Running for Combat Effectiveness

Tuesday, April 24th, 2012

A vet was talking with a Marine from the 1960′s about their combat philosophy back in the day:

He told me that they ran in formation in full combat gear! BUT, they switched to a march at the half-mile to regain cohesion and then began to run again. They ran very long distances. They were doing a variation of the fartlek while using it to regroup and keep together.

The mission was to get to the end with every Marine — NO ONE WAS LEFT BEHIND. (Essentially, the Marine Corps mantra.) So, if a Marine was starting to flag, another Marine took his rifle. If that wasn’t enough, another Marine took his pack. If he was still in trouble, two Marines would get on either side of him, grab his belt, and propel him to the finish. If necessary, I think that they would have carried him. No fall-outs!

Of course, it was not acceptable for this to happen to the same man repeatedly, “but anyone can have a bad day.” This is a very different type of long unit run. This is a completely different philosophy. This was a combat philosophy.

They were told that they had to arrive with maximum combat power. They needed that rifleman. That’s the way it should be. How could they have been so smart?

They wore the wrong shoes and carried a lot of weight, but they did the run as intelligently as possible. How do we forget these things?

Things have changed:

In my time in the Marines (2001-09), it was strictly forbidden to help anyone who was having trouble on humps. Seems the idea there was to teach the “weak ones” a lesson about individual fitness. Also, the modern Corps is very paranoid about heat injuries; usually, when a guy starts to drop, he’ll be ordered to the safety vehicle for medical attention rather than encouraged to keep going, with or without help.

In individual-effort runs, we were always competing against each other, so no group mentality existed. On formation runs, by default we ran at the pace of the slowest runners (never less than 9 min/mile, and usually more like 12), which was of course an outrageous annoyance to those of us who could actually run. This had a doubly insidious effect: the slow ones were never sufficiently challenged, because they got to set the pace; and anyone who was even mildly in-shape was severely under-challenged, because the guy setting the pace was 40 pounds overweight and needed a gun to his head to get him to run at all.

I took great pride in being fit; my guess is that if I’d ever been asked to take on extra weight to help some near-fall-out, I would have resented it very much. After all, he’s carrying the same weight I am. This harks back to the discussion about entry standards, the question being whether it’s better to be shorthanded but all fully qualified or fully staffed with subpar people.

Furthermore, if a Marine gets so exhausted in transit that he can’t even carry his own rifle, how well would you expect him to perform in combat when he arrives? Imagine a force of 30 Marines, one of which is totally exhausted and five of whose pals are more tired than necessary from helping him. Is that group of 24 full-strength guys going to be more effective than the group of 29 that saved their strength by dropping their dead weight?


  1. Sconzey says:

    His last comment is very interesting. Up until very recently, possibly even as recently as World War 2, the state of military technology was such that victory required as many guns as possible on the battlefield, and this was less important than how they were employed. Recently it has become more important to be able to maneauver quickly once engaged in battle, and very recently and in the near future the martial strength of the infantryman will not be in the weapons he carries but in his ability to identify targets to be smart-bombed and send intelligence.

  2. Wobbly says:

    Regarding wrong shoes, if I remember correctly, the Australian army switched to running shoes in the 1980s because its recruits started getting shin splints running in army boots (including a high school buddy of mine).

    They found that the kids they were recruiting then had grown up in sneakers and thus hadn’t developed the strong shin bones to cope with army boots. There was nothing they could do to improve things except change shoe requirements.

    It was something to do with wearing hard-soled shoes or going barefoot during the ages of 8–12. That’s when you can develop those strong shin bones. And of course I can’t find the link so this is all hearsay.

  3. Baduin says:

    From Wikipedia:

    “Medial tibial stress syndrome, tibial periostitis or shin splints is a common injury that affects athletes who engage in running sports or basic activities such as cross country, football, or hiking. MTSS injuries affect the connective muscle tissue surrounding the tibia (bone located near the lower leg). This injury is brought on by exerting too much pressure on the lower leg muscles or excessive impact on the muscle. Consequences of severe MTSS can result in, at worst, broken bones.”

    If you run or walk in sneakers, you can stomp with your heel as hard as you like, since it is cushioned. Consequently, people do this all the time.

    Try to do this in a boot with hard heel, and it will feel rather strange — and you will walk with a loud klick. And if you try to run any distance that way, you will jar your shins to pieces.

    People who are accustomed to going barefoot won’t do it — it is no fun to stomp your bare heel into pavement or hard earth with full force.

    The solution is simple — you have to train yourself to run touching ground with toes first, or at least with nearly flat foot. Chinese-style canvas shoes with little cushioning will do it in no time.

    As for the Australian army, they should buy their soldiers those little motorized wheel-chairs, and for hard terrain, hire Chinese palanquin bearers.

    It is more practical than changing boots in the middle of firefight.

  4. Baduin says:

    By the way, it seems it is easy to tear the Achilles tendon when running toe first, especially when one is not accustomed to it.

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