Letter from Military History – Feb/Mar 2009

By Michael W. Robbins
11/26/2008 • George Washington, MH Editorial

Practice, Practice, Practice

That’s the comic answer to the old query, “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” Surely an apt recommendation for classical pianists and sopranos, practice is also good counsel in many other disciplines. As such, it has a keystone military application: If practice makes perfect, then training makes the difference.

Training is so fundamental—so basic, one might say—that it is easy to overlook when assessing why one army prevailed over another. Leadership counts. Tactics count. Logistics count. Weapons count. Terrain matters. Numbers count. Courage counts. Intelligence counts. And training?

Military leaders and thinkers over the centuries—from Philip of Macedon with his amply drilled phalanxes to George Washington with his often-shaky militias—have clearly understood that training makes a big difference at the hour when armies actually clash. Training is surely one major reason the Israel Defense Forces have again and again prevailed despite lopsided odds. An appreciation for just how decisive good training could be drove U.S. Army Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall to field hundreds of thousands of recruits in a series of massive training exercises during the desperate run-up to World War II. Marshall’s belief in the importance of realistic field exercises continues to inform military training in the U.S. and other Western nations.

Common to basic training in virtually all nations are weapons training, physical conditioning and martial discipline. The intensity, sophistication and duration (in the U.S., eight weeks for the Navy, eight and a half weeks for the Air Force, 10 weeks for the Army, 13 weeks for the Marines) of that training vary widely, with predictable results. But there is another, not-so-quantifiable and not-so-obvious element of training that may well influence battlefield outcomes once the shooting starts: initiative. The mental aspects of training, the emphases on personal competence and responsibility—particularly among the NCOs who comprise the backbone of the forces—have long been hallmarks of democratic national armies and may well be a secret of their successes.

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