Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Thoughts on Generation Kill

As I was reading this book, several thoughts came to mind about a changing military and how it affects strategies in fighting individual battles and an over all war. It seemed on several occasions that the Marines Evan Wright was with either refused to perform a specific operation at the platoon or squad level or modified it as they went along. The overall effect of these individual actions did not significantly change the outcome of the major war (which was, in the case of this book, the drive towards Baghdad in 2003 and the toppling of Saddam Hussein). However, it did change specific operations that, on the face of things, might have impacted the war in terms of overall casualties and time lines.

War has changed significantly, not just in the last century, but over many centuries. In battles of the medieval period, while individual courage and prowess was celebrated and fuedal lords raised and often led their own forces, the over all tactics did not require an individual foot soldier or knight to be a "thinking" man. He did not have to ponder whether his small squad was in the right place or if he should attack or not attack a specific location. For the most part, what was required was that these men follow orders, march with the others, wheel, attack or defend with the mass of fighters he was with.

In the battle of Agincourt, as in many battles before and after, the men were formed up in lines based on the terrain and the forces opposing them using both to the best effect possible. Archers only needed to know when they should let loose their arrows which was largley directed by the over all commander. Individual squads of archers did not decide when they would or would not attack. The same went for foot soldiers and knights. It was prevalent largely on the top commander, in this case Henry V, to determine when to employ the different units en masse, to determine strategy with the consul of a few top commanders. Winnning or losing a battle was largley dependent on the top commander's ability to employ the forces and strategy. At most, during this period, light cavalry might have been used to interdict supplies, harrass opposing forces or provide reconnaisance on their movements. Important mainly to the manouvers of the larger force.

In short, medieval war did not require the foot soldier, archer or lesser knights (mounted men at arms?) to be "thinking" men.

Cromwell, Battle of Marston Moore 1644

This continues through history with few changes until possibly the 17th century where companies of soldiers or cavalry were given a little more leeway to manouver against opposing forces with some strategic decision making at this level, but still held at higher levels of command than squads or platoons and still more closely associated with the movements of much larger forces.

By the time of Napoleon, a form of manouver warfare had been advanced. Cavalry units had more freedom of movement and were tasked more often with harrasment, interdiction and reconnaisance. Armies were split and sent in specific directions to perform pincer movements or feints to draw away or confuse opposing forces. Still, the outcome of a battle was dependent on large forces meeting in battle, face to face, musket to musket and cannon to cannon over a chosen field.

By the time of Gettysburg in 1863, we begin to see that winning or losing a battle could be contingent on the performance of smaller units. One of the most important factors of Lee's loss at Gettysburg was his missing cavalry which he sent out to recon the Union forces, but had lost contact with Stuart for three days, leaving him largely blind about the size, condition and place of the opposing forces. Stuart, for his part, had been ranging rather farther afield than originally intended.

As Stuart approached Haymarket it was discovered that Hancock's corps, marching northward, occupied the road upon which he expected to move. A brisk artillery fire was opened upon the marching column, and was continued until the enemy moved a force of infantry against the guns. Not wishing to disclose his force, Stuart withdrew from Hancock's vicinity after capturing some prisoners and satisfying himself concerning the movement of that corps. This information was at once started to General Lee by a courier bearing a despatch written by General Stuart himself. It is plain from General Lee's report that this messenger did not reach him; and unfortunately the despatch was not duplicated. Had it reached General Lee the movement of Hancock's corps would, of itself, have gone far to disclose to him the intentions of the enemy as to the place where a passage of the Potomac was about to be effected.

It was now clearly impossible for Stuart to follow the route originally intended; and he was called upon to decide whether he should retrace his steps and cross the Potomac at Shepherdstown, or by making a wider d├ętour continue his march to the rear of the Federal army. He consulted with no one concerning the decision, and no one is authorized to speak of the motives which may have presented themselves to his mind.

It is important to remember that the "smaller unit" that Stuart commanded was actually three brigades strong (appx 3,800 men). Thus, we are still talking about manouvers and outcomes of battles being contingent on company or larger size manouvers and strategic decisions. Foot soldiers were still not required to be "thinking men". A note from the officer making the above commentary on the final outcome of the battle:

At this day we read the history of the minutest events connected with this campaign in the light of the final result. Had General Lee gained the battle of Gettysburg, as he said he would have done if Stonewall Jackson had been present, the persistency with which Stuart held on to these wagons, and the difficulties he surmounted in transporting them safely through an enemy's country during the next three days and nights of incessant marching and fighting, would have been the cause of congratulation. But Gettysburg was lost to the Confederate arms, and not through Stuart's fault; and every circumstance which might have contributed to a different result will be judged in the light of the final catastrophe. Considered from this point of view, it must be acknowledged that the capture of this train of wagons was a misfortune. The time occupied in securing it was insignificant; but the delay caused to the subsequent march was serious at a time when minutes counted almost as hours.

At this point we should understand that there are significant advantages to using manouver warfare, but also disadvantages when it comes to communications over distance and relying on commanders to make strategic decisions that can (and did in this case regardless of the officer's defense of Stuart) effect the outcome of a battle if not the war.

Fast forward 80 years and manouver warfare has taken on a whole new meaning. While vast armies still smash at each other over large battle fields, the movement and success of those armies begins to rely heavily on the abilities of smaller units to perform specific tasks. Squads (10 men) and platoons (16-44) led by lieutenants or sergents are tasked with taking, holding and/or destroying strategic points, such as bridges, fuel dumps, cross roads and small towns throughout the European theater during World War II. Even more so in the Pacific where islands might be invaded by thousands of soldiers, but clearing the individual bunkers, taking a ridge and other objectives are tasked to company, platoons and squads. Which means that the thinking man's army was being created. NCO's had to know more than the command to march, charge or fire, but now had to read maps, use available technology, make a strategic plan on how to take a specified objective and deploy his forces.

Here we see the grandfathers and great grandfathers of Generation Kill, not only biologically, but in the creation of a "thinking man's army". In the book we see that the thinking man's army has certain advantages when it comes to manouver warfare such as being able to make quick tactical changes based on the realities on the ground and allowing officers and NCOs of the smaller units the ability to make those changes in order to meet the objectives. On the other hand, there are significant communication and supply issues as they move quickly through Iraq onto Baghdad. We also see that the thinking man's army, now fully capable of looking at a map and making some strategic decisions or evaluating targets, means that commanders and orders can be and are second guessed. In which case, individual units made decisions to change tactics or modify orders (though often still trying to carry them out) which affected other units and the pace of the war.

In a thinking man's army, the men and line commanders want to know "why" not just what and when. Unfortunately, either the desire to keep the overall strategy secret (still necessary, particularly in today's information rich world) or the pace of the war did not and does not always allow for such in depth explanations.

Marine First Recon, the unit that Wright was embedded with for this story, is the very pointy tip of the spear. From the outset, they wonder why they are being put out front to move so quickly through Iraq when it's expected that the Republican Guard with tank formations and other heavy weapons are in front of them. Even Evan Wright ponders this as nearly a suicide mission and several smaller missions give the same appearance. At the outset, they are told that they will be doing a standard mission normally done by Recon which is to race ahead and secure a specific bridge over the Euphrates. Every time they are tasked with a different mission or sent in a different direction than what they thought they should be doing, the questions arise more and more, not just within the leadership, but at the "grunt" level. Not uncommon in any army or war, however, Wright gives the impression that there is something wrong.

What the unit did not know was that they were part of a feint towards the east to make the Iraq army believe that they were not going to approach Baghdad head on, but perform a flanking manouver, hopefully causing the Iraq army to move forces in that direction while the main army attacked Baghdad head on directly from the south. Wright and the soldiers he is with, not knowing all the particulars of the battle plan, believe that they may be being used as decoys to simply bring out the ambushers and allow the heavy artillery and tanks to ride up behind them and take them out. In other words, cannon fodder.

No one tells them why they are really tasked with this mission and position. Wright gives the impression that this is a failure of command when in reality, it is a very smart plan. If the Marines are taken prisoner, they only know what they were told about their mission. They could not, by either documents or individual soldiers, provide an interrogator or intelligence officer with any real information about the invasion plan.

It's true that soldiers have always wondered why they were marching somewhere and why. They have also thought that their commanders were crazy, gung ho or plain stupid for making a decision. First Recon is no exception. However, they make two decisions which end up not to effect the war over all, but did point to the one problem in creating a thinking man's army: units that think they know better than their commander and act on it. In one case they believe that their mission will be to secure a bridge in a specific city. At the last minute, they receive orders to change that mission and, instead, charge through the city and secure the northern side while the main force comes behind them. One unit goes ahead and is on the other side waiting for the rest of the platoon to come through and re-infoce them, but those squads are still on the southern end of the city looking at maps because they think that the route chosen for them is suicide (they have lightly armored humvees and small weapons). They are settling on a different route when they discover that route is impassible so they are stuck going through via the route the other force takes. However, they delayed long enough that their sister units are now alone on the other side taking fire and casualties.

Afterwards, they are still grousing over "why" and Evan Wright falls into their concerns, writing phrases that make you believe that it is just possible that the commanders were a bunch of gung ho idiots.

Another incident has them coming up on an air force base that is reported to have heavy weapons and serious obstacles (berms, etc). At first, a tank unit is ordered to take the base, but, according to Wright, says it's too dangerous and refuses the order. First Recon is then ordered to take the field. They complain openly about how crazy that is, but, when they get there, there is no armor or huge barricades. Wright seems to contend, based on the grousing from the Marines, that this is simply luck. He actually uses this phrase very late in the book to indicate that winning that phase of the war was more about luck and the ineptitude of the Iraqi Army than any strategic superiority that the US may have had.

A last incident, that really made me think about the difference between old army warfare and the new thinking man's army was, when First Recon gets to Baghdad, they hold up in an old cigarette factory. The first or second night they are there, they are tasked with performing foot patrols in the neighboring community because the leaders are complaining of violent street gangs and other crimes, not to mention the Ba'athi loyalist. In which case the lieutenant forcefully declines that order as being unsafe for his soldiers (of which he was already missing two due to injuries). Obviously, this was not highly important because the officer in question was not reprimanded. Later, the lieutenant left the Marines and told Wright that he did not believe he would make a good officer because he "cared too much for his men".

To illustrate one last, seemingly silly incident that aptly highlights the fact that strategic significance is not always understood at the lower level, even in a thinking man's army, the commander issues a general order for all men to shave off their mustaches. This seems very petty to both Wrigth and the Marines. At no time however, did either group express any ideas or thoughts on the fact that their adversaries would most likely be dirty and darkskinned with mutaches (a cultural phenomenom) which may get them mistaken as an enemy combatant at some distance looking through binoculars or sites. This, even though later, he reports an incident where one of the soldiers was almost killed coming out of a field and mistaken as a sniper.

This led to my thoughts about how tactics and armies have changed and that has led to an even increased necessity for leadership at the lower levels to be professional and even more capable of understanding overall goals; a long way from the days when men smashed each other at sword point. A good commander does not necessarily want to always be surrounded by "Yes" men, but they don't want to have too many "NO" or utterly independent men either since this may lead to their own Gettysburg.


Gadfly said...

Interesting. I guess there needs to be one or two tentative companies of Marines just to prove the rule that all other Marines aren't.

I still think Cpt. Hal Moore, featured in "We Were Solders Once, and Young" as the quintessential military leader. Loved his men more than himself, first on the field and last to step off -- yet drove them forward into the flames because duty called. Saw a documentary on him. He was kind of a quiet, humble, more thoughtful breed of Patton.

Paul said...

I've always been amazed that any commander could convince his troops to march toward the enemy, shoulder to shoulder and at a short distance from the other, fire and be fired upon while still standing.
Lincoln himself had a terrible time in finding a Commander of The Army to prosecute the war as he wished. Lower commanders were known to pick and choose what orders would be followed.
I think what occurs in modern armies is not new, the more disciplined and motivated army, other things most equal, will always win since they will follow orders, the wisdom of which will be decided after, not before a battle..

redleg said...

Spot on Kat

I had the same thoughts when I read the same book. That's why it is important to explain the Commander's intent, but luck and chance always play a part. Many modern leaders don't understand maneuver warfare-- it should be of little surprise that most reporters don't or can't understand it as well. I should think more of them should try a bit harder though.

Anonymous said...

Interesting read...thanks. Enjoyed it.