Take a look at Southwest Asia on Google Earth, and you’ll notice that nearly all of the roads end at Afghanistan. One would expect that our finest West Point graduates would have noticed Afghanistan’s dearth of roads and harkened back to the pre-car era of military history to see what they could learn about conquering a roadless land with resistance fighters roaming around on it. Students of American history will recall that the Army has already done this once.
While the generals have considered putting le cheval back in the cavalry, all indications point to an inability to limit their reliance on the car. Of course, we aren’t talking about the Griswold’s Family Truckster headed to Wally World, but in general, the Army’s cars have four wheels and an internal-combustion engine and, just like the Truckster, they require roads for best results. The car has become the enemy’s favorite target and the Army’s biggest pain.
Accidents involving cars and attacks on cars appear to be the main causes of death and destruction to the Army. We don’t train on martyring jihadists, identifying suicide bombers or befriending the natives. We train on surviving car wrecks.
In Texas, we went through rollover exercises as part of our standard training regimen. Once our deployment orders were official, the Army again trained us how to extract ourselves from rollovers. Once we arrived in Afghanistan, we practiced escaping from a rolled vehicle one more time. They strap us inside an un-fun amusement park ride meant to approximate a military automobile and spin us around until we hang, inverted, from our five-point harnesses. Sometimes the instructors introduce fake smoke to further compound the misery and mayhem inside. We must release our harnesses, fall the few inches to the ceiling (the helmet breaks the fall) and then figure a way out.
We get trained on identifying the explosive obstacles the enemy lays out for us along the few roads that exist. We walk along scale models of roads rehearsing our search for the danger signs. Freshly covered holes, “ant trails” hiding a wire, culverts and roadkill all point to the presence of an improvised explosive device.
The defense of cars looms large in our commanders’ minds. They have large trucks called MRAPs, which are heavily armored and armed with a remote-controlled .30-caliber machine gun. To the front end of these, the Army attaches a large wheeled apparatus like a plow. It rolls rather than scrapes along the road, and, instead of pushing obstacles out of the way, it detonates them, making the roads safe for the Army’s cars.
Not only does the Army protect the cars, it has to protect its soldiers against its cars, and it does so with the reflective safety belt.
Here on the base, our reflective safety belts get more wear than our body armor and our Kevlar helmets. A trusted friend witnessed no less than two dozen first sergeants down at the base’s boardwalk the other night inspecting for reflective safety belts, which seems an odd expenditure of senior enlisted energy that could go towards, say, winning the war, but it just proves how critical the reflective safety belt is to the Army’s effort. Rifle, ammo and reflective safety belt are the primary tools of the military trade in Afghanistan.
The Army brays about fighting an unconventional war on a non-linear battlefield, but all it can do is follow lines on a map in its conventional, motorized way. Every attack makes the Army more defensive. It pulls its head further into its armored shell and hopes that another layer of steel on its cars will make the roads more passable. Rather than becoming light and unpredictable in its movements, the Army has spent the last decade adding weight to its heavy, dense methods.
Instead of more engines and mechanics, we need more horses and stockmen. Rather than poking their heads from a turret, our cavalry soldiers ought to be sitting tall in the saddle. Our convoy commanders should be replaced with muleskinners. This is the wild, wild Southwest Asia out here.
With the right marketing strategy and the typically generous military contracts, the Army should have little trouble recruiting anyone with warm, nostalgic feelings for the 1800s. The Army’s cavalry units could have a booth at the National Western Stock Show in Denver this January. What cowboy could resist the chance to go back in time, put a six-shooter on his hip and get out here on the roadless frontier and show the world how the Afghanistan was won?
This war needs a little less armored obstinacy and a little more ranch hand ingenuity and horse sense. The information age’s mechanized, industrialized warfare just ain’t gettin’ ‘er done.
Once an ink-stained nuisance, Sgt. Mike now does more before 0700 than most people do all day.