He had never seen any troops so inept at first as Americans in battle

Friday, September 11th, 2020

Captain Walker had forty men left in Love Company, and about the same in Item, and no officers, T. R. Fehrenbach explains (in This Kind of War), when he reported Hill 314 secured:

In the first two hours of combat, 3/7 had taken 229 battle casualties.

On the hill Love and Item found more than 200 enemy dead, wearing American uniforms, boots, and helmets, holding American M-1s and carbines. They also found the bodies of four American GI’s, hands bound, shot, and bayoneted. And they found one officer, tied hand and foot, lying charred and blackened beside an empty five-gallon gasoline tin. He had been burned alive by the retreating enemy.

There was no place left to go, and all across the thin Perimeter Line American soldiers were stiffening. Hatred for the enemy was beginning to sear them, burning through their earlier indifference to the war. And everywhere, the first disastrous shock of combat was wearing off. Beaten down and bloody from the hard lessons of war, troops were beginning to listen to their officers, heed what their older sergeants told them.

A man who has seen and smelled his first corpse on the battlefield soon loses his preconceived notions of what the soldier’s trade is all about. He learns how it is in combat, and how it must always be. He becomes a soldier, or he dies.

The men of the 1st Cavalry, the 2nd, 24th, and 25th divisions in Korea were becoming soldiers. For underneath the misconceptions of their society, the softness and mawkishness, the human material was hard and good.

There had been many brave men in the ranks, but they were learning that bravery of itself has little to do with success in battle. On line, most normal men are afraid, have been afraid, or will be afraid. Only when disciplined to obey orders quickly and willingly, can such fear be controlled. Only when superbly trained and conditioned against the shattering experience of war, only knowing almost from rote what to do, can men carry out their tasks come what may. And knowing they are disciplined, trained, and conditioned brings pride to men — pride in their own toughness, their own ability; and this pride will hold them true when all else fails.


Erwin Rommel had written that he had never seen any troops so inept at first as Americans in battle — or any who learned the hard lessons more quickly once the chips were down.


  1. Harry Jones says:

    “Only when disciplined to obey orders quickly and willingly, can such fear be controlled.”

    So… the whole point of mindless obedience is to counter another sort of mindlessness, arguably worse? That makes a sad kind of sense.

  2. Kirk says:

    There are more than a few definitions of the term “disciplined”, most of which differ due to cultural conditions interpreted by the users.

    Fehrenbach’s ideation of the term is typical of mid-century America–He wanted a “thinking obedience”, not rote-obedience that we have been taught to think was typical of the Prussian tradition.

    Which was a very inaccurate understanding of the German mindset in these matters–Most of the so-called “Prussian kadavergehorsam mentality was a figment of Anglo-Saxon imagination. If you went to examine Prussian education and military doctrine, you’d find quite the opposite.

    The key thing with what Fehrenbach is writing about is that whole Confucian thing: “To lead an untrained people to war is to throw them away”.

    All too many of the men under arms during the early and middle stages of the Korean War fit that description, and as a result, failed to demonstrate discipline.

    Another quote: “In no other profession are the penalties for employing unprepared personnel so
    appalling or so irrevocable as in the military.”

    That’s MacArthur himself, so you have to stand in wonder at the cognitive dissonance he was able to maintain and more-or-less function with. How did the man not know the conditions in his own forces?

    And, it was ever thus–Vegetius: “In war, discipline is superior to strength; but if that discipline is neglected there is no
    longer any difference between the soldier and the peasant.”

    My own definition of discipline is the observation of whether or not the necessities of unit housekeeping are getting done in the absence of leadership. In a well-disciplined unit, things like camouflage and digging in are accomplished by the troops without them being told to do so, because they know they need to do them and have the self-discipline to initiate the work themselves. In a poorly-disciplined unit, nothing happens until the leadership exerts itself, which takes away from their ability to do their jobs, which sure as hell better not be to tell people what they need to do in order to survive…

Leave a Reply