The Six-Month Program: A Critical Appraisal

Short - Term Military Service Proves Popular, But Training Could Be Made More Intensive

The Army at present is re-evaluating its active duty reserve program by which thousands of college students in the last two years have been able to serve only six months active duty instead of the two years required by the draft. Bernard Gwertzman, former Crimson managing editor, offers his own evaluation here. He served his six months after graduation in 1957.

On August 9, 1955, President Eisenhower signed into law a Reserve Rorces Act (RFA-55) that was to "build and maintain powerful civilian reserves immediately capable of effective military service in an emergency." One of the Act's provisions for building up these "powerful" reserves was through the direct enlistment of men for six months active duty followed by longer periods in the Ready Reserve. This six-month soldier is differentiated from draftee and regular Army personnel by the abbreviation, "RFA," after the law that spawned him.

Program Offers Short Service

The six-month RFA program allows men an unprecedented chance to escape the two-year draft, but it also offers the Army the exciting challenge that would compensate for the reduced span of active duty time. Unfortunately, however, the Army has up to now not met this challenge with the imaginative planning necessary to ensure that RFA's will be "capable of effective military service in an emergency."

The Army had, until 1957, treated the RFA program as a football coach might handle an inexperienced team--"nothing fancy or unusual until we've got the players to do it with." It was only since 1957 that the Army "got the players," or in this case, the right number and caliber of volunteers. It still remains to be seen if the Army, with enough men in the RFA program finally, will ever take the necessary steps to improve it.

From October, 1955, to April, 1957, the Army had anticipated over 150,000 men, but only 60,000 actually enlisted. At that time, only teen-agers 17-18 1/2 were eligible to enroll in the RFA program, and a seven-and-a-half year Ready Reserve committment kept the enlistment rate down (other possible objections--parental opposition, low pay of $50 a month). A person in the Ready Reserve must attend 48 drill meetings a year, and a two week summer training period every summer for as long as he is a member.

Plan Widened in 1957

Faced with this severe manpower problem, the Pentagon in January, 1957, authorized all men 17-26 to join the program. This brought in large numbers of men in their twenties who preferred the RFA program to two years from Selective Service (and two years in the Ready Reserve). In addition, the Army reduced the Ready Reserve time to encourage more teen-age enlistments. At present, the Ready Reserve obligations for men 17-18 1/2 is three years, and for men 18 1/2-26, five-and-a-half. Pay is now $78 a month while on active duty.

Initial response to the enlarged program caught even the most optimistic recruiters by surprise. One sergeant, with several years' experience, said, while processing my papers, "This is the first time I can ever remember men standing on line to join the Army," and he was not exaggerating. So many men rushed to take advantage of the short hitch, that by May, 1957, the Army had to stop accepting enlistments. Over 3,000 men a week were joining; the previous high was about a thousand. The program was reopened on a limited basis during the summer, but in many locales there are still waiting lists.

College Men Enter

The influx of older men into the program for the first time, brought flocks of degree-bearing college and professional school graduates, and as a result, some RFA basic training companies boasted over sixty percent of their personnel with A.B.'s or better. In my platoon, of the men 21 or older, 85 per cent had been to college, 8 to Harvard. And out of the entire 50-man group, only a handful had not finished high school.

These RFA's, often superior as a group educationwise, entered the Army for their active duty with a relatively high level of enthusiasm, but every RFA to whom I have spoken agrees that his education was no asset during his basic training. Their leaders, in the traditional Army manner, would tell them, "Let us do all the thinking. It'll keep you all out of trouble," and although this was a statment of discipline, it was also one of fact. What was taught the men was often so overdone and geared for the minimum mentality that an intelligent person eventually could not help but rebel mentally, thereby losing whatever enthusiasm he may have started with.

In 1955, the Army tried to answer skeptics who feared that the RFA's would receive a "watered down" basic training, by giving RFA's the same eight week basic training as all other Army trainees. But it seemed to many this summer that RFA's should receive a different basic training from other men, not a less demanding one, but on the contrary, a more concentrated one. On the basis of what was actually learned, it was believed eight weeks was too much of the total training time, especially if one of the implied objectives of the program was to give RFA's as much training as possible in a short period of time.

Basic Training is Too Basic

Many RFA's thought that if the Army wanted to keep basic training eight weeks long, then they should have been taught how to handle more than the M-1 rifle, at present the only weapon seen during the eight-week period. Since in war time, anyone might be called upon to fight, they thought that such basic weapons as the carbine and Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR) should also be included. Much too much time--over 80 hours--is devoted at present to the M-1, especially as it was taught last summer, with boring all-day sessions spent repeating the same firing positions over and over again.