Best Defense

A misguided Marine article on drill

Without a clear battlefield purpose, drill is just a bunch of guys doing a military macarena.


In the Marine Corps Gazette, of all places.

In “Close Order Drill,” which ran in the July issue of the Gazette, Sgt. Bryant Benally laments the decline of close order drill in the Marines. “Observe any formation today by any unit and you will observe numerous infractions of the drill manual,” he writes. He worries that the decline reflects a lack of discipline and fighting spirit.

Benally appears to root this argument in history, with references to the Romans and the Continental Army. But his article actually is quite ahistorical, because it doesn’t look at why the Romans and American Revolutionaries drilled. They did it to increase their fighting power. Drill was invented in China, in order to get more slow-loading crossbows firing. It was reinvented in Europe to get more firearms firing. In sum, drill is all about increasing the rate of fire, not about looking good on the drill field.

You say that drill is not related to rate of fire? If so, why does it exist? If it is not directly related to improving combat effectiveness, then it needs to be reinvented — and that reformulated drill must be related to how we fight. Otherwise, it is just military pedantry where people worry about looking good instead of being good. Without a clear battlefield purpose (not just esprit de corps or something else ineffable), drill is just a bunch of guys doing a military macarena.

Photo credit: Lambtron/Wikimedia commons

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

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