08 September 2004

Good Soldier Outlier: Boot Camp Methodologies

As soon as our bus full of new privates arrived at the Basic Training barracks, our "wait" phase was over and the "hurry up" phase hit full crescendo. The DI aboard the bus must have softened us up with a lot of doom-talk, then as soon as the bus stopped he joined the welcome party of DIs, all angrily shouting at us to get ourselves and our gear off that bus yesterday and form a straight line. Then they went down the line, checking each name off their list and finding something to insult or criticize in each of us.

These boot camp teaching methodologies were new to a nerd like me. I would have preferred gentler methods of instruction, The Silent Method, say, or Suggestopedia. But our DIs preferred The Shouting Method. They addressed us at a full shout, even directly into our faces, and we quickly learned to respond at a full shout, invariably announcing our agreement with a hearty "Yes, sir!" or "No, sir!" or "Yes, drill sergeant!" or "No, drill sergeant!"

Sins of omission, commission, or hesitation often elicited a different methodology, Total Physical Response. For instance, we might be ordered to drop to the "front lean-and-rest position" and do 10 or 20 push-ups, sometimes more, as if the DIs were priests dispensing so many Hail Marys and so many Our Fathers as penance after confession.

The primary goal of TSM was to reinforce hierarchy and unequivocal response to orders. TPR had much wider uses, perhaps the most common being PT (physical training).

Sometimes TPR reinforced verbal objectives, as in a chamber full of tear gas, where we each tested our mask, then in turn took it off and stood at attention while reciting name, rank, and serial number before being allowed to cut and run for the door, as tears, snot, and slobber began to overwhelm us. I have never forgotten my old (pre-SSAN) serial number--which started RA119...--despite never having used it in 35 years. (Nor have I forgotten my name!)

Sometimes verbal cues aided TPR objectives, as when we chanted cadence while jogging or marching, both to keep in step and to keep our minds from drifting. Cadence calling was one of two areas where DIs could indulge a little creativity. The other was thinking up amusing exercises or punishments, like having the whole platoon lie on our backs, wave our arms and legs in the air and yell, "I am a dying cockroach!"

I still remember a nonce couplet our DI concocted to razz the DI of a competing platoon. These were like jazz chants, another language-teaching methodology.
Sergeant White is turning green, 1, 2, 3, 4
Someone pissed in his canteen, 1, 2, 3, 4
TPR also helped teach an important distinction that some of us needed to learn, the difference between our rifles and our guns. The physical portion involved each of us raising our (M-14, not yet M-16) rifles into the air with our right hands, and grabbing our crotches with our left hands. (I can't remember the M-number assigned to our reproductive equipment.) The poetry that accompanied that motion follows.
This [shaking right hand] is my rifle
And this [shaking left hand] is my gun!
This [shaking right hand] is for fighting
And this [shaking left hand] is for fun!
We also did a lot of group and pair work. We always had to go across a horizontal ladder on the way to the mess hall entrance, and had to carry each other from the exit back to the barracks. If someone was waiting, you got to ride piggy back. If no one was waiting, you got to carry the next soldier.

The showers and toilets, too, involved groupwork. There were only six commodes for 40-50 privates, with no partitions, so you sat face-to-face and cheek-by-cheek during the peak times. At least we didn't have to shout while grunting.

One example of pairwork was land navigation. Each two-man team was given a compass and a treasure-map set of directions: so many paces in this direction, then so many paces in that direction, and so on, through hilly, but not densely forested terrain. The person with the compass would direct his partner to the end of one leg, then move there himself, then they'd start the next leg. I held the compass on that one, and my partner and I were one of the few pairs who ended up close to the final target.

Whatever the Army's goals and objectives might have been, I learned a few things not on the list.

I learned that DIs are capable of rough-and-ready sensitivity. Our (black) DI platoon sergeant addressed identity issues head on in his welcoming speech: "Y'all may think of yourselves as Georgians or Alabamans, as black or white, but y'all just look green to me."

I learned that, despite being relatively unathletic, I could take at least as much physical punishment as anyone else in the rather sorry lot I trained with (about which more later).

Finally, I learned that, after a long day's march, followed by live-fire night-infiltration exercises that involved a lot of low-crawling under barbed wire, Army field-kitchen food can taste mighty good, even when the only meat is liver.

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