Today we bring you another op-ed from Chris Hernandez. In true Breach-Bang-Chris fashion he articulates and then excoriates one of the worst things in the military mindset: learned helplessness. One must wonder – what if they gave a war and stupidity DIDN’T come?
“Screw it. There’s no point fighting. I may as well just lay here and take it.” That’s called Learned Helplessness.
I sat in a classroom with about twenty other soldiers, studying a slide show of armored vehicles for an upcoming test. Identifying vehicles was a critical part of the Military Occupational Specialty (MOS) we were trying to attain, and we had been warned about the importance of the vehicle ID exam. If we failed it, we had one more shot. Two failures and we were out of the course.
To pass we had to make the standard 70%. However, if we misidentified even one American vehicle, we’d automatically fail. And we didn’t just have to know the general vehicle type, we had to know specifics.
Slides flashed by. Students called out vehicle designations, the instructor corrected us as needed. About half the students were tankers being forcibly converted to Cavalry Scouts because Texas got rid of all our tanks. We tankers knew the vehicles pretty well already.
An old M1 tank, not the newer M1A1, popped up on the screen. We called out, “M1 Abrams”. The instructor shook his head.
“No, that’s an M1A1.”
A friend was at the desk next to me. He had been a tanker in Desert Storm. We had served in the same tank battalion for years, and went to Iraq together. We had spent countless hours in Abrams tanks, driven them, fed huge rounds into their breeches, fired their main guns and commanded them. We knew the difference between an M1 and an M1A1. My friend and I looked at each other and rolled our eyes.
My friend said, “That’s an M1.”
“No,” the instructor asserted. “You’re wrong. It’s an M1A1.”
A near-shouting match ensued. We pointed out obvious differences. There was no question, it was an M1. The instructor maintained a weak defense, then finally broke and admitted something: “Y’all are right, it’s an M1. But the course curriculum says it’s an M1A1. So on the test you have to give the wrong answer, or you fail.”
I groaned quietly. I loved being a tanker, and had no desire to be a Scout. Now if I wanted to pass the course for a job I didn’t even want, I had to intentionally give a wrong answer to a ridiculously easy question. And this question was supposedly so critical, getting it wrong meant I wasn’t fit to be a Scout. This kind of stupidity was why my father, a 1960’s Air Force veteran, pleaded with me not to join the military when I was seventeen.
Years ago, some horribly cruel researchers conducted an experiment. According to the version I heard during my brief college career, they stuck a dog in a cage, left the door open, and ran an electric current through the floor. The dog yelped and ran from the cage. Then they put the dog back in the cage, locked the door and repeatedly shocked the floor again. The dog went nuts trying to get out, until it finally realized there was no escape. Then the dog just lay there, stoically accepting the pain.
At that point, when the dog was defeated, the researchers opened the cage door and shocked the floor again. The dog felt the shock, looked at the open door, and said, “Screw it. There’s no point fighting. I may as well just lay here and take it.”
That’s called Learned Helplessness. It’s been observed in kidnap victims who don’t seize on opportunities to escape, and in battered spouses who stay in violent relationships when they have means to break away. And I must admit, to my shame, it’s a state of mind the Army has at times made me wish I could attain.
When I joined the Marine Corps in the 80’s, there wasn’t a whole lot of ridiculous, soul-crushing nonsense around. There was unnecessary stress, there was the “You’re not a real Marine” crap the regulars dumped on us reservists, but that was about it. Then I finished my Marine enlistment and joined the Army National Guard. Everything was surprisingly good for about ten years.
Until we were sent to Iraq.
In Iraq, nonsense piled so high atop other nonsense it dwarfed the Ziggurat of Ur. It was there I first encountered the bane of many a dedicated Soldier: conformity. That widespread and absolutely mindless insistence on everyone’s gear being set up the exact same way. In the Marines, even in boot camp, we were told, “This is YOUR gear. It will keep YOU alive. Set it up how it works for YOU.” In Iraq my unit had Soldiers of different sizes, with different weapons, filling different roles. Our equipment was set up to serve our specific needs. That made sense, and made us a better team. This reality just never seemed to penetrate the minds of many First Sergeants and above.
One day a First Sergeant told me to fix my platoon. Our gear wasn’t uniform. I sat with him and explained a few things. My gunner was 6’2” and about 260 pounds. We were in old M1025 humvees with tiny turret hatches. Unlike the rest of us, my gunner had no pouches at all on his body armor, because if he put them on he was so cramped he could barely turn around. He kept his gear in an assault pack he would grab if we had to bail out. My driver was a medic. He carried additional first aid gear on his body armor, plus was the only one of us to carry a pistol. I was neither a gunner nor driver nor medic, so my gear was different from theirs.
I explained to the First Sergeant that we knew the important things, like where everyone’s lifesaving tourniquets and Israeli bandages were. I gave clear and reasonable explanations of why uniformity would make us less effective. The First Sergeant listened quietly, nodded at appropriate times, gave the impression that my reasoning was sinking in. For a fleeting moment, I thought logic might have triumphed.
Then he responded with, “Well, that makes sense. But we still have to have uniformity!”
I stared at him, not seeing a senior Non Commissioned Officer, but instead a masochistic researcher with his finger on a switch. A canine voice whispered,
Don’t fight it. Just take the shock. You’ll like it after a while.
I stood up, announced “Roger that, Top! We’ll fix it!”, and walked out. I had no intention of changing anything. The First Sergeant would probably get distracted by a squirrel or something anyway, I figured he’d never say another word about it. He didn’t. I dodged the electrified cage, but just for a moment I had felt the temptation to give in to the “brain off/training manual on” mentality.
At one point during our tour someone decided every convoy escort team needed a Mark 19 automatic grenade launcher. On my team I was the lucky guy who was ordered to take one. The Mk 19 is a big, heavy, awesome gun and all, but I had never fired one. Neither had my gunner. My driver had fired a single burst from one, over ten years earlier. If you’re likely to engage in a firefight, it’s kind of important for everyone to, you know, actually know how to use their weapon. So I was a bit concerned about this order.
I went to my leadership and politely declined to take the weapon. They laughed. I argued. They held fast. I fought. They weren’t swayed. I yelled, stamped my feet, held my breath til I turned blue. No mercy was shown. I dragged the giant machine gun to my humvee.
But there was a bright side. My leadership assured me
we would get training on the weapon, as soon as they could schedule a range day. I told them we’d test fire it on the road. “No!”, they ordered. Test-firing the weapon off base was strictly prohibited. I’d have to take it on missions, without testing it, until the range day.
My shoulders sagged. The faint tingle of a current danced up my legs. I could see the electrified cage door standing open. It looked so tempting. No need to think, just do what they said. The easiest and only officially approved course of action was to follow orders.
Woof! Zap me again!
To be continued…
Please come back tomorrow for Part Two of Learned Helplessness. In Part 2 Chris will discuss the combat advantages of treating Soldiers like children, the proper use of tennis balls to warn away VBIEDs and why you should wear a regular uniform blouse over your combat shirt right up until you leave the wire.
Fucking Hernandez. We’d like to watch him skewer any number of marplots, busybody officers and officious SNCOs with the searing-sharp skewer of his wit, but most of them are so fucking brain dead they wouldn’t notice. The rest have their heads so far their ass the reaction time would ruin it anyway. Grunts: Marplot.
Here’s an excerpt from tomorrow:
The new leaders also instituted an amazing, hooah, breathtakingly motivating policy to maintain fighting spirit. They decided that everyone carrying a rifle or carbine on the FOB had to carry it in a combat ready stance, as if they were on patrol.I visited shortly after the policy took effect. On the sidewalk I saw many a sad-faced Soldier stalking to the PX with his rifle ready for a firefight, wearing his reflective belt, and saluting officers. It was like looking into an animal shelter full of sad puppies in electrified cages.
Now go pick up a copy of Chris’ novel, Proof of our Resolve. You’ll be glad you did. You might even be able to get him to sign it.
Mad Duo, Breach-Bang-CLEAR!