Saturday, May 28, 2016

Largest regiment in the Army

Spent some time Friday helping place flags on veteran's graves at a local cemetery for Memorial Day.  Hope we found all of them.  We used to get angry calls from widows that we forgot their husband's grave or family members that we did not put a flag next to grandpa.  But then we typically found that those graves we missed did not have a VA headstone or plaque or were not engraved with mention of their service.  We try to keep up with those unmarked ones.

Many graves were from WW1, one was of a private who had served with the 20th Engineers.  That was a regiment that at the time had over 500 officers and 30,000 men, bigger than any reinforced division that I ever heard of (although most of that 30K never made it to France prior to the Armistice).  Primarily made up of lumberjacks and sawmill workers in 49 Engineer Companies (Forestry), it also included 12 road and bridge companies, 36 engineer service companies, plus railroad and quartermaster units. Many of the officers in the Forestry Companies were recruited from the US Forestry Service.

After Pershing's advance HQ, they were the first American unit in France. Many came from here in the the great NW states of Washington and Oregon, but it was the only unit in WW1 that included men from every state in the union.  Their casualties were not that large for such a big unit: 95 died when the USS Tuscania was torpedoed by a U-Boat, and at least two that we know of were KIA in the Argonne Forest.  But it provided huge benefits for the war effort, not just for the AEF but also for Brit, French, and Canadian allies.  Some served in direct support of US infantry divisions. The forestry units harvested French timber for the war effort: bridge timbers, buttress sets for saps, bomb proofing, bunkers, shoring for trenches, railroad ties, 50 and 100 foot tall pilings for piers and bridges, logs for corduroy roads, poles/stakes for barbed wire support poles, duckboards, and millions of cords of fuelwood - all the sinews of war - or at the time that timber was itself considered a munition.

http://www.20thengineers.com/ww1.html

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Collateral Damage

Back in October our barkeep P.F. Khans asked: "...Who is Responsible for the Hospital Bombing?" about the then-current speculation over the U.S. armed forces actions during a bombardment of a Doctors Without Borders (Medicins san Frontiers, or MSF) hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan.


One of the persistent questions was how could the U.S. and U.S.-advised Afghan forces have targeted what was a very distinctive hospital compound, one that should have been recognizable even from the air as a no-fire zone.

The U.S. higher responsible for the area of operations, Central Command (CENTCOM) released its report in April, and it contains some information on how this could have happened. From the blog Lawfare:
"Two mishaps that were clearly not criminal in nature occurred early on in the night mission, and those mistakes paved the way for the tragedy to follow in Kunduz. First, the attacking aircraft—an AC-130U with extensive firepower on board—took off early because of a report of U.S. troops being attacked. Due to the haste of the aircraft’s departure, there was no time to upload the “No-Strike List” (NSL) to the aircraft’s computers.
This question came up repeatedly in the original discussion. In his post, PF said:
"There's a Fire Direction Chief (sorry FDChief) that's got an AFATDS computer which should have had all hospitals/other sensitive areas restricted, so that you are warned if you are shooting there. Someone has to manually enter that data, was that data input into the system? Was the hospital in this AFATDS computer?

I don't see a reason that it wouldn't/shouldn't have been. I get that an AC-130 gunship may have to cover a lot of territory, but it's the 14th year of the war. Someone has managed this data. Someone spent a boring deployment porting this data to all the systems. This should have been done by now, that hospital didn't spring up when the Taliban attacked.

So if that wasn't there, the FDC is in trouble.
If it was there and the FDC overruled it without higher approval, the FDC is in trouble."
In the comments section I noted that the USAF didn't use the U.S. Army FA fire direction system, but that while
"...(a)ir fires are neither controlled nor coordinated thru the FA direct support elements. That includes the firing battery and battalion FDCs as well as both the FO elements attached to the maneuver platoons and the FSEs at the maneuver company and battalion HQs. The FSEs may liase w USAF control teams to clear potential CAS target areas of friendly forces but have no role in CAS missions beyond that. So the responsibility for CAS mission direction would be on the USAF FACP (forward air control party - at least that was the term when I was still in ten years ago...). The FAC should have, as has been noted above, been advised of NFAs ("no fire areas") as well as RFZs ("restricted fire zones") established by the maneuver commander."
Well, it turns out that the control party - which consisted of U.S. Army Special Forces troops - had more problems than just missing overlays. The Lawfare article goes on to report:
"Second, well before the attack on the MSF facility began, the U.S. aircraft’s satellite radio—its data link—failed. While the aircraft still had radio contact with ground forces, it could not send or receive emails or upload data, such as the NSL. Special Operations forces on the ground wanted to target a prison overrun by the Taliban, formerly run by the Afghan government’s National Directorate of Security (NDS). However, because of the lack of a data upload capacity and imprecise descriptions at both ends of communications, the aircraft crew mistook the MSF facility for the former NDS prison."
To make matters worse, the commander of the maneuver forces was working with a combat controller - or, more specifically, a "joint terminal attack controller" or JTAC (since a combat controller is a USAF-specific occupational specialty and the JTAC may be from any service branch...). The report says that the aggressive maneuver commander and the cherry JTAC turned out to be a combination lethal for the patients and staff of the MSF hospital:
"...ground forces informed the crew that the intended target had an “arch-shaped gate.” While this description matched many buildings in the area, the crew took it as a match for the MSF facility. The ground force commander (GFC) did not seek clarification, and had no independent visual ability to confirm the crew’s judgment. In other words, the GFC and the aircraft crew were actually labeling entirely different structures as being one and the same. (T)he (air)crew repeatedly asked the GFC to confirm that the intended target was a “large t-shape building.” The GFC (or his inexperienced subordinate, the...JTAC...confirmed this description, which matched many buildings in the vicinity. Unfortunately, the crew and the GFC were still unknowingly talking about two different buildings: the crew “had eyes” on the MSF facility, which was marked with MSF emblems but not the more familiar red cross or red crescent symbols used globally to label medical sites, while the GFC believed that the crew was describing the intended target: the NDS prison held by the Taliban. The JTAC did not help matters with instructions such as “soften the target,” which did not correspond to the situation the crew was viewing in real time."
And the maneuver commander seems to have been a real wild man:
"This communications failure was compounded by the inappropriately aggressive posture of the GFC, whom the military report described as having “willfully violated” the ROE. The US ROE restricted the use of air power, except in response to a hostile act by the Taliban directed at U.S. forces. However, the GFC ordered the attack on the MSF facility although the GFC “could not have reasonably believed” that the attack was justified by an ongoing hostile act. While the GFC asserted to military investigators that he saw what he believed to be an attack on a friendly military convoy, the Centcom report viewed that assertion as inconsistent with other sources, including aircraft video, radio transcripts, and tracking data. Moreover, the military’s report indicated that the GFC, because of distance from the convoy, could not have had the line of sight that he claimed. In sum, even an attack on the “right” target—the NDS facility—would not have been a response to hostile fires, as the ROE required. Because of the GFC’s aggressive posture and the mutual misidentification of the MSF facility as the “right” NDS target, the attack commenced."
Once the bombardment started the commo problems interfered again;
"Shortly after the attack started, MSF representatives contacted U.S. commands, imploring them to stop the fires. However, the communications failure and the ground-air misunderstandings severely impeded a timely U.S. response. About 12 minutes into the attack, personnel at the U.S. Special Operations Task Force inquired about the coordinates of the target being engaged. Two minutes later, U.S. personnel contacted the crew and sought to confirm that the attack had not harmed the MSF facility. The crew stated that the MSF facility hadn’t been touched, reporting that the only structures affected were the “T-shaped building” or adjacent structures, which the GFC had earlier mistakenly identified as the NDS prison, although in reality the crew was still describing the MSF hospital. It took several more minutes to ascertain that the building being attacked was in fact the MSF facility. Once that awful realization took hold, the attack ceased."

The military’s report details the errors that dogged each step in this appalling episode. Not unlike the critical moments of Ian McEwan’s novel Atonement, missteps and misunderstandings at several junctures paved the way for an unspeakable tragedy.
In other words; war.

The usual suspects are saying the usual things. "Conservatives" are draping themselves in yellow ribbons, "liberals" in loathing of the licentious soldiery and distrust of the "official story". Regardless of opinion, the business is done, now, except for in the grave, or the twisted bodies of the injured, or the anger of the survivors and families.

My original point in the comments stands; that regardless of whether this was a deliberate attack or a mistake, the failure of the U.S. command authority in Afghanistan to quickly and publicly discipline the individuals involved sent a clear message that Afghan lives didn't matter, not as much as American servicepeople's lives, or even of their careers.

When suppressing rebellions there is a tried and true method. Unfortunately, it is also unspeakably savage, the Roman Way - make a silence and call it peace.

The West wants and hopes that hearts and minds can be won, that the "Afridis where they run" can be wooed rather than butchered, that there is a kinder, gentler way to suppress revolts. Unfortunately, to do that the suppressor's troops have to be held to a standard that admits no such lethal errors as these, and that every drop of blood spilled with the sword is payed for with a drop of blood drawn by the lash.

We choose not to lash ourselves, and therefore should not be surprised that our means and methods are not embraced by those we slash.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Pushing string

According to Bob Bateman in April the U.S. Army reinforced the forces deployed to Iraq.
This element included advisors - about two companies worth - that will work down to battalion level as well as pushing forward a troop-sized attack helicopter (AH-64) unit and a FA unit of unknown size equipped with M-142 medium artillery rocket systems (so-called "HIMARS") to engage Islamic State forces directly.

Bateman says that this is a good idea tactically; battalion-level assvice will help the Iraqi "Army" operate more effectively, and the fire support elements will, too.

He's not so sure whether this is as good an idea at echelons above reality:
"This decision to allow American trainers to operate at lower levels may well put more Americans in more danger, but at the same time, it also capitalizes on our forces' real strengths and directly helps the Iraqis succeed on the ground. The political wisdom of this decision is another thing entirely." (emphasis mine)
I'll go further than that; this is the military equivalent of pushing on a fucking string.

I don't see the "Iraqi Army" as having a military problem killing raggedy-assed Islamic State gomers. Hell, back in Saddam's day they had a fine old time slaughtering Shia militiamen and Kurdish rebels. The thug-armies of Third World despotisms are usually terrific at slaughtering their own people and local rebellious groups. Ask any Sri Lankan Tamil...no, wait...you can't, they're mostly all dead.

The "Iraqi Army" has a problem because "Iraq" is a political fiction. There is no "Iraq" worth fighting and dying for, nothing that a man or woman could point to as worthy of that great a sacrifice. There are factions in Iraq, certainly, but the whole point of fighting for a faction is to get the largesse that faction dispenses as a reward for loyalty, and you have to be alive to get that.

The "Iraqi Army" doesn't have trouble against the Islamic State because the "Iraqi Army" has trouble executing simple fire-and-maneuver actions, or because it can't effectively call for supporting fire, the sorts of things that U.S. Army advisors could help it learn.

Well, it probably does have trouble, but that's not why it doesn't do well against the IS fighters.

The "Iraqi Army" has trouble against the Islamic State because "Iraq" is a goddamn fiction and a dumpster-fire of a failed state. The "Iraqi Army" is a shitshow of corruption and patronage like any number of Third World failed-state "armies" where officers pocket soldiers' pay and factional loyalty is more important than technical or tactical proficiency.

I'm not going to tell you that technical and tactical proficiency don't matter. Hell yes, they do. But when it comes down to bloody war "the moral is to the physical as three is to one" as a former military savant once wrote. There is no moral center to Iraq anymore; not even the evil sort of anti-morality that comes with fighting for a rapacious thug like Saddam Hussein.

So, short of re-invading and taking over this ridiculous attempt to make a desert in Sunnistan and call it peace is there any likelihood that trying to add bullets to the jello that is the "Iraqi Army" will provide even a medium-term solution to the sociopolitical problems of Mesopotamia?

Hell, no.

But it'll make the idiot rubes think their political "leaders" are "doing something about ISIS" and the cost is a handful of millions and maybe a couple of throwaway GIs or five, so it's all good, right?
WASF.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

The Khalsa shall rule!


"In a decision by the U.S. Army Thursday, Capt. Simratpal Singh, a decorated Sikh-American officer and combat veteran, has received a long-term religious accommodation to serve with long hair, a beard, and turban in accordance with his Sikh faith."

But the turban has to be digital camo, I see.

Interesting, in that given the Sikh tradition of military service and the U.S. Army's need for warm bodies I'd have thought this one would be pretty much a slam dunk a long time ago.

But, then again, peacetime armies tend to be kinda anal about uniform regulations. Frankly, I'd have loved to see AR 670-1 updated to include something like this as Sikh dress blue headgear:


Ain't gonna happen, sadly.

Anyway, consider this an open thread about the minutiae of military dress.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Battles Long Ago: Tollense Crossing 1200 BCE

Not really one of my usual "battles" pieces, but I came across this and found it truly fascinating.

The short version is that at some time around 1200 BCE some sort of combat took place along the bank of the Tollense River on the north German plain.

The Tollense valley is glacial and about half a kilometer wide. At the time of the fight it was getting increasingly marshy as Holocene post-glacial sea level rise lifted the level of the Baltic and inundated the plain.

In Bronze Age times the streambed was broad, and flat, and probably studded with alder and birch.

The surrounding forests were dominated by oak, ash, lime, and elm. Jantzen et al (2010) says that "The Bronze Age environment can be described as a partly open landscape that showed limited human impact. However, flax, barley, oat and wheat pollen indicate some farming activities (nearby)".

We don't know who the combatants were who met in the Tollense valley in that year near 1200 BCE, or why they fought, of what the outcome was. The most common explanation is some sort of pitched battle between warbands:
"About 3200 years ago, two armies clashed at a river crossing near the Baltic Sea. (T)his was no skirmish between local clans. Thousands of warriors came together in a brutal struggle, perhaps fought on a single day, using weapons crafted from wood, flint, and bronze, a metal that was then the height of military technology.

Struggling to find solid footing on the banks of the Tollense River, a narrow ribbon of water that flows through the marshes of northern Germany toward the Baltic Sea, the armies fought hand-to-hand, maiming and killing with war clubs, spears, swords, and knives. Bronze- and flint-tipped arrows were loosed at close range, piercing skulls and lodging deep into the bones of young men. Horses belonging to high-ranking warriors crumpled into the muck, fatally speared. Not everyone stood their ground in the melee: Some warriors broke and ran, and were struck down from behind.

When the fighting was through, hundreds lay dead, littering the swampy valley. Some bodies were stripped of their valuables and left bobbing in shallow ponds; others sank to the bottom, protected from plundering by a meter or two of water. Peat slowly settled over the bones. Within centuries, the entire battle was forgotten."
This is not the only explanation and, frankly, is hard to square with the presence of elderly and infant remains among the dead.
Another possibility is that this was a crime rather than a war; robbery on a massive scale as a raiding party bushwhacked a merchant party and its armed guards:
"A Silesian caravan transporting large quantities of tin and other metals was moving...along the Tollense river...protected by armed guard which consisted of both horsemen and infantrymen. The caravan was attacked by a gang or even a small...army which probably came from the north west, probably from the Jutland peninsula or even further north. These people were armed with more primitive weapons, arrows with flint arrowheads, wooden spears and wooden clubs. Denmark and Sweden have huge flint deposits so it is quite possible that the attackers came from there.

The attackers...launched a surprise attack from the forest which surrounded the river. They first pelted the caravan with arrows, targeting the mounted soldiers first. This is why we have dead people mixed with dead horses. Remember the clustered bronze arrowheads mixed with human and horse bones? Were they the arrows which the horsemen never got to take out of their quivers? I believe that the arrows with the bronze arrowheads were fired by mounted archers. The proof for that is the bronze arrowhead which was found embedded in a skull. This arrowhead could only have been fired from a position above the head, which would indicate that the archer was on a horseback.
Also the flint arrowhead which was found embedded in a humerus (upper arm) bone is embedded under such angle that the shot must have come from below, meaning that the arrow was fired by a foot soldier shooting a mounted warrior.

(After the exchange of bowfire) the frontal assault ensued which resulted in hand to hand battle. It is most probable that the attackers won. The number of dead would suggest that this is what happened. The attackers killed all the people from the caravan, collected all the metal, metal armor and weapons and other valuables and remaining pack animals and returned back to wherever they came from. They left all the dead Silesians where they fell."
This interpretation is in the minority. The bulk of the scholarship gleaned from the Tollense concludes that this was the clash of arms; feuding tribes, or even more - the assembled warbands of a local king, perhaps, or remnant of a mass migration produced by the stress of changing climate. The women and children? Camp-followers; Bronze Age logistical support elements.
Jantzen et al (2010) conclude that this battle that may have taken days or possibly even weeks:
"The number of individuals (~100) so far identified from the Tollense Valley, who were probably killed during a conflict over some days or weeks, is on a larger scale than earlier examples for potential violence (see Thrane 2006: 278). It is unclear whether we are dealing with professional warriors. Some women and children are also present in the sample; according to ethnographic data they could have supported the men in fighting, for example by organising food or by carrying weapons (Keeley 1996: 35). The considerable number of individuals involved does not support the scenario of a small-scale conflict of local farmers or small war bands (Osgood 2006). Some bronze pins of Silesian types (Ulrich 2008) found in the Tollense Valley indicate close contacts with this region (~400km) to the south-east. First results of δ13C and 15N analysis of the human remains indicate millet to be part of the diet, which is uncommon during the Early Bronze Age in northern Germany, and might suggest invaders from the south."
Or the the travelers were from the south and the invaders were from the north...how could one tell from the bare bones and metal and stone? The answer is that we can't.
No, we will never know the answers. Never know the who, or the why. Those are as lost to us as are the people who fought and died along the Tollense all those thousands of years ago.

Which, in its way, is a good reminder. That for all that we think of "history" as the great events, the memorable and the remembered, history is made up largely of people like you and me, living ordinary lives and dying ordinary deaths and being forgotten, leaving nothing behind us but our bones.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Strategic Bombing


For the record; Brussels is the EU capital, and the EU is and has been deeply involved in fighting in North Africa and the Middle East. The Belgian "air component" (the air arm of the Belgian armed forces) has been bombing the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Obviously, none of that "justifies" blowing up women and kids in train stations and airports.

But at the same time let's be adults; if you're part of fighting a "war on terror" you shouldn't be surprised when terror fights you back.

I thought we learned that sixty-odd years ago. The people who died under the bombers in London and Berlin and Tokyo were "innocent civilians", too, and they died in their job lots for their leaders' policies. For American politicians to act outraged about this is an insult to We the People's intelligence. This is war, the war our politicians have argued for and supported for years now. This is as expected and expectable thing in a war as the sun rising.

Innocents die in war. If you don't like that, your only real option is not to fight one.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Trump is No Andrew Jackson

Trump needs less press, not more, so this will be brief. 
Recently, I've heard some folks that want to do the comparison between Donald Trump and Andrew Jackson.

Over at Sic Semper Tyrannis: Is it 1828 again? and Jackson Part Two By Richard Sale
And also at Fabius Maximus: What the press won’t tell you about Trump and populism
Also the NYTimes: Donald Trump's Secret? Channeling Andrew Jackson

The similarities between these men is so superficial that I find the comparison more illuminating of those making the comparison than of Donald Trump.

Just consider this 'similarity' from the NY Times Article
In an 1806 duel, he shot and killed a man who had insulted him in a newspaper. Mr. Trump’s Twitter broadsides at his critics are gentle by comparison.
Really? 'Twitter broadsides' vs shooting a critic? 
Here's what I learned of their similarities from these articles. First, they focus very much around the 'nationalist' / 'populist' nature of Andrew Jackson and Donal Trump.  They are 'vulgar' and 'of the people' and are opposing sclerotic party apparatchiks.  They appeal to southern whites in Appalachia more than elsewhere and promise to support the common man and protect them from harmful elites.  They are all of a single 'style' nature.

Now let's explore just one of the incredibly important and massive differences between the two.

Andrew Jackson, before he ran for President, was a war hero and a general who fought several important battles and secured a huge amount of territory for white settlement in the American South. He came from abject poverty, built a fortune on the edge of civilization, was a huge part of erecting government services and spent many years in public service.  Jacksonville, FL and Jackson, MS are cities that bear his name because of his importance to those states. Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, and Florida owe him a huge debt.  Native American tribes rightfully see him as an archenemy.  The slave economy would not have been possible without him and his acolytes getting things done.
Donald Trump is a relatively successful real estate developer, he is a successful reality TV star, he's a serial entrepreneur and an occasional political schemer.  He was born rich and stayed rich.  He's done pretty much zilch for anyone else.  Donald Trump is an entertainer who is playing a political rabble-rouser.

The profound difference between the two is that one did shit and the other just talks shit.  Talking up Trump as a Jacksonian only obscures the fact that our political system and American society in general is in serious crisis. 
His success doesn't require outlandish political and historical analogies to explain his victories.  The horrendous mess that our politics are explains it just fine.  Donald Trump is major news and a serious contender because he is competing against political midgets.  Every single Republican candidate would have been chased off in our past political ages early and often.  And the Democrats have a very similar problem. 

The other things to consider is that for all the racism and prejudices in our older society, it was a nation that was hacking out civilization on the frontier.  Venturing west of Appalachia in the 1800s was the undertaking of bold and foolhardy people.  To what degree does that boldness continue in the creation of apps and the consumption of luxury goods?  Does our society still have the material from which to produce great politicians for the people?

Trump/Jackson comparisons bury the lead in all cases.  The desire for a Jackson is greater than the capacity of any current candidate to produce.