June 18, 2015

Policy Debates and the Reality of War

Several weeks ago I was asked by a senior staffer for a Member of Congress for some good references about what ground combat is like. Among the multitude of military affairs issues being debated in Congress is the role of women in combat. The military services have been tasked to open all occupational fields to women unless cause can be shown why a particular field should remain closed. Over the years just about all fields have been opened with the exception of the ground combat arms communities such as infantry, armor, artillery, and related elements of special operations. (The Army and Marine Corps (the Corps in particular) have been conducting a series of tests to determine what standards are relevant to making a determination and, most importantly, why. They are to report their findings and recommendations in the coming months.)

The staffer was wanting to help the Member get a better understanding of what ground combat is like. It is one thing to debate the pros and cons of the issue in the peaceful confines of the Capital and quite another to deal with the brutal realities of war on an actual battlefield. Clearly few Members and their staff have, or can easily gain, direct experience to inform their arguments so they look to materials like reports, testimony, and visits to units. There is a wealth of literature that accurately describes war but it seems no one has time (or the willingness to make the time) to read so video can have a powerful impact.

I queried a solid group of colleagues who are well versed, personally experienced, and have a balanced perspective about ground combat. Almost to a person they suggested just about the same sample of references especially for short film clips. Recommendations for books were also fairly narrowly focused but, as mentioned, most people have little time for reading several hundred pages so…back to film clips.

Hollywood routinely inflates or glamorizes war with a bias toward dramatic effect and with scant regard for accuracy. However, there are exceptions...depictions where combat veterans will nod their head and say, “Yep, that’s just about as best a telling of how it actually is as I can think of.” Among the films that garner such comments are Saving Private Ryan, Black Hawk Down, We Were Soldiers, Lone Survivor, Fury (for the tank battle scenes), and the HBO series Band of Brothers and The Pacific.

One can certainly be skeptical of historical references dating back to WWII. After all, it is easy to presume that since it’s 70 years on things have changed quite a bit especially in the technological sense. But that’s just not the case in ground combat, especially when it comes to infantry operations. Yes, modern forces have more resources to draw on to find the enemy and more weapons available with which to engage but a bullet, grenade, rocket, and knife are still in as much use today as they were back then and the reality of ground combat is the age-old reality of men locked in brutal, physical combat with each other. Not shown in the below clips (but often implied) is the always present task of many long days and miles of carrying everything with you necessary for a fight…and the heat or cold, the terrain, the weariness, the uncertainty (when will you find the enemy or be found by him?), etc., that accompanies war.

These extraordinarily accurate clips show what close combat is really like. Whether it’s a beach, town, open area, or heavily wooded location, such terrain exists today and poses nearly the exact same problems as it did a half-century or more in the past. Rubble is rubble and bullets (from pistols, rifles, and machine guns), grenades, knives, and rockets do the same damage today and are employed in the same way as back then. One need only see current news stories out of Iraq, Syria, Libya, or Ukraine to see that little has changed.

War is brutal, unforgiving, and lethal. The decision to engage in it and to commit people to it should be the gravest and most seriously considered of all that are undertaken by Congress, the White House, and the public.Those who engage in the debate should always be mindful of the reality they demand our men and women to confront. Any change recommended to or imposed upon our forces should always consider first and foremost whether it helps our military defeat the enemy's in combat.

WARNING: These scenes are quite graphic.

Saving Private Ryan – Omaha Beach (Spielberg and Hanks insisted on historical accuracy in making this movie. This scene captures the reality of what people have to contend with when trying to establish a foothold in enemy held terrain, whether it is a beach, town, or complex terrain. The noise, confusion, death, and danger permeate one’s existence.)
Saving Private Ryan – Mellish and Upham (a classic rendering of what hand-to-hand fighting is all about in the real world. None of this Jason Bourne silliness)
Hand To Hand in Fallujah (this is a reenactment of a fight that took place in Iraq just a few years ago that almost exactly replicates the scene shown in Saving Private Ryan)
Band of Brothers – Battle of Bloody Gulch  Just as he did in "Saving Private Ryan", Spielberg insisted on historical accuracy in both Band of Brothers (which follows the experiences of a real world Army unit that somehow experienced nearly all the major actions in WWII Europe) and The Pacific (a telling of Marine experiences in the WWII Pacific theater.
The Pacific – Bunker scene
The Pacific - Peleliu Airfield

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