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We contine a multipart series on training for war by retired Army lieutenant colonel Tom Kratman, creator of the popular Carrera military science fiction series, with latest entry Come and Take Them. Does it seem as if the United States land armed forces have lately been training to be cadres of world policemen and social workers rather than soldiers prepared to win a war? Here Kratman distills lessons from years as a commanding officer in the U.S. Army, where he retired a colonel. Kratman’s argument: an army is for winning wars. And to win wars, you have to train men (and some women) to be warriors.


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Training for War, Part II

by Tom Kratman


Axiom Seven: “Training is everything and everything is training.”

That’s an old saying. It’s a true saying, too. There is training value, though not always positive value, in everything we do, every day. And training is all we have to work with. The problem is that people sometimes take it to mean that everything is possible with training, that we have an infinite ability to make infinite silk purses out of any number of sow’s ears. Sadly, it’s just not true, no matter how much we might like to, or self-congratulate about having done so, and no matter how much certain quarters may envy the military’s ability to mold people into any given form. Here’s why:


Axiom Eight: All the really important training the soldier either gets more or less with mother’s milk or he is most unlikely ever to get it.

I often criticize liberalism and leftism for their fixation (often denied, in an attempt at intellectual sleight of hand) on the presumption of easy, reliable, certain malleability and perfectibility of man1. I suspect that’s the big reason for the fascination they often show with the military. To them it must seem that by making people willing to kill, which surely must be unnatural, and making them willing to die, which surely is still less natural, the military is demonstrating a skill at changing, forming, and reforming people the left can only admire, and desire to control.2

The problem is that that doesn’t really happen by anything we can deliberately do. We can’t change anyone profoundly. We can sometimes maybe change a little around the margins. We can occasionally get someone to reveal something – not always something good, either – that was already inside them that they didn’t know about.

It’s easiest to see this when you go to a military course with foreigners. No matter how good the training, they leave as almost exactly what they came to the course as, with maybe a plus up in a few skills. Some are great; they arrived great. Most are well-connected military trash when they leave, just the same as they were when they arrived.

I tend to be most interested in military problems, be they tactical, operational, strategic, administrative, logistical…you get the idea; if you want my attention, make the problem a military one. That’s one of the reasons why I object so strongly to the left’s conflation of racism and cultural bigotry or cultural discrimination, or even objective cultural analysis. It’s even worse with the more recent conflation of those with sexism or bigotry against gays.

Example; Arab armies, with only a few exceptions – exceptional because of a peculiar make up in those few cases – stink. I mean they just suck. They’re awful. Why the hell do you suppose half trained Israeli citizen soldier militia have routinely beat them like they owned them for decades? It’s because they’re militarily rotten. And they’re militarily rotten because of the outlooks, values, and beliefs they acquired as young boys, as mentioned, more or less with mother’s milk.

Now one might – and surely someone will – take the preceding paragraph as racist. And the problem with that is it’s not only no solution, the claim deflects even the possibility of a solution. “Their culture makes it impossible to trust anyone not a blood relation.” “Racism!” “They’ve got a tendency to leave maintenance up to God.” “Racism!” “Their leaders routinely extort money from the rank and file because said rank and file are not blood relations.” RRRaaaccciiisssmmm!!!”


Vignette Two: Me and my brother against my cousin; me, my brother, and my cousin against the stranger.

Wadi Natrun, Egypt, Summer, 1985

Lemme tell ya a story, true story as it happens.

Some twenty-eight years ago, during Bright Star 85, the Egyptian Army – clearly one of the better Arab armies – set up some tents for us not around Wadi Natrun, generally northwest of Cairo. The Egyptian lieutenant in charge of the detail looked at the Americans, looked at the tents (which were, by the way, better than ours), looked at the Americans...

Plainly he was thinking that an American's signature on a hand receipt would do him no good if one of those tents grew legs. He put his platoon in formation and announced, "I need three guards".

Every man reached into his back pocket, pulled out a wallet and began peeling off notes. The three who came up with the smallest bribes were picked to guard the tents. These three then proceeded to hold hands (this doesn’t imply gay in Arab cultures, though there is a homoerotic tendency there) and squat by the side of the road, crying like babies. And it is understandable that they cried because for the next four days they got no food or water except what our men gave them out of pity. Their officer didn't care; they weren’t blood, after all.

See, the Arabs are what the sociologists like to call, "amoral familists." This means that they are usually incapable of forming bonds of love and loyalty with anyone not a blood relation. Even there, degree of blood relation determines where loyalty legitimately lies. The saying in the area is, as written above, "Me and my brother against my cousin; me, my brother and my cousin against the world." This not only allows one to extort baksheesh from non-relations, but clouds every military unit that is not blood/clan based.

Picture the poor Arab private. He knows no one in his unit gives a shit about him; after all, he doesn't give a shit about any of them, either. They're not family. What happens when that private is placed in the loneliest position in the world, the modern battlefield? He runs at the first sign things are going badly. (He'll be fine as long as they are going well, though. Note: things rarely go well.)

Add in the fantasy mindset. Don't forget "Insh'allah", (which is like "mañana," but without the sense of urgency) which makes it somewhat impious to train really well since it is all the will of God anyway. Add in a set of social values that despise and loathe doing physical labor.

Militarily, they've got nothing going for them, as long as they insist on following western models of non-blood based military organization. However, if one can escape from the “Raaccciiisssmmm!!!” meme, and think about the problem objectively, there is a way to make better Arab units. This is to base them around blood: Their families, clans and tribes.

There are still at least two problems with this: The clans tend to be internally hierarchical. This means that the military chain of command may not be the real chain of command as in when the battalion commander's driver is his uncle, hence senior in his clan. Trust me, this happens.

These sorts of units – think the Saudi National Guard or the Jordanian Arab Legion (meaner than weasel crap, the both of them, tough, hard as nails, and brave) – have anything from a fair amount to an extraordinarily high degree of trust in and loyalty for each other. They can and will fight and fight hard. The problem is that they have a very finite tolerance for casualties because at some point those losses endanger the standing, power and security of the clan. Then they'll break off the fight, too. Even then, though, they won't usually simply drop their weapons and run, but will retire in good order.

But for the more mundane Arab units, are they rotten because they’re mentally genetically inferior? No; they’re about as bright as anyone, despite a penchant for first cousin marriage in many places. Is it because they’re natural cowards? Oh, puhleeze! Sorry, but no; cowards don’t don and use explosive suicide vests or fly airplanes into buildings or drive bomb trucks into barracks. If anything, they may be gutsier than the human norm. Is it because of all the wonderful high tech weapons the Jews get from America? No, myths aside, the half trained Israelis’ citizen militia were stomping the largely professional, western trained and equipped Arabs when the Jews had almost nothing beyond home-made armored cars, rifles, and a few machine guns, while the Arabs had the best the west was producing at the time. No, the Arab problem is cultural, assimilated so early that they really cannot be trained out of it. That said, some are off key notes in their own cultural symphony; I’ve met a handful, here and there. With these, something can sometimes be done, if they can be selected out from the ruck and muck. Usually, though, these guys are not well connected, which counts there, and so are selected against.

Conversely, we – military leaders – sometimes take credit for things we have had little or nothing to do with.


Vignette Three: Though I be the lone survivor

Fort Stewart, Georgia, April, 1986.

The problem, an attack on an enemy strongpoint, was a toughie. First, there was an anti-tank ditch to get the tracks though. Then were was a broad and deep low density minefield. The defenders had out extensive barbed wire obstacles, tactical, supplementary, and protective.3 On the plus side, at least the weather was nice, with a pleasant breeze wafting somewhat unevenly from the south.

There were gaps in the tactical and supplementary wire, but the protective wire was solid. That is to say, it was solid except that at five or so spots the triple standard concertina wire was assembled such that it was held together with smooth poles assembled from the camouflage and radar scattering screens’ support systems. This was so that a gap could be created quickly by the evaluators, almost as quickly as it could be with a Bangalore torpedo, if the attacking platoons managed to insert and “detonate” their simulated Bangalore torpedoes. Blow the simulator; pull the poles out; the wire would separate leaving a gap. (Note: this technique would not work with Soviet concertina, which is under compression and fills gaps. Then again, neither do Balganlores work for beans against Soviet type concertina.)

The “Bangalores,” in this case, were more pole sections, though almost filled with concrete to simulate something like the weight of a real Bangalore while allowing Bangalore-like assembly, and with a grenade simulator taped to the friendly side for reasonably realistic “signature.” (This was consistent with a) Range Control’s anal retentiveness about setting off large explosions away from the ranges and, it must be admitted, b) not getting anybody killed.)

Once through the final wire, the platoon’s problems were just beginning. Not only was there a trench system, with solid bunkers, defended by a reinforced squad, but there were booby traps., some of which shot flames a few feet, grenade simulators were flying, wads of barbed wire were tucked into cut outs in the sides of the trenches so they could be released to block the trench, and people were shooting at each other with blanks at a range that would have given the safety folks the vapors.

The first platoon went through with no real problem, some burns, some cuts, some bruises, and a couple of only just averted fistfights. Same with second. The last platoon, however, had a visit from the dangling dong of destiny (hat tip, Joel Rosenberg, RIP).

There they were, the smoke screen from a couple of smoke pots covering them, the Bangalore set off, the retaining pole pulled out, and the damned concertina was tangled. One man couldn’t get it apart. Two couldn’t. Eventually everybody is clustered pulling at the wire, barring only the crews of the M113s and a couple of guys, PFC Searles and PV2 Benson, out on flank security. And then the wind shifted, the smoke lifted, and there was a machine gun facing right at the breach.

Ratatatatat! Whinewhinewhinewhinewhine from the MILES4. Everyone –except the track crews, Searles, and Benson – is hit. “This exercise is over,” mutters Captain Hamilton; “time for a redo. NH%$&BFTE!!!”

Hamilton, however, is wrong, dreadfully wrong. From off on the flanks, Searles and Benson, neither of them quite out of his teens, both crawl inward to where the rest of the platoon’s dismount squads, plus the platoon leader and platoon sergeant, are laying there, silently. The wind shifts back, laying the smoke screen that shouldn’t have shifted in the first place.

As senior man among the survivors on the ground, Searles takes charge. The two privates then proceed to loot the bodies for ammunition, to include several dozen grenade simulators. They wrench the wire apart, then rush through for the friendly side of the smoke screen. The pair then pass through the smoke on the bellies, before beginning to leapfrog – taking turns with suppressive fire – to the trench system. There, they grenade their way in, and proceed to clear it bay by bay, even though outnumbered six to one. Neither the OPFOR’s fire5, nor the booby traps, nor even the trench blocks slow them more than incrementally.

In the end, is it Hamilton’s or the Army’s training program that caused or allowed this? No, or, at least, not exactly. Yes, their technical and tactical skill came from their training. And apparently nothing in their training had destroyed their individual initiative. (One might be surprised at how often military training does just that.) Those, clearly, were good and commendable things, and Hamilton was right to be pleased with the boys’ performance. But there was something else going on, something that no military training can give.

Those two boys grew up with their parents driving determination into them. They grew up with people – teachers, religious leaders, Mr. Martin down the street who lost a leg in Korea – telling them what’s right and wrong. Everything on that list of military leadership attributes that could be and was demonstrated on the exercise – courage, decisiveness, dependability, endurance, enthusiasm, initiative – those kids got from Mom and a host of others back home.


Vignette Four: “Whoever is careless with the truth in small matters cannot be trusted with important matters.” ― Albert Einstein

Hamilton, then a captain, was new in command. And, as the pulsating prong of perversity (again, hat tip, Joel Rosenberg, RIP) would have it, the Annual General Inspection was coming…yes, the dread IG…and in about three days. There were some problems, too. One of those involved a fairly hefty amount of excess property on hand but not accounted for. He knew it was there, too, but wasn’t too worried about it since he wasn’t missing anything. He’d have the supply sergeant pick it up gradually, over the next couple of months.

Less easy to deal with was the state of the orderly room, the company headquarters. The things – there was a row of five of them in a single building, divided by brick – had been subdivided sometime in the past into supply rooms, NBC rooms, various offices, and the arms rooms. They were due to be refurbished soon and it was forbidden to spend any money on them, not so much as a can of paint, because of that.

Unfortunately, all those dividers were in pretty bad shape. I’m talking holes in the walls, rips, tears…just a mess.

So Hamilton is walking from his office to the loading dock in back and sees the company armorer (who also took care of repair and utilities) taping Army posters over the holes, to give a nice impression to the IG. He stops and watches the armorer work at it for a while.

The problem is that the armorer isn’t fixing a deficiency; he’s covering one up. And there Hamilton made such a big deal in his opening talk with the troops about personal integrity, honesty, courage.

“Harrington,” asked Hamilton of the armorer, “is it true that we can’t fix these walls because the whole thing’s supposed to get refurbished?”

“Yessir.”

“And is it also true that we’ve requested they be repaired, more than once.”

“Yes, sir, and they always tell us to pound sand. I’ve got the work order numbers to prove it, too.”

“I see…here’s what I want; I want you to put a three by five card up next to each of those posters, detailing the damage they’re covering and giving the work order number where we’ve requested repair and why the work order was refused.”

“Siiirrr…???”

“You don’t understand?”

“No, sir.”

“Okay, it’s like this. To hell with the IG. But damage invites more damage. The appearance of worthlessness and ruin suggests nobody cares. Nice things, however, that are undamaged, get taken care of. It’s very human. That’s what’s behind the Montessori school idea, actually.

“But covering up can become a habit. Bad precedent can be an awful thing. So I want you to cover the damage, for the sake of averting any more damage, but I want to admit what we’re doing, for the sake of not doing damage to our – the whole company’s – integrity.”

Fortunately, the IG took it in the spirit in which it was done.

That was a pretty direct approach to something. But there are also indirect approaches.


Vignette Five: “Disciplined in the school of hard campaigning…”

Fort Sherman, Canal Zone, 1977

Dressed in black dyed jungle fatigues, Sergeant Hamilton had a squad out busily portraying communist guerillas for a battalion of the 82d Airborne, going through the jungle school. The 82d was not having a particularly happy time of it, either, whether from Hamilton’s squad or from any of the other squads.

One of the nightly events, for Hamilton’s crew, is to walk through ambushes, four a night. He does that, for sixteen renditions. Every one of them but one stinks. Hell, it’s preposterous; he can usually hear them in the ambush position, slapping at bugs or just fidgeting. He can smell the insect repellent. Moreover, their noise is disturbing the wildlife, which is further warning to Hamilton’s squad of OPFOR.

But there was one ambush that was just perfect. The only way he knows they’re there at all is because it’s one of the standard ambush positions. They are utterly silent. The animals don’t even notice them. And when they spring the ambush? It is a glorious dance of precision and perfection. It is violence personified.

All Hamilton and his men can say is, “Wow! That was great!” But they don’t know why this one was different.

“The Old Guard6,” says the lane walker from the Jungle Operation Training Center, wonderingly. “That was a platoon from the Old Guard that tagged along with the 82d.”

Hamilton: “You’re joking, right?”

“No,” says the lane walker. “I’m as shocked as you are. I guess all that drill and ceremonies, and standing at attention in the cold, must build some awesome discipline. I was right there with them while the bugs lunched them. You know what the insect life is like out here, but never a twitch. And they never snivel.”

The upshot of which is that training – especially training about a matter of character, as discipline is – can sometimes cross over from one area to another.


1 See, for example, Lenin’s New Soviet Man, the initial draft of the SDS’s Port Huron Statement, the liberal penchant to go into education, their faith – not universal but widespread – in counseling and psychonalaysis. For a good book on the subject, and why they’re wrong, see Stephen Pinker’s The Blank Slate.

2 This has been going on for centuries. See, eg, the Babeauvists in revolutionary France.

3 From FM 3-21.8, The Infantry Rifle Platoon and Squad

Protective Wire

8-58. Protective wire may be a complex obstacle providing all-round protection of a platoon perimeter, or it may be a simple wire obstacle on the likely dismounted avenue of approach toward a squad position (Figure 8-6). Command-detonated M18 Claymore mines may be integrated into the protective wire or used separately.

Tactical Wire

8-59. Tactical wire is positioned to increase the effectiveness of the platoon's direct fires. It is usually positioned along the friendly side of a machine gun FPL. Tactical minefields may also be integrated into these wire obstacles or be employed separately.

Supplementary Wire

8-60. Supplementary wire obstacles are employed to break up the line of tactical wire to prevent the enemy from locating platoon weapons (particularly CCMS and machine guns) by following the tactical wire.

4 Multiple Integrated Laser Engagement System. For any non-military readers, thin: A system of laser tag on steroids.

5 Opposing Force

6 The Old Guard, the Third Infantry Regiment, is the Army’s ceremonial organization in the Washington DC area.



Copyright © 2013 by Tom Kratman


This series continues with “Training Part for War, Part Three.” Tom Kratman is a retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel and the author of many science fiction and military adventure novels including Carrera series entry Come and Take Them.