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Friday, February 05, 2010

Language and War

This is Steven Petrick Posting.

Good leaders will make use of every tool, even things as mundane as language, to win the battle.

While I am hesitant to begin this with the above words, as it will sound as if I am "blowing my own horn" in what follows, I think the point is important.

Back in 1979 I was participating in a training exercise involving my then unit (the 197th brigade) against elements of the 82nd Airborne division. At one point in the exercise I found myself in position to assault a choke-point. (Essentially a simulated ford site in that it was a narrow corridor across a major road which passed through the "battle area", mechanized forces were not allowed to cross the road in other locations, excluding other designated crossing sites of course, in order to avoid tearing up the road.)

At that juncture, I was employing a great deal of "intelligence" to make my decisions. Among these were the fact that the 82nd had dropped that night, and was largely foot mobile from that point. To my front (which was actually to the right of the enemy position, I then being technically on their flank) I heard engines. I knew the enemy was the 82nd, and I had been in the Army long enough by that point that I could discern the sounds different engines made, and these were Jeeps. Hearing Jeep engines, I had mentally assessed what I knew about Jeeps, the 82nd, time, the terrain, and recent contacts with "enemy elements" (we had brushed aside some screening elements earlier that night). This had led me to the conclusion that what was to my front was a TOW element, i.e., Jeep mounted anti-tank missiles deployed to cover the ford site and prevent the mechanized elements of the 197th from crossing and driving deeper into the 82nd's drop/deployment zone. (I was at that point unaware that the 82nd's drop had gone badly with elements out of position, so badly that for much of that night the umpires had put a hold on operations while the 82nd tried to straighten itself out.)

Having come to a reasonable determination of what was to my front, I decided that an assault with my available troops would probably clear the position, but I expected to also be able to call on supporting fire from the Armored Cavalry element on the far side of the "river".

Near dawn I finally received permission to make the assault. (I had made repeated requests to be allowed to do so, but was never advised that operations were on hold, I simply had my requests turned down.)

As we swept down on the enemy position, I ordered my first squad to deploy to the left and come on line with my second squad and to get the second machinegun in action.

The result of the platoon assault on their flank out of the pre-dawn darkness was a complete route of the defending unit.

Probably the single most effective weapon in the assault was the commands I gave. These were a weapon because one of the things I kept in mind was that we were engaged in what amounted to a "civil war", i.e., the enemy not only was trained to a similar doctrine, but spoke the same language.

They never "saw" the force rolling down on their flank, but they "heard" the weapons fire and the commands, and from that knew that a full platoon was rolling down on their flank, threatening to envelope their position and cut them off from escape.

What attacked them was barely a squad. They actually had the advantages of numbers and firepower. But the commands they heard out of the dark greatly inflated the force that was rolling on their flank, and they took council of their fears (they had heard the tanks and APCs of the Armored Cav unit arrive on the far bank, but were unaware that a "platoon" of infantry had "crossed the river" and gotten on their flank.

The assault opened up the choke-point, and the "river" obstacle was breached, allowing the 197th to drive deeper into the 82nd's deployment area. The breaching occurred while the bulk of the 197th had not yet closed up to the "river".

The use of language as a weapon had breached the "river".

I know this in part because a judge who was there informed me that he was awarding me the capture of the site AND the destruction of the TOW unit that had been there because he, himself, had believed, based on the noise and the commands, that a whole platoon had come rolling in from the flank, and was stunned to learn that the entire attacking force had consisted of only one (crazy) second lieutenant and eight other men.