Michael's Dispatches

Mysterious Places

02 May 2009

A quick email Borneo Island:

Jungles are mysterious places.  There was a small, round stone on the ground.  The coarse grey orb was larger than a marble but smaller than a golf ball.  Two strips of tape were fastened around it.  One strip was fastened around the stone’s “equator,” and the other was fastened “pole to pole.”  A small tail of monofilament line was taped to the stone.  Five yards away was a skinny tree, maybe thirty or forty feet tall.  A strong cord was looped over the top branch, and the two ends of the cord were tied to some wood down by my feet.  Up in the branch where the cord looped over hung a small sack which looked like a tea bag.  “What in the world is that?”  I asked.

Instructor Taff Jones answered, “It’s a bird trap.”  Apparently local people bait pretty birds, and those that sing pretty songs, to land on the branches by using the small sack as bait.  Sometimes hunters use another bird for bait, hanging it in a cage high in the tree.  When the bird lands for the bait, he gets stuck in the glue the hunter has smeared on the branch.  The hunter pulls the tree down with the cord, emulsifies the glue to release the bird, and off they go.  I picked up the small stone with the tape and small tail of fishing line, thinking the hunter probably used a slingshot to carry the fishing line to the branch in order to hoist the stronger line.

Perhaps an Iban hunter had made that bird trap.  The Iban longhouses I’ve seen here all have caged birds, and Iban live near the training areas.  So, I asked the instructors why they do not employ indigenous trackers, who often have reputations for being able to track anything worth tracking, and a lot more.  The instructors, who collectively have worked around the world, say the disadvantages of using indigenous trackers far outweigh the advantages.  One great advantage is that locals are “tuned in” and can spot signs most people would miss.  But they are only tuned in to their local environments, and so taking a jungle tracker to the desert can be useless.  If you take him to a truly cold climate, in addition to being useless, he’ll probably die before the first night is out.  They are not soldiers and cannot be retrained and redeployed to vastly different environments facing vastly different enemies.

Indigenous trackers might be keenly tuned in to their little patch of the world, but they can’t read a map, and often cannot count beyond three.  They get lost even in familiar types of wilderness that are outside of their little boxes of experience.  They know nothing of military tactics and so cannot interpret the sign.  Dogs are similar, as they track like heat seeking missiles, but they can’t say much.  Only a few types of soldiers, such as Brits and Americans, can be effectively deployed to anywhere humans live, adapt to the situation, and do something.  Soldiers trained to track will not usually be as good at following sign as dogs or natives, but then a dog can’t look at a map and guess that the enemy is likely to cross the river “here.”

This Saturday training is quiet as the students prepare for a Sunday morning mission.  Early Sunday morning, they will be given a “warning order” and will be flown by helicopter to track the quarry.

One of the instructors, Pete Stringer, served 27 years in the British Army and first became interested in tracking in about 1969 or 1970.  Mr. Stringer told me about training with some Gurkhas in Malaya.  They were on a long exercise and spent three months in the jungle, during which they built fortifications, such as tunnels between fighting positions.  It was the Kiwis, the New Zealanders, who gave young Pete Stringer a firsthand demonstration of tracking.  The Kiwis had been alternating out of Vietnam, and despite the British preparations in the jungle, the Kiwis tracked in and successfully attacked.  After that, Peter Stringer became interested in tracking, and took a formal course in 1976.  Today Mr. Stringer is the director of CPN Tracking and Search, based in the U.K., where CPN teaches tracking to military and law enforcement.  Mr. Stringer came to Borneo as a guest instructor for this course.  He taught tracking here in Borneo many years ago.  After seeing him in action, it’s clear that a combat unit trained by Mr. Stringer would have a remarkable advantage over a unit untrained in tracking.  The untrained unit would be like a submarine with no sonar.

Some patches of terrain on this course are similar to Afghan deserts.  But like Iraq, Afghanistan can only be called “desert” in the sense that the United States can be called English speaking.  There are many sorts of deserts in Iraq and Afghanistan – the deserts are vast – but there is also plenty of green in both countries.  Iraq and Afghanistan have forests, swamps, alpine, agricultural, and urban areas.  In Iraq, the fight was largely urban but there were also many serious fights outside the cities.  The fighting has not entirely ended.  In Afghanistan, the increasing fights happen mostly outside urban areas.  The Iraqis didn’t hesitate to fight within their own cities, whereas the Afghans prefer to fight away from their homes.

In Iraq, “Green Zone” connoted a safe zone in central Baghdad that never really existed.  It wasn’t safe, anyway.  Later the name was changed to the “IZ,” or International Zone.  But if a soldier talks about the “green zone” in Afghanistan, the term refers to vegetated areas around water.  The Afghans live around water, so they often live in patches of green.  Flying over Afghanistan reveals mostly vast stretches of desolation, or sparsely populated areas, with thin veins of green that line the water flows.  From the air, Afghanistan often looks like a large cracked wall, with green algae growing around the cracks.

The jungle environment in Borneo is vaguely reminiscent of the Iraqi urban environments and Afghan mountain environments, in that excellent ambush sites are too plentiful to count.  The enemy will often be in places where vehicles simply cannot travel.  As always, much of the fighting is beyond the effective range of high tech, and down to troops on the ground using skills that were probably used thousands of years ago.

It should be noted that I was aware during earlier writings that the U.S. still trains trackers.  But the training is so miniscule that at this point it should be considered irrelevant.  Between Iraq and Afghanistan, I’ve done hundreds of missions.  If we were doing any serious tracking, I would know.  Soldiers definitely have awareness of the ground and they do keep their eyes peeled.  They do look for any clues, including footprints.  But when the footprints run out, the tracking generally ends within a short distance.  Reading the sign beyond the footprints is like reading a secret language written with invisible ink.  The tracking school helps the soldier reveal the hidden ink, and his own pre-existing combat skills will help him decipher what is written.

That we’ve got a little school going in Fort Huachuca is practically insignificant on the big picture.  The British instructors have great respect for the American school.  Yet from my perspective from the ground in the wars, the school is too small to make any real impact.  It should be greatly expanded as soon as possible.

Tomorrow wakeup is at 0445 and then we are off deep into the jungle.  More to come after the mission.



Please click here for Part X of this series on the tracking course in Borneo.

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