You are here

Grassroots Warfare


Recent travels along the intertracks have led me outside my usual routes and on to several military-focused bloggers. I used to be a big-time wargamer (never a real soldier, though), but that interest has been dormant for quite a while. Nevertheless, I still find it fascinating.

Military procurement is as much a political issue as an economic or technological one. That hasn’t changed since I stopped paying attention. Expensive and flashy weapon systems always get priority when Congress decides on military funding. The ordinary infantryman has no lobbyist in Washington.

From my studies of war, I remember that infantry is called “the Queen of Battle”. Everything else in war is ultimately deployed to support the infantry. The goal of war is to enable your troops to occupy unmolested a given patch of ground. It’s about control of territory. And that’s what the infantry does.

Even though the infanntry is near the bottom of the funding chain, they have received much improved equipment. Today’s foot soldiers are highly-trained operators of technology. They’re not so much the minimally-trained and expendable grunts that they were in Viet Nam or previous wars. This is counter to the experience and opinion of soldiers from past wars. And it is opposite the stupid hillbilly stereotype that so many lefties seem to have of our troops.

We know that investments made recently to better equip soldiers are saving lives. In World War II and Vietnam, an individual infantryman cost about $1,900 to equip. The “ratio” of killed to wounded in small-unit action in both those wars was about 1 to 3.4. Investments in Iraq and Afghanistan have increased to $17,000 per infantryman. The killed-to-wounded ratio is now about 1 to 9, and the casualty rate has decreased from 3 percent to less than a third of 1 percent within close-combat small units.

There’s no such thing as an “expendable” soldier. And the terms of asymmetrical and insurgent warfare as dictated by enemies like Al Qaeda and the Taliban put an even higher value of the lives of the infantry.

Our enemies from Lin Piao to Ho Chi Minh to Osama bin Laden all recognize that our vulnerable strategic center of gravity is dead Americans. Thus it comes as no surprise that the common thread among all of our enemies over the past half-century has been the imperative to kill Americans not as a means to an end but as an end in itself.

The article I have been quoting from is written by a retired General who believes the infantry should be trained and equipped to dominate their part of the battle space as completely as the Air Force and Navy dominate sky and sea.

Too often those who don’t know war accept the industrial age view that soldiering is inherently more dangerous than other forms of combat. Likewise, policymakers tend to slight the tactical dimension by assuming that the American people will not allow another unpopular ground war. The assumption misses the point that in today’s wars the enemy chooses the time, place, duration, intensity and the dimension in which future conflicts are to be fought.

I posted once that war is defined by the aggressor. Our culture and politics prevent the United States from openly being an aggressor. We only react. We fight toward minimal casualties on both sides instead of fighting to win. That’s at the political and domestic level. The troops at the tip of the spear are out for victory.

The General continues:

We spend hundreds of millions of dollars on instrumented training devices and simulators for aerial systems, yet too often small-unit leaders still must gain proficiency the old-fashioned way — in combat by shedding the blood of their soldiers.

Small-unit leaders are required to make life-and-death decisions in the heat of battle, a level of responsibility formerly reserved for officers several times their grade and experience. Yet our training and educational establishments have not been able to provide junior leaders with the intuitive, “in extremis” decision-making skills they need to prepare them for such responsibility. Our intelligence, surveillance and communications communities too often try to solve tactical problems using strategic systems and approaches.

I guess he doesn’t agree with the popular conception of video games as pre-training for the Army. The joysticks are in the hands of the airmen. The infantry still pulls triggers. And that works on the psyche in ways I hope to never experience.

During the Vietnam War, the air services learned painfully the value of simulations as a means for “steepening the learning curve” in exercises like Top Gun and Red Flag. Yet after nine years of war, no effective simulation is available to perform the same life-saving function for small units.

Creating very high performing small units is as much a human challenge as a technological challenge. Thus this effort would seek to prepare small units for combat in a manner analogous to the way professional sports teams are recruited, selected, trained, acculturated, bonded and remunerated. Likewise, the medical and mental health communities must be challenged to develop a strategic scheme for selecting and inoculating small-unit individuals and leaders from the stresses of close combat.

Perhaps the best way to approach the politicians who ultimately drive these decisions is with a poltical metaphor. There’s no substitute for the “ground game” in a political campaign, either. People have to go out and knock on doors. The ads and speeches and events do not get voters to the polling place on election day.

These challenges can be met only by demanding that our national-level policy and planning staffs look at war from the ground up rather than the top down. What’s missing is not a lack of empathy or concern but the crushing imperative for our leaders to bridge the enormous cultural gap that has existed for two generations between the political and government elite and the soldiers they send to do the dirty task of intimate killing.