Michael's Dispatches

Amber of War

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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.


image017-1000Dead Confederate Soldier in US Civil War. Rifle in foreground. Petersburg.

Artillerymen had a rough time.   During the era before recoil systems were built, when the cannons fired, they were prone to bury themselves deeply into the mud.  Accuracy was impaired and rate of fire reduced.

Cannons are difficult to drag through mud, and firing platforms had to be built, slowing maneuver.

Commanders often set the guns to skip shots off the earth. Balls will skip, skip, skip, leaving a trail of destruction for the unfortunate.  Cannonballs do not skip well off of mud, making them like giant rifles.

Likewise, infantrymen could not keep weapons clean, and morale suffered in mud.

image019-1000Death in the mud. Confederate Soldier. US Civil War.

image021-1000“The Battle of Mud,” at Passchendaele, Belgium. World War I.

Animals can often pull cargo where even the best vehicles fail.  In the above image, the high horse is standing on a corduroy road while the other is off road.  The image characterizes our mobility today.  We are mobile on predictable veins of travel that are readily disrupted.

image022-1000Endless miles of boardwalks at Passchendaele.

Troops who fought early in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars dealt more with mud on bases than more recent veterans.  For instance, today, there is a “The Boardwalk” in the middle of Kandahar Airfield, which leads to the pizza and coffee shops. The base has paved roads.  Gravel is abundant.  Toilets and hot water showers are available by the thousands, and so the realities of mud in Afghanistan are less obvious on the big bases of Bastion and Bagram.

Nevertheless, the annual floods still bog parts of some bases, if only briefly.  The famous “poo pond” at Kandahar Airfield has overflowed, along with countless Porta-Potties during rains, mixing excrement into the base mud.

Off-base is a different world, and there, mud and terrain are matters of mortality.

image024-1000Tramlines—small railroads—often are constructed to navigate mud. (Passchendaele. World War I.)

Our helicopters and the small scale of the war in Afghanistan may sweep the idea of mud out of consciousness, but then we are fighting an enemy with nearly zero air defense capacity, and our lines of logistics are short (after inside of Afghanistan) and reasonably accessible.

image026-1000Artillery and bombs churn the soil and can create tremendous mud.

Even today, a shot from a muddy position can bury the mortar tube, rendering it useless without painstaking extraction.

Commanders sometimes bombard battlefields or roads to create mud to slow the advance or retreat of the enemy.

With our current precision munitions, commanders can easily destroy sections of road in minutes.  There is no need to create muddy miles of road.  Small, carefully selected sections can slow or halt a convoy, creating a static target for the commander’s guns or aircraft.  In Afghanistan, our aircraft sometimes take out sections of trail to hinder enemy retreat.

image028-1000jpgMud dampens artillery explosives and can create ponds. (Passchendaele, Belgium.)

Men are captured like ants in the sap.  Soldiers literally disappear in mud and are never seen again.


image030-1000Passchendaele

In modern times, Huey MEDEVAC helicopters risked skids becoming stuck in the mud and sometimes had to throttle hard to break free.  Blackhawks have tires.

image032-1000The Lost Generation, at Passchendaele.

Today, a paradox of armor is that it makes us need more armor.

Armor consigns us to routes at times when they are passable.  Horses and feet can destroy routes, while heavy vehicles can obliterate even solid roads, causing convoys to stretch.  Fuel trucks cannot move forward.

A logistics snake cannot escape its tail.  While the head might advance with haste, it destroys the route.  The snake begins to stretch.  The middle slows while the tail becomes stuck.

In some wars, this is an invitation for an enemy commander to roll up his artillery, and to conduct air strikes on the snake, whose own heavy guns can have difficulty firing from mud.

Forests are cut to make corduroy roads, with every tree giving its life for the cause of a few feet of advancement.  In the Burma campaign, Indian brick-makers set up shop at intervals along routes to create brick roads.

The United States researched the creation of mud by altering the weather.  Protests made climate warfare politically unfashionable.  Our enemies would not hesitate to seed clouds or use other low-tech means to bog us down.  They know we go with maximum armor.  As a defense, the enemy can flood routes to create mud, then pile pre-registered rocket fire onto our trapped formations.  We are lucky that Saddam apparently did not think of this.  He had opportunities to flood our routes.

Millions of streams, lakes and reservoirs exist around the world, many of which can easily be diverted to make routes impassable through flood and mud.  As you walk through deserts, forests and jungles, watch the streams and set your imagination free.  You will see how guerrillas and commanders sometimes create bogs with little effort.

Our heavy vehicles often get stuck in nothing but moon dust.  While driving through puddles of moon dust, it splashes across the windshield like water.  It blacks out the windshield for half a second, and then vanishes.

By appearance, the dust splashes from tires and boots like a fluid.  In particular, like water.  Though it splashes like water (not mud), it is not adhesive or have the surface tension of water.  It does not stick to your windshield or form drops.  The windshield and dust seem to repel each other.

The dust puddles as predictably as water.  It would come as no surprise to see moon dust shoot from a hose.  There is something odd about that dust, as if the particles repel each other, creating a fluid from solid.

Brownian motion creates issues for some gear, especially during summer heat.  Dust storms sometimes trap our helicopters during missions.  They must land to let it pass.

I sometimes wondered if any of our wounded troops drowned face down in the dust.  If you inhale enough, likely it would create mud in the nose, especially if there is blood, and in the lungs.  I never saw this.  It must have occurred.

The good news is that moon dust, like water, has little suction to trap our vehicles.  The bad news is that moon dust is dehydrated hell.  If you are travelling through moon dust when the rains begin, your problems have just begun.

We cannot expect to maneuver with our cumbersome armor against any but the most unsophisticated and unimaginative enemies.  A battalion of civil engineers armed only with shovels could wage decisive disruption.  Throw in dynamite, and the sky is the limit.

image034-1000Mud will pull those boots off of his feet. (Kabul, Afghanistan.)

On the personal level, footwear can be sucked from feet and lost.

Troops in Afghanistan call it peanut butter, though in reality it is more like goo and poo.  The closer you are to large population centers, the more poo and bacteria there likely is, waiting for any scratch to invade.

Our Afghanistan veterans have a love-hate relationship with the peanut butter.  Our fittest men are worn down quickly.  A man might be able to run a marathon, but be unable to run five steps in goo.

Peanut butter disrupts IEDs, often rendering bombs inert.  When they do explode, peanut butter muffles the blast.

The goo swallows bullets and reduces enemy ricochets.  When you get shot, mud flies into the body with the bacteria.  In some parts of the world, the bacteria types can be worse than others.

When our Apache helicopters fire their cannons using high-explosive rounds, mud absorbs the detonation of the shells.  Dry mud used in Afghan homes stops our 30mm cannon shots, while wet mud in the fields absorbs them with a splat.

image036-1000

Rains came this Afghan day that would have thwarted a military logistics convoy.  A few Americans and I were with Afghan police.

image038-1000Urozgan Province, Afghanistan

The Germans invaded Russia during World War II, got bogged down in the muddy season, and were trapped by winter.  The Russians call the season it rasputiza (time without roads), yet the Germans did not respect rasputiza until it was too late.

image040-1000

Our 4-wheel-drive vehicles on this Afghan day were far more mobile than military armored vehicles, but they were still consigned to restricted terrain.  This Afghan’s camels can go nearly anywhere.

image042-cr-1000

The best footwear for warm weather mud might be the US Army jungle boot.


image044-1000This is Urozgan Province, not far from where I photographed the “Dead Taliban of Chora” this same week. The dead man wore similar footwear. Men cannot fight in serious mud with these shoes, and will quickly be barefooted. Many Afghans can operate with no shoes. Some troops remove footwear to negotiate mud. There is less suction on feet than on boots, and shoes will be lost, anyway, and so they will tie the shoes and carry them around the neck.

In Iraq, the enemy typically would not fight in the mud, which stole their shoes.  In larger wars, generals sometimes must deal with thousands of troops who lose footwear.

In some types of mud, if it reaches your thighs, the suction is so intense that you will never escape without assistance. There you will die, possibly while fighting back the ants during the day and the mosquitoes at night.

The book Mud mentions the folly of sleeping under a tank.  The rains fall, the tank sinks. Men are trapped.  Driving the tank out can only make it worse.

In regard to combat tracking, mud is a switch hitter.  It can preserve a footprint literally for years, even decades, or erase it in seconds.  An anti-tracking technique is to walk in mud where herds of animals regularly travel, or to request or force farmers to move flocks behind you.  Of course if you force a farmer to do this, he will probably be happy to point out your direction of travel to pursuers.

image046-1000An American with RPG plays with Afghan friends. Despite this dangerous play, Afghans are normally warm people. On this muddy day, we were on high ground, and we were driving so we were not forced to wallow.

In Kandahar, is the Tarnak River Bridge.  The span is a crucial kneecap between our main base at Kandahar Airfield and the large battle space that it supports.   The enemy blew up part of the bridge in March, 2010, killing a US soldier named Ian Gelig.

The bridge closed, yet light vehicles easily forded the river.  Our monster MRAP trucks could not cross.  A single car bomb reduced many of our operations to a standstill.

When not embedded with Coalition forces, I crossed that same spot many times by avoiding the bridge and by fording the river.  We sought to avoid being blown up or caught in a firefight on the Tarnak River Bridge.

When the bridge was hit, I was embedded with the 5/2 Stryker Brigade Combat team, whose HQ was at Kandahar Airfield.  The rains came one day and flooded out the HQ, and many of the living quarters.

The wheeled Strykers of 5/2 were less armored, but they were far more agile than MRAPs.  Casualties still occurred, but Strykers were freer to pursue the enemy.

While writing this dispatch, I asked an experienced 5/2 officer about the mud issue, and his opinion on Strykers vs. MRAPs.  He replied:

“Yes, [MRAP], better armor than a Stryker but an MRAP would be limited to 2 routes and a Stryker would have 20 because of cross country ability.  That combined with our terrain analysis/Intel using digital systems meant that we could avoid likely enemy IED attack areas and come up on a village from any direction—once we understood this we quit getting blown up.  This did not prevent all successful IED attacks of course but pretty damn close.”

After the Tarnak Bridge bomb strike, missions using MRAPs were cancelled due to vehicles bogging in the riverbed.  That particular 5/2 platoon had MRAPs, not Strykers.  Strykers could ford the river.  Cars were making it, and Strykers are far better than any car or 4-wheel drive.  If a Stryker is stuck in the mud, the mud is truly bad.

A single car bomb—and the mud—halted missions for days, though any Taliban who wanted to cross the Tarnak River could roll through using motorbikes, normal pickup trucks, small cars, ponies, camels, or on foot.

So what is better protection?  Massive armor knowing you eventually will be hit, or light armor, which allows you to avoid being hit?  The massive armor prevents chasing down the enemy to kill him.  Light or no armor promotes the hunt.  Dead enemy do not plant bombs.

Protection is agility, aggression, and initiative.  Serious veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan know that the best way to die is to huddle, armor up, and wait.  It is coming.

For centuries Afghan farmers have been masters at water diversion and are famous for their water sharing systems.

One night, near Sangin, Afghanistan, I was with British forces and farmers came out suspiciously.  We were watching them through thermals and night vision, and their activity with shovels looked suspicious enough for the Soldiers to shoot.  I was watching and would not have faulted them, but they stuck with the rules of engagement.  We saw no indisputable weapons.

They were not cleared to shoot unless they saw a weapon, though we know that the shovel-man comes out first before the IED-man.  Shovels are ambiguous weapons in the IED wars.

The Brits had good situational awareness, and one said that during this month at this moon phase, the farmers would work late because watering works better at night, and this moon phase provided the nightlight.  They were warned that farmers would be working tonight, and that enemy might take advantage of the human noise.

A US Marine infantry captain with experience in Iraq and Afghanistan read this dispatch in advance, and said that the same thing happened in Iraq.  The Marines were watching and some Marines wanted to light them up, but then they realized that the farmers were just watering. Not planting IEDs.

Nevertheless, using a shovel or a bomb, the farmer can flood mud-prone roads to channelize, divert, or trap us for ambush.

Our giant vehicles continue to roll off the assembly lines despite these inconvenient realities.

image048-1000Urozgan, 2011.

image050-1000The thickest mud is between our ears.

image052-1000Afghan Police pickup in Urozgan, 2011.

image054-1000The amber of war.

A Russian tank is trapped beside a river in Urozgan, on the muddy road from Shah Wali Kot to Tarin Kot.

The Afghan police, along with a couple of American civilians, stopped at the tank, and walked around the slippery slope.

The Afghans with us did not know the story behind the tank.

One can imagine the ghosts of the crew still sitting atop the hulk.  The ghosts are young and abandoned.  Far from home.  Day-by-day they stare at the river flowing by.  The river that delivered the silt and water of their sticky trap.

Standing by the tank, I wondered if the final words of the crew were, “Boris!  Free the machine before we are hit!”

The skeleton of their machine remains a hopeless beetle trapped in the amber of war.

image056-1000Engine gone

image058-1000Tank parts

Mud: if you do not get mud, mud will get you.

The amber of war is heartless, cruel, indifferent, and it never takes sides.

image060-1000Hole from the messenger. The journey is over.

Please see:

Mud: A Military History

Stuck in the Mud

An account of mud at the Battle of Agincourt begins at the 33 minute mark in this video.  The mud is similar to Afghan peanut butter.

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