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Mulling military structure (III): Reasons for teaching drill, and what would it be if we were developing it nowadays?

Back in the day, I spent a lot of time watching recruits drill at Parris Island. But I never thought much about its origins.

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7957739594_df096c9404_k Back in the day, I spent a lot of time watching recruits drill at Parris Island. But I never thought much about its origins.

So I was struck to learn that drill, when first invented in the late 16th century, was kind of a high-tech conceptual innovation. Yes, it helped coordinate movement and instill discipline, as it still does today. But repeatedly practicing the steps of loading and firing muskets also had the extremely practical purpose of increasing the reliability and effectiveness of gunfire. “Countermarch,” which I thought was just a fancy move to vary things, was invented to get shooters up front to fire and then get them out of the way while they reloaded. By the time the soldier got up to the front rank again, he was again ready to fire. William McNeill, in discussing this, also notes that the countermarch deterred soldiers moving back to reload from keeping on going and fleeing the battlefield.

Btw, Maurice of Orange, the soldier who made drill essential, also opened Europe’s first military academy.

I wonder: What would be the contemporary equivalent of drill? I suspect it would be teaching small units how to wield great firepower — that is, stay alive in the field, use their sense and reconnaissance assets, and then call in missiles, drones and aircraft for strikes or further ISR. Just as drill had multiple steps, so would this, and it would be done until the movements were unconscious. A squad would conduct a symphony of assets, and it would seem as newfangled as drill did 400 years ago.

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Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. @tomricks1

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