Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Form, Form, Riflemen, Form!

"...Quick-footed, quick-minded and, as far as possible, light-hearted." Sir A.P. Wavell, his attributes for the ideal infantry rifleman.

The history of warfare has been marked by many changes in the armament and the types of troops that appear on the battlefield. Armies have varied from masses of similarly armed warriors to armies in which the soldiers carried numerous different weapons suited to their specific roles – some carrying no weapons at all.

During the 20th and into the 21st Century, an increasing number of soldiers in an army did not in fact have combat as their principle mission. This “tail” as it came to be known consisted of the numerous specialists ranging from aviation mechanics to x-ray technicians. Their roles were to provide the essential services that enabled the combat arms soldiers to concentrate on their primary mission of combat.

Since antiquity this tail has been frequently targeted by an attacker in the belief, often justified, that these specialists represented a vulnerable point and they would not fight as well – if at all – as the soldiers on the fighting line. Ramses II had such a problem at Kadesh when the Hittites were able to attack a portion of his army in its camp before the rest of the Egyptian army came up. Shakespeare immortalized such a moment in his historical play “Henry V” when the Welsh Captain Fluellen rails against the French slaughter of the English camp during the battle of Agincourt,

“Kill the boys and the luggage! 'tis expressly
against the law of arms: 'tis as arrant a piece of
knavery, mark you now, as can be offer't; in your
conscience, now, is it not?”

The 1949 film "Battleground" about the 327th Glider Infantry Regiment in Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge reflected how many of the rear echelon personnel ended up in the front lines in that battle. As the clerks, cooks, and bottle washers are marching out to the front lines, one of the clerks admits his ignorance of the M-1 Garand rifle, the standard infantry weapon. The 327th's veteran soldier, Hansan, begins: "This is an M-1, semi-automatic, high velocity."..when the clerk interrupts and says, "Look, you're not selling it to me, you're showing me how to fire it."

With the increased mobility and resulting rapid pace of warfare, the tail became a primary target rather than one of opportunity. During World War II, General George Patton told his tank crews and commanders, “The true objective of armor is enemy infantry and artillery; and above all else, his supply installations and command-centers.” He further urged them, “Cut through and end up in his rear. Then do something, goddam it, do something! Throw a fit! Burn a town! Goddam do something! You’re back there with the finance corps and the quartermaster. Those people are not used to cordite.” He was not the only commander and his was not the only army to adopt this concept.

In Vietnam and later in Iraq and Afghanistan, it became apparent that on a modern battlefield there are no longer neat front lines. Anyone wearing a uniform regardless of principle duty can find themselves suddenly engaged in combat. The U.S. Marine Corps has renewed its longstanding emphasis that every Marine is a rifleman. Ultimately, everyone in uniform at foundation – should be a rifleman, an infantryman regardless of their assigned duties. So why am I belaboring what should be a pretty well known point? Because the message coming out of these facts is that every single person in uniform needs to master their personal weapon and be prepared to rejoin the infantry at any moment.