26 May, 2006

Memorial Day - thoughts on small arms tactics and leadership

I am writing this one to relax a little bit. If you are not a fan of reading how wars are fought, I doubt you will be a fan of this whole post, so I offer you an excused absence now. :-)

War is a fallen human thing, and it is also a fascinating thing. There are no rules in war. Nothing defines victory or defeat. The Egyptians still celebrate their victory in the Yom Kippur War (yes, they lost.) Nothing defines the way in which you are allowed to fight (lying is de rigeur.) The stronger force usually wins, but not always. At Thermopylae, 300 Spartans led 7,100 Greeks to withstand 150,000 Persians for 3 days, giving the whole war to the Greeks.

War is fascinating to study because in it you see men stretched to their utter limits for an often worthy cause. They are stretched to the limits of their cunning, courage, endurance, and love for their brothers. This also gives me a decent excuse to relate it to the church. We should be so committed.

I want to talk about the tactics men used in war over the years.

There have been evolutions and leaps in how wars were fought, but I am going to contend that no leap was greater than that taken by the Germans in World War 2. I am then going to suggest that the church would be well served to emulate that evolution.

The key to war has always been, "Get there the firstest with the mostest." The objective of any general has been to get his army to the battlefield first, and to have the most people at the critical place. If you get there first, you can determine where that critical place will be. You can then place your strongest force at that point, and drive to victory.

At that critical place, you force a hole in the enemy lines through which your force can get behind your enemy, create confusion, and rapidly force panic. Once the panic begins, the battle ends and a slaughter takes place. The great generals used dozens of ad hoc and deliberate means to decide where to break through, and to make it happen.

This was true for Alexander the Great, Hannibal, Joan of Arc, and Napoleon. Whether the battle was fought with spears, swords, or muskets nothing changed. Choose the critical place, mass your most confident troops there, force a breakthrough, and exploit the panic.

World War 1 held every seed of change, and tragically it did not happen. The machine gun was introduced in WW1. The machine gun changed everything (and the tank would have too, if anyone had figured out what to do with it.)

The machine gun gave one man the ability to stop dozens. It could not be used in attack, because it needed to be firmly emplaced, but it made defence almost omnipotent. Hence WW1 became the horrid trench war that it was.

The generals were still massing their troops at the critical point, and trying to force a breakthrough. They would send a tightly bunched mass of soldiers across the "no-man's land" between the trenches in an attempt to create the all-important breakthrough. That tightly bunched mass of troops would have turned the battle against Napoleon. Napoleon had only cannon.

These generals had machine guns.

Those masses of boys died without hope. They were never going to make it to the other trenches, and they were never going to break through to create that panic. The generals were still fighting as they had all through history, but that history was over. Everything was different.

Germany was not defeated in WW1. They surrendered because they were running out of supplies and saw defeat coming, but they had not even pushed out of France when they surrendered. They surrendered because the war had broken everyone's hearts.

(The armistice they were handed after they surrendered was evil. They could not bear the burden that was laid on them after that war. Everyone says that, and doggone if I don't have to agree with everyone. Hitler was an evil half-wit, but he was given the keys to the kingdom by the evil built into that "peace".)

When World War 2 was brewing, the Allied generals planned how to win it. They took the lessons of WW1, and refined them so that they would be ready for anything. And they were ready for anything. The French Maginot Line was truly an impressive piece of defense work. It really was unassailable.

When the French created the Maginot Line, they created a living perfection of the machine gun as a defensive weapon. Every machine gunner could safely protect every other machine gunner while stopping all advancing enemies. It really was the perfect expression of the purpose of the machine gun as demonstrated in WW1.

That's why the Germans went around it.

But the Germans did not win because they went around the Maginot Line.

The Germans conquered the better part of Europe in 2 years because they re-invented the Sergeant, and the sergeant invented a new way to use the machine gun.

French decisions during battle were made at the level of the "company" and above. That is a group of 100-200 men, or even 500-800 men at the battalion level.

German decisions were made at the squad and even "fire team" level. That is a group of 10-12, or even 5-6 men. A sergeant was in charge of a squad, and his corporal was in charge of half the squad when it was split into fire teams.

And each squad had a machine gun.

This was not a machine gun like had been used in WW1. Those machine guns needed water to keep them cool enough to fire, so they weighed 120+ pounds when ready for use and were far too unwieldy to tote around during an attack. The Germans built machine guns that weighed 25 pounds, and required no water when firing.

Before the battle, the French generals, colonels, majors and captains would review the battle plan. When they understood everything, they went out to position their troops. At the same time, the German generals, colonels, majors, and captains would review their battle plans. Then they did something the French never thought of. The German captains would go back to their troops and review the whole battle plan with their sergeants.

In the French army, ~1% of the soldiers in the battle knew the plan. In the German army over 10% of the troops knew the battle plan.

The French army lost in 20 days because they were out-thought by the German sergeants at the grass-roots level of battle. German squads would work together to set up crossfires with their machine guns that kept the French from moving while the Germans circled around behind them.

The strategy of battle had not changed. It was still pick the critical place, mass your troops there, create a breakthrough, and exploit the panic. The Germans just shrunk the scale from the army and division level down to the squad level. The Germans would achieve micro-breakthroughs all over a battlefield, and combine them into the macro-breakthrough the allies had always wanted in WW1.

They embraced the new battlefield and overcame their enemies on it.

The Lord stopped the German advance. He then turned the tide, and ended the Third Reich's reign of terror. The crimes of Germans against all of humanity during those 6 years are appalling if you actually take the time to read up on them, and praise the Lord, He did not let them triumph. My son read me some stuff last week that curdled my blood.

Practically, the Germans lost because Hitler was a half-wit, because they bit off more than they could chew, and because the British and Americans were quick learners. We learned in Africa and Italy how to turn their tactics back against them. We also adapted to the new battlefield - to the battlefield the Germans had created. We learned how to pin them down, and create our own micro-breakthroughs.

Our boys were green when they got "over there", but they took everything the Germans could throw at them, learned from it, and turned it back on them better than they got. We learned to work in small teams exercising initiative to exploit tiny advantages as they happened. By the end of the war, American tactics were as refined as anything Germany ever deployed.

(The Russians used up all the German bullets with warm bodies, then killed them with whoever was left. We won't learn much from them except the horrors of evil leaders.)


In the church today, I see us as being led at the 500 person level, like the French. I believe we need to move leadership down the chain, to the 10 person level.

There are so very many reasons to do this.
  • Responsibility given breeds responsibility acted. Put a man in a position of responsibility, and he is many times more likely to grow responsible.
  • Small teams can react to small problems. Many small teams reacting to similar small problems can make a big impact.
  • Small teams look to each other for brotherhood. Large teams look to an organization for brotherhood.

I had never thought of that last one before. I think I am going to end on it, because it is potent.

The French army was highly proud of being the glorious French army. They were proud of all their beautiful uniforms, glorious history, dashing leaders, and eternal dedication to France. 20 days later they were defeated.

Our boys fought in squads of 12. The other 11 soldiers in your squad depended on you. Sure, America was a great idea, but Jones over there was in trouble, and if you didn't get your head out of that foxhole and start laying down some lead, Jones had no hope at all.

I cannot be loyal to a church the way I can be loyal to brothers.


Thank you to all the men and boys who paid the price for each other and for America.


Milly said...


japhy said...

I remember a logic course I took in school in which we had to show that there had to exist some soldier X who was killed in battle before he killed any other soldier.

The very thought of that bothers me so much, I do not think I could ever fight in such a battle. When I watch war movies, I see people getting shot and killed immediately upon landing on the shore from their ships. Those people only existed, as far as the war is concerned, to take the bullets so that the later heroes of the war would not be killed right away. I'm sure fighting for your country is an honor, and dying for your country is an honor too, but I always imagined such people as dying just as they finish some amazing act (arming some bomb, saving some orphan, etc.), not just stepping off a ship onto a beach.

It's a bit of a terrifying thought that things might be that way in life, too... and sometimes it is.

Weekend Fisher said...

That makes a lot of sense. But right now ... honestly, I've heard pastors go on and on about how overworked and overloaded they are, but when it comes time to actually trust their people ... well, they don't. The ones I've seen, anyway.

Have you seen something different? Or have they just signed their own obsolescence-warrant while the rest of us re-group?

codepoke said...


The very thought of that bothers me so much, I do not think I could ever fight in such a battle.

Well said. Me too.

But history shows that you could. All of those boys stepped off the boat, and most of the first ones died without doing anything measurable. They did it. You could do it too, and so could I.

The difference between you today and you just before stepping off that boat would be 3 months of training. Those 3 months are very, very hard and for good reason. What you are training for is much harder.

In those 3 months, you learn some obvious things like how to fire a rifle, but the main things you learn are, 1) you can endure much more suffering than you thought you could, and 2) everything you are doing, you are doing for your teammates.

In WW2, by simple surveys they determined that 75% of American soldiers never fired their weapons effectively. They didn't aim. They stuck their rifles around corners and blindly pulled the trigger. More often than not, the reason was that they really didn't want to kill that boy on the other side.

They did the frightening stuff, like jumping into the water with machine gun fire blazing past them. (BTW: when a high velocity bullet goes past you, it makes a mini sonic boom. You hear it clearly, and you know exactly how far away it was as it goes by.) It was the other stuff at which they failed. They did not fire effectively.

At the start of that war, we were trying to train obedient soldiers. We succeeded, but we did not create effective soldiers. They did what they were told, but not what they needed to do, at least in 75% of cases.

After that survey was released, the army changed the way it ran basic training after induction into the army. They learned from their mistakes. It is very hard to teach a man to take another man's life, no matter how important it might be, and they faced that reality squarely. Fear could be dealt with by training, but the revulsion to aiming needed a different kind of training.

Today, army basic training teaches a trainee to fire "at center of mass" of the intended "target", as opposed to "kill the boy on the other side." More importantly, they teach said trainee that his teammates will live or die entirely upon the strength of his actions. He must act, and act decisively.

In each American war, the number of soldiers who failed to fire effectively has dropped until in the Gulf Wars the number was inconsequential. Amazing.

A quick additional tactical fact. I just love to tell this one. It hardly pertains to your comment, so I am just indulging myself. I hope you don't mind. :-)

A foxhole is a hole in the ground from which a soldier can fight in relative safety. As with all things, there is a right way, a wrong way, and an army way to dig a foxhole.

The army way is fascinating.

First the boring details. It should be 7 feet deep with standing ledges at either side that let you stand with your rifle supported by the edge of the foxhole. It should be 6 feet wide, and about 3 feet from front to back. It should have overhead protection against shrapnel. It should also have grenade sumps in the corners so that if a grenade falls in, it naturally rolls into it, and the soldiers will survive the blast.

Now it gets interesting. A foxhole should always be built for 2 people, and it won't work right with fewer than 2 people, one at the left and one at the right. They are supposed to talk to each other all the time. They are, in fact, called "battle buddies" and throughout their training neither has ever done anything without the other. They go everywhere together. They do everything together. They know more about each other than either of their wives could ever know. They are responsible to be able to tell visiting officers every intimate detail of each other's lives, and are tested on that knowledge from time to time.

The army has learned that no man can fight effectively alone. He has to know that someone, somewhere cares about him and is worth caring about in return.

Second, you build 3 dirt berms around your foxhole. The first two are directly to the left and right. The third one is directly to your front, and it is wider than the foxhole itself.

I'll let that sink in.

You cannot see the enemy out in front of you when you are in your foxhole.

I want to make sure I describe this understandably, but basically, you can only see forward to the left and right. Imagine sitting in your car, and the front window is completely painted over, and so are your side windows, except for a little space just over your side mirrors. You can see over the driver's side mirror, and your battle buddy can see over his side mirror.

If anyone comes straight at you, you will not know they are even there until their gun sticks right over your forward berm!

If that sounds a little nuts, it's because you have forgotten that you are not alone. Every foxhole is a part of a network. When I am in my foxhole, I cannot protect myself. Instead, I have to protect the 2-3 foxholes to my left, and my battle buddy protects the 2-3 foxholes to our right.

We never protect ourselves.

We rely on our squad to protect us, and we protect them.

When the enemy is charging straight at us, they never have a straight shot at a single one of us, until they have safely made it past all of us.

The first time I read the field manual on foxhole construction, I was instantly amazed at the wisdom in that plan.

If you have ever wondered why the American army does so very, very well in war - it is not just our technological advantage. Our soldiers actually care about each other, and our tacticians actually work VERY hard to keep our casualties low. Our army is full of brilliant, caring people who put their full capacities to work on inflicting damage without sustaining it.


I say this not as a "moral", or as a mandatory return to the blog subject. I say it from the heart.

The church can learn an awful lot from the way the army thinks about its problems. Our army doesn't pretend that we are doing everything the best possible way. They acknowledge their casualties and count them unacceptable, then they set about stopping them at any cost.

We can do better.

We can do better.

codepoke said...


Have you seen something different? Or have they just signed their own obsolescence-warrant while the rest of us re-group?

You cannot talk this way in front of me! :-D

No, I have seen exactly what you describe. It seems to me that pastors feel a deep, deep responsibility/guilt both to serve the Lord, and to earn the pittance of money they are receiving. I think they live in constant fear that they are not living up to the standard. So, they are afraid to release responsibility for reasons both noble and base.

That they might have signed their own warrant of obsolecence, though?

The thought is too exciting for me to look at directly. I have to read those words in a mirror.

I pray the Lord will make it so.

DugALug said...


Nice parallels brother! I am, obviously, a proponent of cell groups. Interestingly enough, one church I worked with refered to them as 'fire teams', I wonder if they knew the history behind that?

I would be remiss not to point out that the effective use of aircraft, fighting a multi-front war, and the waking of the slumbering giant (the USA), sealed Germany's fate.

In addition, I would have to say that you belittled the short-sightedness of the Maginot-line. Here is another little tip. Don't declare something 'unbreakable': Apple Computers are learning this now. The French's arogance and thier short-sightedness did them in, just like in WWI.

Still, these points just cloud the issue. God raises and brings down armies. There is no other way to describe things like the sinking of the Bismark, the 101st airbornes crippling attacks that made V-day successful (Colnel Winters was an amazing man), or Romel's failure in the African desert.

Still the loss of life is sombering. The cost of the liberties that we hold dear was paved on the blood and bones of the brave servicemen who took seemingly inconsequential hills, trenches, and other landmarks. I am humbled, and ever endebted to their sacrifice.

With that same line of thought, I look and Dr. Yung E. Cho in South Korea or Reinhardt Bonke in Africa, and know that God's hand is what makes all of this happen.

Thanks for the awesome post, CP.

God Bless

Maeghan said...

I am certainly not a fan of combat films but I don't mind reading about it especially tactics and strategy. Good post and good parallel.

My church is trying it hands again at starting on cell groups - we have tried several times over the years and we are at it again.

In comparison, in wars, the teams are working towards a cause they believe in, there are procedures, there are equipment. In small groups, the cause must be there and firmly held by all the members. But sometimes, the cause is not shared, there are a lack of leadership and procedures.

codepoke said...


But sometimes, the cause is not shared, there are a lack of leadership and procedures.

Good points.

It may be easier to keep everyone on task when they know that they are a part of a larger war, and that everyone's survival is staked upon them working as part of the overall plan. That's why I think Paul emphasizes the fruit of doctrine so much more than the doctrine itself. Doctrine tends to divide, while fruit tends to unite.

May the Lord bless your efforts - with fruit!

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