23 August, 2009

Drill and Ceremony

A little lad asked me the other day why the British soldiers all stood in a line to be shot during the American Revolution.

It's a much better question than he knew.

The answer is rooted in that least coveted of human emotions, fear, and that dodgiest of human studies, history.

Some several hundred years before Christ was born, some Macedonians conquered the world behind the phalanx. The phalanx was an amazing military invention (invented several centuries before Alexander, but certainly employed brilliantly by The Great). It was a juggernaut made of people. Each man carried an 8 foot spear and a shield large enough to protect his entire body. He stood elbow-to-elbow with the man on his either side and several rows deep. They advanced on the enemy relentlessly.

In every decisive ancient battle you see a radically lopsided casualty report. Alexander's forces lost 500-1,000 men at Gaugamela, for example, while Darius's forces lost 50,000-90,000 of the 100,000 on the field. The reason for this discrepancy is fear. During the height of the battle each side might be losing hundreds of casualties equally, then comes the breakthrough (yes, that's where that word comes from.) Alexander employed some daring tricks to create a weakness right in the center of the enemy lines, attacked it in force, and broke through to the soft underbelly of the Persian army.

As soon as the Persians knew the Greeks were behind them, they panicked and lost military discipline. Fear started making their decisions for them. Up until that moment, the Greeks had probably lost 500 men and the Persians 1,000. Given that the Greeks were outnumbered 2 to 1, that was survivable. But from the moment of panic the Persians were helpless babes in the woods.

Ancient armies won battles by overcoming the urge to panic and lost battles when it overcame them.

Every human's heart is gripped by icy fear. No one has so much courage as to be immune to panic. Alexanders soldiers the bravest men in the world and he didn't teach them some secret courage meditation. Winners and the losers both go to war with the men they have, not with the superheroes you read about in the books. No, the Greeks overcame fear with discipline and trust. They taught their men to stand in a straight line, to fight in very close proximity to their support, and to trust both their leaders and the men standing at either elbow. The Greeks were better trained and better led, so they were rewarded with the breakthrough. They overcame panic by relying on each other and obeying the commands of trustworthy leaders.

All ancient war was fought by men standing just as close together as possible. Roman soldiers were trained to use their swords as stabbing weapons, not hacking weapons, because then they could stand twice as closely to each other without sharp objects flailing around wildly. This made them four times as effective because they had more "firepower" concentrated on a smaller part of the enemy lines and because standing more closely to their comrades gave them courage.

The British stood in close lines, not because they wanted to prove they were brave, but to make themselves brave. They wanted to concentrate their firepower and courage most effectively. Against similarly trained European armies, the British forces were terrifyingly courageous. Their reputation for steely determination under fire was legendary, and terrifying. You now know it was courage born of discipline and trust.

What you may not know is that the American army could not have won the Revolutionary War by shooting from behind trees. We eventually needed to field conventional armies and fight conventional European battles to win our freedom. The rifles of the time fired too slowly and too inaccurately to panic a trained army. Decisive military actions were won by the bayonette, by achieving a breakthrough, and by causing panic in the enemy. We beat the British because we learned just enough discipline to defeat the small army they could spare to put down our rebellion. They were fighting on too many worldwide fronts and could not send enough soldiers to do the job they were given. The smallness of the British army arrayed against us and the arrival of Baron von Steuben in America to teach us Prussian "Drill and Ceremony," are what ended our tenure as loyal British subjects. (The US Army still refers to von Steuben's "Blue Book" of drill and ceremony to this day.)

The good Baron taught our troops to march in disciplined lines so we could maneuver enough to beat the British. He taught us to mass our firepower while still remaining mobile. And in so doing, he taught our soldiers courage. He taught them how to stand closely enough to each other while maneuvering under fire to give each other the bravery to survive against professional British armies.

It wasn't until the machine gun and WWI this equation changed, but even then it only changed in appearance. American soldiers "stand" closely to each other on radios, and we mass our firepower in other ways. We still survive and thrive on the modern battlefield by overcoming panic through discipline and trust.

Anyway, all that was fun to talk about. The little lad enjoyed hearing how battle worked, and I enjoyed reinforcing to him over and over that courage is something we gain from discipline and trust, by standing side-by-side with other men, not from some internal miracle of will. Hopefully, it will help a little bit some day.

But surely you sense the parallels for the church flying through my mind now?

The church reminds me of a bunch of Virginia farmboys wondering why the Brits don't run back to England after they've sniped a few Redcoats from the woods. I suspect we're looking for "a few brave men," when really we need to learn to work more closely with each other and trust our leaders. Courage doesn't come from "want to." Courage is a measurable, reproducible fruit of discipline and trust.

I suspect the church needs Drill and Ceremony.


DugALug said...


Sign me up! What a great analogy!

God Bless

Diabolical Genius said...


I'll probably chew on this one for awhile.

As Shrek said, "It's like an onion... it has layers."