Thursday, December 2nd, 2010

As a child, playing with little army men, I had only the slightest grasp of tactics — but every little boy growing up after the World Wars osmotically absorbs what were originally highly novel stormtrooper tactics: don’t bunch up, take cover, use bursts of rapid fire to “cover” your friends as they sprint from one bit of real cover to another, and so on.

Marching, shoulder to shoulder, into machine-gun fire is the height of folly. No amount of élan or “heart” is going to overwhelm entrenched machine-guns. To modern Americans, even marching at a line of enemy soldiers armed with muskets seems downright insane.

But soldiers did it, right behind the officers who led them. Napoleon, who knew a thing or two about warfare, declared that the moral is to the physical as three to one — it’s not the size of the dog in fight; it’s the size of the fight in the dog. Why would he say that?

Because it’s true — largely — just not for marching into modern automatic weapons or massed rifle fire. Throughout most of history, posturing — convincing yourself and your enemy that you’re bigger, meaner, and scarier — has been far more important than physical fighting ability:

It is widely known that most killing happens after the battle, in the pursuit phase (Clausewitz and Ardant du Picq both commented on this), and this is apparently due to two factors.

First, the pursuer doesn’t have to look in his victim’s eyes, and it appears to be much easier to deny an opponent’s humanity if you can stab or shoot them in the back and don’t have to look into their eyes when you kill them.

Second (and probably much more importantly), in the midbrain, during a pursuit, the opponent has changed from a fellow male engaged in a primitive, simplistic, ritualistic, head-to-head, territorial or mating battle to prey who must to be pursued, pulled down, and killed. Anyone who has ever worked with dogs understands this process: you are generally safe if you face a dog down, and you should always back away from a dog (or almost any animal) in a threatening situation because if you turn around and run you are in great danger of being viciously attacked. The same is true of soldiers in combat.

Thus one key to the battle is simply to get the enemy to run. The battlefield is truly psychological in nature, and in this realm the individual who puffs himself up the biggest, or makes the loudest noise, is most likely to win. The actual battle is, from one perspective, a process of posturing until one side or another turns and runs, and then the real killing begins. Thus posturing is critical to warfare, and victory can he achieved through superior posturing.

Bagpipes, bugles, drums, shiny armor, tall hats, chariots, elephants, and cavalry have all been factors in successful posturing (convincing oneself of one’s prowess while daunting one’s enemy), but, ultimately, gunpowder proved to be the ultimate posturing tool. For example, the long bow was significantly more accurate and had a far greater rate of fire and a much greater accurate range than the muzzle-loading muskets used up to the early part of the American Civil War. Furthermore, the long bow did not need the industrial base (iron and gunpowder) required by muskets, and the training of a long bowman was not really all that difficult.

Thus, mechanically speaking there are few reasons why there should not have been regiments of long bowmen at Waterloo and the 1st Bull Run cutting vast swaths through the enemy. [Similarly there were highly efficient, air-pressure-powered weapons available as early as the Napoleonic era (similar to modern paintball guns), which had a far higher firing rate than the muskets of that era, but were never used.] But it must be constantly remembered that, to paraphrase Napoleon, in war, psychological factors are three times more important than mechanical factors.

The reality is that, on the battlefield, if you are going “doink, doink,” no matter how effectively, and the enemy is going “BANG!, BANG!,” no matter how ineffectively, ultimately the “doinkers” lose. This phenomenon helps explain the effectiveness of high-noise-producing weapons ranging from Gustavus Adolphus’ small, mobile cannons assigned to infantry units to the U.S. Army’s M-60 machine gun in Vietnam, which fired large, very loud, 7.62-mm ammunition at a slow rate of fire vs the M-16′s smaller (and comparatively much less noisy) 5.56-mm ammunition firing at a rapid rate of fire.

A guy in a bright red coat, with a shiny steel breastplate and a tall helmet, atop a thundering beast, charging at you, is really, really scary — and if anyone getting charged decides to turn and run, rather than hold fast with his bayonet, well, then the whole line crumbles. It’s a game of chicken.

(I’ve mentioned those surprisingly advanced air rifles before, by the way. Fascinating.)


  1. Jehu says:


    At the last gun show I went to, I saw some very sweet modern air rifles in the near .50 cal range, sufficient for taking buffalo. Pretty nice, I’ve got to say.

  2. Isegoria says:

    Those might have been Quackenbush Air Guns.

  3. Bruce G Charlton says:

    I don’t find this reasoning at all convincing!

    There is a shred of truth embedded; which is that army training is more about stopping your soldiers from running away, than training them to attack or kill; and about getting people to work as a mutually-assisting unit rather than a collection of self-interested individuals. Once cohesion is achieved, only then do tactics become important.

    Marching shoulder to shoulder etc is an unfake-able demonstration of unity and cohesion — only a disciplined army can do it. In face of this, an individual soldier must have confidence that he is also part of a solid group. But if he is not, and soldiers do not trust each other; then each individual soldier realizes that a rabble cannot fight a disciplined force; and the incentive is to save one’s own skin and be among the first to run-away before the inevitable rout begins.

    People are killed in retreats because each is out for himself. By contrast, the army that provoked the retreat is usually still functioning as a cohesive unit.

  4. Isegoria says:

    I’m not sure where we disagree, Bruce. I don’t disagree with what you just added. Do you disagree with the notion that elaborate threat displays scare men about to face combat?

  5. Baduin says:

    Elaborate threat displays are used by those not brave enough to attack directly. This is the African combat: two groups of people throwing spears at each other, yelling insults etc. Both groups are afraid to charge forward — because they have no cohesion. Zulus were an exception.

  6. David Foster says:

    Early guns had several disadvantages relative to bows and arrows — inability to re-use ammunition, for one thing. Perhaps the noise made up for the disadvantage.

  7. Isegoria says:

    Indeed, early firearms had many disadvantages compared to bows and crossbows: shorter range, worse accuracy, and slower rate of “fire”.

    They had their strengths, too: firearm ammo is small and light, bullets punch through armor well, and a thunderous volley of fire really shocks and awes.

  8. Isegoria says:

    Elaborate threat displays are used by almost everyone going face to face with an enemy. Even the Spartans, who despised many outward displays of false courage, went into battle with polished armor, high-crested helmets, etc. Modern, professional armies are extremely unusual in their disregard for intimidation — and it doesn’t always work in their favor.

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