Thirty years ago this month, I first went to the field with the United States Marine Corps. I was a new staffer for Senator Robert Taft, Jr., of Ohio, and the Marines had invited me down for the “Company War” at The Basic School at Quantico, Virginia. Early one frosty November morning, I found myself standing in the commander’s hatch of an M-48 tank moving about two miles per hour with the infantry walking alongside, just as in 1917.
When we reached the “objective,” which was an enemy machine gun nest, the tank stopped while the infantry formed a line two men deep and walked into the machine gun. I turned to the Marine major who was my escort and asked, “Where are Frederick the Great and the band?” It was obvious that what I was seeing was not modern war.
Sadly, the last time I went to the field with TBS a couple years ago, little had changed. I again watched the lieutenants hurl themselves against enemy machine guns. When the attack had concluded, I turned to them and said, “You know you are all dead, don’t you?” One of the lieutenants replied, “We know that, but what else can you do?”
There are answers to that question, in the form of the “post-machine gun tactics” developed during and after World War I by a number of foreign armies. Those tactics are now readily available to Marine lieutenants and everyone else, through three superb books written by a former Marine Corps gunnery sergeant, H. John Poole.
John Poole’s first book, The Last Hundred Yards, came out in 1997 and immediately acquired almost cult status with Marine NCOs. As Bruce Gudmundsson, the author of Stormtroop Tactics, said, it represented at least a half-century’s advance over official Marine Corps (and U.S. Army) tactics. Of critical importance, it also filled a gap left by writings such as Gudmundsson’s book and my own Maneuver Warfare Handbook by looking in great detail at the level where tactics and techniques come together, the world of the fire team, squad and platoon. It opened a whole new world to corporals, sergeants and staff NCOs by focusing on that toughest of battlefield problems, covering the last hundred yards to the enemy. It showed them that you do not have to (and never should) throw your men into enemy machine guns.
In August 2001, Gunny Poole published another book with a different take on the same problem: Phantom Soldier: The Enemy’s Answer to U.S. Firepower. Here, Poole focused on the Asian way of war, where tactics usually follow the indirect approach. Avoiding the frontal jousting contests beloved by Western armies, Eastern militaries usually use stealth, subtlety and fieldcraft to evade Western firepower and take their enemies from behind, in a manner and at a time the enemy least expects. When the U.S. invaded Afghanistan, Phantom Soldier suddenly became the hottest book in the Pentagon – which did not prevent the failure of Operation Anaconda, where al Qaeda fought exactly as Poole said an Eastern force would fight.
John Poole’s newest book has just come out. Titled The Tiger’s Way: A U.S. Private’s Best Chance for Survival, it looks at Asian, Russian and German small-unit tactics to draw the best from each. Most importantly, Poole uses his new book to redefine “the basics,” that mantra of bad infantry instructors who use the term to justify their “Hey-diddle-diddle, straight-up-the-middle” approach that measures success in own casualties. Gunny Poole’s new basics, each of which gets its own chapter, are microterrain appreciation, harnessing the senses, night familiarity (which is far more than night vision devices), nondetectable movement, guarded communication, discreet force at close range (of prime importance in Iraq, where the U.S. Army’s indiscreet use of firepower is daily generating more enemies), combat deception and one-on-one tactical decision making, which encourages thinking and initiative down through the most junior ranks.
It is of course inexcusable that most of the schools American privates go through still teach pre-machine gun tactics. If the Pentagon thought about war, that would be one of the first things it would change. But so long as the Pentagon thinks only about programs and money, American soldiers and Marines will need to discover post-machine gun tactics on their own. Gunny Poole’s books offer them a readily available way to do so. My advice to our junior infantry leaders is, get these books and read them now if you want to keep your men alive.
WILLIAM S. LIND’s On War column appears weekly in CounterPunch.