War is a quarrel between two thieves
too cowardly to fight their own battle;
therefore they take boys from one village
and another village, stick them into uniforms,
equip them with guns, and let them loose
like wild beasts against each other
--Patriotism: A Menace to Liberty,
Property, the whole thing's about property
--The Thin Red Line (1998)
In "Echoes from a Distant Battlefield" Vanity Fair writer Mark Bowden revisits the Battle of Wanat this month. Ranger has written on the battle before (here, here and here), and will add a few comments per Bowden's account.
It seems that the Platoon Leader (PL), Lt. Jonathan Brostrom, did not enjoy the full faith and confidence of his Battalion Commander and Company Commander. This is understandable since the Lt. was young and new to real world operations (this is not a criticism of Brostrom but a recognition of the facts.)
However, if Brostrom was lacking (and this is speculation), then the Program of Instruction at Combat Arms Officer's Basic Course must be reviewed. Ranger does not believe that building a combat outpost (COP) from scratch -- without Engineer support -- in the face of hostile forces was taught to this young officer. (His Ranger school training would not have addressed this contingency, either.)
If true, why didn't the Company Commander, Battalion Commander or Brigade Commander weight this effort to ensure success? Why was Combat Engineer support not tasked to build this COP while the Infantry Platoon provided near and far security?
Additionally, why were the Afghan National Army (ANA) and Marines present not attached or under operational control (OPCON) to the 503rd? This would have provided unity of command at the COP.
As noted, the presence of the Co CDR at the time of the fight is unusual, and his presence would have undermined the PL. The Forward Observer (FO), who assumably was for the organic mortars, should not have been isolated at the outpost. The mortar FO would have been most effectively used if co-located at the Platoon HQ element and operating directly under the PL's supervision.
The FO was fully qualified to coordinate the artillery fire support, but PL supervision would have also been required. Doctrinally, the FO is always with the HQ. With the FO isolated in a forward position, this was not a coordinated battle.
Even if the FO was a mortar platoon member, he could have coordinated the artillery support for this fight, under the PL or the unit commander. It is not mentioned whether the artillery or mortars fire concentrations for were for pre-planned defensive fires, but it is unlikely; it has never been mentioned.
The FO should have been at the Platoon HQ element also to provide radio redundancy, in addition to being easily controlled by the PL. The Platoon Sergeant should have known this doctrinal fact if the PL did not. Surely the Co CDR should have noted this discrepancy in the task organization of the defense.
Per my previous commentaries, I withdraw my criticism of the time on target that the artillery provided for the defenders. The latest data indicates that six minutes after the first round was fired, the artillery was ready to shoot. The delay was caused by internal Platoon efforts to head count unit members to prevent friendly-fire casualties. The Artillery Unit and the Platoon functioned professionally. My criticism of the choice of round remains: The 155 arty is not the fire of choice for danger close missions, it seems to me.
The unit mortars and M240-40 mm grenade platoon weapons were poorly employed as they were too far forward to provide adequate fire; they were too close and the rounds would not arm (=explode), in effect rendering them non-functional. Key: The vehicles and weapons systems were unprotected and subjected to direct enemy fire. They were effectively in a beaten zone.
It is also hard to understand why the TOW systems were deployed as anti-personnel weapons. Surely the defenders did not expect the hostiles to be an armored threat (?) All the assigned weapons systems did not operate as combat multipliers; any experienced Infantryman would know that.
Those conclude Rangers comments on the battle.
A curious side observation mentioned in this article is the fact that all land used by the U.S. must be purchased before it can build any COPs, firebases, etc. How much cold cash has the U.S. paid for this god-forsaken worthless real estate in order to protect the government of Afghanistan from the people of that great nation?
The U.S. did not pay for the land its combat firebases occupied in WW II, Korea, RVN or any other conflict, so why now, and who profits? Who owns the land once we pay for it? Do we get a 100-year title, like in sunny Mexico? It galls to consider that the U.S. pays for the privilege of sacrificing U.S. soldiers for . . . what? Surely this is a new definition of insanity.
In the Army's report, General Campbell said that death is the inevitable result of ground combat, and that we should not judge the chain of command. Though true to a point, there must be something of value to come from a military exercise.
It is easy to compare the losses in this fight to that of the 22 SEALS in the Chinook shoot down. A platoon-sized element was left flapping when they were conducting an offensive operation. We place too much faith in air mobility, both defensive and offensive. Wholesale death cannot be written off with a cavalier, "Well, that's war -- and they volunteered, anyway" (the latter is a big war hawk vindication here in the Swamp.) We at Ranger do not like platitudes.
In closing, when Ranger received his Ranger training in 1968 and '69, he was taught just enough to get himself killed. It appears the Lt. Brostrom learned the same way when he, per Ranger training and spirit, automatically moved to the point of greatest danger. (If any readers have further thoughts on the matter, input is appreciated.)
It is fine to put small units in danger as a magnet for hostile intentions IF they are simply bait, and IF the Quick Reaction Forces (QRF) can exploit that fact and IF the unit has a defensible position and/or an escape route if things go South. This was not the case for Lt. Brostrom's fight.
The men in this fight comported themselves in the spirit of D-Day Bastogne, and should be proud of their fight. It was as desperate as any fight conducted by any Airborne unit of the U.S. Army, in any war.
This cannot be taken from the soldiers of the PL. Ranger wonders why they did not receive a Presidential Unit Citation.