Michael's Dispatches

Amber of War

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.


+10 # Concerned American CitizenAndy 2013-01-06 20:13
This post I find particularly fascinating, due to its historical perspective.

My Guard engineering unit actually excavated a road this past summer during Annual Training, for a Red Horse unit to pave afterward during theirs. The site was a Union bivouac during the Civil War. The elements hindered construction from time-to-time, and mud would bog down all but the most agile vehicles (but we finished). There were remnants of a Union corduroy road nearby, along with fighting positions and shelters.

No way can a dismounted unit hump through the mud, without serious hindrance. Body Armor definitely isn't light. Perhaps, special wide-track footwear and treads (i.e. tires) need to be developed for our ground forces?

My dad was a grunt platoon leader in '70. It's amazing how the more things change, the more they stay the same.
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+5 # RE: Concerned American CitizenAndy 2013-01-06 20:23
I think the movie "Hamburger Hill" does a great job of portraying the conditions grunts went through during Vietnam. Watch that movie, and you'll see how the mud hindered the assaults time-and-time again.
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+5 # RE: Amber of WarDavid Quin 2013-01-06 20:48
Excellent article. One of your better ones and well worth reading. Now, if those who give the orders will take time to read it.
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+7 # RE: Amber of WarTony 2013-01-06 20:55
Sledge vividly describes mud in "With The Old Breed At Peleliu And Okinawa". This post reminds me of Thucydides' stories of helpless hoplites in their heavy panoply in rough country.
Thanks for all the great work you do, Michael.
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+5 # General Mudpeter 2013-01-06 21:46
Stalin said that General Winter and General Famine would stop Hitler. I guess he for got about General Mud. Here is an Abrams tank stuck in the mud.
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+2 # Thanks for the educationleyla 2013-01-07 01:39
As always, very informative and very interesting. You give insights to war that the average person wouldn't think of. Thank you for educating us on the aspects of war not talked about!
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+2 # RE: Amber of WarKurt Olney 2013-01-07 02:41

I am a landscape contractor in SoCal. I know a lot about soil, and alkalinity in the soils in the South West. Our soils are alkaline and I have had mud-clay soils chemically tear open the skin in my hand. Very painful. 35 years of landscape work in San Diego have given me the hands of a 100 year old man. Gloves are critical, and hand lotions are essential. Now tell that to a young man as I was told and and you don't believe in it. Time catches up. If you get cracking around the finger tips, use superglue to seal the cracks. Vaseline is cheap insurance. And in an alkaline clay soil region, the water is always hard. Aloe based hand cream is a must. I wish I had listened to this advice when I was younger.
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# RE: Amber of WarDashui 2013-01-07 07:48
Chiang Kai Shek broke Chinese levys to cover his western retreat from the Japs. More than 1 million Chinese drowned.
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+3 # Terrain AnalysisBSJ 2013-01-07 13:06
As a former 81Q, Terrain Analyst, I’m glad to see at least someone was willing to heed our warnings. But all too often that is/was not the case. Leading to the inevitable…

Too often we were derided as useless REMFs. But troops died stuck in the mud we could have warned them about.
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+4 # More HistoryD. Rose 2013-01-07 13:23
Another example of mudding to stop the enemy is Field Marshall Rommel who flooded many of the Normady fields for three reasons 1) to cause paratroopers to drown, 2) create fields of fire for German troops 3) to bog down the Allied advance.

Those who do not learn from History...
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+4 # Mud FunMike Barnett 2013-01-07 14:46
I deal with mud every day, in a different way. We use bentonite (a clay) mixed with water to create an extremely slippery mud lubricant used in drilling. A half inch of this stuff can stop a vehicle from moving, and if you slip in it, a broken leg or other injury is common. And when we pump this stuff into a hole and the hose breaks, the drill pit fills up, making an extreme drowning hazard for those in it (they are so lubricated with liquid clay, it's almost impossible to even get a harness on them... sometimes you have to try and float them out!). Interestingly, this mud is also the main ingredient in much makeup, both women's facial makeup AND camo stuff.

When I wish to vacation from this mud, I go sailing through the Everglades in small boats... where I usually end up in Florida Bay, which is one giant mud flat... you can sink up to your hips in primordial ooze if you aren't careful.

I can fully imagine just how treacherous mud could be on a battlefield, and history has indeed shown us over and over again how water mixed with soil can alter the outcome of a battle, a war, and of civilization.
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+2 # RE: Amber of WarDave L. 2013-01-07 16:46
Actually, that tank is a T-55, so it probably belonged to the communist Afghan government forces, or to one side or another in the civil war (still ongoing) that followed the Soviet withdrawal in 1989. The Red Army would have used newer tanks in the 1980s - T-64s or T-72s.

For more on the mobility of vehicles versus animals, you should read some of the writings of Gen. John K. Herr, the Army's last Chief of Cavalry. He kept up the fight for the inclusion of horse cavalry in the U.S. Army through the Korean War.
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+4 # Mud in AlabamaClay Stiles 2013-01-07 17:17
I used to know a farmer who made a killing in the winter by diverting a spring so that the water ran over a "dirt" road. He then stood by with hos tractor - ready to pull anyone out who had the $20 it took to accomplish that. We got stuck once and my dad just thought "I am not payinh this!" After ruining the tailgate - and jacking the car up only to achieve a few feet each time - he succombled to the toll.
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+2 # Battle of AgincourtBob von 2013-01-10 20:15
Forgive me if other readers already offered this example... but a friend of mine who did graduate work in military history explained a compelling theory of why the French knights lost the Battle of Agincourt... despite a 6:1 personnel advantage, heavy armour, superior training and weapons, the French knights fell to English long-bow archers because the mud slowed and tired them out...

The muddiness of the battlefield was a key reason the French lost...

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# Mud testingJeff 2013-01-11 22:18
The Army does extensive mud testing. I have been out on some of these tests. The mud has to be just right. Each vehicle has parameters it must acheive in order to pass.
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+3 # RE: Mud testingLaird 2013-01-17 15:17
Dated a girl whose father drove prototype tanks (including the chassis that eventually became the M1) over crappy terrain to test them. Mud was his bane, and you could always tell the days he'd been 'mudding' - He'd kick everyone out of the house and just sit there in the living room, nursing a beer and a grudge.
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+2 # Ice-9MikeT 2013-01-18 05:40
Kurt Vonnegut in the book Cat's Cradle has the Manhattan Project develop a different type of ice crystal at the request of the Marines who are sick of fighting the mud. Cue the end of the world.
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