History Repeating – recovering the lost experiences of war

The author and some of his team during winter war games.  Germany, 1989

The author and some of his team during winter war games. Germany, 1989

(This opinion piece was simultaneously posted on Ross-Elder.com and Special-ops.org) 

As a writer, a veteran, and as an American who wants to know the real story of the final moments of Bin Laden’s life, I felt compelled to read the controversial book, “No Easy Day” by Mark Owens.  Ignoring the various opinions about the book within the military community, I took the book at face value.  It is an interesting read, regardless of your feelings on the matter.

But, within chapter 8 of the book, I found some insights that supported my own beliefs on modern tactics and training.  For several years I have been telling people that, whether you support the reasons behind our going to war or not, a ground war was needed by our modern military force.  Yes, I know that is a very difficult idea to swallow, but let me explain further.

When I entered the military in the 80’s, many of my drill sergeants and course instructors were Vietnam veterans.  They had real world combat experience that informed their teachings to us and their insights into tactics and methods were born from months and years in the jungle fighting the Viet Cong.  Most of those veterans were approaching retirement at that time.  Once they were gone, the new generation of drill sergeants and instructors were only passing on information as it was taught to them.  They had no real world experience upon which to draw in order to “color” their training with valuable insights.

Small conflicts like Grenada, Panama, Haiti, and Somalia only affected a relatively small number of our servicemembers.  It became rare to find a drill sergeant or military instructor wearing that SSI-FWS (shoulder sleeve insignia – former wartime service) or “combat patch” on their uniform.  Our doctrine and our tactics became based on theory, ideas, or extrapolated from wars past.  We lost that personal relationship with battle.

The Gulf War, being mostly an airpower display that resulted in most of the Iraqi forces surrendering without a fight, did not give our force that needed personal relationship with battle.  Again, of the 500,000 warriors sent to the Persian Gulf during that conflict, very few saw actual combat on a personal level.  Some certainly did, but not enough to inform an entire force and guide the next generation of military training.  The victory was so decisive that no change in tactics or doctrine was offered.  Most of our new recruit training was still based upon the tactics utilized during Vietnam by “big Army” forces.

REDISCOVERY

In Chapter 8 of Owens’ book, he speaks of how his Team’s tactics evolved as they gained real world combat experience during their multiple tours throughout Afghanistan and Iraq.  He talks specifically of how they went from an explosive breaching, door kicking, “shock and awe” kind of tactic to a more stealthy, quiet, calculated approach.  This is great to read and it is very interesting that such an experienced operator would describe such an evolution.  But, those tactics are nothing new.

Years ago, in the 80’s in particular, just like Owens, I read extensively about special operations during the war in Vietnam.  Special Forces, Rangers, Marine Force Recon, and SEALs produced an enormous library of books on their experiences fighting the Viet Cong and learning about guerrilla warfare first-hand.  Not only learning about it, but learning to utilize similar tactics to take the fight to the enemy.  During Vietnam, SEALs, Mike Forces, LRRPs, and various forces from MACVSOG practiced the same philosophy that the modern SEALs were learning all over again through experience.

Low and Slow.  Using stealth as opposed to a breach, bang, and clear mentality.  Knowing that proper target intelligence and recon were the most important aspects of planning.  When we old timers read such things, they are no surprise.  Rather, they are déjà vu of the tactics and philosophies we were taught those many years ago by those Vietnam veterans who wanted us to survive the next fight.

SEALs of that era used those same tactics to defeat and demoralize the Viet Cong.  As a young man, I read book after book describing those tactics and practices.  I applied those philosophies to my own methods over the course of my career.  There was no playing fair.  “A fair comes once a year and they have ponies” as someone close to me likes to say.  We were taught how to win, not how to satisfy political agendas or U.N. expectations.  Certainly not how to keep an unappreciative, ineffective foreign leader and the media happy.

Years ago, during wargames in Europe, my happy little band of aggressors, OPFOR, would wreak havoc on typical forces utilizing precisely the tactics taught to me by those Vietnam veteran instructors.  I imagined I could hear Company Commanders and Platoon Leaders saying, “Don’t worry about that area.  Nobody is going to attack through there.”  Nope.  Not a typical, big Army thinking soldier.  But, I would.
The darkest night, the thickest brush, and the coldest ravine were perfect approaches for my team.  Nobody will come that way?  No.  Nobody but a determined enemy who knows you aren’t protecting that flank.

As a young, green soldier, I was taught how to stay quiet, still, and leave no trace of my presence on the battlefield.  We were taught how to use the night to our advantage, utilize our technology to out maneuver the enemy and turn the tables.  We were taught that setting up an ambush on a known enemy route was one of the best tactics for demoralizing the enemy.  I was taught how to move quietly over a variety of terrain.  These were things a dedicated infantryman, a veteran of multiple tours of Vietnam had taught me personally, to give me the ability to survive my own combat experience, should that ever come.

So, over the course of those many years since Vietnam, our major force had lost touch with that personal relationship with combat.  We had lost those intimate stories of what battle is really like.  The stories relayed to new recruits were largely based on ideas, stories passed down over the previous years, and conjecture on the part of the instructor.  They were simply reading from the manual.

During the years of our fight in Iraq, there was controversy within the Army itself over the seemingly large number of instructors and drill sergeants serving on training assignments who had never deployed.  The idea that these soldiers were “hiding” from deployments by continuously serving in a training role reached the highest levels of the military departments.  They were training soldiers for a fight they did not know and did not understand, with TTPs based solely on what they were taught by other inexperienced soldiers and training manuals that had not been updated in decades.

No more.  After 11 years of war on two fronts, our force is now heavily populated by veterans of the fight.  Every MOS from Infantry to Administration is populated by warriors who have “been there and done that”, many in both Iraq and Afghanistan.  Our Special operations community is now the most experienced force in the world with millions of man-hours dedicated to a fight they not only understand, but can teach others to understand.  Everything from urban warfare to fighting in the mountains now has up to date, realistic, and battle-proven tactics and training that can be passed down to the next generations of warriors who answer the call to service.

So, whether you support the wars, or not, they have served to ensure that the next two generations of soldiers, sailors, airmen, marines, and coasties will be trained to modern standards and will be better equipped to face the next conflict that may arise.  And it is great to know that even the storied Navy SEALs and organizations like DEVGRU have not only evolved, but embraced that evolution.  The sad part is that the TTPs that are now considered “new” ideas were there all along.  They had simply been lost over decades of relative peace for our fine military force.