The ebb and flow of battle

For as long as humans have been describing warfare and battles we have described the ebb and flow as first one side and then the other gains the upper hand, pushing their opponent back across the battlefield (or, in the larger picture, across the map.) However, I don’t think any accounts of such events have ever really lent themselves to a true understanding of just how battle lines can shift within the duration of a fight.

Prior to the development of the modern firearm and the introduction of armored vehicles, a battle line was very much a line. A mass of men armed with melee weapons and short range projectiles, occasionally aided by archers and/or cavalry. The two sides faced up against each other and bashed each other in the face. Depending on the situation, it might have been tightly formed lines such as the Roman legions or Greek phalanx, where only the first few lines were actively fighting at any one moment, or it might have been more loosely formed, where the two masses became wholly interspersed amongst one another (as seen in Braveheart).

Early modern firearms still relied on massed lines of men, but that was because of the inaccuracy of the weapons and because battles usually still resorted to hand-to-hand combat.

Both of these periods saw tactics in which reserve units were sent to reinforce ones’ own weak lines, or to overload weak spots in the opponents. The attacks and counters in this manner are what led to the forward and backwards movement of the fighting across unprepared (lacking significant constructed defenses) battlefields.

Even into the 1900s, hand-to-hand combat was quite common, despite the increase in accuracy of firearms. Bayonet charges were quite common in both WW1 and WW2. However, in WW1, battles were often dependent upon the ability of one side to gain control of prepared defensive positions, making it a much more static environment in terms of what could be gained and lost. Attacks were often made with multiple waves of infantry charges. If an attack failed, the defender had not lost any ground and the attacker had not gained any.

By WW2, the days of inaccurate, low rate of fire weapons were gone. And as a result, so too was the day in which two groups massed on a field and fought face to face (if they could help it). The nature of the war had one side utilizing infantry distributed amongst prepared, static, defensive positions and artillery with mechanized reinforcements, while the other used a combination smaller individual units of infantry supported by armored vehicles, aircraft, and much more accurate artillery and naval fire to help overcome heavily prepared defensive positions. Because of the less solid nature of the lines of combat, the ebb and flow of the battles were much less obvious (to anyone who wasn’t actually in the middle of it all).

The modern development of video has given us the ability to record and see just how lines of combat ebb and flow. But because of the shift away from massed front lines, there isn’t much chance for us to actually view the ebb and flow of a battle. And most cameras brought to the front lines of a combat zone are usually in the thick of things, not getting a bird’s eye view of the larger situation. But the last few days have presented us with something we’ve never had before. A top-down look at fighting between two large crowds primarily armed with melee weapons and simple projectiles — rocks and molotov cocktails. The clashes between the anti-government protesters and what seem to be government controlled thugs have been recorded and broadcast by several news agencies who have set up their cameras on balconies, high up in nearby hotels.

In the clip below, the government thugs have maneuvered some trucks across the road to provide themselves with some cover, and to force the protesters back into Tahrir Square. However, the protesters attack and push the thugs back. There are numerous similar videos available if you can find them, where you can see first one crowd flowing forward and the other backward, and then the process reverses. At one point the group attacking the protesters sends people up into a nearby building to throw rocks and brickwork down on the protesters. At various points, the attackers pushed the protesters all the way back into the square, but by nightfall the protesters had pushed out to the end of the road and set up makeshift barricades (which I have been calling Mubarricades in my head), to defend themselves from the rocks and molotov cocktails which were being hurled at them. I asked a couple of folks on Twitter who are in the military and/or study military history and didn’t get any affirmative responses that there is any video from earlier conflicts which show this back and forth. It’s definitely something that might be of interest to the military, riot police and security forces. And anyone who might be contemplating any popular insurrections as well.

A testing point

The President of the United States of America, authorized by act of Congress, March 3rd, 1863, has awarded, in the name of the Congress, the Medal of Honor to Staff Sergeant Robert J. Miller, United States Army, for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of life above and beyond the call of duty.

Staff Sergeant Robert J. Miller distinguished himself by extraordinary acts of heroism while serving as the weapons sergeant in Special Forces Operational Detachment Alpha 3312, Special Operations Task Force 33, Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force Afghanistan, during combat operations against an armed enemy in Kunar Province, Afghanistan, on January 25th, 2008.

While conducting a combat reconnaissance patrol through the Gowardesh Valley, Staff Sergeant Miller and his small element of U.S. and Afghan National Army soldiers engaged a force of 15 to 20 insurgents occupying prepared fighting positions. Staff Sergeant Miller initiated the assault by engaging the enemy positions with his vehicle’s turret-mounted Mk 19 40-millimeter automatic grenade launcher, while simultaneously providing detailed descriptions of the enemy positions to his command, enabling effective, accurate close air support.

Following the engagement, Staff Sergeant Miller led a small squad forward to conduct a battle damage assessment. As the group neared the small, steep, narrow valley that the enemy had inhabited, a large, well-coordinated insurgent force initiated a near ambush, assaulting from elevated positions with ample cover.

Exposed and with little available cover, the patrol was totally vulnerable to enemy rocket-propelled grenades and automatic weapons fire.

As a point man, Staff Sergeant Miller was at the front of the patrol, cut off from supporting elements and less than 20 meters from enemy forces. Nonetheless, with total disregard for his own safety, he called for his men to quickly move back to cover positions as he charged the enemy over exposed ground and under overwhelming enemy fire in order to provide protective fire for his team.

While maneuvering to engage the enemy, Staff Sergeant Miller was shot in the upper torso. Ignoring the wound, he continued to push the fight. Moving to draw fire from over 100 enemy fighters upon himself, he then again charged forward through an open area in order to allow his teammates to safely reach cover.

After killing at least 10 insurgents, wounding dozens more and repeatedly exposing himself to withering enemy fire while moving from position to position, Staff Sergeant Miller was mortally wounded by enemy fire. His extraordinary valor ultimately saved the lives of seven members of his own team and 15 Afghan National Army soldiers.

Staff Sergeant Miller’s heroism and selflessness above and beyond the call of duty and at the cost of his own life are in keeping with the highest traditions of military service and reflect great credit upon himself and the United States Army.

The starkly matter of fact way in which Medal of Honor citations are written has always been more emotionally stirring to me than any amount of florid prose, riddled with imagery and metaphor. The citation for Staff Sergeant Miller was read yesterday afternoon at a presentation at the White House, following a brief speech by President Obama. Despite the 8 years that the war in Afghanistan has been going on, SSgt Miller is only the third recipient of the Medal of Honor for service there. A fourth recipient has been announced, the first living recipient since the Vietnam War.

Regardless of your thoughts on the propriety of the war, the strategy and tactics being employed, or anything else, it is important to take time to think about the men and women who are serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, and other lesser known areas of occasional violence, and to honor their sacrifices. Not the sacrifices they make for our country, but the sacrifices they make for the other men and women they are serving with, the men and women they are living and working with, both American and international, and the sacrifices their families make each time that one of them has to leave home.