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.]


  1. Indefensible? Are there any defenses in the world that are truly impregnable? The Maginot Line or Battlestar Galactica? No! England? Tell that to the Romans the Normans, the Saxons, the Danes, and the Dutch. Constantinople was for a short millenium, but that was due more to political doubledealing than strong defensive works.

  2. Let me play the devil's advocate here.

    First, that the answer to the questions "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?" is "policy", the same reason that Roman legionaries died in German forests, that French Legionairres died in the Mexican desert, or that American GIs died in Philippine jungles or in Honduran cane fields.

    You're right in that pure military considerations mean that soldiers should always have a solid reason for fighting and dying and military objectives should always have good tactical logic and sound strategic reasons for where and what they are.

    But, nations being nations and people being people, I'd argue that history and reality are full of soldiers being sent places they shouldn't have been sent and fighting and dying for places they had no business being for all sorts of reasons, many questionable, some outright ridiculous.

    I just finished reading Atkinson's WW2 trilogy. One of the main points he makes in his second volume (about the Sicilian and Italian campaigns) is how the U.S. strategic planning highers - from Marshall all the way down to Eisenhower - were really, REALLY skeptical of the benefits of the entire idea versus the costs. They pointed out that the terrain was ideal for the defender, that the logistics would be nightmarish, that the campaign would negate most or all of the Allied advantages in material and mechanization.

    But the bottom line was that 1) there was no practical way to transport all the guys in the Med back to the UK or to other theatres, and 2) there was no way they could justify having hundreds of thousands of guys and assloads of aircraft and tanks sit around doing jack shit while Soviets were dying in job lots.

    So did all those guys who died in Sicily and Italy "do any good"? Not really, not in a military sense. The "good" they did was to convince Stalin that the Western Allies were "in it with him". Every dead GI or Tommy was killed to convince a ruthless homicidal dictator that their political leaders had skin in the game.

    Is that fucked up, or what? What do you think John Q. Public and John Bull would have said if Roosevelt or Churchill had come right out and said that?

    But they didn't, and there are all those cemeteries all over Sicily and Italy full of dead guys because they didn't...

    So...yeah. In a perfect world, every polity makes logical, sane, sensible decisions based on rational debate before sending their soldiers into harm's way.

    In real life? Not so much.

  3. I don't know, Chief. I think you and/or Atkinson are being overly cynical re; the Italian campaign. Unlike the Afghanistan COPs and FOBs in the middle of no where and that haven't served any other purpose other give the Taliban some gunnery practice, the Italian campaign did force the Germans to divert divisions from the Eastern front; not only just to Italy, but also to all of S. France. Also, knocking Italy out of the war opened up the entire Med. for the allies. No small gain, that. There was indeed an apparent tactical and strategic wisdom to the IC. Cost < or + benefits? That's where there can be some debate, but there were benefits.

    What is the benefit of sitting out in some dusty stinking Ft Apache along the Pak border wondering who's going to get their blown off today by the rockets that most assuredly coming flying in, just like they yesterday and just like they will do tomorrow - or waiting to be overrun?

  4. "What is the benefit of sitting out in some dusty stinking Ft Apache along the Pak border wondering who's going to get their blown off today by the rockets that most assuredly coming flying in, just like they yesterday and just like they will do tomorrow - or waiting to be overrun?"

    And the answer is - again - "to support policy".

    You can argue that the idea of using penny-packets of foreign occupiers to try and suppress a local rebellion is foolish and I won't argue with that.

    You can argue that the tactics of these little firebases, and especially the failure to provide both overwatching fires and a go-to-hell plan that's based on actual sensible tactical practicalities is foolish and I won't argue with that, either.

    But, again, extending my argument from the first comment...these guys are sitting there and occasionally dying for the same reasons that all those guys died trying to cross the Rapido. Or battering themselves against the Winter Line, and then the Gothic Line.

    For a policy, and a policy that was controversial at the time and looks even more sketchy with the benefit of 20-20 hindsight.

    Not to let this get hijacked into a "let's refight WW2" thread, but I can't see that the gains in the Italian Campaign were worth the cost in lives. Sure, the Allies could spare those lives because they were logistically rich.

    But between the combination of good defensive terrain and Allied ineptitude (sound familiar in A-stan..?) only a relative handful of German divisions were pulled out of Russia (the Italian Army in Russia had been all but destroyed in the winter of 1943 so there was no real impact on the Soviets from the capitulation of Italy).

    The inability of the Allies to reach the ports on the northern Adriatic meant that even though the capture of Sicily and southern Italy helped clear Britain's SLOC the improvement was fairly relative; the U-boats sailing out or Trieste were still sailing in 1945.

    And knocking Italy out of the war was counterbalanced by the then-need to support the Italians as "allies", a fairly brutal logistic demand.

    So there were benefits to the Allied efforts in the Med in 1943-44, but "tactical and strategic wisdom" is stretching those benefits waaayyyyyy too far. Again, the MAIN "strategic benefit" was keeping Allied troops busy in 1943 and early '44, a time when a cross-Channel invasion just wasn't practical.

    So, arging for the Devil as I am, I'd argue that these little podunk FOBs are the strategic equivalent of ruining a battalion throwing it across the Rapido against a brutally effective defense. The loss is relatively minimal, and the "policy" is supported.

    To argue that the policy is short-sighted and based on mistaken assumptions is one thing. To insist that no such policies should ever be followed, or that somehow the U.S. public should be battering down the walls of the capitol to protest them, is to assume a public that is better informed, more logical, more activist, and more concerned about its professional soldiers than any public in U.S. history that I'm aware of. It'd be nice, but so would sex with Lucy Liu. I ain't holding my breath for either one to happen anytime soon...

  5. Chief, isn't that what I was saying in the other thread here; that it's the politicians - not the Army - that is behind these failures and dissecting them to understand them, from a mil perspective, is ultimately futile effort for that reason.

  6. War, without political objectives of any sort (be they enlightened or not), is a frightening idea.

  7. Al and Chief.
    It's stretching the point that the pwot had any real policy objectives beyond tough cowboy crap.
    OK so the troopies are policy wonks out on the Afgh borders. OK i'll bite b/c i'm a dumbass-exactly what is that policy or achieved political objectives ? Beyond getting pols re-elected in the US..
    At least the troops dying on ther Rapido knew who they were fighting and every German killed led 1 step closer to VE day. Not so on a COP fight.
    Just because ww2 was insane this does not mean that we should accept insanity today.

  8. No one,
    WE talk a lot of stuff here and i'll add to the mix although i won't refight WW2.
    The Italy campaign served 3 purposes.
    -to make Chief happy it allowed us to go Roman.
    -it was needed for Catch 22 to be written
    -and most importantly -it facilitated future opns.
    Look at the 82nd and it's blooding. This examination is true for most of the units later used in Overlord. The Italy campaigns brought us up to speed on fighting in close quarters with a determined dug in foe.
    Facilitate future ops.
    That's a biggy.

  9. No one,
    I failed to close the loop.
    What future opns were facilitated in ANY COP slap down in AFGH?

  10. jim - actually, we are burdened with fools that think that "terrorism" can be defeated militarily, and thus, the PWOT does have a policy/political objective. Whether or not our use of force can eliminate terrorism is a different issue.

    As I said, policy need not be enlightened to be policy.

  11. The Germans certainly had defensible terrain in the Italian mountains.

    I do believe though that ‘no-one’ to be correct or partly so anyway. While Italy was a meatgrinder and did not turn out to be the soft underbelly that Churchill claimed, it was important.

    The Allied invasion of Italy, and its potential threat to the Balkans and Greece, ended up tying down 55 German divisions and who knows how many Luftwaffe assets. I realize that is peanuts compared to three times that number of German divisions on the Eastern Front. But many of those German divisions facing the Red Army were so far understrength that they were more comparable to brigades or RCTs. And those 55 in Southern Europe compare well with the 60 divisions available in Western Europe. If just a small proportion of those 55 were available to Rundstedt then the Normandy landings possibly may have turned out to be Ike’s worst nightmare.

    Historians also have to consider the effectiveness of the 15th Air Force and Brit air assets operating out of Italian airfields. Their bombing of Romanian oilfields and Hungarian refineries did more damage to the Axis war effort than the so-called Mighty Eighth’s bombing in Germany itself. The 15th AF bombing of Bucharest brought Romania into the Allied camp and they did a turnabout and declared war on their ally Germany. The 15th AF bombing of Budapest and Sofia neutered the Hungarian and Bulgarian efforts on behalf of Hitler, which allowed the Red Army to focus their Schwerpunkt on Germany itself.

    Taking Italy and their Navy the Regia Marina out of the war made the Mediterranean a British lake, which allowed a huge increase in war material to the Red Army through Persia.

    And Ranger Jim is right on target with his comment that "it faciltated future ops".

    In my unmilitary mind the meatgrinder that happened in Italy was due to tactical, or operational level, incompetence by Clark and Alexander. It was compounded by jealousy between those two and their staffs. And it was also due to the Italian campaign sucking hind tit for landing craft because of Overlord and the Pacific. It was not due to a strategic miscalculation.

  12. Al,
    Isn't politics defined as the art of the possible.?
    What was possible in AFGH besides a punitive feel good campaign?

  13. As Al pointed out, policy doesn't have to be GOOD policy. My understanding is that the notion was that a combination of cash, military force, and magical sparkle ponies would produce a functioning government out of the primordial ooze that was post-Soviet Invasion Afghanistan. In support of that the Western troops would hold down the border ruffians whilst the good people in Kabul got their shit together enough to take over running the country.

    Well, we pretty much know that was a fantasy. But how do you just throw up your hands and say "Well, that sure was a huge fucking waste of lives and money!" and walk away? How many times in human history has a government, ANY government, done that?

    I'd love it if our would be the first, but I'm not counting on it.

    And I guess I'm the only one who thinks that the Italian Campaign was a sucky idea. Just glad I'm too young to have had to pay the rent on a muddy hole alongside the Liri Valley...I'd have been seriously pissed if someone explained to me that it was to facilitate future operations...

    Also, this: "'s the politicians - not the Army - that is behind these failures and dissecting them to understand them, from a mil perspective, is ultimately futile effort for that reason."

    Don't get me wrong; I was a troop for a long time and I loves me soldiers and my Army. But to pretend that the U.S. military - and especially the U.A. Army, and within the U.S. Army the SOF and COIN communities - is not ass-deep "behind these failures" is to be willfully blind to how foreign policy works in the 2013 U.S. and especially how it worked in A-stan.

    Had the military leadership come to the President, to the Congressional committee chairs, sat down, and flat-out said "What you want is un-doable by the means we have or can develop. You cannot achieve these policy objectives within the scope of the METT-T you are offering. Your options are to either vastly expand the military mission or cut your losses and get out now." the civilian government would have had no other option.

    The commanders did not because it is not in the nature of the U.S. military to contravene civilian leadership - part and parcel of the "civilian-control" mentality embedded deep in the U.S. system - but also because there is a strong strain of "can-do-ism" and unwillingness to accept that there ARE things that are un-doable by military means embedded in the U.S. armed forces.

    That's not in itself a bad thing, but it has contributed immensely to these clusterfucks in central Asia, Iraq and Afghanistan (and elsewhere...), and pretending that "It's ALL the stupid civilians' fault!" is bad for us and bad for the nation, as bad as the mindless "Support the Troops!" rah-rah bullshit.

    Support the Troops, by all means. But not to the extent of pretending that putting on tree-colored clothing makes you immune to dumb-ass policy positions...

  14. FDChief - And putting on that tree suit does not make anyone immune to dumb-ass military decisions by our esteemed generals and admirals regardless of what the policy is or was.

    As far as Italy and the Liri Valley go, how can that be more sucky than defending the indefensible Bataan Peninsula; or the USS Houston trying to defend Java for its Dutch Colonial Masters; or dying on Iwo so a few junior birdmen flying B-29s could have a bingo airfield if they ran low on fuel; ... or Malmedy?

    I am probably biased on the subject of Italy. I got that from my father who was in the Liri Valley. He was WIA trying to bridge the Rapido. He and his reunion buddies were never bitter about being in Italy - other than mocking what they called the Hollywood Soldiers of Normandy, some of whom spent a year or more in Piccadilly and Soho whorehouses before their big day. Meanwhile the 5th Army in Italy was shorted of war material: not only landing craft, but also bridging and other engineer equipment, and ammunition.

    To his dying day he never forgave Generals Clark and Keyes. Commando Clark is the term I remember him using when referring to Clark, or often the Spitshine Commando. His main bitch was why the crossing was not attempted just a few miles upriver where it was fordable and easier to bridge. And he described the crossings as piecemeal because of lack of boats and bridging.

  15. PS - the Piccadilly and Soho comment was his, not mine.

  16. mike: I won't argue that a lot of the problems in the Italian Theatre were because Clark and Alexander (his 8th Army counterpart) screwed the tactical pooch. Between the two of them (and some of their critical subordinates) it's hard to find an opportunity they took to miss an opportunity.'s also hard to see how the campaign could have worked out many other ways. The spine of Italy is a stone-cold bitch for a mechanized army to fight through. IT was one thing for Hannibal and Napoleon to march and fight in it, with their tiny armies and simple logistics. But the U.S. highers who foresaw the problems were right; it WAS a tactical and logistical nightmare and ended up killing and tying up a lot of guys who didn't have to be there.

    For all that there were the benefits mentioned here; combat experience with airborne and seaborne operations, air access to the Reich, increased security of the Med SLOC...the bottom line on the campaign is that the main reason it was fought was because there just wasn't anywhere else to go in 1943, Stalin had to be placated, and it seemed like a reasonable policy choice at the time.

    And I'll argue that something like the same case could be made for Afghanistan 2002-2010ish; the original punitive expedition would be futile if the Talibs came right back and re-established the AQ connection, COIN theory predicted that these small outposts could "pacify" the locals assuming the Kabul government got its shit together, etc. etc... I'll go all in on the whole "this was a ridiculous and impractical, based-on-wishful-thinking-and-magical-sparkle-ponies policy" argument, but it WAS a policy; it's not like a bunch of DoD planners sat down and said "Hell, let's just scatter some infantry platoons all over the Hindu Kush and see what happens!"

    Anyway, it's kind of silly for us to be wrangling over this; the FOBs are closing, the entire combat part of the ISAF mission is due to end next year. As always with Western incursions into Afghanistan it will have proved to be a waste of blood and treasure.

    I think the worst aspect is that I find it unlikely that anyone will LEARN from this. The U.S. is entirely likely to do this again, and soon; there is nobody - nobody who will get a hearing - who is willing to stand up and ask "WTF?"

  17. New Guinea terrain was just as bad as Italy, but MacArthur was smart enough to do amphibious end-arounds, even though he always whined that he was being shorted of Landing Craft. Clark and Alexander had the same opportunities but they screwed it up at the Salerno and Anzio 'BitchHeads'. Both Italy with its long coastline on both sides should have been indefensible. Credit goes to Kesselring and blame to Clark and Alexander that it wasn't.

    PS - Alexander was Clark's boss as the Commander of Allied Armies in Italy He was not CG of Eighth Army. That was Leese.

    I am in agreement with your comments on Afghanistan.

  18. I know for a fact that the Kamdesh bases were slatted for closure much earlier than October 2009. That the problems that were exposed in the assault there were not unknown.

    The chain of command submitted plans to close the bases and they got rejected by McChrystal himself. I personally blame that fucker. Everyone of his subordinates asked him for permission to withdraw from the base and he said no so that the election could look better (yeah, policy!). And I say look, because no one voted in Kamdesh. The brigade commander prior to my unit's deployment there mentioned to a commander in Kamdesh that he expected the man to get nothing accomplished.

    Just let that sink in. Asking soldiers to go to one of the most active fronts in the war and telling him, try not to die. We expect nothing more from you than that.

    We all knew this shit would end poorly. But defending the indefensible is what soldiers are called to do. It's just really really shitty to do it for no fucking reason other than continuity and because someone's not smart enough or cares enough to move you until something bad happens.

    PF Khans

  19. PFK,
    One of the things that we learn in the Army is to take calculated risks which could also suffice as a definition of soldiering.
    But why do we do so.?
    When soldiering devolves to running up and down the same roads daily doing the same thing then something is wrong. The risk is known and the results disastrous with no corresponding benefit to the entire world.The same is true of defending COPs for no palpable reason.
    Something smells seriously wrong in our military thinking.
    Neither good nor poor policy can justify meaningless death.Words are not reality.
    My question=how do soldiers like you over come such strange experiences?
    How does this affect views of reality and unreality?

  20. Jim,

    Been thinking about this one off and on since I got back. In the moment all I can remember was being immensely frustrated. Although I do distinctly remember realizing a couple years after being home that we were all completely nuts and that we behaved in a way that was more in line with what I'd have expected from a bunch of guys at a loony bin.


    The only person crazier than a crazy man in a crazy situation is a sane man in a crazy situation.

    PF Khans

  21. PFK,
    In MANS SEARCH FOR MEANING by Victor Frankel ,a holocaust survivor and leading psychoanalyst espouses that a abnormal reaction to a abnormal situation is NORMAL behavior.
    This is an alluring theory EXCEPT this legitimizes the PWOT,
    The entire effort was an abnormal reaction and HARDLY normal in any respect. The monkeys were running the zoo.
    All i can say is a line from Pagan Babies by Elmore Leonard.
    When life and sanity collide we can call this ptsd.

  22. One would have to travel back to 2001 to see the start of the elimination of an entire generation of senior officers who would speak truthfully to their political bosses. Secy Rumsnamara did not want them on his watch. In 2002, Army Times commented on the unusually high number of flag officers who chose to retire mid-term in an appointed billet (3 and 4 stars), or before their 5 year tenure in grade was completed (1 and 2 stars). I had some former colleagues who were in this group, and they discretely shared that there was no place in the Rumsnamara DOD for honest brokers. Several honest brokers who didn't depart voluntarily were forced out, and in the case of one 3 star I knew well, via false charges of misbehavior, and the resulting year the charges were "investigated". Once exonerated, there was no billet for him to return to. And, there was the well known case of Gen Shinseki being marginalized the last year of his tour for speaking the truth about troop strength requirements for the Iraq fiasco.

    Rummy requested legislation on two separate occasions to make all flag officers subject to SecDef selection and service at SecDef will. He explicitly stated on several occasions that no administration should have to inherit the generals, no less the Joint Chiefs from another administration.

    In short, it's not simply a case of a "can do" attitude, but basic survival requiring a "Yes Sir, Yes, Sir, Three Bags Full" attitude for 6 long and torturous years. If one doesn't think this environment had a profound impact of the senior leadership of the military, then you are smoking the wrong stuff.

  23. I would add one other piece of food for thought. One of the wisest bit of military leadership ethos I ever heard came from a boating buddy, the late Rear Admiral Jack Christiansen. He said (and I paraphrase):

    It's one skill set to charge into battle. It's another skill set to lead troops into battle. However, experience in both of these still does not necessarily grant the wisdom to know when and if it is prudent to SEND troops into battle.