And I discovered that my castles stand
Upon pillars of salt and pillars of sand


                             The American major was ready to murder the two top government officials

                            in the country.  He had demanded and was promised 19 weeks to turn 

                            hapless peasants into a force that would be capable of closing with

                             a skilled enemy and destroying him.  

                             But only two weeks on and the country’s top general was demanding

                             that the battalion be unleashed *now* against the Marxist insurgents.  

                             Worse, the President of the country was demanding that they be

                             deployed immediately into the mining region to shoot striking miners.

One of the most heartbreaking assignments that an American officer can be saddled with is training third world soldiers to a standard far higher than their home country is capable of achieving.  Far too often it is either a waste of time and resources because the host country “meddles” and won’t let him do his job properly, or hideously misuses the finished product… allows it to decay… or simply disbands it at the first convenient moment.

If it were up to the commander handed this task, he would (in a more rational world) often advise his superiors that at best the exercise is pointless.  But these assignments generally originate in the Pentagon and/or the State Department and his is not to reason why.

During civil war in El Salvador.  American advisor is future Command Sergeant Major R Joseph Callahan. (Courtesy of the U.S. Army)

Helps to know what the country thinks it needs.  Would be nice if they were just training up a bunch of radio operators… not entirely a waste.  But what we’re dealing with here is “elite” (for the country) infantry: no less than a company, no more than a battalion (see special cases later).  In simple terms, reaction force or anti-guerrilla “headhunter” (seriously politically incorrect term) force; or, if the local military is really hopeless… just some competent infantry.

So what human material has this dubious government seen fit to provide him with for training?  Assignment can fail right here.  If the troops (and especially the officers) come from pampered personal force of the “President for Life…” whose only unit combat record is slaughtering villages belonging to the wrong tribe,  then you might as well try to make a snowball out of marbles.  Just run a “Potemkin” series of training days… let them spend time on an assault course… show them some cool weapons and let them fire them.  Praise them to the skies, give them snappy uniforms, have a parade with a band and then “graduate” them.   Unit is still worthless… but everybody’s happy.

With South Sudan People’s Liberation Army. (Courtesy of the U.S. Army)

But maybe they give him somebody he can work worth.  Maybe “average” (for the country) troops without any black marks in their past.  Still problems… (always problems…)  What about the officers?  Can you actually get them in the mud, or will they largely “observe” much of the training?  Worst thing is to get a “prince” or member of the ruling family assigned as one of the officers even if he is not, (perhaps because of young age) the commanding officer.

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Once in a blue moon, one of these types might throw himself into the training with gusto and an open mind.  And sometimes people win the lottery.  Does he participate… or does he simply “audit” the course?  And if he does take part… is the training team allowed to fail him if he proves vastly unworthy of membership?  Too often the answer is no.

Maybe the American officer in charge gets reasonable trainees.  Maybe the officers get muddy… (though never with the enlisted trainees… until later when running unit exercises.)  But foreign generals and politicos can always decide to “put tail fins on your new submarine.”

There was the dictator of one country who had an elite (relatively speaking) unit trained up by French officers.  Supposed to be a reaction force… even jump trained.

The day that they graduated and paraded before the dictator, he appointed his brother-in-law as their new commander.  Prior to that day he had never worn a uniform.  Probably never even jumped from the window of a bordello… let alone an aircraft.  But they pinned jump wings on his uniform anyway.

Before, during, after training, in the field, back from the field, at any time the government can choose to replace some or all of the officers with “politically reliable” ones.  Like mixing moonshine with baby food… the end result is not anything worth having.

But assuming that the U.S. training staff gets past that problem.  Most times, most locations, no non-commissioned officers worthy of the name.  American, British, Commonwealth nations and some others have rock solid professional staff NCO’s. Most Third World countries don’t. (Even Russia, except for some special units, lacks true professional NCO’s on the American/British model.)

El Salvador during its Civil War was typical.  Maybe a corporal in the unit who was outstanding and (for his force) something like professional, makings of a good sergeant.  Instead, they make him a lieutenant.  This results in a weak NCO corps and officers who have to spend too much of their time doing NCO tasks.

The training commander has (for better or worse) officers for the unit, but will need to try to have the units produce its own fire team and squad leaders.  Relying (hopefully) on motivation and willingness to take responsibility, but experience will be sorely lacking.

So the unit goes through (hopefully) realistic and strenuous training.  Parade past the President for Life and his military and politico cronies and hope that last-minute officer substitutions are not made.

In one case after superb training by French officers, the head honcho was very impressed, so much so that rather than deploy the unit into the bush where it was critically needed… he decided to make it his palace guard, (naturally replacing the top officers).

Even worse, in one Central American country decades ago, the recently graduated unit was ordered to a different part of the country where owners of vast estates having trouble with their field hands.  Owners demanded government intervention.  Unit was ordered to take one in every 20 of the strikers, and shoot them.

Their recent American training officer was sickened and (per regulations) notified the State Department of the atrocity.  State told him that they would handle it, (they never did) and that was the end of it.  You don’t get promoted in the State Department for trotting out atrocities committed by our “gallant allies.”  The new unit of course was no longer what it was when it graduated, they were no longer proud soldiers, they were just used as more butchers.

Assuming that the unit graduates and is ready for deployment, or is actually deployed, then there is the question of whether any of the American instructional staff will be permitted into the bush with them as advisors, or at least as “observers.”  Not only puts knowledge and experience where it is needed but (especially in the early engagements) it inspires confidence in the unit.

So maybe the new unit accomplishes its missions and there is a breather before new threats.  What happens to the unit now?  Americans gone now if they weren’t before.  If they were highly competent under fire, maybe the government fears the unit and either replaces the top officers or simply disbands the unit, (sometimes placing the original senior officers in prison or worse.)

But even in a more “benign” regime, the unit quickly starts to lose its edge.  Training and equipment budgets trimmed for other projects (or for redirecting to simple corruption.)  The unit either wastes away as its members are discharged or transferred, or “replacements” are assigned that are completely lacking in the training and skills formerly possessed by the unit.  If not disbanded, it just becomes just another unimpressive unit in that country’s military.

What does the United States government expect?  You demand the impossible and you get the all too disastrous possible.  Even the Pharaohs admitted that the Hebrews couldn’t make bricks without straw.

With Philippine Coast Guard. (Courtesy of the Department of Defense)

Even with a lot of time and resources, you can’t guarantee success.  From 1946 until today the United States has tried to turn the Philippine security forces into true professionals.  Nobody loves freedom more than the Filipinos, but sadly they have a knack for winding up with really bad governments. For every five steps it always seemed that we slid back four.  While today they have some fine officers and some fine soldiers, they also have a head of state who glorifies death squads.  All those years and all those millions of dollars.

Not just us.  The British had full control of their colonies in Africa.  Set up Parliaments, Courts and trained what was to become a professional military.  Then they granted independence and pulled out.  The colonels overthrew the government, and (seeing how easy it was) sometimes the colonels were overthrown by sergeants.

The British had centuries in India and left the country with the finest professional army in the Third World.  By 1962, Indian government stupidity and massive corruption had almost ruined the army and they were handed their heads by the Chinese above the clouds in the Himalayas.  The Indian army clawed its way out of the pit, but what should anybody expect when our training teams have to work in “dubious republics” or in places where insurgents are secondary targets, a lower priority than “the wrong tribe.”

It’s too depressing to address Lebanon, Somalia, Iraq, and Afghanistan here.  While some Americans got fine results here and there, the locals in authority were often more damaging than the enemy.  As for Vietnam, one of the most spectacularly corrupt governments, a decade and more of blood and treasure.

There *were* some bright spots.  The Montagnards were everything that A Team leaders could want.  But the South Vietnamese government often assigned the most offensive soldiers and officials who got in the Americans way. Sometimes the “Yards” gently took the Americans prisoner… slaughtered the Vietnamese and then expressed their willingness to go back to work with the Special Forces teams.  The next contingent of Vietnamese tended to be a touch more polite.

The U.S. *has* had some successes in its history since 1900.  But some can’t really be counted here, like the Philippine Constabulary (American Army officers).  The same with the constabularies in Haiti and Nicaragua (Marine Corps officers.)

The OSS teams in Burma working with the Karens and the Kachins.  Like the Montagnards… splendid and well-motivated manpower.  Of course the teams didn’t have to mess with any Burmese government (collaborators with the Japanese) and the tribal chieftains were more than willing to please.

A real “dream” assignment awaited the teams that went into Iraqi Kurdistan just before Gulf War Two.  The Kurds: brave, democratic and not corrupt (by the standards of that region) sincerely liked Americans and could be trusted.  A “diamond in the rough.”  Is it their fate also to have their foundations turn to sand?

Ugandan troops on airstrip, two U.S. advisors immediate right of back center. (Courtesy of the U.S. Army)

But there were some occasions when the United States Army “turned coal into diamonds,” for a time at least.

The three battalions of Ethiopian infantry, trained by the Americans.  They never lost a prisoner or dead soldier to the Communists during the Korean War.

Poorly equipped Ethiopian Kagnew battalion arrives in Korea 1951. (Courtesy of the U.S. Army)


The Ethiopian Kagnew battalions “wrote proud history…” (Courtesy of the U.S. Army)

They would find themselves outlawed by a regime change and the survivors for a time would have to beg in the streets.

The 25,000 members of the Brazilian Expeditionary Force (FEB) trained up by the Americans from a rag-tag police army of conscripts into excellent infantry that were used with success as a mountain division against the Wehrmacht.

Poorly trained and equipped FEB prepares to depart for Italy, June 1944… Public Domain


The FEB became very professional.  Brazilian officers planning assault… (Courtesy of the U.S. Army)

Their government didn’t even wait for the unit to make it back to Brazil to order them dissolved.  Those individual soldiers not discharged, were sent to posts far in the jungles.  Promises of their old jobs waiting would not be kept, pensions promised were never paid until decades later with only 10,000 remaining.  They were ordered to never talk about their combat service.  Above all, they were forbidden to form a veterans’ organization.

But once upon a time, the Eighth Special Forces got an order to turn downtrodden peasants into a ranger battalion.  The commander (for once) had the authority to train the lash-up as he saw fit… without interference from military and civilian honchos in country.

We take up that story in Part 2.


Featured image courtesy of Wikipedia