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Philosophy Military Training Doctrine and Practice

History of Military Training in the United States, The Post-Vietnam Era

The training of armies as a systematic educational practice has ancient roots. While other trades, crafts, and vocations are often individual pursuits, organized warfare requires the common training of vast numbers to produce synchronized efforts and predictable responses under stress. The evolution of military training doctrine and professional education in the United States provides a model of experimentation, advances, and rediscoveries in pedagogical practices and learning theory. As in the case of research and practical applications in medicine, engineering, technology, management, and organizational leadership, military professional education and training have been a proving ground for innovations. For the sake of brevity, the training doctrine of the U.S. Army will serve here as the primary example.

Doctrinal debates abound in the history of military training. Military educators have assessed the relative efficacy of rote memory and static knowledge, as opposed to creativity and dynamic knowledge. They have struggled with the choice between a single proven solution and situational initiative; that is, between rigid routine and fixed practice and standardized yet flexible techniques. They have appraised lecture/discussion-based learning and, for many skills, found experiential and case-based learning preferable. Simulations (war games), service learning, internships, and apprenticeships are longstanding practices. And in the evolving relationship between teacher and student, military trainers have moved away from an authoritarian, directive mode to a more participative colearner model of shared expertise.

History of Military Training in the United States

Friedrich von Steuben, a Prussian volunteer serving as George Washington's inspector general during the Revolutionary War, composed the first uniquely American training doctrine. Steuben brought his organizational energy and negotiation skills to the struggling Continental army at Valley Forge during the winter of 1777–1778. His ability as a teacher and trainer were anchored in his genuine concern for individuals, his personal integrity and sense of humor, and a keen perception of the character of Americans. He earned the trust of both Washington and the common soldier.

Steuben saw the Continentals as real soldiers, but of a new type–quick learners, likely to respond favorably to participative, practical, caring, and adaptive leadership, and to the discipline of a trained team. He instituted three essential reforms. First, he put commissioned officers in charge of training, insisting that they lead their men in training as they would in battle. He also advised that officers care for their soldiers. In his drill regulations, published in 1779, Steuben wrote: "A captain can not be too careful of the company the State has committed to his charge. He must pay the greatest attention to the health of his men, their discipline, arms, accouterments, clothes and necessaries" (Moss, p. 259). This dual focus enhanced the proficiency of both leader and those being led, while reinforcing the bond between them–a view reflected in the modern principle "mission first, soldiers always."

Second, Steuben prescribed an overhaul of army discipline, supply accountability, and manpower utilization. Soldiers scattered on various fatigue details and serving as officers' servants were returned to tactical units for training–a principle reflected in the current practice of priority training periods. He understood more clearly than Washington that European methods of discipline could not be imposed on the American army. Initiative, self-reliance, and a desire to know the why behind an order or a procedure were foundations of the American character. Steuben believed training for collective action had to be built on these entrepreneurial characteristics, and not designed to eliminate them.

Finally, Steuben standardized and simplified battle formations, tactics, and drills. He developed a manual of arms that reduced the steps in loading and firing muskets, taught the practical use of the bayonet, and trained the army to march in columns of four rather than in long, rambling single file. His teaching methods were insightful. He recruited 100 men of robust constitution for a demonstration guard company. With the assistance of carefully selected sub-inspectors, Steuben personally trained one squad in the new manual of arms and movement techniques, then supervised the drilling of other squads by the sub-inspectors. Once the squads were trained, he drilled them as a company, starting each day with squad drills and ending with company exercises–the beginnings of what now is called multi-echelon, progressive, or integrated training.

Many officers and soldiers came to watch Steuben's "parades" and were impressed. Washington directed that unit commanders adopt Steuben's model and appointed training inspectors coached by Steuben to oversee training throughout the Continental army. In a sense, these inspectors became the master teachers of their day–Steuben's concepts of teaching and learning have much in common with those of the twentieth-century educational philosopher John Dewey.

Steuben's innovations ran counter to a trend all too common in military history. Rigid adherence to outdated concepts of operational doctrine, including tactics and training methods that do not reflect the changing nature of military weapons and of warfare itself, has repeatedly proven costly, both in terms of military objectives and the lives of soldiers. Experience yields valuable lessons to those willing to learn. Unfortunately, many lessons are forgotten, only to be relearned by later generations.

One excellent example is that of Emory Upton, an 1861 graduate of West Point who rose to the rank of brevet major general in the Union army. Upton solved the problem of assaulting entrenchments defended by men with rifled muskets. In contrast to massed formations of soldiers marching shoulder to shoulder in the open, Upton employed four-man assault teams that moved independently, in short rushes, while other teams engaged the enemy–a technique today called fire and movement.

Trained to work together, taking advantage of cover and concealment and relying more on speed, surprise, and teamwork than on firepower, Upton's four-man team was the precursor of the modern infantry squad and an early model of the self-managed learning and production teams of today. European armies ignored Upton's lesson until the last year of World War I, when, in response to lethal battlefield conditions, both German and American assault troops devised innovative infiltration tactics employing interdependent teams.

The Post-Vietnam Era

The post-Vietnam era was a time of deep reflection for military professionals. The persistent threat of the cold war, however, did not allow for near-total demobilization and a return to isolationism, as had repeatedly occurred in the past. In the 1970s, the challenge facing military leaders was to train a force that would be fully prepared to fight in a "come as you are" war–one without a lengthy mobilization period.

A method had to be found to institutionalize experiential learning. The practical classroom of combat repeatedly reveals the strengths and deficiencies of military training. Standardized training schedules and techniques, fixed tactical solutions, and common doctrine–efficient in teaching the "book solution" and easy to evaluate–are often not effective in preparing leaders or soldiers to deal with new missions, unique environmental conditions, and the uncertainties of combat.

To meet this challenge, operational doctrine, recruiting methods, and training techniques required major revisions. The U.S. Army's Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) was established in 1973 as the single proponent for training reforms, doctrine revision, leader development, and the modernization of organizational structure, weapons, and equipment. William DePuy, the first Commanding General of TRADOC, recognized that the United States must be able to fight and win the "first battle of the next war." The Arab-Israeli War of 1973 provided a vivid example of modern warfare's speed and lethality, and its sudden onset allowed no time for the shallow seasoning (learning) curve of earlier wars.

DePuy's World War II and Vietnam experiences convinced him that the root cause of first-battle failures was combat training "by the numbers," where "learning and relevance were secondary to scheduling" (Scales, p. 11) and leadership development lacked demands for realistic combined-arms synchronization in the uncertainty of the battlefield. He initiated doctrinal changes that focused on a systems approach of "training to task, not to time" that educated leaders to optimize the advances in weapons and mobility, seeking to steepen the prewar seasoning curve. A parallel civil education reform is the shift from accumulating Carnegie units (number of hours per subject) to block scheduling and interdisciplinary, across-the-curriculum learning.

In the mid-1970s, Army Training and Evaluation Programs (ARTEP) and soldier's manuals replaced earlier training schedules. Each individual and unit task was analyzed, specified, and defined by measurable performance standards and the conditions under which it would be performed. Evaluations stressed actual performance under field conditions. Skills mastered at each level contributed to effectiveness at higher levels. Doctrinal innovations reflecting the realities of modern warfare were integrated into a series of how to fight and training the force manuals used to guide learning and actual operations.

Under the new doctrine, individual and unit training takes full advantage of techniques that are gaining acceptance in civilian schools and organizational settings. Internship experiences are provided to cadets and midshipmen. Initial tours of duty have a strong apprenticeship focus, while service learning (that is, learning from practical experience in an applied setting under the guidance or coaching of a trainer or teacher) is the norm. Theory and principles taught in the classroom are habitually applied and evaluated in field settings under expert supervision. Computer-assisted instruction and simulations, as well as distance learning organized under corresponding studies programs, are used extensively. Annual performance evaluations for leaders are anchored in individually prepared professional development plans. Across disciplines education is mandated by combined arms and joint operations doctrine.

The slogan "train as you will fight" gained credence with the adoption the Multiple Integrated Laser Engagement System (MILES) for tactical training. Eye-safe laser projectors were developed to match weapons from rifles to tank cannons; laser sensitive target arrays were rigged to soldiers' field gear and to vehicles; and computers recorded hits and near misses. MILES allowed, for the first time, force-on-force exercises that realistically simulated combat.

Evaluation of Training Methods

Inspired by the Navy's Top Gun program, the Army began tactical unit training evaluations at Fort Irwin's National Training Center (NTC) in the early 1980s. MILES-equipped companies and battalions, linked into a computerized Core Instrumentation System supported by video cameras, radio monitors, and experienced controllers, engaged a numerically superior opposing force (OPFOR) in a "no-holdsbarred battle" that tested individual and unit tactical skills and the real-time decision-making skills of commanders and their staffs.

The learning value of the NTC and other similarly equipped centers results from the direct experience of no-nonsense combat simulations and the cumulative effects of candid and detailed After Action Reviews (AARs). During an AAR, leaders' decisions, and their consequences, are evaluated using automated records of actions, controllers' observations and, significantly, the memories of unit participants. AARs are professional, collective reflections, and can be very humbling experiences. No other army exposes commanders to such a skilled opposing force and then reveals the results of the field exercise to that commander's subordinates and peers. Each NTC experience produces lessons learned that are actively shared.

As a key tool for learning from experience, the AAR technique is also applied to computer-assisted free-play simulations called Battle Command Training Programs (BCTPs), which are used to evaluate commanding generals and their staffs. To deal with the highly sensitive issue of such public assessments of senior officers, each BCTP simulation and its AAR is supervised by three retired four-star generals.

Evaluation and professional reflection are not limited to the NTC and BCTP. Mission-essential tasks, defined in each unit's ARTEP, are evaluated against measurable standards during AARs conducted after each training event. This commitment to honest feedback has instilled an institutional obsession to train realistically for combat and to learn from the experience. As vividly demonstrated by the Persian Gulf war and operations throughout the 1990s, units realistically trained prior to actual combat suffered remarkably low losses compared to first engagements in earlier wars. Well-prepared leaders made the right choices and soldiers performed with confidence grown from their repeated exposure to evaluated training experiences. Realism in training reinforced by professional reflection and shared lessons learned saves lives.

The military forces of the early twenty-first century face complex missions and diverse challenges, demanding training not just for combat but also for operations short of war, such as peacekeeping, humanitarian aid, counter-terrorism, and nation building. Soldiers must be prepared to shift rapidly from one operational mode to another, often with radically different rules of engagement. Current training practices emphasize this adaptability. Self-discipline and initiative, a shared understanding of the mission and the commander's vision, skillful application of technology, battlefield mobility and firepower, and a belief in both individual uniqueness and in skilled teams remain, as in Steuben's day, the foundations of organizational effectiveness. Military service is a calling and a vocation, linked throughout America's history by a remarkable faith in professional education and training.


CARROLL, JOHN M., and BAXTER, COLIN F., eds. 1993. The American Military Tradition: From Colonial Time to the Present. Wilmington, DE: Scholarly Resources.

CLARY, DAVID A., and WHITEHORNE, JOSEPH W. A. 1987. The Inspectors General of the United States Army, 1777–1903. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

GORMAN, PAUL F. 1994. The Secret of Future Victories. Fort Leavenworth, KS: U.S. Army Command and General Staff College Press.

MOSS, JAMES A. 1941. Officers' Manual. Menasha, WI: George Banta

SCALES, ROBERTH., JR. 1994. Certain Victory: The U.S. Army in the Gulf War. McLean, VA: Brassey's.

U.S. ARMY HEADQUARTERS, TRAINING AND DOCTRINE COMMAND. 1988. Field Manual 25-100:Training the Force. Washington, DC: Department of the Army.

U.S. ARMY HEADQUARTERS, TRAINING AND DOCTRINE COMMAND. 1990. Field Manual 25-101: Training the Force: Battle Focused Training. Washington, DC: Department of the Army.


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