In the wake of the 507th Maintenance Unit debacle the Chief Of Staff of the Army created Task Force Soldier at Fort Benning to look at what could be done. I was asked to play a small part in the creation of the Soldier’s Creed. The task force also created a list of what were called the Warrior Tasks, the idea being to focus all Soldiers on the fundamental tasks of fighting. I argued at the time that if the Soldier’s Creed became simply a platitude or a card to be carried in Soldiers’ pockets it would have negligible effect.
This was in the early days of the Combatives program. At the time we used to run a training drill that we called the “Achieve the Clinch” drill. The point of the drill was to teach the students that overcoming fear and closing with the enemy was often the best way to survive a close quarters fight. The cadre member would strap on a pair of boxing gloves and the students would start from outside of striking range, closing the distance and attempting to wrap up the puncher in a clinch position that made striking effectively difficult. The key to success was to have the courage to attack aggressively which would have the effect of limiting your exposure to punches. The drill happened on day four of the training and we would talk it up all week to build the amount of fear the students would have to overcome to be successful.
Before the drill, I would ask them what happens when you try to quit in a fight. Then after a little discussion I would tell them it just made it very easy to kick your ass. I would explain that there are only two ways for the drill to end, either with a successful clinch or they could flee out the large rollup door to the outside, that if they folded up into the fetal position we would just keep hitting them. That if they ran out the door the only thing we would do is laugh at them and that everyone in the room would simply know they were a coward.
During the actual drill my partner Troy Thomas and I would try to give every one of them at least a couple of good punches to make them respect the drill. If they continued to be aggressive we would let them succeed. If they retreated we would follow them to keep the pressure up and if the folded into the fetal position we would continue to strike them in areas such as their buttocks or their back, areas where there was little likelihood of injury, to keep the psychological pressure up.
If they came out of the fetal position and attacked we would let them succeed, the point being made. If they didn’t, and fled towards the door, we would follow them to the door and then discretely send a cadre member to try to talk them back in. This would happen in almost every class. And then, like clockwork, as soon as the first person fled we would get a second and soon after a third. When the third one happened I would stop the drill, bring the three who had fled back into the room and tell the following story.
Imagine the moments before the beginning of Pickett’s charge at the battle of Gettysburg. Twenty thousand men crouched or lay in the bushes at the edge of the wood line. In front of them a field more than a mile across. On the far side, maybe only barely visible from their positions, defensive positions filled with men who wanted to kill them. The order passed down the line, perhaps a bugle call repeated by each succeeding unit bugler. Thousands of men rose reluctantly to their feet and began to walk quickly toward what everyone on the field knew was certain death for many of them. Each silently, or perhaps openly praying to their god that they would survive the next half hour and not be horribly wounded.
As they became visible from the other side of the field artillerymen began to make their weapons ready. At first, they would have loaded their 3-Inch Ordinance Rifled guns with 9.5 pound projectiles that were bigger than a man’s fist. Some would have loaded with exploding projectiles.
To the men walking mostly barefoot across the field it must have seemed surreal at first. They would have walked several hundred yards before they would have come into range of the enemy artillery. When they did the first volleys would have sounded as explosions far across the field. The muzzle velocity of the rifled cannon was about twelve hundred feet per second, which means the fist sized cannon balls would have been visible as they crossed the field. As they came closer many of them would have flown harmlessly over the men in formation’s heads and landed in the trees they had just left. Perhaps some of them landed among the support soldiers left behind thinking they were safe. Some others would have landed a little short, their momentum making them bounce once or twice until they crashed into the formation killing and maiming those unfortunate enough to be in their paths.
One infantryman from a Virginia regiment recalled that "shrill shot overhead or bounding madly across the field would alike dip through a line of prostrate men and rush on with a wail to the rear leaving a wide track of blood behind."
Artillery in that day was used mainly in the direct fire mode during battle, much as machine guns would be used today or mortars when they are taken out of their customary indirect mode and used in direct lay, pointing at the enemy like an oversized grenade launcher. The exploding ordinance would have been equally visible as it crossed the field but upon arriving it would have a more cacophonous arrival, burying itself in the ground to blow straight up or perhaps exploding before arrival to rain deadly shrapnel down on the marchers.
The key question brought up by this picture is why do the men keep walking. We know for certain that, no matter how devoted to their cause or their comrades, not a single man on that field wants to keep walking. So why did they?
The simple answer is that they are not alone. Each man on that field is there between his comrades, or in front of his subordinates. This is not to suggest that they continue walking because of their love of their friends or any of the clichés that are so often tossed about. They keep walking because they do not want to be thought a coward by those around them. The threat of public humiliation can be more powerful among a group of men than even the fear of death.
As the formation advanced, closer and closer to the enemy positions, the nature of the artillery would have changed to grape shot and canister. This means that much like a giant shotgun each cannon blast would have been made up of many smaller projectiles. For the 12lb Napoleon guns on the line this would mean twenty-seven iron balls, each an inch and a half in diameter. This would have been followed at around three hundred yards by the first volleys of musket fire. As the enemy fired all their muskets at one time to maximize the shock effect, droves of men would fall from the formation, each with some hideous wound, perhaps half of their head blown away or simply a small hole in their abdomen that would mean certain death, but only hours later after lying in agony in the middle of a sun baked field too dangerous for help from the compassionate on either side.
Still, at first, the men in the formation kept walking toward the enemy. As they got ever closer, with the fallen out of sight behind them, the urge to run must have become overwhelming. At first this would have been toward the enemy. The momentum of the mass of men carrying those of them closest to the enemy positions all the way in among them.
Eventually in the heart of the first man the fear of death would have overcome the fear of dishonor. When it did perhaps he first laid down to hide his cowardice from his comrades, leaving them to advance without him. And then the first man decided to run. Perhaps the decision wasn’t even conscious. Maybe like Henry Fleming in the Red Badge of Courage he simply found himself running as fast as his legs would carry him away from the death all around him. When this happens, it is that much easier for the second man to make the same decision, the surface tension of unit cohesion having been broken. Soon, as more and more individuals make the same decision, it becomes socially acceptable to be a coward and the unit flees in mass from the field, leaving their helpless wounded behind them.
And that is what is happening in this unit right now, it is becoming socially acceptable to be a coward.
I would then start the drill back up with all of those who had previously fled back in formation. In almost every case all the students, even those who had previously fled the action, would finish successfully.
This story illustrates a very important point when talking about a warrior ethos. Warriors do not train or fight alone. If we are going to have a warrior ethos, it will be something shared, even imposed, because of the demands we make upon each other.
To be continued…………
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Kratophobe – A person who claims to be a warrior and yet has an irrational fear of realistic hand-to-hand combat training.
Etymology, from the Greek...