Michael's Dispatches

Amber of War


06 January 2013

A defense expert commenting on my dispatch “Stuck in the Mud” recommended the book Mud:  A Military History

I completed reading the book.  The recommendation was solid.

The subject became more interesting in Iraq.  Goo would sometimes rain from the skies.  Later in Afghanistan, where mud also rains, my interest was sealed.

I saw mud effects on the war in Nepal, in terrain where Americans could hardly fight under our current paradigms, other than by airstrikes and distant fires.  US ground forces with our heavy gear would be hopeless in Nepalese-type terrain.

Filipino commanders on Mindanao told me in detail about the great adversity that mud causes the troops we support.  In Thailand, I visit jungles that our gear could not navigate after light rain, or even in the dry season.

A stark reality of my observations in more than 65 countries is that there is more terrain where our current gear will not work than terrain where it will, and this is true even in flat Florida (other than that we have great roads in the Sunshine State).

Roads provide the illusion of greater mobility than we possess.

In the wars, my curiosity about mud is not solely the result of how much we bog down—though often we do—but the myriad battlefield effects, and our willingness to forego mere reality and abundant historical experience while fielding new weapons and vehicles.

Mud was seldom if ever mentioned in news reports of recent wars, despite serious effects.  A patrol leader might take a route to avoid mud and BOOM!  The story title is not “Four GIs killed due to mud,” but “Four Soldiers killed by IED,” despite that the mud was the canalizing influence to the trap.

American troops drowned in mud in Iraq when vehicles too heavy for the environment rolled over.  The mud suction can require our best recovery vehicles, while it sucks the lives out of our trapped people.  When under fire, recovery may take longer and cost more lives.

image005-1000Few people know more about mud than farmers. Their ploughed fields make the porosity and permeability perfect for mud.

There is no clear definition of mud.  It takes infinite forms. One attempt describes a mixture of water and soil, but then I have seen mud from oil that was leaking from the ground.

Mud can make good camouflage, good insulation, and good bug protection, and some use mud as a beauty product.  Soldiers often have used mud to cover the red crosses on medical vehicles.

image007-1000Hooves, men, and machines can create soup and stew where none existed. This American MRAP in Kandahar, Afghanistan is stuck in goo that military vehicles should dance across.

When the mud was heavy in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the rockets and the mortars were incoming, many troops were less willing to hit the deck.  This is even true of seasoned combat soldiers.  Reluctance to dive into heavy mud has been described in many wars.  The mud could be so terrible that troops would risk being shot. 

From the outside, this might seem silly.  In context, it can make sense for men who do not wish to die.  Especially so in frigid conditions where an icy slosh could itself spell doom by hypothermia.

A mud bath for a rifle can render it useless.

Weapons can be impossible to clean in conditions where it is impossible to scrape mud from your hands.  AK-series rifles can operate despite much mud, but the finely-tuned M-16 can be more like a finicky cat.  People will argue, “You must keep your weapon clean!”  No kidding.  But a pristine weapon can become a goo-ball in seconds.

Bags have been used to protect weapons.  It is bad to have your rifle bagged when shooting starts.  No doubt a light bag could be designed that works.  At nighttime the earth and the stars may be invisible.  Taking weapons apart under those conditions is dangerous.

When water is short, urine can substitute as a cleaner, but one man does not produce enough urine to clean one rifle, and there is no chance of cleaning a machine gun with the urine of a two-man crew.  Maybe a local horse can be enlisted.

Hand grenades still work but mud can muffle their power.

image009-1000Jalalabad, Afghanistan: a dive into a mud bath can lead to hypothermia.

On larger bases in Iraq and Afghanistan, hypothermia would not be a problem, but the relatively small chance of getting hit by incoming fire can cause a trooper not to dive to the ground.  The mud conditions were not so bad for most Iraq and Afghanistan veterans.

ShovelsIMG 2681-1000Shovel giveaway in Farah Province, Afghanistan.

Shovels are crucial to farmers and to soldiers, both of whom must understand mud.  Mankind can easily live without phones and cars, but only with great difficulty without shovels and other digging tools.

After his rifle, a shovel can be the most important piece of kit to an infantryman, though in Iraq and Afghanistan few men had to dig foxholes.  Some mud is easy to dig into, and some is impossible.  Foxholes sometimes collapse and suffocate troops.

image013-1000Many Afghans make homes from mud.

image015-1000Afghan peanut butter turns treads into sleds.

Some mud is self-cleaning, while other types adhere to the tread of man and machine.  Characteristics are constantly changing due to factors such as water content.

Our massive vehicles and our weighted-down troops are restricted by mud. It was common to see up-armored Humvees get stuck, even in big cities like Baghdad.  The MRAPs are worse.

CSM (ret.) Jeff Mellinger used to say in Iraq that there is nothing new about war, just lessons that you have not learned.  Study history.

Let’s take a short tour into lessons that we should know from our grandparents.

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