Learned Helplessness


This essay was published by BreachBangClear in two parts on October 20th and 21st.



I sat in a classroom with about twenty other soldiers, studying a slide show of armored vehicles for an upcoming test. Identifying vehicles was a critical part of the Military Occupational Specialty (MOS) we were trying to attain, and we had been warned about the importance of the vehicle ID exam. If we failed it, we had one more shot. Two failures and we were out of the course.

To pass we had to make the standard 70%. However, if we misidentified even one American vehicle, we’d automatically fail. And we didn’t just have to know the general vehicle type, we had to know specifics.

Slides flashed by. Students called out vehicle designations, the instructor corrected us as needed. About half the students were tankers being forcibly converted to Cavalry Scouts because Texas got rid of all our tanks. We tankers knew the vehicles pretty well already.

An old M1 tank, not the newer M1A1, popped up on the screen. We called out, “M1 Abrams”. The instructor shook his head.

“No, that’s an M1A1.”

A friend was at the desk next to me. He had been a tanker in Desert Storm. We had served in the same tank battalion for years, and went to Iraq together. We had spent countless hours in Abrams tanks, driven them, fed huge rounds into their breeches, fired their main guns and commanded them. We knew the difference between an M1 and an M1A1. My friend and I looked at each other and rolled our eyes.

My friend said, “That’s an M1.”

“No,” the instructor asserted. “You’re wrong. It’s an M1A1.”

A near-shouting match ensued. We pointed out obvious differences. There was no question, it was an M1. The instructor maintained a weak defense, then finally broke and admitted something: “Y’all are right, it’s an M1. But the course curriculum says it’s an M1A1. So on the test you have to give the wrong answer, or you fail.”

I groaned quietly. I loved being a tanker, and had no desire to be a Scout. Now if I wanted to pass the course for a job I didn’t even want, I had to intentionally give a wrong answer to a ridiculously easy question. And this question was supposedly so critical, getting it wrong meant I wasn’t fit to be a Scout. This kind of stupidity was why my father, a 1960’s Air Force veteran, pleaded with me not to join the military when I was seventeen.

Years ago, some horribly cruel researchers conducted an experiment. According to the version I heard during my brief college career, they stuck a dog in a cage, left the door open, and ran an electric current through the floor. The dog yelped and ran from the cage. Then they put the dog back in the cage, locked the door and repeatedly shocked the floor again. The dog went nuts trying to get out, until it finally realized there was no escape. Then the dog just lay there, stoically accepting the pain.

At that point, when the dog was defeated, the researchers opened the cage door and shocked the floor again. The dog felt the shock, looked at the open door, and said, “Screw it. There’s no point fighting. I may as well just lay here and take it.”

That’s called Learned Helplessness. It’s been observed in kidnap victims who don’t seize on opportunities to escape, and in battered spouses who stay in violent relationships when they have means to break away. And I must admit, to my shame, it’s a state of mind the Army has at times made me wish I could attain.

When I joined the Marine Corps in the 80’s, there wasn’t a whole lot of ridiculous, soul-crushing nonsense around. There was unnecessary stress, there was the “You’re not a real Marine” crap the regulars dumped on us reservists, but that was about it. Then I finished my Marine enlistment and joined the Army National Guard. Everything was surprisingly good for about ten years. Until we were sent to Iraq.

In Iraq, nonsense piled so high atop other nonsense it dwarfed the Ziggurat of Ur. It was there I first encountered the bane of many a dedicated Soldier: the widespread and absolutely mindless insistence on everyone’s gear being set up the exact same way. In the Marines, even in boot camp, we were told, “This is YOUR gear. It will keep YOU alive. Set it up how it works for YOU.” In Iraq my unit had Soldiers of different sizes, with different weapons, filling different roles. Our equipment was set up to serve our specific needs. That made sense, and made us a better team. This reality just never seemed to penetrate the minds of many First Sergeants and above.

One day a First Sergeant told me to fix my platoon. Our gear wasn’t uniform. I sat with him and explained a few things. My gunner was 6’2” and about 260 pounds. We were in old M1025 humvees with tiny turret hatches. Unlike the rest of us, my gunner had no pouches at all on his body armor, because if he put them on he was so cramped he could barely turn around. He kept his gear in an assault pack he would grab if we had to bail out. My driver was a medic. He carried additional first aid gear on his body armor, plus was the only one of us to carry a pistol. I was neither a gunner nor driver nor medic, so my gear was different from theirs.

I explained to the First Sergeant that we knew the important things, like where everyone’s lifesaving tourniquets and Israeli bandages were. I gave clear and reasonable explanations of why uniformity would make us less effective. The First Sergeant listened quietly, nodded at appropriate times, gave the impression that my reasoning was sinking in. For a fleeting moment, I thought logic might have triumphed.

Then he responded with, “Well, that makes sense. But we still have to have uniformity!”

I stared at him, not seeing a senior Non Commissioned Officer, but instead a masochistic researcher with his finger on a switch. A canine voice whispered, Don’t fight it. Just take the shock. You’ll like it after a while.

I stood up, announced “Roger that, Top! We’ll fix it!”, and walked out. I had no intention of changing anything. The First Sergeant would probably get distracted by a squirrel or something anyway, I figured he’d never say another word about it. He didn’t. I dodged the electrified cage, but just for a moment I had felt the temptation to give in to the “brain off/training manual on” mentality.

At one point during our tour someone decided every convoy escort team needed a Mark 19 automatic grenade launcher. On my team I was the lucky guy who was ordered to take one. The Mk 19 is a big, heavy, awesome gun and all, but I had never fired one. Neither had my gunner. My driver had fired a single burst from one, over ten years earlier. If you’re likely to engage in a firefight, it’s kind of important for everyone to, you know, actually know how to use their weapon. So I was a bit concerned about this order.

I went to my leadership and politely declined to take the weapon. They laughed. I argued. They held fast. I fought. They weren’t swayed. I yelled, stamped my feet, held my breath til I turned blue. No mercy was shown. I dragged the giant machine gun to my humvee.

But there was a bright side. My leadership assured me we would get training on the weapon, as soon as they could schedule a range day. I told them we’d test fire it on the road. “No!”, they ordered. Test-firing the weapon off base was strictly prohibited. I’d have to take it on missions, without testing it, until the range day.
My shoulders sagged. The faint tingle of a current danced up my legs. I could see the electrified cage door standing open. It looked so tempting. No need to think, just do what they said. The easiest and only officially approved course of action was to follow orders.

Woof! Zap me again!

When the range day finally came, a month and many missions later, we had test-fired about a hundred rounds into open desert while on the road. And it was a good thing we did; as we discovered, to keep that weapon firing we had to drench it in a specific type of lubricant. If we had followed orders, we could have found ourselves in combat with a weapon we really didn’t know how to use and which wouldn’t have worked.

Later that year a rumor spread around my unit: our gunners were to be issued brightly-colored tennis balls. The gunners were supposed to throw them at local vehicles that came too close to our convoys. According to the rumor, gunners would be required to throw the balls before shooting. The goal was to avoid damaging cars with flares or warning shots. Winning hearts and minds, and all that.

Mind you, car bombs were the most lethal threat we faced at the time. Throwing a tennis ball at a possible car bomb is like flinging marshmallows at a ninja just before he decapitates you. It was a ridiculous idea.

I shrugged the rumor off. Nobody could possibly think this made sense. If a car was close enough to hit with a tennis ball, it was close enough to blow up and kill you. Everyone I talked to thought the idea was too stupid to be true.

Shortly after the rumor spread, I stopped by supply. As I made small talk with the supply sergeant, I laughingly mentioned the tennis ball rumor. He went silent and gave me a blank, serious look.

“I already ordered the tennis balls.”

I froze. We stared at each other. In the distance, an electrocuted dog whined in agony.

Just comply. If you get blown up, it won’t be your fault. You were following orders. Take the shock.

I went straight to my leadership and threatened mutiny. I never found out who came up with the tennis ball idea, and seriously doubt my resistance influenced anyone. But the tennis ball order was cancelled.

Months later, right around the time I saw a captain and sergeant major screaming at combat troops for wearing paracord bracelets or having folded sleeve cuffs, long after guards were posted at a dining facility to turn away soldiers not wearing eye protection – in KUWAIT – I quit keeping track of the lunacy. It was too painful. Maybe I wasn’t going to lie in the cage and enjoy the shocks, but I could at least pretend they didn’t exist.

After almost a year of running Iraqi highways, we finally came home. My battalion had a handful of wounded, no deaths. None of our humvees were destroyed by suicide bombers who braved deadly barrages of brightly-colored tennis balls. But there had been plenty of close calls, some of which I personally experienced. I took about a year to decompress.

Some of what I had to recover from was guilt. Early in the mobilization, before I figured out how things really worked, I had tried to be the “good” NCO and carry out blatantly moronic orders from higher up. Some good Soldiers, hopefully not many, had probably been just as furious at me as I had been at some of our leaders. I accepted my mistakes, searched for lessons learned, and moved on.

Then, after my decompression year, I found myself in the Scout course with that vehicle identification exam glaring at me from my desk.

I flipped through the questions, dreading what was coming. A debate roiled in my head. How principled was I? Would I be willing to give a wrong answer, just to get through the class? Or would I do the right thing and fight it? And would they really kick an 18 year, combat veteran Staff Sergeant out of a course for giving a correct answer?

Pictures flitted by. T-72 tank? Check. M113 armored personnel carrier? Check. M1A1 tank? . . . uh . . .

I know, I know. I was overthinking it. I knew I was right, so whatever I put on paper didn’t matter. I could just give the answer they wanted. Join the instructors in their open cage, writhe painfully to the shocks in unison with them.

I moved my pencil to write “M1A1”. . . and stopped. The decision I was about to make could have long-lasting repercussions. This was about integrity. I mulled it over, drew a mental line in the sand, and made my decision.

Eighteen months later, I was in Afghanistan. Fortunately for me, I was on a small firebase in the middle of nowhere, with minimal nonsense. The closer one was to the war, the less concerned people were with ridiculous rules. But a lot of people I knew were at a large Forward Operating Base (FOB) a couple of hours away.

For most of my deployment I avoided that FOB like it was a Code Pink convention, but still had to go there periodically. Every time I was there, I almost choked on the wanton ridiculosity. Yes, the stupidity was so thick I had to go all Don King and invent a new word to describe it.

This FOB had one main road, with one sidewalk on one side. Everyone traveling on foot had to use this jam-packed sidewalk. This would have been okay, except that out of the roughly 20,000 troops on the FOB, about 7.4 trillion were officers. And this base in the middle of a war had been declared a salute zone, as if we were stateside. So poor enlisted men had to walk the sidewalk with hands cemented to their heads in perpetual salute.

In addition to that, troops on the FOB had an even heavier cross to bear: the dreaded, kindergarten-like, “Look at me, I’m a big target!” reflective belt. As soon as the sun set, reflective belts went on. The troops, being troops, made the best of it and looked for ways to show a little individuality. They bought different color reflective belts and wore them in different ways.

Then a new unit took over. This unit was infamous for the quantity and quality of dumb rules it imposes on its Soldiers. Leaders of this unit saw the reflective belt chaos and immediately stomped it into oblivion. They decreed that everyone on the FOB wear the same color reflective belt, in the same way. They weren’t going to stand for any “I’ll decide what color reflective belt and how to wear it” anarchy.

A brave and/or suicidal member of the “E4 Mafia” tried to challenge them. According to local legend, he walked the sidewalk wearing seven different colored reflective belts. The courageous Specialist was last seen standing at parade rest in front of the base operations center, waiting for the sergeant major to destroy him. As far as I know, his remains were never recovered.

Many soldiers on this base had been issued the fairly new Army Combat Shirt, which was designed specifically for wearing with body armor. They were extremely comfortable and practical. At my firebase we wore them almost all the time. At this big FOB, of course, Soldiers were strictly forbidden from wearing them, I guess because it made too much sense to wear a uniform designed for combat while you’re at war. The rule against wearing those shirts was so strictly enforced that combat troops, before leaving for a real mission, had to wear a regular uniform top over their combat shirt until they were actually in their vehicles about to leave the wire.

And this still wasn’t the worst of it. The new leaders also instituted an amazing, hooah, breathtakingly motivating policy to maintain fighting spirit. They decided that everyone carrying a rifle or carbine on the FOB had to carry it in a combat ready stance, as if they were on patrol.

I visited shortly after the policy took effect. On the sidewalk I saw many a sad-faced Soldier stalking to the PX with his rifle ready for a firefight, wearing his reflective belt, and saluting officers. It was like looking into an animal shelter full of sad puppies in electrified cages.

Fortunately, I wore civilian clothes and carried a pistol on base. I threatened more than once to prowl around with my pistol in a combat grip, just to raise hackles among the leadership. But more importantly, I wondered, Why are they doing this? Don’t they know they’re just beating the drive out of these troops, making them so sick of the BS that they’ll be desperate to get out of the military? Seeing that soul-crushing nonsense made me thankful that at my firebase, I only had to worry about being killed in combat. There was no chance my soul would be murdered by rampaging fobbits (people who never leave the FOB and have no concept of what actually happens in the war).

The rules on that FOB finally purged any fleeting desire I had to crawl into the cage, lay on the metal floor and boogie to the electric shock. I couldn’t just go along with it. I had to stand for what was right, what would help our guys survive and our enemies die. Pretty uniforms and gear weren’t important. Neither were nonsensical rules made by leaders far removed from battlefield reality.

I made this decision, in part, because I utterly failed to stand by my principles eighteen months earlier during the vehicle ID test.

When I looked at that M1 Abrams slide, I made the wrong choice. I stepped into the cage, looked through the open door, and voluntarily asked to be electrocuted. I went along with unforgivable stupidity. I answered, “M1A1”.

I passed the course, and grudgingly accepted my new MOS. I didn’t hold it long before switching to something else. It wasn’t the job itself that bugged me so much, it was the training course.

One of my best friends took the Scout course shortly after I did. He was impetuous, short-tempered and prone to violent outbursts; in other words, he was exactly what a combat soldier should be. We had served together in Iraq, and he had more than proven his courage. When he was told to give the wrong answer on the test, he responded, “That’s stupid! Screw that!” and gave the right answer.

He failed the test. And was told he better give the wrong answer on the retest, or he’d be kicked out of the course. He whimpered, pawed at the dirt, tucked his tail between his legs, trotted into the same cage I had recently occupied and gave an answer both he and the instructors knew was wrong. When he told me about it, I was furious.

That was the end of that. No more Learned Helplessness for me, Army. Maybe you can lock me in the cage and force me to take the shocks, but you can’t make me like it.

And don’t think for a second that I’ll stay in there when the cage door opens.

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18 Responses to “Learned Helplessness”

  1. Great application of critical thinking to a dangerous problem! Now that I think about it, this dangerous conditioning is all around us: Many now feel caged and helpless regarding many political issues, being conditioned to accept a lie.

    • That’s a comment I’ve read in other places as well. Although I don’t believe it’s a concerted effort, I do think that when we feel powerless in so many areas, it’s a bad sign for our society.

  2. 3 SPEMack

    Hey! Some of us like being a Scout…but, in all seriousness, I hate this mindset in the U.S. military. I look at a picture of my Dad and his helicopter crew/rescue team in Thailand, circa 1973, and they are all wearing different non-uniform uniforms. Pops has his the top of his flight tied around his waist like a sweat shirt and is wearing a 1911 in a home made shoulder holster. His pilot is wearing tiger stripe fatigues with a .38 revolver dangling over his crotch and an impromptu piece of body armor. Oh the horror!

    I was once informed that my gray Columbia socks were detrimental to the mission, as was wearing my boots with my PT shorts.

    Sorry that I learned in Boy Scouts what good socks were and thought that taking care of my feet was an important thing.

    Sheesh, enough to make a guy want to join the peace corps. Bet I could wear my Braves ball cap with them.

    • Mack,

      I liked certain things about being a scout, but it was cancelled out by the Army’s desperate desire to train us as if we were defending the Fulda Gap from Soviet Hordes. I just didn’t see a traditional use for scouts in this war.

      I’ve also seen some pretty amazing displays of individuality from soldiers. I’m actually kind of curious as to when uniformity became such a huge deal. I can think of any number of photos from WW2 where soldiers and Marines were together and all had slightly different kit.

      • 5 DJ

        Bosnia in ’95 was the first place I encountered it. We were going in to overawe a bunch of experienced killers, and we were going to do it because they would respect the uniformity of our equipment.

        We have met the enemy – and it is us.

        • Jesus. Yeah, the Serbs, Croats and Bosnians were just chilled to the bone by our neat uniforms and equipment.

          For some reason, that reminds me of a comment I was told a battalion commander said. He wanted a company to have a company change of command ceremony, and the outgoing commander said, “Just hand the new guy the guideon, we don’t need a ceremony.” The BC replied, “No, we have to have the ceremony. These ceremonies are very important to the troops.”

          Gotta wonder where people get these ideas.

  3. Traditionally, this was why frag grenades had a nasty habit of going off inside of SNCO and officers’ bunks in rear areas.
    I can’t find fault with volunteering the egregiously stupid who should know better for a terminal Purple Heart, especially to save the lives of better men, particularly the ones who actually venture outside the wire.

    In peacetime service, it’s why there are tire irons in car trunks.
    Nice to know Courtney Massengale is still on duty in the Big Green Weenie.

    • I’m definitely not a fan of fragging. I actually thought one of my friends was going to frag someone in Iraq, and it was something of a conundrum. Fortunately nothing ever happened, and the intended target survived to deploy again and make another company of soldiers hate his fucking guts.

  4. 9 alcade

    What do you suggest as a solution?

    • People have to push back. There’s no cookie cutter way to do that, it all depends of circumstances and judgement. And even then, sometimes pushing back is the wrong thing to do. I wish there was an easy answer, but there’s isn’t.

  5. 11 Dave L.

    You can say it was Bagram…although you make the time period difficult to pin down. The PT belts after dark rule was instituted by the 101st (I think…I know it existed when I went on PDSS in Sep. 2008), then the 82nd (the ‘AA’ on the patch stands for ‘Always Anal’) took over and our CSM came up with the rules about no combat shirts unless you’re on mission, no rolling your sleeves up, no sunglasses with PT uniforms during PT hours (nevermind that at that time of day, the sun was right on the horizon, plus all the dirt and grit in the air). The PT belts I can kind of understand – apparently some Joe got nailed by a vehicle (probably driven by one of the SOF whackers, because they always drove like a-holes) crossing Disney in the dark. So typical bureaucratic CYA overreaction.

    But the 82nd has a tendency to overlook that fact that not everything is a parachute drop, and thus not everything requires a JMPI-level of slavish adherence to detail.

    • Dave,

      I cannot confirm or deny the existence of said ridiculosity at Bagram. But if it truly was Bagram that I was talking about, it was probably in the 2009 time frame.

      What strikes me about your comment is that you’re an officer, yet apparently felt as frustrated as we did. I think at a certain level even the guys implementing the rules know what problems they’re causing, but they don’t know how to stop the cycle. One friend of mine had a private conversation with a senior leader who was producing all manner of stupid uniform rules that were not only ridiculous, but were also unenforceable. My friend knew the leader well, and asked him, “Why are you doing this? It’s just making things worse.” The senior leader responded, “I know it is, but I still have to do it.”

      By the way, I also get the reflective belt to a certain degree. It just drives me nuts when soldiers have to wear them all the time, even in broad daylight.

      • 13 Dave L.

        Unfortunately, staff officers have little to no influence over the CSM (who, at least in the 82nd, was the point of origin of most of the chickensh*t). The only person who did was the CG, and I’m unsure how much he noticed, since GOs were pretty insulated – when he left the JOC, he rode to the flight line in his Suburban to get on a helicopter to fly out to sector or to Kabul.

        The whole “weapons at the ready” thing wasn’t the 82nd, though, I know that. Although I am acquainted with one staff officer, (ex-armor/cav type) from the 101st who amused himself by walking down Disney that way. (This same guy, when assigned to the Division LRS company of the 82nd, liked to freak guys out by wearing his Armor branch insignia when performing Jumpmaster and/or Safety duty on jumps.)

        On a less important note of insistence on wrongness, my wife grew up in WA state, and when she went to basic training, during land nav, they were using the Tenino (WA) map sheet. The NCO teaching the class kept pronouncing it “Te-nee-no;” to the folks who live there, it’s pronounced “Ten-eye-no.” So my wife politely informed the good sergeant of this, and spent the rest of the class in the front leaning rest.

  6. 15 "Greg"

    After reading all of the comments about this “learned helplessness” and one commenter’s remark “if only…” I propose to everyone reading this blog to create the “CSV initiative” CSV = Common Sense Violation. Whenever a senior person violates common sense FOR ANY REASON… * AND * the results of this violation increases the risk of injury to any soldier (if not worse) then the affected party/parties (the “complaintant”) shall have the option to formally submit a CSV. The CSV shall state the name and rank of the violator, the name and rank (or names and ranks) of the complaintant, the date of the incident, the specific details of the violation of common sense, any alternative common sense solutions that were offered to the violator but were rejected, any rebuttal by the violator, and if any actual injury that can be attributed to the CSV. Perhaps administrators of the CSV program can be filled by contractors, preferably from other service branches to reduce the risk of “buddy system” dismissals. Punishments can range from letters of reprimand to administrative discharges. Also, complaintants can face insubordination punishment if charges turn out to be unfounded.

    How’s that for a possible solution?

    • Greg,

      I’m all for it. Unfortunately, no senior leader would ever allow such a policy to be implemented. I’ve written about another possible solution and I hope BBC publishes it. It’s a “solution” guaranteed to piss off any senior leader who reads it.

  7. 17 68W58

    I think there’s an unavoidable conflict between the Army as it exists in peacetime (where it functions mostly along bureaucratic lines) and the Army in wartime (which is where swashbuckling and risk taking are rewarded). The constraints of the peacetime Army won’t work in war (or won’t work well), but because the Army exists most of the time in peace the bureaucratic structures run deep and they seek to reassert themselves even during wartime.

    This conflict can have ridiculous results-the Army exists to fight wars (so the leadership wants us to be “hard”, like carrying your weapon at the ready even though you have no chance of encountering the enemy) but bureaucracy requires strict adherence to rules and regulations (saluting and the PT belt even in the combat zone).

    A commander worth his salt can make all the difference, by encouraging independence in thought and practices by his troops, but far too many have had the character necessary to allow their troops to do such things slowly destroyed by the bureaucracy. I’ve known a few officers like this, but far too many who aren’t willing to allow their soldiers the necessary leeway to accomplish the mission in some way that doesn’t conform to the exact letter of FM W-XYZ.

    Good essay Chris, you went straight to the heart of a lot of what is wrong with our military.

    • Thanks Doc. I’ve known a good number of leaders willing to disregard regs and just do the right thing as well, but they do seem to get crushed by all the others. We in the military are always living that schizophrenic life, trying to do everything according to a manual on one hand while embracing initiative and “just f**k it” risk taking on the other. I suppose we need both of those mindsets, but it certainly seems to me that the manual-followers run the show even when the risk-takers should be in command.

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