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The Providence Journal

Tortoise-Avoidance Practice - Safe Training, Hazardous Contradiction


August 12, 2001
Copyright © 2001 The Providence Journal. All Rights Reserved.

ONE OF THE MOST enduring truisms about military affairs holds that, when war comes, soldiers fight as they have been trained to fight. If that continues to hold true and there's no reason to believe that it won't the next war will be a strange one indeed for America's military.

Consider, for example, mechanized operations in the desert. Anyone who watched the Gulf War on television will remember scenes of widely dispersed armored units racing across the sand as part of the coalition's attack around the flank of the Iraqi Army. The success of the attack rested largely on the speed of execution. Although today's military leaders understand what worked in Iraq, that knowledge is not always reflected in training exercises.

In an effort to train for operations similar to those conducted in Iraq, a Marine unit recently moved 170 miles across the California desert. Instead of moving in dispersed formations, however, the Marines stayed on the roads in order to avoid damaging the desert. Instead of moving rapidly, they proceeded cautiously in order to avoid running over any desert tortoises. If a tortoise was threatened, the column stopped and called for the services of an $85- an-hour civilian tortoise handler to move the creature out of harm's way.

The Marine Corps doesn't really believe that this is the way wars will be fought in the future. The situation simply reflects a world in which realistic military training takes a back seat to any number of special interests, including not only tortoises but every other plant and animal imaginable, the environment in general, safety, costs and the sensibilities of a variety of voting blocs.

Animal-rights activists, for example, have become adept at finding endangered species of one sort or another at virtually every major training area. Finding a place where training is not restricted by the Endangered Species Act is difficult if not impossible. The nation's principal amphibious-training areas on both coasts suffer from this problem. An uninhabited islet off Saipan that is one of the few remaining targets in the Pacific for naval gunfire is a nesting area for birds. The only place in Hawaii where modest-sized army units can employ live-fire training has been shut down since 1998 because of environmental concerns. And then there's Vieques .

Safety for people, not animals, is the primary issue that has made Vieques , a small island off Puerto Rico , the cause celebre for virtually everyone with a beef against the U.S. military. The death of a Navy security guard in a bombing accident was the immediate cause of the current protests. Were the political stakes not so high, a single death in 60 years of intensive live-fire maneuvers would mark the training as exceptionally safe.

The political stakes are high, however, so environmentalists, animal-rights activists, Puerto Rican independistas, publicity- seeking celebrities of various stripes, and even Fidel Castro have lent their weight to stopping training at Vieques . The only people who appear not to have a say in the decision are the men and women whose lives will eventually depend on the kind of training that was formerly conducted on Vieques but has now been suspended indefinitely.

The reaction to the guard's death and other similar training accidents indicates how far public opinion has shifted in the last 25 years with respect to the need for realistic military training. In 1976, Paul McCloskey, a U.S. congressman from California and a veteran of the Korean War, told the Los Angeles Times that Marine Corps training should be as tough as combat itself and that the fact that some men will be injured or even killed in training is something we must accept. That statement is as true today as it was when Representative McCloskey made it, but I can't imagine a politician or a senior military officer being as forthright today.

The ever-increasing emphasis on safety within the military also fits nicely with a public that no longer wants to be inconvenienced by helicopters operating nearby at night or by jet fighters flying at low level over their fields.

Taken individually, no single loss of a training area would be catastrophic, although the loss of Vieques would be close. Taken together, however, the loss of training areas and other restrictions on training are becoming an exceedingly serious problem. Critics often claim that the training crisis could be solved by the innovative employment of modern technology. Although there is a certain amount of truth to that argument, it is not the complete answer. Simulators, for example, can augment field training, but at some point, the troops need to fire real bullets while maneuvering under the cover of real artillery fire and real airplanes dropping real bombs.

When the next war comes, Americans will fight as they have been trained. They probably won't make such foolish mistakes as stopping their tanks to avoid harming turtles. They will make other mistakes that result from inadequate peacetime training, however, and those mistakes will cause unnecessary casualties.

I wonder if the people who are so determined now to shut down military training will be as concerned about American casualties tomorrow as they are about endangered plants and animals today?

Col. Theodore L. Gatchel (USMC Ret.), a monthly contributor, is a military historian and a professor of operations at the U.S. Naval War College. The views here are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Naval War College, the U.S. Navy, or the De- partment of Defense.

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