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M16s and MREs

Real weapons, military rations, college kids, no sleep—what could possibly go wrong?

Hypothetically, I’m not terrible with numbers. I’ve taken multivariable calculus (albeit specifically for social sciences concentrators), econometrics, and have turned in dozens of Stata problem sets over the last year or so. I’m no math concentrator, but I do have reasonable competency with numerical operations.

Yet, when I am handed a map, compass, and protractor and am expected to plot and then actually go find five grid coordinates in the woods during an Army land navigation training? My brain starts flashing the blue screen of death that my old Windows XP desktop machine would flash on the daily. (Fun aside: The Department of Defense seems to still largely rely on ancient Windows operating systems. You should definitely be concerned.)

You would think that, being a college student, basic geometry like plotting grid coordinates and measuring angles would be a piece of cake. However, the woods do not care at all about how smart or clever you might be or where you go to college. You can perfectly plot your points, plan an ingenious route, shoot perfect compass azimuths, but the woods and terrain will still have the final say.

Does the Army have digital GPS systems that lead us exactly to where we need to go most of the time? Yes. Will I actually pull out my compass, protractor, and map to navigate my platoon to an objective when I’m a Lieutenant? I shouldn’t eliminate the possibility, but it’s fairly unlikely. But as is the case with many events in Army ROTC, the ultimate goal of seemingly irrelevant training is not necessarily developing perfect compass skills, but developing the mental skills to stay calm and collected under pressure.

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Can I keep my wits about me and not panic when the point marker isn’t exactly where I expected it? Can I exercise tactical patience and pace out 50 meters in each cardinal direction to systematically canvas the area where I think the point should be? Will I decide that the woods will not defeat me? These are the questions that land navigation training is actually asking—not just whether I can read an eight-digit grid coordinate.

When Army ROTC battalions take cadets out into the woods, equip them with real M16 rifles loaded with blanks, issue them MREs (meals ready-to-eat, which are surprisingly not terrible), and task them into infantry platoons during spring field training (as our battalion did this weekend during a casual April snowstorm), the goal isn’t necessarily to develop supremely competent, super hooah infantrymen. The goal is to develop resilient leaders and effective communicators. Every cadet will need those soft skills, whether they’re leading a real Infantry platoon or commanding a Cyber task force.

Yes, there are basic soldier skills that every officer, non-commissioned officer, and junior enlisted have to have. The Army has to be able to speak a common language when we talk for example about operations orders, task organization, and standards. In ROTC-land, this is certainly important, but developing the ability and mental toughness to lead your peers and subordinates through a cold, wet, hungry hell is what will make or break cadets.

You can read the Ranger Handbook cover to cover, but there isn’t a page on how to motivate these cold, wet, tired, and hungry cadets to get up and move out quickly. You can bring the most high-speed terrain model kits and cover every single line of an operations order, yet still fail to create a shared understanding of what job each squad in your platoon has during a patrol mission. You can be the most knowledgeable and the most tactically and doctrinally sound platoon leader out there, yet still fail to take care of your soldiers.

Being a leader in the field is as much about managing people and personalities as it is understanding doctrine and tactics. Sometimes, it takes a miserable April snowstorm to teach you how to endure, how to take care of your soldiers while holding them to the standards of their profession, and how to hold yourself to those same supposed standards.

I’m reminded of one Colonel Kenneth Mintz, former commander of Army Cadet Command’s Second Brigade (in charge of overseeing the New England Army ROTC battalions), and how he once led our Paul Revere Battalion through a combat PT workout that was nothing but low-crawling back and forth across a field with a dummy M16 rifle for an almost an hour. At the end of this session, Colonel Mintz stood in tattered fatigues (he had done this workout several times in one week with almost every Massachusetts unit) and told us simply that we become a team when we do hard things together.

What a valuable reminder for any weekend of brutal training conditions—we’re never out there in the frosted forests struggling on our own. Doing the hard things together makes us better.

Grace M. Chao ’19 is an Economics concentrator in Mather House. Her column appears on alternate Wednesdays. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of Harvard’s ROTC program, the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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