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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  • This commment is unpublished.
    Andy · 9 years ago
    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.
    • This commment is unpublished.
      Andy · 9 years ago
      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.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    David Quin · 9 years ago
    Excellent article. One of your better ones and well worth reading. Now, if those who give the orders will take time to read it.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Tony · 9 years ago
    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.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    peter · 9 years ago
    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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  • This commment is unpublished.
    leyla · 9 years ago
    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!
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Kurt Olney · 9 years ago

    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. 5 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.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Dashui · 9 years ago
    Chiang Kai Shek broke Chinese levys to cover his western retreat from the Japs. More than 1 million Chinese drowned.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    BSJ · 9 years ago
    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.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    D. Rose · 9 years ago
    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 ) to bog down the Allied advance.

    Those who do not learn from History...
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Mike Barnett · 9 years ago
    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.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Dave L. · 9 years ago
    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.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Clay Stiles · 9 years ago
    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.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Bob von · 9 years ago
    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...

  • This commment is unpublished.
    Jeff · 9 years ago
    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.
    • This commment is unpublished.
      Laird · 9 years ago
      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.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    MikeT · 9 years ago
    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.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Lorenzo · 3 years ago
    Very nice post! I reawlly like your blog.You’ve doe a good job.
    Keep going...

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