Thursday, October 24, 2013

Defensible Terrain

 --Paresh Nath, UAE

Does our ruin benefit the earth?
Does it help the grass to grow, the sun to shine?
Is this darkness in you, too?
Have you passed through this night?   
--The Thin Red Line (1998)

There were many lessons from COP Keating.
One of them is that our troops should never, ever,
be put in a position
where they have to defend the indefensible
--President Obama bestowing the MOH
on SSG Romesha

{This is an outgrowth of the commentary @ milpub to "True Colors".  This is submitted from an Infantryman's perspective -- an attempt to integrate your collective cache of knowledge on 50 years of institutional military experience.}

Per President Obama's statement above, defending the indefensible is a no-go, so why do it?

Why do we engage in combat, both offensively and defensively? The question applies to a rifle squad as well as a theatre Army. Whether fighting a counterinsurgency (COIN) or unconventional or guerrilla wars (UW/GW), why do we fight? Do we just fight to kill, or is there a military logic beyond the killing?

We put our soldiers into combat for one purpose: to facilitate future operations which will lead to a militarily achievable purpose that reflects a political reality. We do not fight for  hopes or dreams, but for observable and verifiable achievements.

Why do we defend COPs -- small battle stations set on the frontier of a battle area? What should Commander's planning and guidance indicate before we even occupy the ground?

Obviously, any occupied terrain should be defensible. There must be mutual support to include logistics, personnel and supporting fires of all consideration. Historically, adjacent units provide direct fire to mutually support a friendly unit in distress. Defense is either hasty or planned, mobile or static. It is generally thought that static defense is to be avoided (think Bataan, Corregidor and Wake Island.)

So for a COP to be effective, it needs defensible terrain with adequate resources; wishful thinking does not count. Then it needs depth to the battle space, which implies a connection among all of the involved units. Reserve units historically are positioned within supporting distance, with reliable avenues of approach. This also allows engaged units to fall back to the reserve position if the situation deteriorates (or upon receipt of such orders.)

Strangely, all reported Afghan COP battles have lacked this feature. The soldiers in these COP battles could not withdraw to a friendly position on defensible terrain.

Soldiers should not be fighting for non-quantifiable metrics such as the love of the Afghan people for their government, for instance. Ranger cares that our soldiers fight and die, if necessary, for a purpose beyond the ratings bump of a saccharine news byte.

The United States can hang four Medals of Honor (MOH) from four COP fights around the necks of four extremely heroic soldiers, but that does not alter the nature of the fight. What did our good and true and loyal soldiers die for out on those hillsides? Will Afghanistan ever be a beacon of democracy? Do we even care?

Beyond that, to risk a Thin Red Line-like reverie ...

How did the Taliban become an enemy of the U.S.? Why is it our business to kill them? Are the people of Afghanistan our enemies or our friends? Further, what of other countries whose business we have  been getting into -- Libya, Egypt, Tunisia, Syria and Iraq? Can the forces of arms achieve anything beyond the imposition of death? As the character of Capt. James 'Bugger' Staros thinks in "The The Thin Red Line", The tough part is, uh... Not knowing if you're doing any good. That's the hard part.

Now, a soldier on a COP does not ask these questions, but we as citizens should and must before sending the first soldier down range. It is to our eternal shame if we do not.

[cross-posted @ RangerAgainstWar.]

Thursday, October 17, 2013

True Colors

--Capt. William Swenson receiving the Medal of Honor
 October 15, 2013 
Show me a smile then 
Don't be unhappy 
Can't remember when 
I last saw you laughing  
--True Colors, Cyndi Lauper 

Reportage on the on the most recent Medal of Honor recipient from the Wars on Terror -- Army Captain William Swenson -- carries a misstatement:
 "[this award] marks only the second time in the last 50 years that two American service members have received the Medal of Honor for actions in the same battle.
"In 2011, Dakota Meyer, a Marine sergeant who also is now a civilian, was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions in that Sept. 8, 2009, battle in Afghanistan" (Obama: Washington can learn from Medal of Honor recipient.)

Ranger presumes the article's "second time" refers to the MOH's posthumously awarded to Randall David "Randy" Shughart and Master Sergeant Gary Gordon for their actions in the Battle of Mogadishu (Oct. '93).

However, in fact the Vietnam War Battle of the Ia Drang Valley (LZ X-Ray) in 1965 produced three Medals of Honor, a battle within that 50 year window. However, somehow we still give that war and its participants the short shrift.

The MOH recipients from the Battle of LZ X-Ray were 1st LT Walter J. Marm (15 Feb 67); Captain Ed Freeman (16 July 2001), and Major Bruce Crandall (26 Feb 2007). It is only appropriate that the MOH finally be awarded to an Infantry U.S. Army Captain. Capt. Swenson did what one would expect from an officer under dire circumstances; he deserves our praise. But let us not forget Marm, Freeman or Crandall. 

Let us also honor the MOH recipients from that war no so long ago -- my war -- by remembering the names of those men and their actions.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Jus Ad Bellum . . .

Interesting video from the Naval War College posted on youtube titled:

The lecturer is Professor Michael Schmitt, Chair of the International Law Department at the NWC.  He has some diverse opinions.  Some I object to, some others seem right to me.  I won't go into them now.  I am heading out of town for a short hunting trip.  So I will let you decide  which is which. 

He is also a former USAF JAG Officer and a visiting professor in three different British and Australian Universities.  He is well published, including books and articles on the legalities of Drones, CyberWar, Blockades, Autonomous Weapons, Direct Participation of Civilians in War, and many others.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Võ Nguyên Giáp RIP . . .

. . . or rot in hell depending on your point of view.  Dead at 102.  Outlived his counterpart Robert McNamara.  Outlived his fall guys, Generals Navarre and Westmoreland.   But then Giap had two things going for him that Navarre and Westy did not: 1] it was his backyard whereas his enemies were over 10,000 miles from home, and 2] he had a sanctuary, his enemies did not.  He also outlived two other of his victims.  He was still Defense Minister when Vietnam beat Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge and General Xu Shiyou's PLA.  Too bad for his country that he was too old and retired from military affairs in 1988 when China occupied Vietnam's Johnson Reef and killed 64 Vietnamese soldiers.

 He was self-taught in matters soldierly.  He did not turn to a military life until his thirties.  He went to High shool in Hue, college in Hanoi, and did further study in Paris and China.  Started his adulthood as a teacher and a journalist unlike Navarre who graduated from Saint Cyr, and unlike Westmoreland who was an honor graduate of West Point.  But even as a younger man he read extensively of Napoleon (especially of his mountain campaigns), Sun Tzu, the American Revolutionary War, and then later he read Mao.  And what Wikipedia and Vietnamese sources will never divulge, he also had some military training from an American OSS team.  Giap is the short dapper one in the white suit and my father's dark fedora hat two down on the right from a young Ho Chi Minh in shorts.  The American soldier between them is US Army Major Allison Thomas head of the OSS training team.

General Hal Moore, who co-wrote "We Were Soldiers Once . . . and Young" about the battle of Ia Drang, said that Giap was " ... one of the greatest military commanders of the 20th century".  Westmoreland called Giap a butcher in a 1998 interview in George magazine: "Of course, he was a formidable adversary . . . but he persisted in waging a big-unit war with terrible losses to his own men. By his own admission, by early 1969, I think, he had lost, what, a half million soldiers? He reported this. Now such a disregard for human life may make a formidable adversary, but it does not make a military genius."  Both Moore and Westy may both have been right, sour grapes or not.

Giap's birthplace, Quang Binh, is the province just north of the DMZ which took the brunt of America's air war against the north: thousands of tons of bombs more than any other province in the north.  LBJ had no restricted targets in the North Vietnamese panhandle where Quang Binh was located.  Not just B-52 arclights, and Navy and Air Force Alpha strikes, but it was also a dumping ground for any returning American aircraft that could not get to their primary target for weather or any other reason.  The photo below shows Giap congratulating workers of the transport boat team on Gianh River just a few mile north of the DMZ in 1968.  I first thought it was staged, but now I think not.  He is one of their native sons, not some Hanoi bigwig.  He is talking to them in their own drawling central Vietnamese dialect, which is as different from the harsh pronunciations of the north and the tonal patois of Saigon as is the speech of an Iowan farmer from Brooklynese or Dallas twang.  They are liking him for being just a country cousin like they are and a local boy made good.

 There is an interesting story that the spot he was born in was under the shadow of a jackfruit tree.  Or interesting to this vet anyway.  The jackfruit (mít in Vietnamese), although a sweet delicacy, has some martial arts overtones in central Vietnam.  They have a thick pale green rind with thousands of sharp hexagonal spines.  There is an old ballad from that part of the country about a blind hero using jackfruit rinds as some type of brass knuckled fist coverings during a Vietnamese boxing match.  So I suspect that story may be apocryphal, sort of like Washington's cherry tree.   Anyway if there is a good Viet restaurant in your neighborhood try the jackfruit salad or mo' better try the dessert of sweet ripe jackfruit in coconut milk if they have it.  You won't regret it!