The logistic tail continued to wag the fighting dog

Monday, September 21st, 2020

This Kind of War by T.R. FehrenbachThroughout the war in Korea, T. R. Fehrenbach explains (in This Kind of War), the logistic tail continued to wag the fighting dog:

While certain commanders complained and warned, none ever took any effective steps to amend the front-to-rear ratio, which of course could not be done without drastically altering the logistical practices and standard of living of the United States Army. In fact, as the war progressed, the amount of supplies required to support the American troops increased. PX goods were assigned to every company, creating both a transport problem and a headache for some company officer who had better things to worry about.

Throughout the war, because of the continuing lack of motivation of U.S. personnel, every effort was made to raise morale by the supply of goods and luxuries to the troops. Unit PX’s carried tons of soft drinks and candy bars from battle to battle; they sold watches, cameras, and radios at tax-free prices, though the demand for these always exceeded the supply.

Actually, it was impossible to support overseas combat troops at anything like a decent American standard of living. The very nature and necessities of war forbade it. But every effort was made. Discussing the dozens of ships carrying fresh meats, poultry, and other goods from the States to Korea, one FECOM commander later wrote, “We can never again afford to support troops in battle with such logistic luxury.” But this commander took no steps to halt the trend.


  1. Bob Sykes says:

    This is utter nonsense. The company PX is not the problem, and American troops in the field do not live middle class lives.

    In every modern army, the supply problems are POL, ammunition, and vehicle maintenance. Those problems mean you have to have 9 support troops for every combat troop. That ratio cannot be reduced as long as you have a mechanized force and automatic weapons.

  2. Hoyos says:

    Bob Sykes, I’m inclined to agree with you. It’s like comparing tooth to tail in the Air Force and comparing it the Army Air Forces of World War 2. The modern USAF “tooth to tail” looks bad, but a modern military aircraft is wildly more effective and complex as a system. There may be fewer teeth, but they’re enormous damn teeth and need one serious tail to hold them up.

  3. Adar says:

    There were forty plants in Vietnam during the war, the sole purpose of which was to manufacture ice cream for the troops.

  4. Kirk says:

    It’s akin to the arguments against providing air-conditioned sleeping arrangements. Sure, there’s a logistics load to be borne, but the reality is that a soldier who is sweating himself to death in the heat is not getting quality rest, if he’s getting any at all. Elsewhere in the book, Fehrenbach makes a good point about sleeping bags, in that they were a double-edged sword: In them, troops have the potential issue of not getting out of them when the time comes, and getting bayonet in their guts while sleeping. On the other hand, well-rested soldiers will be better able to rise to the occasion and fight effectively…

    All of this logistical lavishness is really not all that expensive–The current system in Iraq and Afghanistan was set up such that the critical cargo took precedence, and the PX stuff fell into any vacancies in the movement tables. Adding a truck or two to the convoys wasn’t that big a deal, going out to the edge-case FOBs that had PX facilities, and one of the loggies actually told me it was cheaper and more cost-effective for the Army to have a PX out there rather than the logistical burden of sending out the required sundry pack kits when they couldn’t provide PX support. Part of that is due to the waste factor–Guys who need underwear and toiletries will often not use the stuff in those packs, or just a part of them, so you wind up with a bunch of crap that you’ve shipped out, and now you have to store it and ship it back, when you shut down that outpost.

    It was actually easier to schedule aviation support for a lot of places so that the troops could visit a camp that had PX facilities, or let them make a stop at one during operations.

    I think Fehrenbach suffers here from not being a logistician. Yeah, it looks like a lavish use of part of the logistics web, but when you get down to it? It’s a really low-cost and highly effective morale booster. I think you could probably do things a lot leaner, but the question is, where does that leave you in relation to a career military force? Who the hell is going to sign up for a career of intermittent military monasticism for twenty years? Providing amenities makes it way more likely that people will re-enlist for subsequent tours, and then there’s the factor of health, both mental and physical. Air conditioning and the provision of PX and fitness facilities drastically enhances the stamina and staying power of the overall force, no matter what the advocates of the “lean, mean fighting machine” may have to say.

    There’s a comparison study out there, somewhere, that compares Marines doing an austere-environment tour vs. the equivalent Army unit doing one in the “candyland” support version. The Marines had more health problems and much lower retention rate than the Army, despite the fact they were only doing six-month tours. Take that for what it’s worth, because it was done by Army researchers, but I think the numbers are legitimate.

  5. Paul from Canada says:

    Amplifying some of what Kirk says, that if you can provide it, enhanced comfort makes for a more efficient soldier, there are a number of good examples of this in the various British S.A.S memoirs.

    There are a number of stories about the British attitude to comfort in the jungle environment, and it boiled down to a more comfortable soldier is a more rested, and therefore more efficient soldier.

    There is no benefit to be gained from suffering for suffering’s sake. If you HAVE the logistical space to provide air conditioning and soft drinks, then do so!

  6. Bartolo says:

    Isn’t it ‘isOgoria’???

  7. VXXC says:

    Fehrenbach was an Officer in the Korean War.

    He has a low opinion of the Army he was tossed into – an army which was probably our wartime nadir – wartime – ever, or at least since 1812. Certainly in terms of discipline and training, conditioning it was.

    Had he served in WW2, or Vietnam he’d not have such a bad opinion.

    Let’s understand the importance of Fehrenbach: his book and the experience of the Korean War more than anything else led to the permanent expeditionary forces we do have, perhaps secondarily only to Vietnam. We have UCMJ since 1954 because of Korea, we have the code of conduct for POW’s because of Korea.

    We have an army that upholds high standards and is well equipped in all respects because of the necessity for…policing our Empire.

    We have a volunteer Army because of Vietnam, but Fehrenbach is required reading for a reason. The problem as we now see is if this all volunteer force falls into the hands of the wrong people they wield it for personal profit, or even revenge (Madeline the Albanian Albright and the Serbs).

    Fehrenbach is dead, so we can’t ask him how many creature comforts like smokes, magazines and soap he refused while serving in Korea, nor can we ask the General he criticizes for not stopping it.

    We can question their own personal abstinence of all comfort, however.

    We can also point out that he was infantry and they hate those who don’t have to walk everywhere.

    We can ask if reducing the logistical tail is important enough to the grunts they’re willing to eat bugs, drink from paddies, or fight with bayonets. I think the answer is NO.

  8. Kirk says:

    Fehrenbach was enlisted in WWII, and saw combat in Europe.

    If I remember right, the passage This Kind of War about the platoon sergeant at Fort Lewis dealing with the post-WWII Army was more-or-less autobiographical, and described why he got out, went to college, and took that commission that led to him being in Korea.

    You have to read the whole book, and the man’s biography to really understand it.

    There are things I agree with in what he’s saying, but there are also certain realities you have to deal with in regards to what our recruited force will put up with. Time was, the Army consisted of what amounted to a military monasticism, wherein the real “keepers of the institution” were all men who lived in the barracks with the troops, and whose family was their unit. Those guys you could probably send off to Afghanistan in an austere logistic environment and not really have a major problem–That’s how we manned the Frontier Army, after all. What we’re recruiting, acculturating and paying for these days is another animal entirely, and if you did what they did during the 1880s, kiss goodbye to the force, no matter how much sense it might make logistically.

    Fehrenbach and his writings are an artifact of a specific era, one that bridged the transition from the tiny monastic Army of the past with the modern necessity to maintain a standing force of considerable size and expense. Having met the man and talked to him, there’s an awful lot about the modern military condition that we’ve come to that he simply did not comprehend. In his Army, it was common to find both Platoon Sergeants and Squad Leaders living cheek-by-jowl with the troops in open-bay barracks. The one I experienced was fully transitioned to dorm-style barracks with the majority of the NCO corps living off-post or in housing, separate from the troops. That makes for a much different environment, and a totally unappreciated difference in unit culture. I think a huge part of the problem with the Vietnam and aftermath era came down to that very issue–You had the “lifers” and “everyone else”, and a lot of the “lifers” were completely invested in the idea that they were the “real Army” and the rest of the enlisted force were temporary short-term “Christmas help” whose only role was to shut up and soldier.

    The major problem with the entire post-WWII Army to the present day is that the people running the institution really don’t have a fucking clue how it all works, and they keep making these asinine changes without heed to the actual effect of those changes out in the force.

    The decision-makers are out of touch; the people who instinctively understand things can’t influence them because they also can’t effectively communicate with those decision-making obliviots.

    Example: Early 1990s, they were in the process of finally replacing the WWII-era wooden barracks facilities on North Fort Lewis, which was a substantial sub-installation on its own from the main cantonment area. During the process of designing the new buildings, they had this great big open house for all of us lowly enlisted types to interact with the architects and the rest of the “responsible adults” who were in charge of it all.

    The first thing all of us senior enlisted scum noticed was the way the barracks had been designed, to an open plan with no way of controlling access. It was all like some great big motel, with open balconies and multiple stairs going up all over the place. There was no unit integrity; the vision was that the troops would live like they were in their own little motel-style accommodations. There was one central office in the middle of it all for a single, solitary Charge of Quarters for the entire complex, which did not allow for any access control or ability to even keep an eye on the whole thing. The idea was that instead of single-company barracks that had one way in and out, the entire battalion would live without company-based supervision after duty hours.

    That was the main problem, and it totally gutted several important aspects aiding in the development of unit cohesion and NCO development. We saw that coming at that open house, and told the idiot architects and officers where the problems were. Let me emphasize that point: ALL of the men who came up the ranks and knew how things worked told the powers-that-were that their ideas stunk on ice. Some of us railed on for hours with the issues they saw coming down the pike, and I was one of them.

    Did they listen to us? LOL… What do you think? Is the US Army a rational organization that honors the knowledge of the men who make up its corporate memory?


    They kept the original open-architecture plan, because they listened to the lower enlisted soldiers about their “quality of life” bullshit, and when we moved into those fucking buildings, everything we foresaw came true, along with a lot of other things we didn’t completely foresee.

    Turns out, an important part of NCO development is having the young Sergeant put in charge of the entire company area after dark, and requiring him to keep a lid on things. When they moved to having just the one Charge of Quarters for the entire battalion, and the battalion Staff Duty NCO located well away from the barracks…? Totally destroyed that, and pulling Charge of Quarters duty actually became something that tore down leadership training, because with the situation those guys had to deal with and the reduced opportunity to pull the duty, it all went to shit. The junior NCOs could no longer manage the area; too much access, no control, and instead of being empowered, they wound up becoming witnesses to their own ineffectual meaninglessness. So, what had been an informal and entirely unorganized training event important to the development of a young NCO, we turned it into a major detractor.

    Later buildings that were constructed on North Fort looked nothing like the initial tranche. They all had internal hallways, maintained company integrity, and had a central access point for after-duty hours.

    Things like this are not inconsiderable intangibles. They’re important to unit cohesion and the formation of strong team bonds, but the problem is that they’re also things that nobody can articulate to the college-educated obliviots that we insist on having as officers. The NCO corps in the US Army is seen as a vast herd of illiterates whose thoughts are immaterial, I’m afraid, and we suffer because of it. Nobody in charge really has a real clue how units work, or what effect their policies and procedures have on daily life, or how “mere” daily operations deeply influence the unit culture in inimical ways.

    That’s one thing that Fehrenbach “got”, but failed to clearly articulate himself. When I talked to him, you could tell he understood the issues on a visceral level, but he really didn’t have a way of consciously articulating them because he simply hadn’t been cognizant of it all.

    I have to tell you that I remain convinced that the vast majority of the people running our military really don’t understand how the fuck it works, regardless of which branch they’re in. You can go through the files describing what led up the Navy playing bumper-cars with their ships, and see clearly what the hell was going wrong with the leadership, and how ineffective they are from top to bottom. It is tragic, but there is the fact that we still (mostly…) do it better than everyone else besides the Brits, these days…

  9. VXXC says:


    Thank you for that. I didn’t know Ferenbach was enlisted WW2.

    >This is simply hilarious: “Turns out, an important part of NCO development is having the young Sergeant put in charge of the entire company area after dark, and requiring him to keep a lid on things. ”

    You don’t say ? ;) lolz. “That’s some deadly furniture you have there on the 4th floor.”

    lolz > we had PSGs and CSMs who would either call MPs/SPs when troops had a bruise, or even not go among their troops in Iraq without armed escort [CSM who can't deal with troops].

    The modern Army following the Officers is insisting on schools to promote NCOs, and Master’s degrees to make CSM, and really 1SG.

    The identical results have occurred. Identical.

    The education inferiority complex is from McNamara’s wiz kids. The Sales force personnel system for officers — up or out, individually competing — also from McNamara. An evil genius, probably pyschopathic.

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