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Ger Yer Hands Outta Yer Darn Pockets

(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.

On a more positive note, if you want to know why Michael C joined the Army, read about it in “Why Do I Fight?”, “What Did You Do Out There?”, “Did You Accomplish Anything Out There?”, “Why I Served”, and finally, “Hasta La Vista...Baby”. )

First a confession, when my brother and I first started playing sports at an indoor soccer league at the Boys and Girls Club--aged maybe eight?--we had athletic shorts with pockets on them. Sometimes we put our hands in those pockets when the ball was on the other side of the pitch. A life long athlete and college volleyball coach, my mom explained to my brother and I that putting your hands in your pockets, in athletics, is a no-no. You just don’t do it. You don’t look athletic.

Fast forward to U.S. Army ROTC. Date 2003, aged 20. I am again told, “Don’t ever put anything in your pockets. It projects an unprofessional image.” Why? To keep soldiers from looking like Beetle Bailey.

On Monday, I mentioned shining boots as an activity that, when calculated, cost the Army 570 million man hours in the nineties. I didn’t mention then, but could have, the Army’s crazy emphasis on keeping things out of pockets. This isn’t necessarily a bad use of time; it’s just a tremendous emphasis on developing a skill--looking good--that doesn’t relate to fighting and winning the nation’s wars.

To be clear, I don’t just mean the custom of keeping the two side pockets on every pair of pants empty--though that too is verboten. On the old Battle Dress Uniform, in garrison, the cargo pockets were forbidden from carrying anything in them. The Battle Dress Uniform had an array of pockets, ten total, all of which were only supposed to be used in combat, if even then.

Except for the two front pockets on a set of BDUs. These two pockets had no combat function. Body armor covered them completely. Load Carrying Equipment made them uncomfortable to use. In garrison, the two front pockets were to be ironed ridge-hard flat. Thus, in the same way leaders let an ineffective time-suck waste 570 million dollars in the 1990s, the same leaders let two pockets get sewn on every uniform since the mid-1980s because it looked good. Lord knows how many dollars were wasted on these purely ornamental pockets.

The worst crime of the Battle Dress Uniform, adopted in the mid-1980s, was that when push came to shove, when the bright lights shined on it, when we finally went into combat with it...it proved useless. Or worthless. And Army leaders replaced it in three years time.

The U.S. Army had to completely change the uniform to acknowledge reality: if you won’t let soldiers put anything in the pockets, then save the cloth and don’t put them on. Let soldiers put things in their cargo pockets, that’s why they are there. Put pockets on the shoulders.

The Army Combat Uniform, the Battle Dress Uniform replacement, represented a sea change in Army culture that had to be pushed through by the Secretary of the Army. Still, even with his backing, it took three years to field a new, functional uniform. In other words, in the decade before 9/11 the U.S. Army trained so poorly that its leaders didn’t realize that the primary article of clothing assigned to every member did not work. Or, if the leaders did realize the error, no leader had the intestinal fortitude or will to make the needed change.

(Much like every war, the U.S. Army wasn’t prepared for war. Body armor, the use of tourniquets, the use of Camelbaks, the use of hands-free radios, MRAPs, the list goes on, once again showing that the Pentagon does not plan well for future wars. The Air Force and Navy haven’t been tested in this way; odds are their elite tech will not live up to billing in a shooting war.)

I just finished Moneyball (the book and soon to be released movie) and I can’t get the thoughts of Billy Beane manager of the Oakland As out of my head. His scouts continually scouted guys saying, “They look great in a uniform.” Billy would respond, “We’re not selling jeans.” Uniformity and discipline have roles in the Army--I don’t dispute that. Same with baseball. However, we can put too much of an emphasis on the wrong things, the easy things. Looking good in uniform is an easy thing; learning Arabic--or teaching an entire Brigade Arabic--is tough. The Army cares too much about how it looks in jeans.

At least in one case we made a change for the better. Now if only we could get the color right...

six comments

Yes, there are uniform issues. But again, I think you are using too broad a brush. When I was in, we were allowed to use all of the pockets on our BDUs. In fact, we were required to have certain things in certain pockets. This goes back to your earlier post talking about how Army culture sucks. But you only know a particular unit’s culture at a particular time. It is unfair and sloppy to say the whole system is a mess.

And teaching an entire brigade Arabic? I take your point, but that doesn’t seem very realistic.

Arabic doesn’t seem realistic, and I don’t think you could get 100% proficiency. That said, in a globalized world where US troops will go to other countries, knowledge of languages and cultural proficiency is the single biggest advantage we could gain. I put language training above any technological advantage.

I will write about this in future posts, and I have written before, but we have failed to train for languages, except maybe Spanish because most soldiers already speak it. And this is a broad-across-the-army issue, while Generals profess to caring about “investing in people” they still devote billions on R and D on tech products that repeatedly fail. Until we figure out why this happens our Army will continue to invest its resources in the wrong activities.

And yes, my experience is based on the 173rd. But also ROTC, with its summer camp, Airborne school, CTLT in a German signal unit, Fort Benning for IOBC and Ranger, the MICCC, Vicencza, deployment (which included passing through Bagram where Sergeant Majors patrolled for uniform deficiencies) then Fort Campbell. Its not just one unit. (Though maybe just the Airborne.)

I’m looking forward to the future language posts. It’s an important issue. The problem, as I see it, is language acquisition is hard. Especially for hard languages. I’ve been studying Arabic in college (undergrad and graduate) for four years, in the US, the UK, and in the Middle East. After four years, my Arabic is okay.

This takes a long time and there are not quick solutions.

I agree. I lived for about a year in Italy—not counting the deployment—and I rapidly picked up Italian. I did about the same time in Pashtun country, living with the people, and I didn’t pick up nearly as much.

My core intention with these posts is to, hopefully, influence a few decision makers to decide that investment in language is a key investment we must make. I believe some training should be sacrificed for this goal, and some money towards R and D should be sacrificed as well. This will make our military more global in its perspectives.

Don, I like your perspectives and you definitely challenge my views beyond the usual, “Your idea sucks” we usually get, so keep it up.

(Random) @Michael C: I didn’t know you could do CTLT overseas! Maybe I would have tried harder to get it if I knew that.

I agree with Michael and Don: language should be much more heavily stressed. Even the CIA lacks as many foreign language experts as it could use. I got a bit of foreign weapon familiarization training in the Reserves; why not foreign _language _familiarization?

Anyways, it’s hard, but not that hard. I had a few friends in ROTC who took Arabic for their free electives because they knew they were gonna end up going shipped over.

My personal theory on foreign languages is that a little bit goes a long way. A little bit of “thank you”, “I’m sorry”, “excuse me” goes a long way for an American tourist in Europe. I bet the same for a soldier in Basra.