Combat Scythe – Battlefield Invention That Saves Lives

Combat Scythe Afghanistan
Combat Scythe Afghanistan (Photo: XY)

There’s the combat scythe which has seen widespread use in Afghanistan. I don’t know who came up with the idea but it was so successful that the private sector started producing a telescoping version for us. They’re extremely easy to make, all you need is a bamboo stalk, a scythe, and some tape. The scythe doesn’t necessarily need to be a scythe, it just needs to be hook-shaped.

Author: Thomas Lewandowski, former Sgt. at U.S. Marine Corps

The combat scythe was made in order to cut down the risk of injury or death when investigating possible IEDs. If we came across an ant trail or disturbed earth we’d call up the scythe and probe the suspected area. (An ant trail isn’t a literal ant trail, it’s disturbed earth that is covering a wire or pulls cords.) The scythes are typically anywhere from 8–12ft. long so it allows you to check an area from cover or at least keep you out of immediate danger. (Depends on the size of the bomb of course.)

combat scyche

The Marine using the scythe will drop the head on the far side of the area in question and slowly drag it until they hit a pressure plate or tug a wire/cord. It’s that simple. The area will then be marked by the probing Marine. Markings come in a few different forms and some are more effective than others.

When we were first training how to use the scythe we were told to use bottle caps but that’s not really practical in the field. The caps are too small and there is trash everywhere in Afghanistan. When EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) shows up (hours later but appreciated) they need to be able to easily identify the area you’ve marked. Some guys I know used white shaving cream. I preferred hot pink silly string. Both are light so there is no risk of setting off the device inadvertently. The scythe can also be used to check doorways, culverts or the walls of Afghan compounds. (They learned Marines and soldiers would stack up before entering a building so they put bombs inside the walls.)

The scythe comes in handy in other ways too. If one of your buddies slips into a canal you can reach out with the bamboo and he can grab on. They’re great on night patrols when you’re trying to see how deep a hole or canal is. I’ve used them to pole vault over a few wider canals. If you’re lazy or don’t want to leave the shade you can deposit your trash and wag bags in the burn pit using the scythe, as long as you’re close enough. I was (un)lucky enough for one of my posts to be almost directly over our platoon’s pit.

There are a few downsides but they’ve mostly been solved since the manufactured ones have come into service. When we first started using them the poles were almost always between 8–12ft. so the Taliban would start to back lay their IEDs. They’d offset the pressure plate or other means of detonation by that same distance and injure or kill the operator. All they had to do was watch us to figure out how long the poles were. This issue has not been completely eliminated but it’s better than it was before.

Since they were not collapsable you had to either leave them outside or carry them inside which severely hampers the maneuverability of the user and anyone in the room. Carrying them at night made it quite difficult to be quiet. You’d be hitting bushes or branches all the time. I also hated that I didn’t have full use of both my hands but if something happens and you have to ditch the scythe it’s not like you can’t make more or go back and get it. They were almost entirely free, cost-wise, so it wasn’t breaking the bank.

The second Marine from the left was a Reservist Combat Engineer attached to our platoon, you can see one of the telescoping scythes sticking out over his left shoulder. It could collapse down to about 1 1/2 feet and extend out 14–16ft. I greatly appreciated his presence because that meant I no longer had to carry the bamboo scythe.

A combat scythe is a fine tool, it saves lives. I’ll admit it looks stupid as hell the first time you see it, I laughed it off myself but it works. It’s a simple, cheap, easy to make an instrument. Anyone can whip one of these up in less than two minutes. We took what was available to us in that environment and turned it against our most deadly threat. What’s more, the government listened to us and started buying better versions to issue. Not the most “creative” technology or tool but the combat scythe proves that Keep It Simple, Stupid is a rule we should all follow.

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