They are Called “Drill” Instructors for a Reason.

Act and Think as a Unit

Drill, or the endless marching about that is synonymous with military life, is part of the ancient traditions of martial culture that, in all honesty, have very little with getting people from place to place. Recruits drill endlessly. It seems like one of the greatest wastes of time ever conceived in an era of satellite guided munitions and 747 delivering us to Kuwait the same day we left California. For that reason, drill is one of the most overlooked elements of the Boot Camp process to nonveterans. Drill was a tool first recorded being utilized by the Greeks to maneuver large armies in necessarily tight formations to fight in close quarters. It was necessary as far back as our Civil War when formation fighting in pitched battles allowed the greatest use of the technology of the era. With the implementation of rifling and field artillery, the marching of formations of troops no longer made sense. With the advent of automated weapons, it’s practice was ended completely on battlefields. Drill, however, still lives on more so as a valuable learning aide for military practitioners, more so even than for being a time honored tradition.

Getting people where they are going isn’t really why we drill. It’s about conditioning a mind to think as a part of a team; to align to it. Drill is refined groupthink where an entire unit of eighty men or women are eventually trained to act in perfect unison. The movements are always performed the same way and at the same speed. The vocal commands of the Drill Instructor initiate, by that point, instinctive reactions in recruits. That is what “Drill” is about. It is the reason for the terms “Drill Sergeant” and “Drill Instructor”.

Secondly, drill still has relevance today by training Marines to focus on the instructions of their leader and to gain unison in their actions. This practice is instant obedience to orders, following instructions immediately without thought, persuasion, or other action. It also teaches the importance of individual action in teamwork. Individual recruits have to master their movements individually, and once coalesced, they achieve something much more powerful as a group. Drill is a sort of metaphor for many things the military hold important: unity of the group, following strong and experienced leaders, precision and excellence, and experiencing the feeling of shared success not achievable by individuals. It’s such an important metaphor that hundreds of hours are literally dedicated to little else, but learning how to walk – as a team.

That still doesn’t make it clear why all these things are rationally necessary today, so I’ll be clearer. When the overarching goal of boot camp is to train recruits to one day be able to function in extreme stress environments, overriding the fear response is the most important things you can do. There are two ways, realistically, to do this; you can train to the point of muscle memory, or you can train obedience. Muscle memory and learning to rely on your skills are good; that’s what gives efficacy in your abilities when you will need them, but even faith in yourself sometimes isn’t enough when you are truly afraid. Fighting gets to be much easier when you see leaders taking action. It’s also much easier to do your job when you’re given direction to do so. It’s basic psychology that the young crave direction when they aren’t sure of themselves. It’s much less known that there are proven experiments showing how simply giving a person an instruction from someone they perceive as being a leader, can be enough to help someone overcome fear and do what, alone, would be impossible for them.

Battle is an extreme example of this. Young combatants look to experienced leaders. More so than this, but battle doesn’t afford the normal democratic processes of debate and rigorous analysis to test out and vet if an idea is good or not. Quite honestly, there is no time, so often when dealing with situations on the ground, the only practical means of resolving a situation is to bank on the person who has the most experience and to do whatever he says immediately.

This is why the military invests so much into ensuring that your brain is hardwired to do just that, listen to the sound of experience and instruction as a default in moments of stress. It is an instinct that saves lives. As time goes on this instinct fades, but as it does, the individual’s experience grows. In time, they are the one with experience and able to lead the new recruits. It’s one of the cycles that works, but one which the civilian world has no comparison for. Why should they? It makes more sense to rationalize things out with charts and review panels when time is a luxury . In almost all military endeavors, this too is true. The military in many ways functions like a huge bureaucratic company.  Sometimes though the necessity to have a culture of people who can simply do what they are told immediately, is the difference between your people surviving or mission failure. For this reason alone, the entire culture of the Marines still devotes countless hours to the art of drill, when most reasoned arguments would argue against it.

Below are three videos I wanted to showcase various phases of recruit training evidenced by their precision in drill movement as a unit. This is a platoon of female recruits a few weeks from the end of their training. They are learning, but still have some time before they are perfected.

Below is a platoon preparing for what is called Final Drill. This is a performance review of their abilities to carry out drill as a platoon. It is one of the most important training events as a platoon and culminates the highest point to test unit cooperation and teamwork. Once again, these are 18 year old men fresh out of high school. There are 80 of them and they have learned to carry out actions involving several steps and intricate footwork… in perfect unison.

Finally, Final Drill.


Continue on to The Crucible – On Endurance Training

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