On War #293: The Price of Bad Tactics

by William S. Lind
February 23, 2009

For the gazillionth time, the U.S. military in Afghanistan had to announce last week that an American airstrike killed civilians. The incident followed a familiar pattern. We first announced that 15 insurgents were killed, then had to climb down, finding after an official investigation that only three of the dead were fighters, while 13 civilians died.

In Congressional testimony, Secretary of Defense Gates said that unless we stop killing Afghan civilians in airstrikes, “we are lost.” So why do we keep doing airstrikes?

The answer is, because American infantry tactics are bad. They amount to little more than bumping into the enemy and calling for fire. The easiest way to provide the overwhelming firepower our bad infantry tactics depend on is with airstrikes. So to win tactically, we have to lose strategically. At least from the Vietnam War onward, that equation has come to define the American way of war. It is the price of bad tactics.

Why does American infantry continue to employ bad tactics? Superior alternatives are readily available. The “infiltration tactics” used by German infantry in the Kaiserschlacht of 1918 are far superior. Better still are true light infantry or Jaeger tactics, which influenced the development of infiltration tactics. Light infantry tactics rely less on firepower and more on stealth, surprise, ambush and encirclement. Their history is well known, and reaches back as far as the 18th century. The literature on them is extensive. [Ed. note: please see the 4GW Light Infantry Manual, available on our 4GW Manuals page, for more on these tactics.]

There are three basic reasons why the U.S. military continues to employ bad infantry tactics when superior alternatives lie ready to hand. The first is the unfortunate combination of hubris and intellectual sloth which characterizes most of the American officer corps – and infantry officers in particular. Most read nothing about their profession. Of those who do read, most confine their study to doctrinal manuals — the U.S. Army’s are wretched rehashed French stuff, the Marine Corp’s somewhat better — or histories of American victories. The number who really study tactics, learning about infiltration tactics, Jaeger tactics, the infantry tactics of oriental militaries etc. through reading, is tiny.

This ignorance is buttressed by hubris, false pride. The American military spends a great deal of time and effort telling itself how wonderful it is. Gorged on its own baloney, it thinks, “How could we possibly learn anything from anyone else? After all, we’re the greatest.” So there is no need for any study beyond study of ourselves. Hubris justifies the closed system ignorance creates.

The second reason we persist with bad infantry tactics is bad training. Almost all American training is focused on procedures and techniques, taught by rote in canned, scripted exercises where the enemy is a tethered goat. Free-play training, against an active, creative enemy, generates imaginative tactics, because whoever employs such tactics wins. But free-play training is so rare in the American military that most American infantrymen receive none at all. They become expert in techniques for applying fires, but they know nothing else. In effect, many American infantry units have no tactics, they only have techniques.

The third reason American tactics are bad is a bad personnel system. American infantry units are allowed to maintain personnel stability only for short periods, and sometimes not at all. They are always receiving new, largely untrained troops, who have to be taught “the basics,” which is assumed to mean procedures and techniques. Even if they try — and few units do — they cannot get beyond just bumping into the enemy and calling for fire, because that’s all the newbies can possibly manage.

A piece in the February 19 Washington Post cited the American commander in Afghanistan, General McKiernan, as saying that the planned increase in American troops could allow for the use of fewer airstrikes. On the contrary, the bad tactics those troops will employ, because they know no others, guarantee that the demand for airstrikes will go up. So will Afghan civilian casualties, and with them the speed with which we will lose the Afghan war.

How many wars does America have to lose before American infantry officers get serious about studying tactics?

William S. Lind, expressing his own personal opinion, is Director for the Center for Cultural Conservatism for the Free Congress Foundation.

To interview Mr. Lind, please contact (no e-mail available):

Mr. William S. Lind
Free Congress Foundation
1423 Powhatan Street, # 2
Alexandria, Virginia 22314

Direct line: 703 837-0483

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