Michael's Dispatches

Amber of War



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.


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.


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.


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

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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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