The Forgotten Army
In the wake of more violence by perpetrators who happen to use firearms this week, we are once again witness to strident calls to restrict the access to firearms by certain segments of the population, despite there being ever-less appetite for such actions, because most Americans now realize the fallacies and dangers of such calls for restrictions – because they worked so well before – not least, because we witnessed the spectacle, not two months ago, of the Ukrainian government frantically offering to almost literally throw military weapons of all types to a civilian population – few if any, of whom had any prior military experience or training – in preparation to receive a military invasion by a neighboring power that was literally “at the gates”, as it were…no word on how that is working out.
Battles are fought all the time, on every continent, between all kinds of opponents. While it is true that the victors write the history, sometimes, the victors shoot themselves in the foot.
Today is no different.
On April 19, 1775, a battle was fought outside the city of Boston, Massachusetts. In the aftermath of that battle, a heroic – even Homeric – myth was created, a kind of ‘American Iliad‘, which sought to define a nation and how it fought its wars.
The effects of this myth have killed innumerable American soldiers since it took hold, and has caused a potentially fatal misunderstanding of military force within the United States, a misunderstanding that drives everything from firearms design to national military fiscal policy, to casualty rates and has called into question not only the very idea of taxation itself, but of military training, as a concept. It is a myth that needs to be staked to the ground, and its head struck off.
The myth goes something like this:
“The arrogant, degenerate, and authoritarian British foolishly tried to clamp a tax on their American Colonies without giving them a say in the matter. When the Americans protested, the British tried to throw their weight around — at which point, the rugged, sturdy American farmers “grabbed thar shootin’ ayhrons”, and rose in righteous fury to destroy the vaunted professional army of the British Empire in detail…”
…Which would make for a really great story.
The only problem is that it is almost entirely bogus.
The taxation issue aside – and the British, to be honest, weren’t being unreasonable in any way, about it – here is what actually happened:
On the British side, as tensions rose in Boston, the Crown began to send in more troops. These troops had the cache of “the Regulars” behind their name…the problem being, the vast majority of them were raw, in the extreme. Most had never heard a shot fired in anger, and most of the units involved had been on quiet garrison duty for decades.
In contrast, as much as 40% of the Colonial militia in the region around Boston were not simply veterans, but combat veterans, of the French and Indian War (part of the Seven Years War, for our European readers). As well, most of the senior American militia officers, while not having served as long as their British counterparts, had served all of their time during “active combat operations“, as we would say now.
When it became clear, in 1774, that military action was likely, the Patriot hard-core staged a political takeover of the Massachusetts Militia structure – largely a joke at that point – and began training in earnest and assembling supplies — while lots of historians like to discuss the activities of the Committees of Correspondence, or the Committees of Safety, not many tend to delve too deeply into the actions of the ad hoc Committees of Supply…’logistics‘ are boring drudgery after all.
General Thomas Gage – a very sharp (by the standards of the time) and well respected leader by all sides – tried to carry out his government’s orders, and 1774 became a kind of ‘spy war’, as British and Colonial intelligence teams sparred. (The Founding Father’s were hell on wheels when it came to intelligence operations, but that’s another article, entirely.) There were several small armed confrontations prior to the battle, and every one of them revolved around weapons and/or ammunition stockpiled by the Committees of Supply.
These raids, in fact, convinced the Massachusetts Patriot leadership to concentrate a large portion of their supplies at Concord – over 20 miles from Boston – to (hopefully) place them beyond the easy reach of the British garrison. Very quickly, however, Gage’s intelligence teams located the cache. Gage – who, knowing America and Americans very well, having both an American wife and nearly 20 years of service in America – had tried to take a diplomatic track to defuse the crisis. For his efforts trying to play peacemaker, he learned that he was about to be replaced (“aided and advised” was the term used) by three senior generals, so he fatefully decided to launch a swift raid to try and polish up his image, before he had to testify before Parliament.
Gage selected for the raid the British Army of the time’s equivalent to “special operations forces” – his garrison’s grenadier and light infantry companies; as an afterthought, he detailed his Third Brigade of ‘regular’ troops to act as a reserve force.
By the standards of the time, Gage’s plan was difficult, but it should have worked with little trouble. As it happened, however, Colonial intelligence was on the ball, found out about the details of the raid, and got the alarm out when the raid force began moving to their boats.
By the time the raid force marched into Lexington, the town militia company had assembled, then partially dispersed, to wait for events to develop. The details of Lexington are very well known: a tired, wet, jumpy British force; a confused command structure; and a random shot at the wrong moment, all combined into “the Shot Heard Round the World”…
…Meanwhile, the Colonials had not been idle.
After their political coup to gain control over the militia, the Colonials – in addition to assembling a large amount of supplies – had been training relentlessly, while their senior leadership sorted themselves into a command structure with a speed only seen with veteran officers who have no time for posturing.
The numbers (Galvin) are staggering — nearly twenty-two thousand militiamen were available for combat on April 18th. Perhaps 40% of these troops could be termed “Minutemen“, available to respond to an alarm “at a minute’s notice“, at least in theory. In practice, the Minutemen were usually in the forefront of Colonial action.
As the well-behaved British troops’ destruction of what supplies they could find spurred the militia units assembled on Punkatasset Hill to march into history at the North Bridge, thinking that the British were burning Concord town, other regiments – summoned by the alarm riders Dawes, Prescott and Revere – were marching down the twisting road network towards the Boston Road. Because of the poor nature of the roads, the Militia units to the northeast of the fighting actually had further to travel than other units to the west, near Worchester.
Fighting began in earnest as the seven hundred or so British troops were swiftly outnumbered by the continually-massing militia forces, as they tried to make an orderly retreat from Concord down the tiny, twisting, sunken road between the two villages. By the time the task force reached Lexington, they were effectively finished as a fighting force; had Hugh, Lord Percy’s 3rd Brigade (summoned by LtCol Smith, the raid force commander, earlier in the morning) not been anchored on Lexington Green, awaiting the raid force, they would have been destroyed in detail.
As a result, after the British column rested and reorganized momentarily in Lexington under the artillery of the 3rd Brigade, they set out for Boston. Along the way, the leading elements of multiple Militia regiments struck the British column with as much force as they could; Brigadier General Hugh, 5th Earl Percy, wisely kept his column moving as quickly as he was able. As the Militia companies fired on the British, and the column continued its retreat, the remainder of the arriving regiments piled into the pursuing Militia column that snaked back along what is now called “Battle Road”.
In the end, of course, the battered, exhausted British column successfully retreated into Boston, while the pursuing Militia regiments fed in around the city to establish siege lines, beginning the American War of Independence…
…Which brings us to — “What’s the point of this article?”
The foregoing should demonstrate the obvious: that the Colonial Militia could never have fought the battle it did on the 19th of April without spending significant time training relentlessly and assembling a real supply base well beforehand — a supply base, incidentally, that shaped the entire course of the battle.
This leads us to several lessons about the “spontaneous uprising of disgruntled farmers”:
- Training works. Disorganized rabble goes to war in droves – and dies in droves. Although they might win – will they have a viable population afterwards?
- Supplies are vital. Without them, the enemy likely won’t go after you immediately…of course, you can’t go after them, either. For the modern “Patriot” militia in the US, this means that you need to stop being selfish and greedy, and start buying supplies for a unit, with the full knowledge that you are going to give all of that stuff away early, on.
- Have a plan. Even if it’s a bad plan, that’s better than no plan at all.
- Learn about “things military”. The myth of the “Armed, Righteous Farmer” (or “Worker”, take note) translates both to people feeling that they do not need to know much about “military stuff”, but also – dangerously – that it can’t be overly complicated. This, in turn, usually prevents people from asking things like, “Why are we spending US$148million for an airplane that doesn’t have an engine?” See: A, B & C
- Don’t believe your own press. Ever.
Which brings us to…..
MURPHY’S LAW — Professionals vs Amateurs
“Professionals’ are predictable, but the world is full of amateurs.”
Truer words have never been spoken.
There is a dangerous – and frankly, bizarre – notion that has been creeping into the Western psyche for the last twenty or so years. This particular pearl of twisted, acrobatic logic goes something like this:
Standing armies are dangerous to Liberty, are ridiculously expensive, encourage “foreign adventures”, and really aren’t all that capable, when it comes to winning wars. After all, that was the view of America’s Founding Fathers, and they were generally right, more than they were wrong, so this must be the case. Therefore, we just need to forget about standing forces, and rely on Citizen militias, like in the early days of the American and French republics – after all, the Swiss and the Israeli armies are all or mostly militias, and they do just fine…
…Now, this argument is rightly laughed at openly by anyone with anything more than the most cursory knowledge of military history or science — but the problem in both the United States, and increasingly in the other Western powers, is that few people study either subject. Indeed, it can be argued that the study of these subjects by anyone outside the professional military establishment is actively discouraged, with many institutions of higher learning being openly hostile to the very idea of devoting resources to such classes.
As a result, what had been the occasional comedic relief and internet meme fodder provided by certain political figures breathlessly ranting about the evils of bayonet lugs, “magazine bullet clips“, and “shoulder things that go up” has now taken on a far more serious dimension, as people who should know better are increasingly making dangerous attempts to use badly flawed historical references or simple dismissals and assumptions to prove their case.
While it is clear that armies can be dangerous liabilities to their home countries, as of the earlyearly-2000’s, few states in the world can be accurately described as being “military dictatorships”. Nor has this been the case for many years. However, given the history of the past hundred years, a tyranny enforced at bayonet-point is a valid fear.
But it remains – or should remain – a remote fear.
The willful disregard of history, technology, economics, logic and psychology in certain quarters, especially in hyper-unstable times such as these is a direct result, in most Western countries, of two or more decades of confused missions, “mission creep“, and shocking levels of mismanagement in defense expenditures and policies; the United States is unique only in the scale of its own issues.
This attitude is typified – to cite just one example – among adherents of former US Congressman Ron Paul (R-TX), who infamously suggested (supposedly as a joke) pursuing every enemy from Osama bin Laden to Somali pirates using mercenaries operating under Congressionally-issued “Letters of Marque” — in apparent ignorance of how such documents worked in the past, what the ramifications (legally, as well as internationally) could be, nor even the simple fact that there is painfully little incentive for anyone to pursue or attack such targets.
But that sidesteps the real issue, that being where these prospective privateers got their training and equipment in the first place…but that is a digression from the point.
To grasp this problem in full bloom, this author had it explained to him by a person, via Facebook (with, apparently, a completely straight face) that standing armies – and presumably, their training – were pointless, because all that training and equipment failed to prevent the slaughter at Omaha Beach, on D-Day, and that likewise, all the training and equipment in the world failed the US Army Rangers in Mogadishu, as well as the lack of victory in both Afghanistan and Iraq, and now in Syria, to say nothing of Vietnam…
…It is truly difficult to attempt to argue at such a level of “un-knowledge” (hooray for adding to the English language?).
To demonstrate this problem, let us engage in a thought experiment.
I propose a situation where two thousand people are assembled in a parking lot. We will divide them into two equal groups. These two thousand people are uniformly aged 18 – 25; are 90% male/10% female; are all in what could be generally regarded as “good physical condition“; and finally, all of whom are capable of reading to at least the eighth grade level.
These two units together, equal the manpower of two slightly large light infantry battalions. We will train each battalion for one year, at the end of which, they will fight. Battalion A will be trained the way citizen militia aficionados think they should be trained. Battalion B will receive a more conventional training regimen. Both battalions will have access to the exact same weapons and equipment.
Both battalions will be provided with teams of experienced instructors; but here is the first difference: Battalion A’s instructors will be a grab bag of prior service veterans from various armed forces, while Battalion B’s instructors will be a dedicated and experienced team of professional soldiers, working from a minutely planned schedule. (We’ll leave aside how Battalion A’s instructors actually got their training, for the moment.)
Neither group of instructors will accompany their battalions into the coming fight in a year’s time.
How will this play out? We’ll begin with Battalion A.
Firstly, Battalion A’s troops will have to purchase their equipment from their own pockets. This will significantly degrade their individual supply situation, because they are from a cross-section of the economic spectrum. Modern military equipment is expensive — it takes roughly US$3,000, as of 2016, to equip one person as a light infantry soldier with the most basic level of gear.
This also impacts their weapons: modern crew-served weapons (machine guns and mortars) are significantly expensive; the US military currently pays c.$25,000 for every 81mm mortar it buys – and there are anywhere from four to eight in an infantry battalion. Machine guns – from M249 SAWs to M2HB .50’s – are no cheaper. And those prices are only for the weapons themselves – ammunition not included. Battalion A might be able to pass a collection hat, but they won’t get more than a few military-grade automatic weapons. On top of this, Battalion A must purchase their own ammunition, for both training and combat.
Then, we get to training.
Battalion A’s recruits are completely untrained. Their instructors all have experience, but both they and their recruits — being unpaid — all have day jobs. This means that they will train when they can, usually between two and four days each month. That applies to both instructors and students. As a result, only fifty to sixty percent of the unit will be training at any given time, because that is all that will likely be able to show up.
As well, Battalion A will need to rely on charity to find places to train, where they can actually learn how to maneuver around in the field. Also, Battalion A must rely on their private vehicles for both training and combat – $25,000 for a mortar is a lot of money, but that’s only half of what a decent pickup truck capable of functioning as a “technical” costs, new.
Actual, “military-grade” vehicles are almost certainly out of Battalion A’s reach.
Because of the loose structure of the unit, the troops will choose their own officers and NCOs – sometimes, they will pick competent people, most times…not.
Over at Battalion B, things are radically different.
Battalion B’s instructors started by herding them all aboard buses. They then trucked them to a large, remote base in the countryside. There, they began a punishing, 12-week long training cycle, learning as much of the basics of soldiering – which is far more than simply pulling a trigger – as they can. Battalion B will probably wash out 10-15% of their recruits during this period, mainly because a certain percentage of the population simply doesn’t mesh well with that kind of environment.
At the end of this 12 week cycle, the instructors give the troops a week off, to blow off steam. When they return, they begin a three week long advanced infantry course, where they fine tune the very basic infantry training they were given earlier.
This is also where the instructors begin identifying those with real leadership potential — with only a year to get ready, there is no time for a service academy, nor even full-length officer or NCO training schools. The leaders the instructors choose will be cracking eighteen hour days, while their troops will be running sixteen.
After this, the recruits will enter a grueling, four month long training cycle, to learn the ins and outs of specific job fields. Finally, there will be four months of field maneuvers, trying lock down the specifics of complex operations, before going up against Battalion A…
So — how will our hypothetical battle play out?
A lot, obviously, depends on the mission of each unit: realistic orders and goals from the unit’s respective higher authorities will have an enormous impact on their actions.
But in most plausible scenarios, even if Battalion B performs badly, Battalion A is going to get used like a floor mop: if they’re lucky, perhaps sixty percent of their force will even show up. Those troops will have little coordination, as not everyone will have radios. Night fighting will be problematic, at best, since few of Battalion A’s people could afford night vision equipment. Battalion A’s casualty recovery and evacuation processes will haphazard to non-existent, exacerbated by many of its people not being able to afford even minimal body armor or basic medical gear.
In contrast, Battalion B – showing up with everyone who had not washed out of training – will likely be advancing rapidly, coordinating the movements of its subordinate units via radio. While many of its troops will be hit, their injuries will be greatly ameliorated by having everyone in body armor, and prompt medical processes. Some of Battalion A’s squad elements might have some level of success (and, being fair, possibly spectacular success), but nowhere near enough to affect the outcome: Battalion A gets creamed, ninety-nine times out of a hundred…
But why? Why should this be so?
In a word: Taxes.
Battalion B was equipped, trained, housed and paid by a government that took in enough money to make this happen. Just how much money are we talking about?
Conservatively speaking, somewhere in the neighborhood of $50-100 million dollars for the battalion…and that’s running on an extremely tight budget.
As of 2007, it cost the United States Marine Corps approximately $52,000 to “basically train” a single recruit over an eighty-six day training cycle. Add in an additional nine months of training, plus meals and graduated pay for troops and instructors, as well as replacing expended training materials, and you can easily multiply that by six — in excess of $300,000, per person…
…On top of the $50-100 million for the minimal amounts of arms, vehicles, equipment and expendable items a battalion would need to enter combat with.
Troops buying their own gear, and providing their own training, simply doesn’t work for any but the most basic of military functions, and hasn’t, since at least the year 1900.
Now, a charge of bias could be leveled, here, in that the author – a product of, and firm believer in, standing professional forces, supplemented by properly trained and equipped citizen militias – deliberately weighted the results of this hypothetical battle in favor of the big-government supported force. That is a valid concern, which I will now address.
When the “small government/citizen militia” advocates seriously suggest measures like what produced Battalion A, they invariably cherry-pick data, and cite examples well out of context to prove their points. Favorite examples include the US Army Rangers’ disaster in Mogadishu, and the examples of the Swiss and Israeli use of largely Citizen militia forces.
What they avoid mentioning are things like the lopsided numbers (90-odd Rangers vs c.3,000 Somali militia, with the Rangers inflicting at least 500 casualties, or more), as well as the fact that the Swiss and Israeli economies both stop dead if any large-scale call-up occurs. As well, the fact that both nations employ compulsory service for most of their citizens, in addition to maintaining comparatively large standing bodies of troops, is rarely mentioned.
Even in the United States, the various State National Guards do not operate this way: their recruits attend Regular Army basic training and schools, just like Regular Army recruits — although there may be long delays between schools.
In point of fact, no one outside of Third or Fourth World tribal militias even attempt to train forces using the weekend method…
…Because, again, it just doesn’t work against any serious opponent.
The point must be driven home, that this dangerous set of beliefs is not merely a beer and pretzel thought experiment, nor a set of hypotheticals discussed over gallons of coffee in a cafe.
Gary Hart was wrong to promote it in 1998, Ron Paul was wrong to imply it, and their adherents are wrong to promote it, today.
The Universe is not static; things change. You adapt the the changes or you get run over.