A squad tent won’t stop bullets

Friday, December 11th, 2020

T. R. Fehrenbach describes a scene (in This Kind of War) where an officer commanding the company mortars discovered a group of artillerymen huddling together inside one of the battery’s canvas tents:

Fire from the hills was beginning to spray over into the valley now, and mortarmen and gunners were being hurt.

“Hell!” this officer barked at them. “A squad tent won’t stop bullets!”

Despite this officer’s urging, none of these men would go up on the hill to give the riflemen a hand. Faced with being overrun, they seemed to feel that because their primary military occupational specialty did not include handling a rifle, no one had the right to make them use one.


  1. Bob Sykes says:

    “none of these men would go up on the hill to give the riflemen a hand”

    This was a defeated army.

  2. Kirk says:

    No, this was not a “defeated army”. It was an untrained one, and one filled with men who were not actually soldiers, even though they wore the uniform.

    Incidents like this one are why I formed my opinions on how an army ought to be organized. In the US Army, there are way too many branches, way too many people who feel like combat is “someone else’s problem…”, and a piss-poor culture.

    And, it’s spotty–I’ve seen support units where a situation like this would have been seen as an opportunity to drop wrenches and go kill some Commies, which they’d then do with great enthusiasm. The issue boils down to unit culture, soldier acculturation, and the leadership. Right men with the right attitude, and your rear areas are a death-trap for the enemy.

    Wrong attitudes, ideas, and leadership? Your rear is their happy hunting grounds.

    You have to approach things from a standpoint that every single soldier in uniform is first and foremost an infantryman, a combatant. You do not know when or where the enemy will engage you, and you can pretty much count on them not going after the “hard parts”, like the so-called “combat units”. They’re all combat units, or should be…

    The problem is this fantastical idea that the Army is culturally wedded to, that of the “safe rear area”. There hasn’t been any such thing since near the end of WWII, and there probably won’t be any such thing ever again. Rear areas are an artifact of early 20th Century warfare, and as such, are an anomaly in history. However, comma, that has become the period that the US military has enshrined as “the way it is”, and we’re not able to wrap our heads around the idea that war is an all the time, everywhere sort of affair, these days.

    Hell, I’m pretty damn sure that the guys and girls down at Nellis AFB in Las Vegas are probably going to be targeted in their beds, living out on the economy. Those drone operators and crewfolk are likely already highlighted for elimination, and I’d be amazed if there aren’t target folders maintained by the likes of Hezbollah and everyone else out there. Certainly, the Chinese have likely already identified, reconned, and targeted all the people they can from the OPM breach during the Obama administration. My guess is that the first we’ll know of an attack on Taiwan is going to be a spate of home invasions and murders in the Las Vegas area, but then, I’ve always been a pessimist. The Air Force picking Nellis as the center of drone operations was delusional thinking at its best–They should have picked some really rural and isolated base like Mountain Home, where strangers would have stuck out like sore thumbs, and it would have been a lot easier to secure the community. In Las Vegas…? LOL. Force Protection? ROFLMAO.

    We’ll learn, but only after paying one hell of a high price. If I were a pilot or equipment operator assigned to the drone operations and living off-base, I’d be so damn paranoid it ain’t even funny. And, I’d be trying my best to get on-base housing, well away from any perimeter fences…

  3. Gavin Longmuir says:

    The problem is this fantastical idea that the Army is culturally wedded to, that of the “safe rear area”.

    It is worse than that, Kirk. We are culturally wedded to the idea that wars are fought with bombs & bullets. That is why we have been losing battle after battle in the Chinese Communist Party’s war against us for the last 30 years. It has got to the point where China (through cut-outs) can buy a US Presidential election for their puppet, and official America just shrugs its shoulders.

    The US industrial capacity has been destroyed by offshoring as effectively as by bombing — it just took longer, that’s all. There is no need for the CCP to kill anyone. All the CCP has to do is tell Beijing Biden to stand down — or face immediate termination of all shipments to the US.

  4. Wang Wei Lin says:


    People like me would never know about the ‘unexplained’ deaths of drone operators. I hope your connections can keep us informed. I appreciate your on point analysis.

  5. Kirk says:

    Wang, I’ve got no connections. It’s just that I have experience enough to know things, and an unpleasantly prescient ability to connect causal factors together to see where things are going. I was telling the people at the Engineer School as far back as the early 1990s that we’d be forced to deal with things like the IED campaign in Iraq. I was told that, no, we wouldn’t.

    Reality got its vote, and it turns out that I and all the other folks who were agitating for better tools against IEDs and mines, as well as better preparation for rear area battle, were right. I was not the only person to see that issue coming, but I was one of the ones who worked it out for myself independently. A lot of people simply couldn’t see it, despite having their noses rubbed in it by those who did.

    Unfortunately, none of us who saw the handwriting on the wall were in positions to do anything about it. Possibly because we kept making nuisances of ourselves to the then-powers-that-were.

  6. Paul from Canada says:

    I read an article once describing how the Swedish military was concerned that the Soviets had collected info on Swedish airforce pilots with a view to killing them with pre-inserted SF elements just prior to any declared war. You can put an aircraft in a hardened shelter with armed sentries, but how do you protect every fighter pilot at his home, or out with his family before a war has even broken out. Your very expensive fighter is useless without an experienced and highly trained pilot, that takes years to produce, and only perhaps one in a hundred thousand of the general population has the required aptitudes.

    When I was a young 2LT, I spent some time drinking in the mess with an older officer. He had just got divorced, and thus was living in the BOQ with us young-uns. He had transferred to the airforce in some technical job, but had previously been an army combat engineer officer.

    He described to me over beers some of the contents of a course he had been on. Called something like the NATO Joint Operations Strategic Sabotage Course. He described how easy it was to paralyze a nation using very little actual resources. Some of this was old stuff from WWII, about bottlenecks to attack. Instead of sabotaging individual factories, you get more bang for your buck attacking the local power plant that supplies several factories, for example.

    Some of it was way more interesting. For example, how long does it take to train and produce an air traffic controller, and how many of them are there? The answer is a long time and surprisingly few. It is very easy to locate the main ATC centre for your local FIR. After all, it is not a secret, there is a sign on the building, and the address is in Google. So you stake it out, identify some controllers, follow them home and assassinate them. You only have to kill a couple, and the system is crippled because the rest can’t do enough overtime to keep the system running, and the rest will also call in sick or quit out of fear, unless you provide massive security for them.

    Multiply that by crucial power plant engineers, and other highly specialized infrastructure technicians. You don’t need special resources, just a few motivated terrorists/operatives, and very basic tools (google maps, a car, notebook, binoculars, and some sort of weapon that does not have to more sophisticated than a simple sawn-off shotgun.)

    One of the side projects of the S.A.S “Bravo 20″ mission, besides strategic reconnaissance, was to locate and cut Iraqi fiber optic communication cable, and then ambush the location, and kill the techs who came to repair the damage. Fiber optic repair is a specialized skill requiring expensive equipment. Kill some of the techs, destroy their equipment, and the ability to repair damage done to the system is radically impaired.

    Another example he mentioned was an animal rights radical group once phoned up the HQ of the Safeway grocery chain just before thanksgiving. “We have injected cyanide into some of the frozen turkeys at several of your stores, guess which ones. (click)”. Now it was never determined if they actually had, but Safeway couldn’t take the chance, so they ended up destroying thousands of frozen turkeys at a huge financial cost. A little imagination, and you could do something similar on a huge scale.

    Likewise, he described how if you were a terrorist group, you could economize on explosives by calling in fake bomb threats. Call in a fake one, and the authorities have to take it seriously, cordon off the area, spend resources searching, with the attendant costs, spread of alarm and demoralization of the population etc. Then randomly leave some real bombs, (with or without warnings), then start calling in a random number of fake threats again. Multiply the effect of your limited resources. SEMTEX doesn’t grow on trees after all.

    You don’t even need to kill the drone pilots, to use Kirk’s example. I am sure there is some crucial component of the system that is only made in one factory by a very specialized manufacturer…..

    I could go on, but I am sure you get the idea….

  7. Isegoria says:

    I’m reminded of Viktor Suvorov‘s description of how the last month of peace might look.

  8. Alistair says:


    Point on fighter pilot training. I’m not sure the skills are THAT rare; just that the military can afford to be very choosey and get the 99.999%ile rather than just the 99.99%ile. And maybe not even that, given pay competition.

    I work with military-grade combat simulation. Our civilians do OK against serving pilots; mostly better than 1:1. OK, make allowances for physiology and temperament and stuff, but they all have the educational qualifications and tactical skills to sit in those cockpits.

  9. Isegoria says:

    What do you mean, Alistair, when you say that civilians “do OK against serving pilots” and that “they all have the…tactical skills to sit in those cockpits”?

  10. Alistair says:


    They shoot the serving pilots down in military-grade simulators, with an exchange ratio of better-than-evens.

    Serving pilot quality is surprisingly uneven. There are some truly excellent, good pilots, as good as anything we have, but many make lethal tactical mistakes with positioning, energy levels, or weapon support which get them killed by civilian red teams. Having watched dozens of hours of playback, even I can spot their mistakes now.

    Now, of course in a “real cockpit” with all its additional demands and physicality the real pilots will prevail (duh!), but from a mere tactical skill perspective, I’m not convinced that modern air combat skills are all that rare (or can’t be trained in the majority of good graduates).

  11. Isegoria says:

    Who are these civilian pilots? Former military pilots? Hobbyist flight-sim fighter pilots? Why do they have any tactical skills?

  12. Kirk says:

    I think a lot of folks would be surprised and disturbed to find out just how many of the highly regarded military skills simply ain’t worthy of high regard.

    Civilian ship handling comes to mind… Then, there’s the local plumber, who’s a long-distance rifle fanatic, and who has regularly out-shot (tactics and simple shooting skills…) sniper teams from Department of Energy and the main military branches. I knew a dentist whose pistol skills were easily in the class of the former Delta operators I observed doing recreational shooting after they’d gone off status with Delta. Take that for what it might be worth…

    The military really has too many major distractors going on–You want to practice shooting? OK, fine… You have to work it into the training schedule, budget for it, and do all that other extraneous BS that goes with just doing the shooting part of it all. Then, there’s the vast amount of other BS you have to deal with, like Equal Opportunity training and the like… And, all the usual administrivia that goes with running an army.

    Hell, to be quite honest, it’s amazing that the modern US military has time to even be soldiers, let alone get really good at the basic skills of fieldcraft and other stuff that you have to know and be able to do proficiently.

    So… Yeah. Odds are pretty good that the poor bastards who think that the military is the ne plus ultra of anything are due for a huge shock and surprise when they try to use ‘em. My guess, if it ever comes to shooting between factions here in the US? The active military is going to get rolled up in very short order, and a bunch of people are going to find themselves owners of some fun new toys they’ll have acquired from their inept former users.

  13. Paul from Canada says:


    You get that a lot with cops too. Lots of them are not gun people and can’t shoot well at all and the only time they ever got to practice tactical/pursuit driving was back at the academy. A C class IPSC/USPSA shooter will regularly outshoot most cops and even most swat cops, and an auto-cross or amateur rally driver, or Japanese hobbyist drifter will outdrive most cops as well.

  14. Paul from Canada says:


    That was a statistic quoted to me at the RCAF Aircrew Selection Centre when I went through it. It is not just a question of aptitude and skill for winning in a simulator, a simulator is not the sky. There is a great deal of physiology as well, probably more

    Simulators can reproduce a flight with surprising realism, even to having the g-suit inflate, and pilots show increased respiration, heart rate and other signs of stress almost as strong as in an actual dogfight, but it is still not the same. Your civilians might not do so well if actually pulling 8 or 9 G. Plenty of excellent military pilots who get initially selected for fighters but don’t start training because they don’t pass the centrifuge test.

    You need both the particular mental aptitudes and abilities, AND very specific physiological requirements.

    For example, a friend of mine growing up was extremely jealous when I made it into the RCAF, because he ate slept and breathed military aviation. He is an excellent pilot in a technical sense, extremely motivated, temperamentally well suited, but did not have uncorrected 20/20 vision, so could not even apply.

    There are extreme size and weight requirements. One candidate on my selection course failed because his hip to kneecap length when seated was just a couple of millimeters too long, so he could not safely use an ejection seat.

    Several candidates failed from either the heart ultrasound (tiny, otherwise undetectable heart murmurs discovered), or the EEG. In that case, benign lesions on the brain (kind of like freckles) were detected, or possibly scarring from a childhood concussion, or signals that indicated even the tiniest possibility of even potentially developing a seizure disorder, all were disqualifying.

    We also lost a couple of people much later in the process. You don’t do hypoxia and high altitude physiology training until survival training just before going onto the basic jet course. You are put in a pressure chamber and subjected to various levels of altitude and explosive decompression.

    One of the purposes of the training is to determine your specific symptom of hypoxia. There are dozens, like headache, dizziness and so on, but you will have a unique set of the dozens possible. Some are useless for diagnosis, for example, you can’t notice cyinosis (sp?) in your fingernail beds when you are wearing fireproof flying gloves. My particular symptom is a feeling of pins-and-needles across my chest.

    Some people don’t feel subjective symptoms, and go merrily along until they pass out, or worse, have adverse mental symptoms, euphoria for example, or in a memorable case related to us by the staff, belligerence.

    The procedure in the chamber is to unhook your O2 mask, and start a task, like sorting playing cards by suite, drawing simple shapes (circle, xmas tree, square), or doing the square-peg-round-hole wooden kids puzzle.

    When the medical staff in the chamber notice your performance deteriorate, they will stop you and question you about how and what you feels, and then have you hook your O2 mask back up.

    This particular individual’s response was along the lines of “None of your business, F— off!” When it was suggested to him by the staff that he was hypoxic, and aught to reconnect his O2, his response was along the lines of “You going to make me? Want to fight about it?” The reply, “No that’s OK sir, I can wait..” followed shortly afterwards by the individual concerned passing out. Funny story for the staff to tell, but unfortunately that meant the end of his training as a military pilot, same for those that didn’t feel any symptoms at all.

    Even ignoring that, and assuming I am misremembering by a decimal place, and that less stringent requirements can be met for say, helicopter or transport pilots, you still need this sort of stringent sorting for fighter pilots. You also could not grab one of your excellent civilian simulator pilots and just plop him into a fighter, he or she would still need basic officer training, the high altitude course I mentioned, SERE training, and actual flight training. (Crosswind landing and aerobatics etc. is MUCH harder in real life than it is in even the most realistic simulator).

    So even if there was a large pool of potentially qualified people available, you would still need a couple of years to train them, and that assumes that they are actually motivated to do so. They may enjoy flying simulators and games for a hobby, but are they actually willing to subject themselves to military discipline and danger in a real shooting war?

  15. Vetrani Sui Sunt Circuli says:

    “Hell, to be quite honest, it’s amazing that the modern US military has time to even be soldiers, let alone get really good at the basic skills of fieldcraft and other stuff that you have to know and be able to do proficiently.”

    We learn to ah dissemble, and ‘time savers’ like scripts, etc..

    That’s at the unit level. The other way is schools, and deployments of various types.

    This does not mean that comrade HR and Commissar CRT do not take away time, it means so far we’re adapting to the warps in the system from above. That’s a lot of work, and only the fairly constant combat from deployments give us people who understand what’s important and are SOB enough to get it done. Barely.

    As far as the dentists and plumbers who outshoot at paper targets, when the paper targets aren’t paper and are shooting back we have a better context.

  16. Altitude Zero says:

    “As far as the dentists and plumbers who outshoot at paper targets, when the paper targets aren’t paper and are shooting back we have a better context.”

    Yeah, but there are a LOT more civilian gunowners than there are serving military; if even 1% are decent soldiers,they outnumber the US serving military several times. There are also, as you well a good many of our servicepersons who have never been shot at,and might not react so well either.

    I doubt that it would be as cut and dried as Kirk thinks it would be, but highly motivated civilians ahve given a pretty good account of themselves in the irregular wars of the last sixty years. It would be foolish to underestimate them.

  17. Harry Jones says:

    I’m wondering if FPS computer games would teach any valuable survival skills.

    They certainly don’t teach anyone how to get by in peacetime.

  18. Kirk says:

    Having dwelt in the belly of the beast for most of my adult life, I’m more than familiar with the issues of the “professional” military.

    Vast majority of the men and women in uniform? They’re there for the green welfare check, and really don’t give a shit about the military and professionalism. Or, for that matter, even learning enough of their chosen trade to stay alive. You’d be astonished at the number of senior NCOs we had circa 2004 who were completely incapable of running something as simple as a .50 caliber qualification range. Stupid fucks quit testing and promoting for professional skills back in the late 1980s/early 1990s, and by the time we had to go do something for real in the 2000s, skills had, as the phrase went, “perished”.

    Most soldiers just don’t give a shit about skill-at-arms. They’ve no reason to–The number of men out using the ranges with personally owned weapons back during the nineties when we weren’t getting enough ammo or range time to maintain skills was miniscule, no more than probably about .01% of the force, if even that. Give you an idea of how bad it was, the Army finally got around to issuing my unit the new M68 Close Combat Optic, an Aimpoint Red Dot sight system, roughly a month or so before our deployment to Iraq in 2005. Instead of training up on the sights, they just handed them out, and blew off the range we’d had scheduled for zero and familiarization with the new sights in lieu of more practice for the pre-deployment “casing the colors” ceremony. The Sergeant Major and the commander were more fucking worried about how we’d look for the ceremony than they were about whether or not we’d know how to use the new sights in combat. And, we were a combat unit, going into an active war zone, where we were going to be clearing the roads… WTF?

    Oh, yeah… The Army is so professional and dedicated to knowing its job skills. Bullshit. The vast majority of the force is stone-ignorant about much of the basics, and entirely uninterested in learning anything past what absolutely has to.

    Another data point–Recently was putting together some information for an acquaintance about machine gunnery. In the course of this, I’m going through the Marine Corps MG manual for some techniques that the Army has dropped, in its infinite wisdom. What did I find in their manuals? Oh, just a little illustration lifted right out of a WWII MG manual published by the Army, showing a reticle pattern in a binocular that’s been obsolete and out of the system since before Korea, in a rather important section of the manual that goes over how to correct MG fires using a set of binoculars. A lot of the text was from that same manual, too, and completely unusable for anyone reading the manual and trying to learn how to do that task.

    So, I contacted the Marine Corps. Got ahold of the guys who wrote the manuals, pointed out the error. Not only did they not understand what the fuck I was talking about, they were completely uninterested in the information I had to pass on about how their publication was some seventy years out of date, and that they were telling their Marines how to do something with equipment they hadn’t had on issue since the late 1940s.

    Most of the military simply doesn’t give a fuck. You try to put together a visit to a military museum or do some sort of training event going over historic battlefields, and nine-tenths of them are going to be entirely uninterested, and spend most of the time smoking and joking. The officers have shelves full of the required reading off all the reading lists, and the vast majority of them have never cracked a one of them, ever, let alone read them seriously. It’s all for show and posturing.

    During Iraq, we had a major problem with protecting the Iraqi police, because we didn’t have MRAP vehicles for them. I went to a lot of trouble procuring and shipping in a book that went over the whole Rhodesian and South African experience developing their systems, which started off as uparmored Unimog trucks they modified in railway shops; I pointed out to the Military Police training team that a.) we had a bunch of local industrial shops that were idle, b.) the Iraqi police needed armor, and c.) it was totally possible to roll our own, rather than wait the projected two years before they could procure them from outside Iraq.

    The book circulated among the officer class, and they thumbed through it, completely missing the point, looking at the pretty pictures. With some of them, I felt like I was talking to third-graders who were mildly retarded–They simply could not wrap their heads around the idea that you could uparmor a vehicle without involving General Dynamics and a million-dollar contract.

    Noted that we weren’t exactly having a lot of success going after the IED teams that were plaguing us. Went back to the same Rhodesian/South African experience from the late 1960s and early 1970s, and suggested that perhaps we could do what they did, and start going after the IEDs with Q-ships, vehicles and convoys manned by combat arms troops that were camouflaged as logistics and civilian operators doing routine missions. That got shot down, and I shit you not on this, because the Judge Advocate determined that doing so would be a violation of the law of war.

    That’s our military, folks. Ninety-nine percent of them shouldn’t be there, and the one percent that has a damn clue is probably going to get slaughtered trying to keep the rest alive in a serious war against a serious enemy. The majority of the force consists of bureaucrats in green clothes who would really prefer to make believe that those nasty guns are stage props…

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