Why the Paratrooper excels above all others

“American Parachutists…devils in baggy pants…are less than 100 meters from my outpost line. I can’t sleep at night; they pop up from nowhere and we never know when or how they will strike next. Seems like the black-hearted devils are everywhere…”

(An entry in a German officer’s diary found after the Battle of Anzio)

Legendary General James M. Gavin (played by Ryan O’Neill in the film A Bridge Too Far about the epic battle for Arnhem’s bridge to enter Germany and end the war, called “Operation Market-Garden”) wrote in On to Berlin:

“Individuals had to be capable of fighting at once against any opposition they met on landing. Although every effort was being made to develop the communications and techniques to permit battalions, companies, and platoons to organize promptly, we had to train our individuals to fight for hours and days, if necessary, without being part of a formal organization. Equipment had to be lightweight and readily transportable….Since the beginning of recorded history, Soldiers have been drilled repetively to de-emphasize their individual behavioral traits and force them to adapt to larger combat formations. Perhaps the greatest efficiency in transforming each individual, squad, platoon, and so forth into a cog in a larger machine was demonstrated in the armies of Frederick the Great, and although machine weapons had changed all this, between World War I and World War II countless hours were spent on wheeling about and moving squads to the right and to the left, as though they were preparing to fight the wars of a century ago.All this had to be discarded as we sought to train the Paratroopers to the highest peak of individual pride and skill. It was at this time that the use of nameplates was adopted, the purpose being to emphasize the importance of an individual’s personality and reputation. To the Soldiers of another generation, it seemed to suggest too little discipline and too much initiativegiven to individual Soldiers. We were willing to take a chance that this would not have a disrupting effect on larger formations. It did not, and there were many occasions in combat when the Paratroop officers, and NCOs effectively took over the command of larger formations of other units. Aside from the impact of this type of training on the Airborne formations themselves, it had a tremendous significance to the Army as a whole. The morale of the Airborne units soared, especially after their first combat, when they could see for themselves the results of their training”.


Are you of the “another generation” ilk? Wedded to obsolete traditions? Who says we have to use D & C to instill fighting discipline in Soldiers? Why not in the field like Gavin did? Learning SERE skills? The usmc didn’t even put nametapes on its individual member BDUs (camies) until after the Gulf War TV coverage embarassed them into it. How about this for 19th century robotics?

Think about it.

“Zero defects” mentalities do not inspire the men to give their best, we must create an atmosphere where subordinates can use their personality and initiative to get the mission done. Mission-type orders not robotics. To win on the future, non-linear urbanized battlefield, where we had only just arrived within hours by AIR will require the Soldiership like that of Chamberlain and his men on Little Round top. These men must be able to communicate freely and truthfully without concern over their ego, peer status or career concerns.

“The Mongols, a classic example of an ancient force that fought according to cyberwar principles, were organized more like a network than a hierarchy. More recently, a relatively minor military power that defeated a great modern power–the combined forces of North Vietnam and the Viet Cong–operated in many respects more like a network than an institution; it even extended political- support networks abroad. In both cases, the Mongols and the Vietnamese, their defeated opponents were large institutions whose forces were designed to fight set-piece attritional battles.

To this may be added a further set of observations drawn from current events. Most adversaries that the United States and its allies face in the realm of low-intensity conflict, such as international terrorists, guerrilla insurgents, drug smuggling cartels, ethnic factions, as well as racial and tribal gangs, are all organized like networks (although their leadership may be quite hierarchical). Perhaps a reason that military (and police) institutions have difficulty engaging in low-intensity conflicts is because they are not meant to be fought by institutions. The lesson: Institutions can be defeated by networks, and it may take networks to counter networks. The future may belong to whoever masters the network form.”

Cyberwar is coming” (Scroll down to Selection 3) by John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt International Policy Department RAND

[Editor’s note: These guys are right on target at the source of our temporary foreign policy “loss” in Vietnam 1975-1991(?). However, war is not just a lethal sporting contest among combatants, its about whose IDEAS will dominate, in the case of FREEDOM, in the end the truth has won out over communism. However, if the forces of freedom were more open-minded and “networked” like theJohn Paul Vann did until he died stopping the 1972 NVA invasion or the enemy in general did, we could have won the struggle sooner on the battlefield and not just wait for cultural changes to do it for us. The men who fought in Vietnam need to know that their sacrifices did count-just ask the people of Thailand. But if we are to learn from our war there, we must not make excuses that the politicians “did this or that” when there is plenty to do at our own level within the military to network and “out guerrilla the guerilla”.]

A noted Army writer and tactician responds:

It’s interesting that the two great Army developments of WWII were Armored warfare and Airborne warfare. (We’ll leave aside marines and SOF for the moment.) A field-trained individualwho can play LGOP really works well.
I sure do agree that all of that D & C and similar obsolete stuff serves little purpose. Guess it makes someone feel good…”

A nationally syndicated columnist and decorated Army officer writes:

“Gavin was such a good Soldier. Thx Mike.”

An Army weapons analyst and Lieutenant Colonel writes:

“Most of the Airborne troops were very well trained infantry, first. They already went through the “depersonalizing and rebuilding” process so that they would be competent ‘cogs of the machine.’ Then, and only then, were they given special training to bring them to a higher level.

On another level, the Airborne WANTED to mirror a staright infantry division, with infantry regiments, divisional artillery, etc., etc. Their challenge was not only the lack of adequate communication, but the technical inability to to be consistently dropped in a cohesive formation at a specified drop zone. In practice, they were scattered and lost all over the battlefield and fought in little groupings of individuals and squads that wandered about until blundering and melding into ad hoc platoons and companies. Fortunately, such confused wandering alsowreaked confusion upon the enemy, with reports and sightings coming in from EVERYWHERE!! This alone tied down considerable enemy forces, in addition to the troopers’ sniping, ambushing, and other interdictions. Then, once the ground effort (which the Airborne drop was supporting) broke through for a linkup, all was forgotten in the glow of a successful operation (the ground effort).

If you study Airborne operations in and since WW II, you find that the successful ones were limited drops to disrupt enemy LOCs and isolate the ground battlefield (German attacks in Holland, U.S. in North Africa, Sicily, Normandy, and Eindhoven and Nijmegen of Operation Market-Garden). The deep drops (Germans in Crete, the British drop at Arnhem, the French reinforcement of DienBienPhu, etc.) were catastrophies. Operation Junction City in Vietnam, really just a show of force, is definitely “limited” objective, since it could have been airmobile except everybody wanted to go “Airborne!!” Interestingly, the 101st ‘s great heroic action, the defense of Bastogne, was as a conventional infantry division, brought in by trucks and reinforced by tank and tank destroyer battalions, in a fortified defense.

None of the above is meant to belittle the heroic sacrifice of the brave Soldiers who fought and died. They executed their tasks to the best of their great ability. But when you look at the big picture, they are, in fact, “cogs of a BIG machine.”

The point to all of this is that we all too often make snap decisions on limited information. In combat, it is life and death and there is no alternative. In peace-time, it is foolish, since the historical record is available to anyone who chooses to study it. It is a hard task, since it requires delving deep beneath the “official” version and requires constant questioning. I am 43 years old, and in the last 18 months, through perusing military history, I’ve found that everything I thought I knew about WW I was wrong, and it changes my perspective on every other war. The lessons of WW I were valid in WW II, Korea, Vietnam, and Desert Storm, if only people would look deep enough.

On a final note… Have you ever read SunTzu? Here’s your chance!! I’ve attached a Word document that I did years ago, and the cover memo is self explanatory. Read what he said (2,500 years ago) about normal and extraordinary (read, “special”) forces in Chapter V.

EDITOR: Thank you, Sir! With today’s technology jump delivery is very precise and Drop Zone selection can be done instantly from space and the air recon means. Crete was a costly victory for the Germans because of the “Ultra Secret” (German codes broken to reveal all classified messages) told the Allies exactly where their DZ and drop times were..yet the Allies were still pushed to the sea. It was still a victory and proof deep Airborne operations can work in spite of no amphibious forces around to help. If you click on the hypelink above or here on Crete, you’ll see the Royal Navy sank the amphibious forces that the Allied Commander defending the island thought were necessary to win. He was wrong. Years later, on Grenada the same thing happened, the enemy expected sea attack from marines, but instead, the Rangers and 82d Airborne came from long away and caught them by surprise. The invasion of Panama was a “deep” Airborne operation that worked as was The Russian seizure of Afghanistan and Czechloslavakia, though in the latter, ground forces were en route for link-up.

Had the British jumped south of Arnhem bridge, instead of 8 miles away at a 1 mph foot-slog, the entire battle would have been an undeniable Allied “deep” Airborne victory. Dien Bien Phu was a poorly selected firebase in the low ground, many other poorly defended positions have been over-ran that were established by ground and sea transport, also. In the Second Indo-China war, the U.S. set up better defended fire bases that were kept going by airdrop, most notably Khe Sanh. Deep airdrops of combat power can work, its what you do afterwords on the ground that is the key. If you sit still, the enemy is likely to gain the initiative whether you walked, flew or motored there. After the Paratrooper lands he must be MORE MOBILE than any enemy and that can be done by speed-marching, solving the Soldier’s load, human powered vehicles and airdropped armor.

We are pushing hard for light Armored Fighting Vehicles (AFV) like the M113A3 Gavin and the M8 Ridgway Armored Gun System to be organic to the Airborne so it can fight actions like a Bostogne successfully and not end up like a 1943 “Cisterna” or 1993 “Somalia”.

Good point about WWI: the U.S. Army Air Service was doing “Close Air Support” to sweep the enemy during the 1918 offensives under the leadership of General Billy Mitchell personally directing the battles from SPAD XVI aircraft long before the usmc boasted “it invented CAS in the 1920s”. By the end of the war, we were combining arms as we would have to do again in WWII.

“On the next day, before dawn, Pershing’s main attack hit the Germans along the southern edge of the Saint-Mihiel salient while French Colonial troops under his command and the United States 4th Division pushed eastward from the salient’s western edge. Overhead, our planes gave close air support and bombed and strafed supply installations and troop columns in the rear of the German lines. French tanks manned by Americans supported the infantry assaults. The United States Army’s first modern battle had begun.”

Fighting Generals by Curt Anders, 1965, G.P. Putnam & Sons, NY