’s a pretty robust literature on the military and institutional change, which a think-tanker like Exum will probably be able to exploit more fully. The studies started in the mid-60s under sociologists like Marsh and Etzioni, and even Nagl touches on the issues in his book about the Army as a learning institution.

It’s not just gear. Gear is one manifestation of the broader phenomenon: the military leadership (officer and enlisted) has been conditioned to think in specific modes with their own sets of rewards and penalties. So to achieve a given change, the rewards and penalties have to be aligned. Camelbaks are a good example: there’s no intrinsic reward to the CSM who permits their use. But by violating the uniformity norm he incurs the wrath of the peer group. So for a CSM to advocate Camelbaks, he would have to perceive that the benefits to use outweigh the costs associated with violating uniformity.

And it’s not just the military. American economics departments noticed 20 years ago that their undergraduates were unable to gain entrance to top-level graduate programs, because the graduate discipline was math-centric and the undergraduate curriculum was math-phobic. Rather than change the undergraduate curriculum and scare off potential students (read: money) faculties recommend that aspiring economists double-major in math. The institution won’t change itself, so it imposes the burden on the lowest level.

The Marine Corps dealt with its own version of gear-adaptation idiocy in 2003-4 when SgtMajs insisted on configuring the mag pouches and ammo pouches in a uniform manner for every Marine. By mid-2004, they had all decided that convenience in combat outweighed appearances- but only in combat. Back in garrison, uniformity still reigns.

Long story short: there’s a lot of literature on this topic that can be exploited for a detailed and nuanced discussion.


Hi there –

New to the blog and enjoying it.

During my military experience, I saw much of the syndrome you’re describing, although I believed it to be receding in the face of the war on terror. I remember CSM’s at NTC in the late 1990’s furiously persecuting anyone wearing a CamelBak. However, by the time I deployed to Afghanistan in 2004, it seemed like the Army had loosened considerably, understanding that comfort, individual requirements (should a 5’ 2”, 130# soldier be equipped EXACTLY the same as a 6’ 5” 230# one?), and mission requirements (i.e. the medic versus an Assistant Gunner) might trump uniformity. The RIF process seemed a legislative endorsement of non-uniformity. Given the start-date of your service (2006?), I am frankly surprised to hear you complaining of the same thing I would’ve complained about 8 years earlier, given the sea-change of progress I noticed during that same period.

2 other notes: – In your OP, you blame CSM’s and LTC’s. When it comes to a relatively thoughtless adherence to uniformtiy, I think the senior NCO community shoulders the blame. LTC’s and CPTs always grant uniform decisions to senior enlisted leadership, whether or not they agree (because, as in any relationship, you must pick your battles). – If senior NCO’s are to blame for poor uniform decisions, senior officers (well beyond the LTC level) are to blame for poor procurement decisions. David Hackworth made a compelling case in ABOUT FACE. The sexy programs get the dollars, the non-sexy ones do not, regardless of value on the battlefield. There’s a reason why we’ve had generation upon generation of fighter plane development in the lifespan of the CH-47, which has no planned replacement.

Keep up the great work (I’ll keep reading).


The Camelbak issue is just one symptom of a larger problem. Most everyone knows this, except as I mentioned, senior (read general-level) leadership.