When we emerge on the far side of this pandemic, Army leaders will have an opportunity to reshape aspects of unit culture. Leaders will experience the collective excitement of being able to take training to the next level without COVID-19 restrictions.
For soldiers new to Army units, or to the Army, tactical unit leaders will be able to fully demonstrate units’ commitment to developing warfighters. Young soldiers will experience tough training, tight bonds and the premier warrior culture of our nation.
Soldiers can capitalize on the momentum of recovery to remediate defects in previous training approaches and build an aspect of the warrior culture that was likely lacking before the pandemic.
Before COVID-19 shut them down, division combatives gyms were usually small spaces packed with a group of regular attendees who gave up their personal time to make themselves better fighters. On occasion, a unit would come in for a class with the division combatives NCO in charge (NCOIC). The soldiers would be trained, challenged and absolutely smoked in one physical training session.
Every leader would thank the program NCOIC and ask when they could schedule another session. After a month of silence from the unit, the combatives NCOIC would call and get a typical answer: “We have to stick with our company program, and there are specific requirements that do not involve combatives.”
Not Enough Time
Army Regulation 350-1: Army Training and Leader Development lists combatives as a commander option within the mandatory physical readiness training program. Given the multitude of mandatory training requirements, command priorities often push combatives to the wayside. In a unit’s training plan, leaders must focus on core standards that relate directly to readiness. Leaders must also demonstrate that they are making progress in accordance with the chain of command’s priorities.
Unfortunately, the benefits of combatives training are rarely quantitative, do not display immediate results relating to the mission-essential task list and do not have a special slide in unit training meetings.
Instead, the benefits of combatives training are long term and reflect in the culture of a unit over time. The development of the warrior ethos does not show up on a mission-essential task list slide, but it is recognized by leaders who visit units and communicate with soldiers.
Experienced leaders know when a unit has a strong warrior culture. It is evident in the confidence and mentality of disciplined violence instilled into the formation. Leaders detect it in the way soldiers respond to certain questions and in the qualities the soldiers value. This attitude does not emerge exclusively from combat sports but is fostered by it.
Investing in Warrior Culture
When the Army invests in the mental ability of soldiers to engage in challenging, fear-inducing struggles, it’s investing in the warrior culture. Matt Larsen, the father of the Modern Army Combatives Program, describes this in a January 2018 lecture for the Modern War Institute at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York, saying, “You control the levers of your culture.” He points out that leaders often know who their fastest runner is, but few know who their best fighter is.
If the Army comes out of this pandemic with a greater focus on the fighting arts, it can instill a high value in fighters, not just soldiers who can cover long distances in shorts and a T-shirt.
One sign of a leader’s approach to cultivating the warrior ethos is how they prioritize competition within their own unit. The most popular events in a post organizational day are the combat sports. Boxing smokers and combatives finals pack gyms with hundreds of cheering soldiers who feel their unit pride invested in the toughest soldiers in their unit.
In other units, golf scrambles interfere with the scheduling of the combat sports, and leaders miss out on the event most associated with unit pride and the warrior ethos. The lack of leaders’ emphasis on combatives at the tactical level often comes from two misunderstood trepidations.
The most common apprehension comes from the risk of injury to soldiers. However, this concern only becomes legitimate when the programs are run carelessly. Per Training Circular 3-25.150: Combatives, companies should maintain a tactical combatives course-certified instructor to ensure a systematic approach with appropriate risk mitigation.
The circular also lists common injuries from multiservice studies and provides recommendations for mitigation measures.
As with all serious training events, a safe program requires focused leadership supervision. The presence of leaders and their influence on the disciplined application of violence prevents clumsy brawls. A combatives session is the time when leaders observe the self-control of their soldiers and instruct them on managing their temper, reactions and calm under pressure.
The second trepidation is rarely mentioned. It is the fear that soldiers may view their leaders as fallible. It is one thing for a commander to lose a footrace to a young private. It is a different emotion for a commander when that same private gives him a black eye and forces him to submit in front of the entire unit. Inexperienced leaders, especially new platoon leaders, view this as a leadership failure.
In units where leaders properly respect the warrior ethos, the opposite is usually true. Leaders who compete in combatives tournaments wear their bruises with pride. The rare officer who steps up in the presence of all and risks the same potential embarrassment as everyone else earns respect.
Command Sgt. Maj. Michael Burke, an experienced warfighter and senior leader, covers this principle in an August article on the blog From the Green Notebook. In “More Leaders Need to Get Punched in the Face,” he explains how stepping on the mat with soldiers is one way leaders can continue to lead from the front as opportunities to do so diminish with higher rank.
The end of this pandemic is going to create opportunities for leaders across the Army. Combatives, due to the risk it incurs for virus transmission, has been set back more than most Army training programs.
Any leader who needs a cultural revival has a combatives NCO on-post who will give them an opportunity to rebuild and foster a warrior mentality superior to the units on their left and right—and, most importantly, to potential adversaries.
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Maj. Justin Bakal until recently was the special operations forces integration officer, 4th Infantry Division, Fort Carson, Colorado. Previously, he was a battalion operations officer, 10th Special Forces Group (Airborne). He has served combat rotations with the 82nd Airborne Division, the 4th Infantry Division and the 10th Special Forces Group (Airborne). He has competed in the Fort Carson Combatives Tournament, the 10th Special Forces (Airborne) CSM Frank A. Socha Combatives Tournament, the 82nd Airborne Division’s All American Week Boxing Smoker, the U.S. Army Garrison Bavaria St. Patrick’s Day Boxing Invitational and multiple civilian grappling tournaments.