The Human Condition:

Warriors vs. Soldiers – June 17, 2012

Video games—at least of the shoot-’em-up variety1—teach young people some excellent martial skills: eye-hand coordination, quickness in identifying friend from foe, and some theoretical familiarity with the capabilities and ranges of light and heavy weapons. That will make them excellent warriors, but those skills do not and cannot make them soldiers.

Warrior is how the old Norse berserkers fought: pick up an ax, go a little crazy, start chopping, don’t stop until physical damage or unconsciousness ends your spree. It’s how the Germans fought along the Rhine in the first century. Big on valor and individual initiative, hazy on coordination and teamwork, almost impossible to withdraw once the hacking begins. Victory or death.

Most battles were fought in ancient times along the lines of bringing a horde of skilled fighters together at a particular place and time—which was pretty good coordination for nations of shepherds—and letting them fight it out in individual bouts along a more or less narrow front. This worked until the Greek hoplites came up with something better: forming a line of overlapping shields, advancing pace by pace, protecting yourself and the man to your left from the enemy’s haphazard thrusts, coordinating your own spear thrusts to create mechanical advantage. With this system of coordinated fighting, shields got bigger and spears got longer. The Greek phalanx required months or years of training to manipulate, took time to assemble on the field, and was fiendishly difficult to move around corners. But once it got going, the barbarian warriors who faced it could not stand. The Greek phalanx conquered the Peloponnesus, then Macedonia, and then Asia to the Indus.

The Romans did the phalanx one better by breaking it into more maneuverable pieces. These smaller groups of maniples and cohorts possessed different skill levels, armor, and tasks. Swift velites dashed in to confound, trip up, and pin the enemy. Then they stepped back in orderly fashion to let the sturdy and disciplined principes move in and engage the front lines. When they had worn down both the enemy and themselves, they retreated so that the hardy and heavily armed triarii could advance and mop up the field. Each group was launched at an adversary in a particular order, did its work, and retreated in good order so that the next units could advance and complete the task. Roman soldiers were not expected to die in the service of their country. They were expected to be patient and brave, obey commands, do their jobs, serve their twenty years, and retire honorably on the lands their fighting had won. Even the disciplined soldiers of the phalanx who faced the Roman “mowing machine” could not stand against it. With superb organization and coordination, the Romans conquered the Greeks and the known world.

That sort of coordinated fighting—steady soldiers doing their jobs, advancing shoulder-to-shoulder in step, firing on command, holding the line—survived until the age of the high-explosive shell and the machine gun. Medieval knights, British and French regulars, Union and Confederate brigades, they all perfected the mass charge, moving in measured cadence to overwhelm a less well organized enemy.

But even the machine gun and the explosive shell did not bring back the warrior class. The modern battlefield is an outgrowth of the terrible debacle that was World War I, where men tried to do mass charges against devastating weapons and were slowly driven underground, into trenches and bunkers. They still tried to charge out of the trenches—“over the top”—and died for their effort. The power of the machine gun and high-explosives was a shock to everybody: if the enemy could see you and shoot at you, you died.

In World War II, new tactics developed for the “invisible battlefield.” Rather than forming long lines, marching in step, and firing on command, the successful platoon and company disappeared behind cover. Lead elements took a position, set up their automatic weapons and mortars, and performed “overwatch” on the enemy—that is, they remained hidden and fired to encourage the enemy to stay down behind cover or in their foxholes. Follow-up elements advanced in the lull while the enemy was kissing the dirt, then these elements would find cover for themselves, set up overwatch, and clear the field for rear elements to move up. Anyone who has seen a police SWAT team advance down the street or take a building understands the principle: unit one provides covering fire; unit two advances, takes cover, provides covering fire; unit one advances … moving inexorably forward. The bullets are flying only when everyone has their head down.

In the latest wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the field of battle is more often a village or town than an open field somewhere. The “invisible battlefield” remains the surest tactic for a soldier to do his job, stay alive, and go home at the end of tour.

This sort of fighting requires planning and coordination, cooperation and teamwork, communication about group objectives, and a shared sense of pacing. It’s a different kind of teamwork from the fighting line. It requires more initiative and awareness from the individual soldier, who must identify and take potential points of concealment, spot enemy locations and points of fire, then offer intelligent covering fire. It’s more teamwork rather than less, and no place for the individual heroics of the barbarian warrior.

Add to this basic coordination of movement and application of force the new technologies available to the modern soldier: rapid-fire rifles, light machine guns, grenade launchers, laser sighting technologies, surveillance drones, instant person-to-person and hierarchical, command-level communications, coordination with aerial and armored units. The flexibility of the individual unit and its coordination with other units spans the battlefield and sometimes the whole theater of operations.

In this environment, the individual soldier’s training with his—and now likely to include her—gear and its underlying technology, his sense of tactics and teamwork, his understanding of the mission and its underlying strategy make that soldier a more valuable fighting unit.

Consider just firepower alone. The average soldier of the Napoleonic era—early 1800s—carried a smooth-bore, muzzle loading musket. The soldier manually assembled the charge of powder, patch, and ball driven home by a ramrod. It fired either with a flint and striker, which had to be primed separately, or with a percussion cap containing fulminate of mercury, which had to be fitted to a nipple at the trigger end of the barrel. A skilled soldier in practice on the firing range might get off four or five rounds per minute with accuracy at perhaps 100 to 150 yards. Under the stress of battle, that would drop to two or three rounds per minute and accuracy out to about 80 yards.

Fifty years later, with the American Civil War, rifles were becoming more common. Rifles have spiraling “lands and grooves” inside the barrel that spin the bullet and increase its long-range accuracy. But pushing the bullet down the length of the barrel from the muzzle end against the pressure of that spiral and its closer tolerances increased the reload time. The Civil war was also beginning to see the introduction of breech-loading rifles and even some repeating rifles with manufactured bullets that put the primer, powder charge, and projectile all into a brass casing.

In either era, artillerymen and grenadiers—men trained to throw bombs, which were essentially iron casings filled with black powder and ignited by a lit fuse—were specialists who did not march in line with the musketeers and riflemen.

Eighty years later, in World War II, the M1 Garand was the soldier’s weapon: a clip-fed, gas-operated, semi-automatic rifle in which the exploding gases from firing one cartridge operate a mechanism to eject its brass shell and bring the next cartridge into the firing chamber. It could fire eight rounds as fast as you could pull the trigger and had an effective range of about 400 yards. The soldier was also equipped with fragmentation grenades that ignited by pulling a pin and releasing a flipper handle, with a range of about as far as you can throw a rock.

Twenty years after that, the U.S. soldier was equipped with the M16, which could be fired fully automatic with a cycle time of about 700 rounds per minute and a range of 600 yards. Of course, the clip only held five cartridges, so the soldier selecting full automatic ran himself out of ammunition in a fraction of a second. Later models were limited to three-round bursts.

Modern weaponry includes light-weight machine guns and small grenade launchers that give a rifleman the capability of a short-range mortar, and—coming soon to a theater of war near you—“smart” bullets that can be sighted on a target and programmed to explode a certain distance from the muzzle according to the number of revolutions the bullet makes in flight. You no longer have to be able to see the enemy to hit him and cause severe damage.

A single modern soldier has the firepower of a World War II squad and—with the right assortment of weapons and a little elbow room—a platoon of Civil War soldiers and perhaps a company of Napoleon’s Imperial Guard.

What does this kind or capability and coordination imply? First, the term “cannon fodder” becomes a total misnomer. Soldiers are no longer expendable, replaceable units who are expected to walk into certain death. The idea of drafting young men for mass charges as part of large armies is absolutely antique. The last thing you want in the modern army is a petulant, resentful conscriptee whom you have to drill into performing rote actions without thinking and on command. Instead, you want tech-savvy, team-oriented specialists. You really don’t want them to “die for their country” (although they’re prepared to) but make the other fellow die for his.2 In that respect, almost all soldiers are modeling their training and tactics on the elite Delta Force and SEAL teams. Those are the soldiers of the future.

Second, with teamwork and coordination at a premium, the old notions of unit formation go out the window, too. In Vietnam, individuals were cycled into the country for one-year tours and, when their time was up, cycled back out. Any fighting unit was a mix of new-in-country greenhorns and hardened, short-time veterans. The average soldier of the former variety didn’t even start to make friends until he had survived about six weeks of combat and gotten all the bad luck and carelessness out of his system. That’s lousy for teamwork. So now units train together, deploy together, and end their tours together wherever possible.

Third, when the modern soldier returns to civilian life, his or her skills are more in line with the modern requirements of the workplace: awareness of mission, loyalty to team, flexible response to obstacles, willingness to take personal initiative, seriousness of purpose. Willingness to kill and be killed might still be part of the mix, but not the most important part.

Increasing capability has made soldiering a matter of professionalism. The warrior mythos may be part of their dreams, but has little to do with their reality.

1. Perhaps the kind of online gaming where an individual fights alongside others in a consensual universe will teach some of the skills that I lament here in the gaming soldier. I’m not a denizen of these new gaming emporia, so I don’t know. Certainly, if offline individuals start forming online teams, the benefits will develop with continued success.

2. With respectful thanks to General George S. Patton.