Massif Rocks!

The Baldwin Files – Old Soldiers vs Young Soldiers

I have been thinking for some time about belatedly developing some kind of guiding philosophy or “mission statement” for these articles. Over time, I have ranged – more or less randomly – all over the place; from commentary on gear, pontificating on the Constitution, exploring a bit of what I deem relevant history, and preaching leadership above all. Leadership fascinates me precisely because it is universal and always central to all military actions whether in the past, the present, or in the foreseeable future. In large part I have been guided by my favorite Carl von Clausewitz quote, “War is no pastime; it is no mere joy in daring and winning, no place for irresponsible enthusiasts. It is a serious means to a serious end.

Clausewitz could just as readily have been talking about military leadership when he made that observation. Likewise, Clausewitz’s insightful conceptions of the impacts of probability and chance as well as fog and friction are challenges just as true of leadership as they are of combat. That is one reason why his thoughts – as well as Sun Tzu’s and others – on the subject of leadership, war, strategy, and operational art, are still deemed relevant for professional soldiers to study even now. However, the small unit tactics of ancient China and the Napoleonic era are of very little professional interest to modern warfighters – and rightly so.

With that in mind, I have also been considering the risk of being guilty of providing only antiquated information that is of little practical value today. Antiquated as defined by Webster’s is something that is “outmoded or discredited by reason of age: old and no longer useful, popular, or accepted.” It is true that tactics change constantly and can indeed become outmoded over time. Sometimes, if an enemy fields an effective countermeasure for example, a tactic can become obsolescent very quickly. However, sound military principles like those that Clausewitz is talking about above age much better and rarely go completely out of style.

For example, the version of Major Roger’s Rules for Ranging that I learned decades ago had one rule that went something like this; “Let the enemy come till he’s almost close enough to touch. Then let him have it and jump out and finish him up with your hatchet.” Even when I was a young soldier, that was certainly not a tactic, technique, or procedure (TTP) that was in use by any modern military. If it were, hatchets would still be standard issue. Therefore, if taken literally, that “rule” would indeed be antiquated tactical advice. However, if considered instead in terms of more enduring principles like speed, surprise, and violence of action than that rule – I would respectfully submit – is just as applicable today as it was in 1757.

By the way, just because a TTP is antiquated does not mean it no longer works. Moreover, just because the U.S. Military considers something too low tech, hopelessly outdated and no longer popular does not mean that our enemies have the luxury or inclination of thinking the same way. Just because the person shooting at you from the ridge is using a 303 Enfield rather than a more modern AK47 does not mean he is any less of a threat. Antique tools can still kill you and your friends just as dead as the newest high-tech precision ordinance. The same resource limitation applies to many of our Allies. They may not have any choice but to use “old school” and unsophisticated TTPs. That means – by military necessity – we have to be prepared to work within the limits of what they have and how they are constrained to operate.

As I alluded to above, the mechanics of warfare change all the time, it is human nature that is enduring. Therefore, insight into fundamental human nature during war remains relevant across time and cultural boundaries. As we know, while a soldier may train constantly, he actually practices his profession only intermittently. Most of the soldiers that landed at Normandy in 1944 had never seen combat until that day – even though the war had been ongoing for years. Today, some soldiers may have multiple tours but on each rotation most are still experiencing combat for their first time. Even for those who have seen combat more than once, it is a very individual and in some sense narrow experience. Like all veterans, I can only say that I have personally experienced combat: in the rank I held at the time, at the specific level and intensity of warfare I was involved in prosecuting, only for relatively short periods of time, in particular geographic locations, and against contemporaneous enemy threats.

I have visited the Normandy beaches and walked the ground of Pickett’s charge several times. Yet, despite my experience and training, I can still only make an educated guess about what it was like to land on those beachheads under fire or what Pickett’s men experienced at Gettysburg. Therefore, I cannot honestly claim that I have “mastered” the broader aspects of the “art of war” without diligently studying the experience and wisdom of others – and perhaps not even then. Investigating how those in the past have addressed the training of troops, used intelligence or out maneuvered a determined opponent helps provide additional and critical context. Historical figures like Vegetius still provides useful insight in some aspects of war; Saxe a different perspective; Sun Tzu a more strategic point of view; and Clausewitz and Jomini additional different thoughts and theories to consider.

It is important to note that even though some may have first experienced war as young men, all wrote their thoughts down as older men. A long time ago a Major General told me that he learned everything he knows about leadership as a Second Lieutenant – but it took him 30 more years to understand what he had learned. Warfare is like that. Clausewitz and Saxe initially experienced war as teenagers, but it took years and additional life experiences for them to contextualize that information and form it into coherent theories or principles. I read many of these authors years ago and learned – even memorized – some of their words. Nevertheless, I understand their ideas far better today than I ever did as a younger soldier.

Experiencing war for the first time has been likened to “seeing the elephant” since Hannibal’s campaigns, I suppose. However, there is another – even more ancient – pachyderm analogy that also aptly applies. That is the blind men and the elephant. One declares the tail of the animal is “like a rope” because that best describes the piece he can “see.” Whether he is aware or unaware that the portion that he has access to is just a small part of a larger beast does not in any way invalidate his observation. That particular blind man is absolutely “right” in his assertions, as are the others in their descriptions of different elements of the whole creature in question.The study and practice of war and combat has always been like that. Each “blind man” in turn describes warfare as he experienced it – or as he thinks it should be conducted – but, shaped and confined by his own experiences and biases, only had opportunity to “see” just a limited portion of the whole “truth” of combat. Today we only know as much as we think we know because we have access to the writings of ALL the “blind men” who have gone before us, “laid hands” on war, and then bothered to leave us their sincere impressions.

I will use one example to illustrate the point. Consider the inherent danger of combat; in On War, Clausewitz gives a good description of the emotional impact on a novice as he approaches a notional battle. The danger of painful death and dismemberment is at first abstract and far away. As the new soldier moves closer to the actual fighting the abstract becomes very real and frightening – to the uninitiated even petrifying. Danger, i.e. realistic FEAR of violent death is not something most of us have to deal with on a daily basis – not even soldiers in peacetime. It is not something that can be simulated in training. In fact, military training is rigorously designed in such a way as to minimize even the possibility of death or serious injury. In combat, a leader must control his own dread, display confidence and inspire soldiers to overcome their natural fear in order to accomplish a mission.

True enough, but so what? The caricatures in the attached picture are deliberate exaggerations of what a great many soldiers – retired and active – actually feel. Each is like the “blind men” above. An individual convinced that he has mastered the entire art of war by virtue of experiencing combat at least once. Of course, they are both equally wrong; it simply is not that easy. However, of the two, I am much more concerned about the younger guy – since he is still in the fight. He and his teammates are really the target audience I hope to ultimately reach. That does not mean that my minor contribution so far provided any appreciable value added either. Candidly, no one really needs me to repeat what Clausewitz said. His work is readily available and better authors than I have written whole books explaining him. So, that leads to the larger overarching question to be asked and answered. Why keep writing these articles at all? Is there any real need?

I decided to see what else was available on the internet. The good news is there is a lot of sound stuff out there produced by numerous good, professional people. Many of whom are featured on this site from time to time. On the other hand, there is a lot of goofy – and frankly scary – misinformation out there as well. I will mention two YouTube videos in particular because they seemed to be representative of a lot of questionable content and, as a result, the most problematic to me. First, both videos had good production values, the presenters were articulate, and each gave the impression that they were subject matter experts. One young fellow was demonstrating how to assembly a Molle II rucksack. He was wearing a multicam combat shirt with no insignia. He claimed he was showing the audience “pro tips” and how to set up the pack the way “guys going to selection” do it. Then he proceeded to attach each element of the pack to the frame wrong – pack body, load lifters, and shoulder straps.

By the end, when he mounted the waist belt upside down, he had dissuaded me of the notion that he knew anything about the subject at hand – or the military in general. Here is a real pro tip, if you do not have extensive experience with an item of kit, put it together the way the official instructions say it should be done. The other video was on assembling ALICE gear. The fellow on this was closer to my age I assume. I have to guess because only his hands were visible on screen. He did seem to be very familiar with the ALICE harness. He rigged his pouches with zip ties and 550 cord as was common in the early 80s and onward. I saw one major problem with his presentation. He was not just passionate about the subject, but rather came off instead as inexplicably angry.

In fact, he made sure the audience understood that there was one way – and one way only – to properly assemble ALICE gear in order to survive in combat. His way. No variations authorized. If anyone dared to do it differently, they must be damn fool cherries with a death wish. Here is another pro tip from me. Anyone that says there is only a singular way to do something in combat is probably wrong. Sure, some specific TTP are more desirable than others because they are tactically sounder and, consequently, more likely to produce the desired outcome. However, there is almost never just “one way” to get the job done. Both the presentations I have highlighted were slick and professionally produced. An experienced soldier would spot the same issues I saw quickly enough, but a neophyte might be easily led down the wrong path.

That sampling convinced me that there was indeed still some need for higher quality material out there. That said, I am not going to make it my mission to deal with all the disinformation in the tactical or quasi-tactical corners of the internet. I admit that task is far too large and daunting for me to take on. However, I can attempt to put out information that might be useful for some. More accurate – hopefully – than the young guy, and certainly a lot less angry than the older guy. That is good enough for me. I assure anyone that is reading this or anything else I have written, I do not make these comments or observations while astride some high horse. I have benefited from the guidance of outstanding leaders and excellent teachers. Still, being the hard head I am, I have learned many of these lessons the hardest way. That is, I have screwed it up royally – sometimes multiple times – before I figured it out. Still, there is no reason that others cannot learn from my mistakes without having to repeat them. Besides, I have the time and I am not ready to do the old soldier fade away just yet.

LTC Terry Baldwin, US Army (Ret) served on active duty from 1975-2011 in various Infantry and Special Forces assignments. SSD is blessed to have him as both reader and contributor.

12 Responses to “The Baldwin Files – Old Soldiers vs Young Soldiers”

  1. Howard says:

    Years ago, I used to read a site made by a former Army Ranger that had a great deal of good advice on it. But I remember they had written that Night Vision shouldn’t be used.
    That was said because the guy writing it had only used the first gen NV that required IR illumination to work. Using it let anyone else with NV instantly know where you are. He was giving good advice for the equipment he was familiar with, but not modern equipment.
    While I was in, our training was focused on teaching us how to win a conventional war. When we deployed, we did a sort of bastardized combo of policing action, urban warfare, and counter insurgency. I remember some of the new guys complaining that all the training they had received (for conventional warfare) was a waste of time. I’d try to explain to them that what they were doing was build on those same principles.
    We are left with two issues.
    First is that when something works for someone, they can be left believing that it is the only way and/or the best to deal with a problem. It is discussed with law enforcement that when a cop often successfully does something in one high stress event, they will often try to default to it later. Let’s say a cop was in a situation where they were justified in the use of lethal force, but they manage to talk the bad guy down, they may be hesitant to use force next time and try to talk to the bad guy in a situation where it wouldn’t work. Or the other way around. The soldier that charges the enemy machine gun position and survives might tend to think it easier than it normally is. When we learn from other people, we need to keep in mind that what worked for them with their situation and tools might not be ideal for us.
    The other issue is that people often blindly follow advice without knowing the reasons behind it. While I was in there was all manner of stupid stuff we did because it was cherished traditions of the Corps. For example, we were not allowed to put our hands in our pockets. Later I learned it was because a century ago it was considered that only effeminate men put their hands in their pockets. Because some long dead guy had some bias, we were all standing around in the snow sticking our hands in our belt line. Yea, I’m sure that looks oh so much more professional. I like that silly example better than the stupid things we did in combat, as those were truly infuriating.
    If you know the reasons and reasoning behind a piece of advice, you can better understand if and when it would work for you. Don’t be like the classic example of the martial artist that makes his fist with a finger extended, not knowing that technique came from an instructor who couldn’t bend an injured finger.

  2. Stefan S. says:

    “Beware of an old man in a profession where men usually die young”.
    Today it is the snowflake PC crowd that has grown like a fungus on our military.

    • Brendan Fries says:

      Seriously gtfo. The current military is full of 15 year combat vets who joined in a time of war. Those enlisting at 18 in the next year will have known only a nation at war their entire lives. The pointy end of the spear is sharper than ever and more lethal for those few involved in combat. Soldiers are doing 6+ rotations to Afghanistan and Iraq let alone those involved in Yemen or Africa. I’m so tired of fogey’s calling young people snowflakes because we don’t beat homosexuals or practice casual misogyny on a daily basis.

      • lcpl1066 says:

        The only generation to not need a draft.

        • Terry Baldwin says:

          lcpl1066,

          I am against compulsory service in any form. However, it would be more accurate to say that GWOT manpower requirements were manageable with the force structure already in existence and did not require a draft. It would also be true to say that at the highest point of commitment of US Forces, 2006-2010, the Services had to lower standards significantly to meet recruiting objectives. So there were not enough high quality volunteers to meet the requirements during that time.

          Brendan and Stefan,

          The snowflake comments are a red herring and off subject. Otherwise, you guys are making my point. Neither the old soldier’s or the young soldier’s personal experience in war carries more weight than the others. Both have legitimate perspectives – based on their individual experiences – that are valid BUT are not all encompassing. IMO, whether old or young, both will be better served if they realize they still have a lot to learn.

          TLB

        • TM says:

          This is a lie.

      • TM says:

        You gtfo. Your response is worse than his post. Old closed minded meets young closed minded.

  3. Brendan Fries says:

    LTC Baldwin,

    I absolutely agree and I have always sought to absorb as much information as I can from older peers and vets of all periods and conflicts, even from those long dead. While not all of it may be applicable or relevant there is much I’ve been able to apply, why make the same mistakes when someone already came up with a solution? I just have never found anything starting with “back in my day” or “the last hard class” or snowflake ever to contain much truth or useful knowledge.

    P.S. I’ve used your knowledge of ALICE gear and MOLLE to great help over my short career so far.

    • Terry Baldwin says:

      Brendan,

      I am glad to hear that. I have found that most soldiers – young or old – just want respect for their military experiences. That is especially true of wartime service.

      Does it matter if the combat was in the Mekong or Helmand, Seoul or Fallujah? No matter where or when, the individual risk of death or catastrophic injury is always there. That should be a common bond for veterans – and usually is.

      But some old guys have an unfortunate tendency to think of all younger soldiers as “snot nosed” kids. And, some young soldiers tend to see every old soldier as a “has been” or even senile “fogey.”

      That makes it easier to discount the other’s perspective. A little mutual respect goes a long way. TLB

  4. Kirk says:

    It’s a balancing act, just like everything. Some of the old-school stuff is still very relevant, some of it isn’t. Some new stuff isn’t as new as the new guys think, and there are things they’re re-inventing that were already tried and found wanting…

    One of the advantages we have in the US Army is also simultaneously a huge disadvantage–The fact that we have just about no real institutional memory, and keep insisting on re-inventing the wheel, over and over and over again… While that is frustrating as hell because of the seeming inability to learn from history, it is (or, can be…) positive in that new eyes looking at old problems sometimes come up with superior solutions.

    I’d plunk down for a more enlightened solution: Have the willingness to embrace the new, but for the love of God, let’s have some damn respect for the historical facts, and at least pay attention to them. There are a lot of good lessons to be learned, from the past and the old-timers. It’s a matter of identifying them, and listening to the wisdom that they paid for in blood.

    I think one of my biggest frustrations with the Army has been this inability to actually learn–There’s a multitude of things that I know were learned via harsh and bloody experience, that cost men’s lives. To know that those lessons are ignored, and we’re expending more lives to learn them, all over again…? You have no idea how aggravating that is.

  5. Tom says:

    LTC Baldwin,

    There is certainly a need for leadership training that focuses on the true demands of war. We have to few leaders that are willing to share their mistakes so that other may learn. Also, too many of those leaders use their limited combat experience for the basis of their mentorship and training. Bottom line up front, keep writing, and write as much as you can. It will be shared, and it is needed. Your perspective is unique in that you were training by those who waged war on a grand scale. You have the ability to share knowledge gained by those who experienced war in WWII, Korea and Vietnam. What makes your perspective unique is the recency of your GWOT experience. The Army is shifting back to the pre- 9/11 training focus of a near peer threat, and we have very few leaders with pre 9/11 experience. So again, write as much as you can. It will be well received.

    Kirk. Oh man, you are so right. We will re-learn those lessons and at a high cost. We leave those “snot nosed kids” vulnerable because we don’t prepare them with the tool box they need for combat. Does anyone patrol on foot anymore? Can our current group of squad leaders maneuver their fire teams effectively? Probably not. Or in my career field, when is the last time an Aviation Battalion “jumped”? In the 90’s we were all about moving. We could organically move aviation battalions at a moments notice, move 40-50 miles and be back operational within hours. Now we couldn’t do it without KBR contractors and someone to line haul everything. Our biggest issue moving forward, we either can’t,or won’t, slow down long enough for effective training. Training is just another block to check, and that is a culture we need to fix.

  6. Will Rodriguez says:

    As usual sir, great commentary.

    War has been happening since the first caveman picked up rock. The principles are timeless. The rock evolves.

    All too often, a current conflict generates mountains of “new” ways to fight that are too often portrayed as the right way. It’s where, “fighting the next war like the last one comes from.” The professional student of war does themselves a great favor by learning the principles and staying current with the latest application but finding the connection to overriding principles.

    Always be a student at heart.

    A personal pet peeve of mine is the