Commentary Magazine


SEREious Stupidity at the Pentagon

Every member of the U.S. military is familiar with the Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape (SERE) course: When required, it is one of the most memorable but least pleasant aspects of their training. SERE training teaches personnel stranded in hostile territory how to evade capture but, when the worst happens, how to survive and mitigate interrogation.

The full course is valuable for those on the front lines of America’s national defense, be it in Afghanistan, the Persian Gulf, perhaps fighting drug lords in Mexico or South America, and those stationed along the DMZ on the Korean Peninsula.

The Pentagon, in its wisdom, however, has revised an online SERE course, prolonging it and, apparently, investing millions of dollars to give it a face lift. The course—which can take more than a full day, includes flashy video, and video game-like graphics, and that assumes that its doesn’t crash, forcing a restart from scratch. Regional commands increasingly require it as part of a long, bureaucratic checklist required for “country clearance,” another make-work but largely irrelevant procedure.

After a few months’ worth of reminders about my expired SERE certificate—with the ominous warning that it now can take five weeks to process country clearance requests—I sat down to do my now annual online SERE training (until recently, the training would be good for two years). The SERE course needed to be done, because I will soon need to spend 24 hours in a Western European capital as I arrive, overnight at a hotel, and then take a taxi to the airport early the next day. Here is what Admiral James Stavridis, commander of United States European Command, has required all visitors to Europe on military business to know: The proper way to snare a rabbit in case one finds themselves starving in the woods surrounded by hostile Spaniards; the proper way to roast a caterpillar if stranded in the German forest if no rabbits are available; how to make a natural tea to placate intestinal parasites in case one chooses not to go to a doctor after eating Italian food; and how to avoid capture on the streets of Amsterdam.

Now, all large organizations are bureaucratic, and silly check-the-box requirements are common to most of them. The Pentagon, however, is worse than most. Not only did the Pentagon invest a great deal of taxpayer money on an online training course that provides no substitute for the true course (any more than an online root canal can substitute for dental surgery), but it has spent many millions of dollars on the hourly salaries of those taking the course, and still more on contractors to administer the SERE training to ensure that anyone transiting the Frankfurt airport, for example, has passed the requirement. At no point, alas, did anyone in the European Command or at the Pentagon appear to ask whether a requirement which might be necessary for those traveling to Pakistan, Bahrain, or Djibouti should also apply to Portugal, Belgium, and Denmark. There is no waiver, or option for common sense to prevail.

The Pentagon can ill-afford the cuts to basic platforms and troop investments which some now propose. Once a capability is scrapped, it can take decades to recover. The Pentagon must change its culture, however, of bureaucratic wheel-spinning so as not to give the budget slashers the excuse to trim the fat with an axe.

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