End of War: Adjusting to Garrison Life

soldiers pushing a lawnmower out of the mud reflective belt

Reintegration, block leave, initial reset.

A huge source of reintegration frustration comes from transitioning from an environment where leaders at every echelon have more autonomy and control over their formations than they do back at home. What you actually have to do on a day-to-day basis seems to be more tightly controlled at home station than it was forward deployed.

The quicker a leader makes that realization, the quicker he or she can stop raging against the machine and get on board for the big win.

At the platoon level, you go from being able to see the platoon – actually, physically see them – on a daily basis, to losing them to a never-ending stream of details, appointments, and mysteries.

It’s not necessarily a bad thing, though.

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Winter is Coming: And so is the Army’s new appearance bible


This is a piece I wrote back in December for another outlet that never got published. It’s been sitting on my hard drive since then and since Iraq: Ten Years Ago ended (and training picked up) I haven’t been able to write as much. So, here it is.

“The Army is a uniformed service where discipline is judged, in part, by the manner in which a soldier wears a prescribed uniform, as well as by the individual’s personal appearance.” – Chapter 1, AR 670-1

The regulation covering things like haircuts, fingernails, and the way soldiers wear their uniforms is being updated for the first time in almost ten years. For the hundreds of Army regulations in circulation, few are referenced more frequently than Army Regulation 670-1: Wear and Appearance of Army Uniforms and Insignia. It prescribes – in painstaking detail – exactly how each and every item is to be worn and the manner in which soldiers should present themselves in order to project a professional military appearance.

The regulation is thorough and exact. An example, from the section on male haircuts:

“The hair on top of the head must be neatly groomed. The length and bulk of the hair may not be excessive or present a ragged, unkempt, or extreme appearance. The hair must present a tapered appearance. A tapered appearance is one where…”

And it continues on for another 145 words.

The last revision came before the adoption of the much-maligned grayish/greenish/blueish Advanced Combat Uniform which blends in well with your grandmother’s couch. The new revision will include the proper wear and appearance of the ACU as well as other pieces of clothing that have been issued since the last update, when the force was arguably busy fighting two wars. Currently, the wear and appearance of those items are buried in cryptic ALARACT (All Army Activity) messages which are hard to read and even harder to find.

The updated AR 670-1 will be welcomed by non-commissioned officers throughout the Army who have to answer the question daily, “Hey Sergeant, how am I supposed to wear this?”

Besides updating the wardrobe, hints at what to expect have leaked out, and all signs point to more restrictive regulations concerning grooming and behavior standards, which has raised the ire of some who lament the return of a “garrison” Army.

Some of the expected changes include:

-Tattoos cannot be visible above the neckline or extend below the wrist line or hands while wearing Army uniforms
-No eating, drinking, or smoking while walking
-No talking on cell phones while walking
-No gold teeth or “grillz”
-Male soldiers will have to shave their faces, even on weekends when off duty

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have fostered an environment where if a potential policy does not immediately impact the ability of the warfighter to do his or her job – win the nation’s wars – then it is dismissed as irrelevant and a distraction to the force. That seems to make sense, and it is a hard argument to counter, especially to the junior sergeants and officers who have shouldered the burden of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. Those soldiers, by virtue of their wartime service, feel emboldened to decide what is relevant and what is nonsense in terms of “Big Army” policy and its effect on war-fighting.

Without question, training and preparing for the “unforgiving minute” should be the focus of policy and regulation. But to categorically dismiss anything that doesn’t have direct relevance to the guy shooting the enemy presents an unrealistic burden on the force – one that can never be met.

Soldiering is a process, not an end. Discipline is developed – especially among young men and women – through tough standards that are rigidly enforced. Keeping a neat haircut or shaving on the weekends won’t make you shoot straighter. But general discipline over time inculcates pride in the profession of arms, which builds confidence that spills over to other areas, like training.

The popular narrative right now is that of a “wartime” Army that is fantastic at fighting, but is about to shift to a “garrison” Army akin to that of the 1990s that is more concerned with looking good. This narrative is fueled in small part by opinion pieces saying such, but is really getting around through military-themed internet memes and satire blogs that are insanely popular with troops.

This narrative has legs because it idolizes the soldier who has gone to war – which is one of the driving forces to join in the first place – while protecting the soldier from restrictive “garrison policies” when he or she returns home. The narrative assumes a zero-sum environment, where a force that concerns itself with tattoos and haircuts cannot simultaneously train as well for war.

The fallacy is that going to war does not necessarily make you good at war. Tough, realistic training prepares you for war. Going to war provides experience. Showing up is good, but as the Army football team demonstrates yearly in the Army-Navy Game, showing up isn’t always good enough.

Interestingly, it was the Army that emerged from the 1990s that invaded Afghanistan and Iraq, and by many accounts, that Army performed those invasions exceptionally well. It is the following years of counterinsurgency and “surges” whose efficacy is being called into question, those years when we became a “wartime” Army, and those “garrison” standards were shed.

When I spoke with a friend and senior NCO about this, he offered some candid analysis, stating: “They (junior NCOs) aren’t as good as some say they are. They can’t maneuver over complex terrain. They can get in a vehicle, drive to an objective, do something, and then return to the forward operating base and hit the chow hall. The discipline that made the invasion Army good spilled over into everything we did back then, and that’s why we were so successful.”

On the role of the Army, he continued “Moreover, the Army has a responsibility to think about things other than shooting bad guys. Our appearance and actions in America are how we garner trust from the public. Our persona as a force has to be palatable to most of America to continue to enjoy the relationship that we have now.”

Taking the long view, that “garrison” Army looks pretty darn good. And they could fight, too.

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The New York Times and the Myth of the Garrison Army

Garrison vs Field

The New York Times is running a front page (web) piece titled “After Years at War, the Army Adapts to Garrison Life.” If you follow my blog, you know that I hate when the term ‘garrison’ Army gets slung around because it has a bunch of negative connotations which are more myth than reality.

By titling the piece as so, the writers/editors are trying to paint a picture of a sleepy Army, worn out from war and now struggling to deal with the mundane tasks back home, in “garrison.”

Read the article. It’s the same piece that has been written for the past ten years. Young soldiers go overseas, see some crazy shit, come back and then talk about how it was really exciting and they look forward to going back. Junior officers are talked up about how much they are doing relative to their rank. Everyone loves going to war where they get to do their job.

This particular article doesn’t really discuss any changes back home, in “garrison.” It’s all just training like it’s always been. The only difference is that instead of titling the article vanilla like “What’s Going On in the Army Right Now” they titled it as they did, the supposition being that everyone is spending their days picking up cigarette butts.

There is a prominent myth that is couched in the article that the Army is filled with a bunch of very young soldiers with multiple deployments, which isn’t quite accurate (anymore). Most of the junior soldiers in a given unit joined in the last few years and have not deployed at all, or maybe once – and that may have been to close-out Iraq (a relatively tame deployment). The NCOs, on the other hand, have been in for awhile and they likely have multiple deployments. It is the senior NCOs/Officers who likely have three or more deployments. What I mean to say, is that there isn’t this horde of E1-E4s who are drunk on combat but now trapped in a “garrison” Army with nothing to do and going crazy. It’s mostly the same E1-E4s that we’ve always had, which is its own thing with its own problem set. The combat hardened veterans are mostly men and women in senior company or above positions. They’ve been through this already.

I get what’s going on here. The New York Times is writing a story about the Army on the timeline of 2001-2014, but the actual Army that exists, exists only ephemerally, forming slowly and hardening in a three to four year timeline before everyone PCSs/ETSs and it starts all over again. The garrison Army that the media keeps talking about just isn’t here yet. I’ve been countering the garrison narrative since I started this blog in 2011 and it hasn’t stopped.

What annoys me about these articles though is the way they get digested as fact. People will read this (people including soldiers, and leaders of soldiers) and see the headline which will lead them to process the text of the article differently than if it had been titled “Army Prepares for Future Wars.” Senior leaders will look out over their formations and think they see a bunch of hardened combat veterans, good at “war” but bad at “garrison” whatever that means.

Meanwhile, nothing has changed but the narrative.

I have friends who just got back from deployment, friends who are deployed now, and friends who are getting ready to deploy shortly. Just yesterday the Department of Defense announced another soldier was killed in Afghanistan. Whether we like it or not, we are still at war. We are not in “garrison.”

The current training tempo is hard and fast. If by “garrison” Army they meant a force that is either deployed, returning from deployment, or training for deployment, than I guess they got it right. But I don’t think that is what they meant.

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Why I whole-heartedly welcome a return to “garrison life”

military bronies
General Order #2: I will obey my special orders and perform all my duties in a military manner.
General Order #2: I will obey my special orders and perform all my duties in a military manner.

So this week it was revealed that the Army is going to be tightening up its regulations concerning tattoos.

Well, it wasn’t really revealed. You see, these changes were announced over a year ago.

That didn’t stop reactionary bloggers and talking heads from quickly ripping that juicy headline and repackaging it to fit a popular narrative of a military that is slipping into “garrison life.”

I’ve talked about this before here on this blog. It was actually one of my first posts. It’s a subject I find interesting because I am of the wild belief that the foundation of an effective military is discipline. Discipline is enforced through standards.

As James Joyner points out in his lamentation over the Army’s “misguided crackdown on tattoos,” the Army relaxed its standards to allow more recruits into the Army who may have at one point been turned away because of their tattoos. That’s fair. We needed more soldiers and we relaxed our standards to get them. Now, we’re no longer in that position and we can afford to tighten up. Dr. Joyner also writes about an upcoming prohibition from “eating, drinking, smoking, or talking on cellphones while walking; presumably this is to ensure they’re not distracted from or incapacitated to salute senior officers.” Dr. Joyner’s presumption that this is to ensure they’re not distracted from saluting senior officers seems like a nasty jab at the officer corps, who according to this are very concerned with getting saluted. I would argue that more likely it simply helps to ensure that soldiers present a military appearance. Slamming a Monster and chatting on an iPhone while walking across the street does not present a military appearance.

Paul Szoldra who writes at Business Insider characterizes this return to garrison life as a way to annoy junior enlisted troops to the extent that they wouldn’t consider re-enlisting.

Paul writes:

Single sergeants and corporals, who previously were able to get out of the barracks and be paid a housing allowance, will once again be forced back into the barracks. A place where, the general writes, officers and other leaders are to “regularly conduct visits in the Barracks between the hours of 2000-0400.”

It gets worse. From the email:

4. There will be two NCO’s on every deck in a Barracks and there will be a Firewatch posted on every deck.

5. There will be no TV’s or video games allowed in the Watch standers place of duty.

6. Units will establish an Interior Guard with a SNCO in charge of the Interior Guards training.

“It gets worse?” I never considered active leadership a bad thing. When I was a young soldier living in the barracks, I was always impressed when my squad leader paid me a visit on a Saturday to see if I was doing okay. It showed me that he cared. He’d stay and talk for a minute, ask me what my plans were for the weekend, and then reminded me that I could call him if I ran into trouble.

That experience paid off when I became a sergeant myself. After coming back from Iraq, I walked through the barracks on the weekends even when I lived off post to check on soldiers, who were often getting into trouble. Checking in on your soldiers isn’t “annoying,” it’s  a basic leadership skill.

But things have changed. When I pulled CQ (charge of quarters) duty many years ago, there were no smartphones and the only thing I was allowed to read were military publications. Today, the duty NCO and his soldiers are usually hypnotized by their glowing screens, oblivious to what’s going on right around them. I’ve also seen how it is now common to have giant high-definition televisions and Grand Theft Auto V or Call of Duty running at the CQ desk in the evening after everyone has gone home. One soldier actually didn’t even look at me until I politely asked him to pause the game when I was making my rounds one night.

Maybe I’m just being a grumpy old man, but I think there is value in displaying military professionalism.

Or to put it another way; crazy shit goes down in the barracks. Active leadership and control measures deter that. That, is not a bad thing. That is not “worse.”

When I wrote my post about garrison soldiers versus field soldiers, I had been out of the Army for over five years. Yet I still clung to the notion that standards and discipline are inherently good things that makes the fighting force better. As I read more and more articles of soldiers bummed out about the flaming out of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, there was a part of me that wanted to give those guys the benefit of the doubt. Maybe I had just been out of the game too long.

When I rejoined the Army later I was able to confirm my original notion. Pervasive in the junior force is this idea that rote standards and discipline for its own sake is bad and a distraction from the core mission – winning wars. Ten years of espousing the “warrior” as opposed to the “soldier” hasn’t helped, either.

Everyone wants to play what the Army calls “big boy rules.” An example, we’re not going to hold accountability formation fifteen minutes prior to the formation time because I am going to trust that you can all make it there on time. And then, of course, someone doesn’t make it on time. So you institute a means to ensure that you can accomplish the mission – show up fifteen minutes prior.

Or, I’m not going to physically inspect your foot march packing list because “we’re all grown men and can do it ourselves.” And then, of course, a member of the team leaves out a key piece of equipment, putting the mission at risk.

Or, we’re not going to conduct consolidated physical training because maintaining physical fitness is an individual responsibility. And then, of course, a member of the team who slacked off during PT is now holding back the platoon on a long field movement.

The other day, I was speaking with a young soldier who has been in the Army for about two years. He told me that he is pretty sure that he will get out of the Army when his contract is up. When I asked why, he said it was because he feels like he is in a “garrison Army” and that he feels like he comes to work and is at a “twenty-four-hour daycare.” Meanwhile, this is a relatively new soldier that has never deployed and has had discipline problems in the past. Maybe Paul is right. Maybe he is being “annoyed” out of the Army.

I can understand a seasoned combat veteran getting bummed out about a return to “garrison life,” but most of the seasoned combat veterans I talk with fully embrace and understand the need for it right now. They want it. They see firsthand the effects of years of “bro’ing out” and want their Army back.

This whole project of getting back to the basics is not a function of a downsizing military or a way to annoy people so much that they get out. It is a recognition that a decade of war has eroded the basic soldiering skills that are required of a professional force. To argue otherwise is just complaining.

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Young LTs: Too cool to take drill and ceremony seriously

One of the things I’ve noticed about the young LTs I’ve been around at IBOLC is how lax their attitudes are towards “garrison” army stuff, like drill and ceremony. Like most leadership schools, IBOLC relies on a student chain of command to do most things, to include morning PT. Some young lieutenant will be charged with taking the formation and walking them through PRT. While this isn’t the case for everybody, most LTs get up there and act like it’s a rote chore. “Go ahead and stretch out on your own” is probably the most frequent command given behind “en route fall out” which isn’t a real command at all.

It strikes me as strange that so many young LTs already have a jaded attitude towards proper drill and ceremony. There is little enthusiasm for it and a rabid desire to get to “route step, march!” as quickly as possible. I posit two theories: 1) this is normal LT fare and has been since the beginning of time, or 2) it is a reflection of the training they received at their commissioning source from a cadre who has largely dismissed “garrison-esque” stuff in favor of more pertinent combat-oriented material.

“Arms downward, move!”

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Garrison soldiers, field soldiers, and missing the point

Garrison vs. Field: An imaginary distinction.

“He’s good in the field, but he sucks in garrison.”

I saw this story last week, and it bummed me out. ‘82nd Airborne Paratroopers Unhappy with Iraq, Afghanistan Withdrawals.

Paratroopers like to fight. They like to go to war. But I was saddened by the tone in this report, suggesting that soldiers fear a return to a ‘garrison’ Army, one in which they won’t be doing real work, but instead, focused on things like area beautification and the ‘ol dog and pony show. It’s a strange fear, since, for most of these soldiers, they never really experienced a garrison Army.

One soldier reports that he wants to do his job and he can only do that while deployed.

That sentiment is echoed throughout the article, although, the younger soldiers seem to fear garrison life more than the older ones (who are on their umpteenth deployment and wouldn’t mind a little more family time).

The idea forwarded is that being deployed constitutes real work, while being back home does not. It is easy to understand where this attitude comes from. For those who join the Army looking for action and adventure, garrison life is a distraction and boring. I suppose time spent training in the field doesn’t count as strict garrison, and would qualify as a cut above pure garrison life (whatever that is), but still short of an operational deployment. But even time spent out in the field might be a downer. No one in the field is out there trying to shoot you.

Sadly, this eagerness to deploy to do ‘real work’ suggests that being back home isn’t taken as seriously. That is, true soldiering is something that happens only while deployed. Everything else is just nonsense. Not what I “signed up for.”

Well, Army leaders have nodded towards a coming realignment where discipline and old school garrison attitudes will soon be making a return. The drawdowns in Iraq and Afghanistan, coupled with the current budget crisis and a downsizing Army suggests a coming higher level of accountability from soldiers across the ranks.

The attitude expressed in the article reminded me of my first year in the Army. The ‘Global War on Terror’ had just started, but only affected a relatively small number of units and soldiers. There was a sense in the air that something big was looming on the horizon, but we were still a ‘garrison’ Army transitioning to a ‘wartime’ Army.

In the Army in days of yore, attentive soldiers with an eye on rapid advancement understood that a premium was placed on the wear and appearance of the uniform. A clean, freshly starched set of BDUs with razor angles and boots that shone like black glass attracted praise from tough NCOs. Standing tall and looking good was not done simply for its own sake, but was often done seeking reward. Preferential treatment, additional passes, and compliments rained down from superiors, who wished to foster an environment where all soldiers took pride in their uniform and appearance.

There were other soldiers, though, who were having none of this. So much attention paid to an immaculately kept uniform detracted from other, more important tasks. ‘Real’ soldiers were good at their ‘real’ jobs, and in the case of the infantry, that is closing with and destroying the enemy. Real soldiers were good at core tasks and were good in the field – PT, shooting combatives – whereas garrison soldiers were good in the rear – well-manicured uniform, competes in soldier of the month/year/millennium boards, takes correspondence courses, has the right things in the right pockets, knows unit history, etc.

Field soldiers and garrison soldiers.

A garrison soldier in the field.

Such a stark division couldn’t last. Handsomely dressed gentlemen wouldn’t survive in the field (there are bugs). And raw grunts would smell bad and break all the fine china in the chow hall.

This led to the inbetweeners. These are the soldiers who fancied themselves grunts but saw the value in keeping a good uniform and understood pragmatically that standing-tall-looking-good-ought-to-be-in-hollywood was good for their professional advancement. But they were torn, because it seemed as if only one path could be chosen – field soldier or garrison soldier. For an infantryman, the choice would be obvious. But to choose the field route meant forfeiting the benefits of the garrison route.

To address this, the inbetweeners decided to maintain a field uniform and a garrison uniform. The field uniform would be the standard issue BDU, but not specially kept. They would never be starched and they would be worn ‘as is’ – wrinkles and all. Field boots would be occasionaly slathered with a chunk of Kiwi quickly rubbed in with the sole intent of preserving the leather. There was little shine, only a matte, dull look that absorbed the sun.

The garrison uniform, on the other hand, would be kept clean and starched heavily. On Monday mornings, it would be carefully removed from its protective plastic wrapper. As arms and legs penetrated the pressed uniform, thin sheets of heavy starch might crack off and fall to the ground, shattering like tiny pieces of glass. Soldiers could look at themselves in the mirror-reflection of their black boots, which may have been shined by hand, or by the boot guy on Yadkin road.

Garrison soldiers could rarely ‘put their arms down.’

A 0900 Monday morning formation was always one filled with grumbles, as the field soldiers scoffed at the parade-ready garrison soldiers, who of course, insisted that they were simply wearing their garrison uniform – not their ‘real’ uniform. Field soldiers retorted that uniforms are uniforms and there should be no distinction, to which the garrison soldiers responded with accusations of laziness and jealousy.

That battle didn’t end until the introduction of the ACU and the tan boot, which requires no shoe polish. It’s hard to make the ACU look good, so no one bothered trying.

I recall seeing starched DCUs while deployed. Relevant? No. Silly? Probably.

The point in all this is to highlight the long-held distinctions soldiers have had on garrison life and field life (whether ‘field’ means a week out in the woods, a couple of weeks at NTC or JRTC, or a year-long deployment to Iraq or Afghanistan).

Wherever soldiers are and whatever they are doing, that’s their real job.

Going forward, the challenge for leaders will be to convince a transitioning wartime Army that these ‘old school,’ basic soldiering skills are no less important than core skills related to a particular job. Leading soldiers in combat is important, yes, but should not be taken more seriously than leading soldiers in the rear, where the threat of death and injury exists just as it does while deployed (but with a different enemy).

Soldiering is soldiering, whether it is in the field or in the rear.

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