Originally published: January 1993
A Marine general with experience in three wars shares some of his insights about combat and the things inevitably encountered by those who go to war.
As a second lieutenant in The Basic School before World War II, I wondered what war was really like and whether I would stand up to the challenges of combat. Looking back, I believe that I was not alone. It is a fundamental question, one that each Marine must answer for himself.
I believe that experience in a variety of commands in three wars taught me some things that may be valuable to those who follow me in the Corps. I commanded an armored amphibian battalion in the battles for the Marshall Islands, Guam, and Okinawa; I was the chief of staff of the Third Fleet Landing Force, which was the first unit ashore for the surrender of Japan; I served as assistant operations officer and later operations officer of a Marine division in North China; in Korea, arriving just as the fighting was ending, I was the executive officer of several regiments and commanded two infantry battalions; and finally, in Vietnam, I commanded the brigade that provided the landing force for three amphibious operations, and was the assistant division commander, and, for a short-time, division commander on the Demilitarized Zone, where some of the heaviest fighting of the war took place. In short, my career provided ample opportunity to observe war at close hand.
Americans in Combat
Let’s be honest—whatever national pride and folklore may imply, Americans are not born soldiers. We live too well, are too comfortable, are too democratic and independent-minded. We are primarily an urban population that has all but forgotten how to live in the desert, mountain, or jungle environment where wars are fought. The physically hardened peasant soldier with little or no education or imagination and who is accustomed to the hardships of living “in the field” can be more quickly integrated into a fighting unit.
Our advantages are that with proper training and leadership—and with the most important ingredient, a belief in what we are fighting for—we can develop into deadly fighters. Our troops can handle the most sophisticated equipment, and our men have initiative. The final charge, the last ditch defense, or the unorthodox tactic that succeeds are frequently led or inspired by a private or private first class. In any American unit we have men who can perform an endless variety of tasks. I have seen Marines take over the complicated winches on commercial ships, put plumbing in a camp, and repair sophisticated equipment, totally unrelated to their military occupational specialty. They have ingenuity. There is literally nothing they cannot do.
As for courage and sheer guts, Americans are second to none. It isn’t always the largest, loudest, or self-proclaimed toughest Marine who performs best in combat. Frequently the small, quiet, determined Marine is the one you can count on. I will never forget a Marine named Morton who was in my platoon in the 2d Marines, just before World War II. Although he was a small man, he was the Browning automatic rifleman (BAR-man). The BAR was the largest and heaviest man-carried weapon. On one occasion, the regiment conducted a particularly brutal training march in the extreme heat. We had insufficient water, and the Marines of the unit were collapsing along the side of the road. Not Morton. Head down and covered with sweat, he kept putting one foot in front of the other and never slackened his pace. He never quit, and I knew that I could depend upon him. Courage comes in all sizes and colors. On the other end of the spectrum was one of the largest and loudest members of my class at The Basic School who was evacuated from Guadalcanal with “combat fatigue.”
The question that might be asked is: Are brave men brave and less than brave men that way all the time? From my observations, the answer is: no. One night on Guam after several days and nights under mortar and artillery fire, one of our corpsmen moved from foxhole to foxhole treating the wounded. Let me assure you that the standard practice was that once you were in a foxhole, you remained there for the night, no matter what. Anyone moving about was very likely to be shot. The corpsman was a genuine hero that night; the rest of the operation he was less. It is my belief he used everything he had that night. One could not fault his performance for the remainder of the operation, but the heroics were never repeated.
It is easier for officers and noncommissioned officers (NCOs) to be what passes for brave. With the eyes of the Marines you are leading on you, there is a real incentive to be a leader, and your responsibilities keep your mind engaged. On D-day for Okinawa, I looked from the LST on which we were embarked and saw the terrain we were going to assault. As this was my third amphibious operation, I wondered if I had used up my luck. To put it simply, I would rather have been someplace else. As I got into my command vehicle, I saw the faces of the vehicle commanders and gunners looking at me. There was no choice—I lighted up a cigar (although smoking was strictly prohibited on the tank deck), waved at them, and we launched into the sea to carry out the landing. I suppose the troops thought that if the “Old Man” (age 27) was not worried, there was no reason for them to be concerned. Just as in athletic events, once you have made the first contact, you are ready to go.
Marines are trained to be aggressive. We believe in ourselves and in our units. Sometimes this can have a high price. Too many times I have seen dead and wounded Marines in front of enemy automatic weapon positions. Instead of calling for artillery or tanks, the Marines tried to take out the positions themselves, at a high cost. I do not have a solution—we all know it is important to be aggressive. Our training should continue to emphasize that, but we must also train to fight smart.
Danger and Security
I believe the most dangerous days in combat are the first and the last. The initial entry to combat exposes you to new terrain, new climate, and to new or unknown enemy tactics and equipment. There is also the fact that you and your unit are untried. Once you get “the lay of the land,” you are prepared to use the training, equipment, and tactics you have been provided. As combat continues and you take personnel and equipment losses, the unit efficiency decreases. Fatigue takes its toll, and more casualties are likely to be taken. Without exception, your “foxhole strength” drops with each passing day, even with replacements being phased in. The replacements are of unknown quality and must be worked into the unit, and must gain the confidence of the “old timers.” Toward the end of combat, or as the date for personal or unit rotation approaches, there is a tendency to become too careful. The philosophy, “I have lived this long, I do not want to buy the farm now,” takes over.
As the days in combat mount up, there is a tendency to get careless. It is impossible to keep an individual or unit at peak performance day after day. The Marines get “salty.” I believe that many Marines who were overseas for more than three years during World War II got to the point that they did not care whether they lived or died; a wound might get them home, so they became careless.
No one can stay 100 percent alert day after day. After a demanding day of patrolling or moving—laden with weapons, packs, equipment, ammunition, and water—even the most physically fit are tired. Bivouac is made, security established, and weapons for defense are sighted. The real security of the unit, however, depends on exhausted men staying alert. That may work for a few nights, then the level of security drops rapidly—sometimes at a terrible cost. The only solution is to provide rest for the men going on watch and to constantly supervise them.
On one occasion, a reinforced rifle company holding an isolated position north of the Cua Viet River in Vietnam provided a classic example of lack of security. This was real “Indian country,” an area of heavy enemy presence. As I walked the perimeter, I could find no one watching, no security. The commander, when questioned, informed me that everyone was watching; no designated security was required. Spurred on by some well-chosen words, detailed security was immediately established. On another occasion, I landed on a mountain top where a radio relay station was positioned overlooking Khe Sanh. Security was minimal, as the NCO in charge believed the forbidding terrain was protection enough. A new NCO was placed in command, claymore mines were installed, and defenses improved. Two days later, when the enemy attacked, the position held just long enough for reinforcements to be flown in. It is my belief that carelessness all too often causes unnecessary losses.
A strange phenomenon was observed in both Korea and Vietnam. Isolated positions, generally on very high ground, became almost a fixation to the men who manned them. Once adjusted to the isolation, they were reluctant to leave their positions. Perhaps they felt safe there, but I believe that it was more complex than that. The Marines developed a strong feeling for and took excessive pride in their area, even though it took a major effort to bring in supplies and water, and the area provide no recreation or amenities.
Observing and Reporting
In combat, almost anything can, and does, happen. Take hundreds or thousands of men, heavily armed and engaged in killing each other; add in the air and sea dimensions, complicated and sophisticated weaponry, forbidding terrain, and weather, factor in the uncertainties of human nature and fate; and the possibilities are close to unlimited. It is possible for one human to see and understand only one narrow spectrum of what is going on, and the probabilities for misunderstanding or error are limitless. An example: The well-known and respected military writer, S.L.A. Marshall, spent a few weeks in Korea and returned home to write that a large percentage of American troops did not fire on the enemy. The implication was that they did not do so out of fear of revealing their positions and thus drawing enemy fire. Balderdash! This opinion drew undue publicity even within the military. The more frequent problem, as I have observed in three wars, was the proclivity of green troops to shoot too much and too soon. I’ll wager that any salty gunnery sergeant will agree with me. Thus the fables of war are created and grow.
In order to survive both physically and mentally, one has to have the emotional release of laughter. Granted, most humor by combat troops takes on a “gallows humor” cast, and much of the rest isn’t fit to print. If one did not have this escape from the deadly reality of combat, it probably could not be borne. The Marine who posted a sign on the edge of his water-filled foxhole that read, “The rain in Laos falls mainly in the house” was dealing with the awful reality of being and staying drenched. The SEALs who published a list of quips before the Panama operation were dealing with the reality of fear. Two of my favorites are “Remember your weapon was made by the lowest bidder,” and “Never get in a foxhole with a man braver than you.” Perhaps the best was “Friendly fire, isn’t.”
Much has been made of the casualties caused by friendly fire in DESERT STORM. One can deeply sympathize with families mourning their dead killed by accident rather than enemy action. I believe a large percentage of our casualties have been caused by errors or mistakes in all of our wars. The artilleryman, staggering from fatigue, who sets the wrong data on his sights; the forward observer who calls in the wrong adjustment; the pilot who, in the fog of war, screams down on a friendly target; the antiradar missile that homes in on a friendly radar site; the machinegunner who squeezes off a burst at a returning patrol; and the infantryman who lifts up his head to just look around and catches a bullet between the eyes are all casualties of the confusion, fatigue, and heavy firepower of the battlefield. To these one must add the fleet commander who launches his aircraft too soon; the division commander who reinforces the wrong attack or defends the wrong terrain; and innumerable leaders who made classic mistakes. Are any of the above guilty of anything more than errors in judgment? Pickett’s charge at Gettysburg; Napoleon at Waterloo; Halsey exposing “jeep” carriers and destroyers while he chased enemy carriers in the Battle of the Philippine Sea; and MacArthur allowing the Japanese to destroy his aircraft on the ground a day after the Pearl Harbor attack are all classic examples of senior commanders making errors that resulted in friendly casualties. How has history judged them?
And what if we did not employ the heavy firepower we use in battle to protect our troops and to offset numerically superior enemy forces? Would the casualties be less or greater? War is a brutal and dangerous endeavor in which men—and now women—are exposed to death and horrible wounds. Every leader worthy of the name keeps his casualties to the irreducible minimum, but the simple fact is that war is death and destruction. Lest I be judged too harshly for these observations, let me assure the reader that one of the high points of my life was during one of my World War II battalion’s reunions, when several wives thanked me for bringing their husbands safely home.
War has been accurately described as “periods of great boredom, interspersed with periods of intense fright.” As a corollary, we are faced with the “hurry up and wait” syndrome. The logistics and time lag of moving large bodies of troops and their supplies and equipment, even in this age of monumental air lifts, causes long periods of waiting. DESERT STORM proved the wisdom and efficiency of Marine Corps prepositioned supplies and equipment, yet there were considerable delays while the coalition formed to mass its full combat power in the theater of operations. For those who are moved by sea, the time lag can be even greater. I still remember with horror being at sea in a World War II LST, overloaded with twice the rated troop lift capacity, for over 3 months. And at the end of World War II, coming home from China on a converted liner with 7,700 other returning veterans—certainly a joyous occasion in one sense, but still an interminable trip.
Then there are the buildup and rehabilitation phases. Even with a demanding training schedule, there are still long periods of time that just hang there, boring in the extreme. The lack of mail, special services, fresh food, and the comforts of civilization that we are accustomed to soon grind you down. It is hard to be joyous thousands of miles from home, separated from those you love, lacking the standard of living to which you are accustomed, and being concerned that your next operation or battle will cause grievous harm to your body. To that, add the long patrols that discover nothing, the manning of defensive positions with no action, the endless waiting that is war. All the above can be shattered instantly by an explosion of enemy activity. War is truly periods of great boredom interspersed with periods of intense fright. What makes it bearable is pride and camaraderie.
Wars are fought in the least hospitable parts of the world, or in terrain that soon is turned inhospitable by the actions of the combatants. A Marine once said that Vietnam was the only place on earth where you could stand in mud up to your knees and have dust blow in your face—an accurate description, given the churning the earth took and the crushing or removal of surface vegetation. Add to that the lack of protection from the elements, the cold of Korea, or the heat of the desert. Few combatants remember their battlefields with affection.
With all the humanity that is crowded onto the field of battle, it is a surprisingly lonely place. Well-trained Marines disperse and take cover, or are urged to do so by their officers and NCOs, in order to reduce casualties from incoming mortar or artillery rounds. They are also urged in sometimes ungrammatical, but convincing, language not to get on the skyline where they can be seen and picked off by the enemy.
Although most animals will soon depart the battlefield, insects flourish; flies are everywhere, as are mosquitos and all the little “beasties” that can cause illness and death. Scrub typhus, malaria, denge fever, and dysentery are all well known. To these add sunstroke, frostbite, heat exhaustion, and the danger from heavy and complex equipment needed to fight a modern war. One can only conclude that even without enemy effort, the battlefield is not a healthy place.
In any battle the individual can only observe fragments of the action in which he is partaking. He can only observe those closest to him, whether they are moving forward or to the rear, whether killing or being killed. The total action is as foreign to him as if it were occurring on another planet. Battle is a blur of scenes or impressions—some remembered for a lifetime, others forgotten.
One of the strangest aspects of war is that each develops its own fads. Yes, fads. Which weapons are preferred, how equipment is slung, and how units are identified all vary from war to war. In World War II, the shoulder holster for the pistol was in great demand, but seldom was worn as a shoulder holster. The strap was rigged so that the holster was worn around the waist. At one time, shotguns (issued in limited supply) were all the rage, even though they were only efficient as weapons at very short range. During the Korean War, the .30 caliber carbine was removed from the hands of troops bringing loud cries of protest. Insignia of rank was either worn or not worn, depending on unit and location; unit insignia or identification marks were stenciled on the backs of uniforms. Aviators demanded their own pistol—the pistol issued to ground troops was unsuitable. So it goes from war to war.
Intelligence is never as accurate or complete as one would like, and sometimes is actually wrong. Generating timely and useful intelligence is a constant struggle—both for the intelligence officer and for the forward forces, who are the eyes of the system and the ultimate users. Some examples. Although Guam was a U.S. possession for many years, complete with a Marine barracks, our intelligence of the offshore reefs was completely wrong, and this had an adverse effect on our landing plan. Our intelligence for the attack on Okinawa came from the highest headquarters in the Pacific area. It appeared to concentrate on the habu, a deadly snake. As a result, the troops were more concerned about the snakes than the Japanese defenders. We envisioned platoons of habus lined up on the beach. During the 83day battle, I saw one small habu, and in 21/2 years on the island in subsequent tours, I saw none. In Vietnam we received intelligence that artillery was located at certain grid coordinates. When plotted, it turned out to be our own artillery. Although I wasn’t there, it appears that the enemy forces in DESERT STORM were greatly over estimated. It has been my experience that intelligence rarely reaches the user on a timely and usable basis.
It is important to prepare yourself for the unexpected. If one is not psychologically prepared, the reaction to unexpected situations can be bizarre. Some examples: When the Japanese sank the British ships Repulse and The Prince of Wales off Singapore early in World War II, it was reported that before abandoning ship and jumping overboard, each crew member took off his shoes and neatly lined them up along the deck. To my chagrin, on one occasion I sought shelter behind a tent wall against incoming Japanese artillery shells. I have seen well-trained machinegunners stand and watch incoming Japanese planes without firing a shot. It is hard to anticipate human reaction to stress.
My thoughts on combat have covered a wide spectrum of situations. Hopefully, they will in total provide some overview of what war is like. As stated above, it is impossible for any one person to cover every aspect of war or battle. Like the blind man and the elephant, each sees even the same situation from a different angle. It is hoped that some of these observations are helpful to those now on active duty. Finally, the experience of being a leader of brave men in combat is one that should be sought. Being a Marine is something special. Seeing our magnificent Corps in action is an experience that will remain with you all of your life.