Wednesday, 22 October 2008

Continuing the "soldiers" theme

It's only a week late, but here are my remaining comments on the Counterpoint podcast on soldiering in the modern age.

For those that came in late, Michael Duffy interviewed the founder and editor of Defender magazine, and some rather interesting things (from my point of view) were said in that interview.

I'll paraphrase what was said here, but it was about "viewing the actions of soldiers from the safety of their couch in Glebe."

That is, if a patrol in Afghanistan brasses up some civvies in the middle of the night, the commentariat arises the next morning from their nice, warm beds and dumps a bucket of shit all over the "incompetent" soldiers who opened fire. (Note that the media never directly accuses our soldiers of being incompetent, but that's how it looks to me when you read between the lines).

Those comments of course are made by people that have probably never done any real manual labour in their life, let alone picked up a rifle and strapped on some webbing and body armour and gone out on patrol in temperatures that would have most running for the comfort of a swimming pool or air conditioned house - and patrolled through an area potentially littered with mines that will either take your foot off, half your leg off or your balls off. They've never slept on the hard ground, or had their beauty sleep interupted by incoming fire, or the need to stand watch for two hours in the middle of the night. They get to shower two or three times per day if they want to - using unlimited hot or cold water. They have no idea what it is like to function in the sort of heat that drops marathon runners, carrying the equivalent of a mid-sized child on your back, and operting with a complete lack of sleep.

Fatigue is one of those things that most westerners don't have to deal with any more. We don't perform back-breaking labour in the fields, bringing in the harvest or tending to herds or flocks of animals. We don't dig coal out of seams with picks and shovels. We don't have stokers that shovel coal into boilers on ships or trains by the ton in order to make things move. Grain is moved on mechanical elevators, not in sacks carried on the backs of men. Pallets of groceries are moved into supermarkets on forklifts or pallet jacks. Ditches are dug with backhoes, not shovels. Even leaves, the lightest of things, are moved around with blowers, rather than raked up by hand.

The only time most people get a glimpse of fatigue is when they are driving long distances, and that is brought on by the banality and boredom of the drive, rather than the physical effort required to move a power-driven steering wheel a few centremetres from side to side every now and then. Fatigue brought on by a hard days work in the hot sun, followed by a few hours of broken sleep on a concrete floor, is a completely different kettle of fish.

I read of parents who get so frustrated with their crying children that they shake them to death. The only way I can see that coming about is if the parent is so tired, they just can't take it anymore - they crack under the strain. I know what it can be like to be kept up all night by a sick child - it happens every few months, and I'm pretty knackered by the end of it.

But I never lose my rag, because as bad as it can be, it is nowhere near as bad as what I went through in the Reserves. I saw people so tired, they got into fist fights at 3am because they didn't want to take their turn manning the gun.

I saw one bloke get so fed up with a mate who refused to get out of the farter (fart sack = sleeping bag) that he butt-stroked him - bashed him in the face with the wooden butt of his rifle. I had to take Mr Sleepyhead to hospital the following day to get his nose bent back into something approaching its original shape. I don't remember anyone getting terribly upset about any of this, because everyone went through it. I think the incident was written up as someone tripping over the sleeping person in the middle of the night (you don't use a torch as light will give you away) and kneeing them in the face by accident.

The thing the inhabitants of Glebe can't comprehend is that you can be so knackered, you can start to hallucinate, and then all sorts of bad things can happen when you've got a loaded weapon in your hands. I once got so out of it, I found myself talking to people that weren't there. Most people just don't get how knackering soldiering can be, and how that can affect your judgement. The fact that a lot more people aren't brassed up by mistake is a testament to the training and preparation that our soldiers go through - when you hear talk of soldiers being "highly trained", that includes being trained to make snap decisions about whether to kill someone or not when you're at the end of your tether from heat, exertion, dust, lack of sleep, flies, mosquitoes and a thousand other irritants. I suspect that most of the critics in Glebe would either freeze in panic or mow down a flock of nuns if faced with the sorts of situations that Western soldiers face on a daily basis when on operations.

I liked the comment in the interview that we are "divorced from fear today" and that "the world is no longer the same after facing fear". I don't know about the second part, since I've never been shot at, but I can appreciate the first part. The most that I had to fear today was being half an hour late to work because of the rain. Imagine what it must be like to be a civilian in Afghanistan, having to deal with the Taliban, disease, drug buyers, land mines, drought, a corrupt government and a pernicious military and police force. I suspect that western armies, who operate according to the rule of law and strict rules of engagement, are the least of their problems (unless someone operating a drone mistakes you for a Taliban and laser guides a 2000 pound bomb onto your location). You'd really wake up each day, wondering if it might be your last. That's fear.

We don't have that anymore. The Grim Reaper does his reaping somewhere else most of the time.

The discussion on ROE (rules of engagement) was fascinating - especially what went on in East Timor. Back when I was half a soldier, if they weren't wearing our uniform, you double-tapped them and that was that. There was no crap about "hostile intent" or waiting for them to shoot first. It was, hello, BLAM, goodbye.

Towards the end of the interview, Duffy trotted out the old saw about the US Army being a haven for the poor, the minorities and the unemployable. That might have been the case when they used conscription during the Vietnam War, and all the wealthy, educated pussies took off for Canada, but it is not the case today.

The problem that many people have is that when they meet a Yank, they gain the impression that they are stupid because they don't know much about what goes on in the world outside the USA. A lack of desire to follow the political situation in Belgium or the economic situation in Malaysia does not necessarily make you a thickie. It just means that the yanks have little interest in what happens in the wider world, because their own country generally generates plenty of newsworthy stuff internally. How many Australians would be aware today of the outcome of the recent Canadian elections?

"What Canadian elections?" would be the answer from many. I was watching the news in the cafe at work this week and Obama was speaking. The woman next to me said that it was a choice between "Him and the old guy, and if the old guy dies, that woman gets in". She was unable to name McCain or Palin - and we call the yanks thick?

We had a bloke in our regiment that was academically fairly bright but completely and utterly lacked common sense. Unfortunately, there was no way to get rid of him because he had passed all the standard intelligence and psych tests, so he was deemed smart enough to be a soldier. Trouble is, he didn't have the right sort of smarts. He was so thick in his own special way that he was a menace. Here's an example...

When you are doing combat drills, or fire and movement drills, you have to be really careful that you don't end up being in somebody else's line of fire. You practice and practice and practice to ensure that you never end up getting shot by your own side. You start by practicing on something flat and open (like a footy oval) - and feeling like a complete dick - and then work up to do it out in the scrub, where visibility is limited etc etc. After you've done it a few hundred times, you can be fairly confident that your section or platoon can go through a contact with only the enemy being hit by your own bullets.

Except for this idiot.

He ended up in my section for a while, and he managed to run right across the front of my machine gun on several occasions - thankfully, we used blanks 95% of the time, so he lived. This guy needed to be hobbled when we did it with live ammo - you just couldn't allow him onto the range for fear of him shooting someone else, or being shot up himself - or even him shooting himself with his own rifle. I don't know how someone can run in front of an M-60 when it's up and running - it's the noisiest and most obvious thing on the battlefield when you have light infantry shooting at each other - but he somehow managed to fuck up in the most glorious way. We swore that if we ever did get deployed somewhere, and he came with us, we'd shoot him ourselves in the first contact - we'd be safer with him out of the way.

The interview ended with a story about how the Australian soldier is now better equipped than most other armies, including the yanks. I almost choked and ran off the road at that point, because I served when Bomber Beazley was the Minister for Defence, and most of the budget was spent on feeding him lunch. All our kit was left over from Vietnam - our uniforms, webbing, packs, weapons, trucks, radios, tents and even the food we ate. Some of the ration packs that we were issued were produced before I was born. Everything was worn out, old and crap.

When we finished recruit camp, most of us went straight out and used our first pay packet to buy a good set of boots, some spare uniforms, a good lightweight sleeping bag, a raincoat that kept out the rain, thermal underwear, gloves, a proper pack and maybe some better webbing. I had two piles of kit at home - the crap the Army issued me (and I never used), and the stuff I paid for (and used all the time). The idea that the Army could issue equipment that was useful or serviceable was laughable. Even cleaning cloth - the small bits of cloth that you use to clean your weapon - was unavailable. We used to buy teatowels and take them on exercises and cut them up so that we could clean our weapons properly. Even gun lubricant was almost unobtainable - we used to buy that ourselves as well.

So to hear that the modern soldier is amazingly well equipped just rocked my world. If even the Infantry is getting good kit these days, then it means that the Howard years must have been good for Defence, even if a few high profile projects got fucked up.

The thing is, your average grunt like me couldn't give a bugger about whether a submarine worked or not. We cared about whether we could get a little one inch square of flannel in order to pull it through the barrel after firing in order to get all the carbon out. We cared about getting a machine gun that wasn't so worn out, it started to double feed after firing 5 rounds. We cared about being issued enough blanks so that we didn't spend the weekend doing contact drills and having to yell "bang bang bang" on Sunday because our ammo had run out.

I don't know if those worries have all been banished or not, but I certainly hope so.


Richard Sharpe said...

I was in the army during the Beazley days, so I concur with all you’ve said about equipment standards at the time. In the early 90s we were still training to re-fight the Vietnam War, with equipment, tactics and doctrine from that era. The uniforms had changed colour, and the individual weapon had been changed, but the vast bulk of the equipment had most likely seen service in South Vietnam. There are two aspects to the parlous equipment state in the ADF at that time though. The first and easiest to address is the poor funding that defence is traditionally allocated by ALP governments. It stems from the hangover from Vietnam that the ADF were the tools of Western Imperialism, and as such should be kept at home with minimal funding. The Federal Budget had better uses than procuring new equipment. There were important social programs to support, throwing money at ATSIC for example. The second aspect is related to the first. During Beazley’s time, the prevailing strategic mindset was the Defence of Australia Doctrine that held that the ADF was a force only to be used in defence of the Australian mainland. This focused spending towards RAAF and Navy to protect the air/sea gap to the north. Army was left with enough to sustain current capability, but only just enough. With no new strategic direction, the army stagnated into the predominantly light infantry mindset that had existed from the 50s. Tactics, techniques and procedures evolved at a snail’s pace and remained astonishingly similar to what had existed at the end of the Vietnam War. No real thought went into equipment procurement, because no real thought went into long term strategic planning. The equipment we had was satisfactory for what we were doing, which to be honest, wasn’t very much.

Things have changed quite significantly, partly because we had 12 years of a conservative government who saw the need to increase the allocation to defence in the budget. The other driver has been the deployments that have occurred since 1996. Back in the day, the only people you saw with medals that weren’t 15 years of undetected crime were Vietnam Vets and the odd lucky bastard who snagged a UN trip. It didn’t really improve after 1 RAR went to Somalia and 2/4 RAR went to Rwanda either. The catalyst for change was East Timor. The main effort for change has been Iraq/Afghanistan. We now have top-of-the-line gear for deployed forces. From body armour, to sensor systems, everything is top notch. The cynic in me says that this is mainly due to reluctance on the part of any government to see the press leaping on an equipment issue as the cause for a soldier coming home in a bag, but there have been astute decisions made about synchronising procurement to strategic outcomes. The flow-on is that training equipment is much better now as well.

Your comments about fatigue are spot on. The new generation of military technology actually makes it worse. In the past, when the sun went down the war stopped, or at least slowed down. Night vision equipment issued down to individual soldiers now means we have a 24 hour battlefield in a more real sense than ever before. It makes things very unpleasant for the bad guys, but drains our guys. It also drives TTP. Do you remember some spanker running around outside your perimeter in the middle of the night firing random shots and obscenities? That guy dies now. Before he even gets a chance to locate your guns a little green dot has appeared on his forehead, rapidly followed by a 5.56mm hole. The target indication is “Reference dead guy…” Newer weapon systems also mean that there are two gunners in a section now, with the additional ammunition burden that brings. Improved load carrying equipment is also a boon that giveth and it taketh away. The better your LCE, the more shite you are expected to carry. In a modern battlefield in a hot climate, that means enough water to slake the thirst of a small village (or a soldier in body armour in 50 degree heat). It means batteries for individual comms equipment, radios to section level, Night Fighting Equipment, and CES for each and every gadget designed to make you a more efficient soldier. The olds and bolds yearn for the days of the old Vietnam era pack that would only fit a ration pack, two water bottles and a raincoat psychological. Those yearnings disappear very quickly when it pisses rain and out comes a jacket/pants Gore-Tex combo.

The short answer is that yes equipment has come a long way from your time and my early days running around shouting bang at each other and sending contact reports in trigram code on an ANPRC77 set. With every advantage new equipment brings, there’s always a down side. The key in procurement is balancing the two whilst still giving our soldiers the very best capability, protection, and just sometimes, comfort.

BlueyM said...

Concur with Sharpie in that East Timor in 99 gave the complacent pollies, penny pinching public service and half asleep career officers a bloody big fright on seeing just how far the sharp end of the army had been allowed to run down, and how quick a full blown emergency could develop.

Shits were trumps, to resurrect an old military saying.