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There is near unanimity that we needs “boots on the ground” in the Middle East, that air power alone is not enough.


I am a former boot on the ground. I did a tour in Vietnam. I actually still have the jungle boots they issued me there in 1969 in my closet. They wear like iron.

No way!

The American people need to get rid of this notion because it is dangerous to those wearing the boots and to those relying on the boots to win the war in question.

And for God’s sake it is so stupidly false we need to get rid of the notion just to move into a sane discussion of an important matter.

A brief executive summary of American war strategy, tactics, and results since 1940:

World War II in Europe—we had boots on the ground—6 years—continuous, continent-wide, peninsula-wide, or island-wide front lines in between friendly and hostile sides—enemy wore uniforms—16 million allied KIA in both European and Pacific theaters—we won

World War II in Pacific—boots on the ground only to take strategically important islands like stepping stones toward the Japan home islands—never a single boot on the ground in the Japan home islands—3 3/4 years—beachheads following by island-wide front line with all enemy on one side and all Americans on the other—enemy wore uniforms—war at sea and air war over Japan were decisive—role of boots on the ground was merely to acquire ever more forward air and naval bases necessary because of the limited range of naval vessels and air craft of that time

Korean War—boots on the ground—the war that caused Korean War commander General Douglas MacArthur to advise President Kennedy to “never get into a land war in Asia”—3 years—peninsula-wide front line separating all enemy from all Americans and other UN forces—enemy wore uniforms—41,000 American KIA/MIA—US had air supremacy (no enemy aircraft or effective antiaircraft fire after initial phase)—U.S. had, but was afraid to use, nuclear weapons for fear of starting a nuclear war with the USSR—stalemate result

Vietnam War—boots on the ground but never in North Vietnam and only briefly in adjacent enemy sanctuaries of Laos and Cambodia—11 years—no front line, relatively safe base camps surrounded by enemy-controlled territory, all Americans required to be inside American camp dusk to dawn except for ranger ambush patrols—Viet Cong dressed in civilian clothes and pretended to be innocent civilians when not caught shooting, nearly all wiped out during Tet Offensive—North Vietnamese Army replaced VC and wore uniforms—58,000 American KIA—U.S. had air supremacy over South Vietnam, over North Vietnam, we faced enemy aircraft and effective antiaircraft, our planes were used effectively but not decisively, over North Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia—U.S. had, but was afraid to use, nuclear weapons for fear of starting a nuclear war with the USSR and/or China—we lost the war

Lebanon—boots on the ground, naval gun fire—months long —Americans in base camps afraid to leave at night—enemy wore civilian clothes and claimed to be innocent unless caught in the act—299 Marines and French KIA—enemy used suicide bombers driving trucks full of explosive—U.S. air power generally had no targets—we pulled out of the country

Gulf War—boots on the ground—7 months—essentially nationwide front lines with all Americans and allies on one side and all enemy Iraqis on the other—air supremacy and air war was decisive—ground troops really only there so they could force enemy into trenches to be bombed—enemy wore uniforms—292 KIA, about half by friendly fire—decisive U.N. victory

Mogadishu—boots on the ground—months—Americans operate out of base camps generally not outside camp at night—enemy in civilian clothes denying guilt unless caught in the act—18 KIA—air supremacy, helicopter gunships and some armored vehicles effective to rescue ineffective, trapped special ops boots on the ground and shot-down gunship but not decisive in war—unsuccessful and we withdrew

Kosovo—no boots on the ground—3 3/4 years—American air power operates out of adjacent sanctuary countries, effective enemy anti-aircraft fire—enemy in civilian clothes and uniforms—air power decisive—no allied KIA—unacceptable assaults by one part of civil war on another stopped

Afghanistan—boots on the ground—13 years (longest ever U.S. war)—Americans operate out of base camps, rarely at night—air supremacy—enemy wearing civilian clothes and claiming innocence unless caught in the act—main enemy tactics suicide bombers, IEDs, and ambushes—2,257 American KIA—U.S. forces always very thinly spread out even at peak—Taliban displaced temporarily

Iraq—boots on the ground—8 2/3 years—Americans operate out of base camps, rarely at night—air supremacy—enemy wearing civilian clothes and claiming innocence unless caught in the act—main enemy tactics suicide bombers, IEDs, and ambushes—4,491 American KIA—U.S. forces relatively thinly spread out even at peak—Saddam removed but ambiguous ending situation

So what have we learned students?

Boots on the ground worked in World War II where the enemy wore uniforms and when the boots created beachheads then pushed their front lines forward until they encompassed the entire island or continent. Massive forces and logistics were required.

In Korea, boots on the ground were met by enemy boots on the ground and the boundary end up where it started. The result was a tie with neither side gaining net when it was over but each paying a very high price in blood and treasure. Air supremacy was not decisive.

In Vietnam, boots on the ground were met with boots on the ground. 553,000 Americans were not enough to expand a beachhead into combat-area wide front lines that were then expanded until all the enemy were in the allied zone as corpses or POWs. To win, America needed to invade North Vietnam and expand their front lines to encompass the entire country, the northern border of which was with China, the same situation that caused the Chinese to enter the Korean war about 12 years before. We probably could have bombed North Vietnam for years thereby preventing them from winning, but Americans could not stand up to the enemy PR campaign that we were mean bullies.

In Lebanon, the first Gulf War, Mogadishu, Afghanistan, and Iraq, boots on the ground were of no decisive use to the American mission but provided the body bags on the ground to the enemy for them to win a Vietnam-like PR campaign that fatigued the American people into leaving. In these wars, boots on the ground were essentially just moving ducks in an enemy shooting gallery. Saddam Hussein and his sons were killed, the Taliban were temporarily forced next door to Pakistan, but generally no other military objectives were permanently achieved.

Beachhead and front lines in Syria?

Now almost everyone says to put boots on the ground in Syria and Iraq, Where, pray tell is the beachhead? And what is the area over which we will push out the beach head into front lines with no bad guys behind them? If you look at a map of the Syria, Iraq region, you will see that there are no secure borders other than Turkey. Lebanon is sort of affiliated with Syria and Iran. Neither Israel nor Jordan can stand up to the sort of World War-II-in-North Africa scale of such a battle. The other two countries you would push the enemy toward are Iran—an enemy backing the Syrian Alawhites—and Saudi Arabia which would not appear to be able to secure its border and is affiliated with the Sunnis fighting in Syria.

You would arguably have to push the enemy entirely off the Arabian peninsula and through Iran and Afghanistan back all the way to Pakistan then crush them up against India. The area in question is about the same size as the Continental United States east of the Rockies.

That, ladies and gentlemen, is the boots on the ground that are being demanded.

The advocates of boots on the grounds seem to think that tens of thousands or maybe a hundred thousand troops would be enough. Bullshit!

What the boots actually do

Do these chickenhawks advocating boots on the ground know what a boot actually does? The infantry, and in some cases, the tanks, move cautiously toward the enemy. They can do this over open land or in thick vegetation. Going across large bodies of water or mountains is possible but quite difficult. Urban areas that are contested by the enemy are extremely difficult

When the American soldiers or marines make contact with the enemy, they fire at each other and begin to suffer KIA and WIA who must be treated on the scene and evacuated. Although our enemies generally seek a duel to the death with rifles and bazookas, the U.S. military will immediately call for artillery or tanks or aircraft that bomb, rocket, or shoot at the enemy on the ground. We return fire immediately with the same weapons as the recent enemies, but we quickly go to heavy weapons.

So, American boots on the ground are roughly speaking forward observers for heavy weapons like artillery or flying gunships. They spot the enemy and point them out to larger guns.

In a city, I really think they ought not bother going house to house. It is very difficult to see around corners and lots of men get killed. What is the point? To preserve the structures? Screw them. In the second battle of Fallujah, we initially got a ton of marines killed trying to avoid damaging houses that would be condemned as substandard in the US. Eventually, the marines decided “no more dead marines.” Thereafter, whenever they encountered a house with bad guys in it. They brought up a tank to blow it to bits or threw a satchel charge (sort of halfway between a hand grenade and a small bomb) into it. Few subsequent dead marines; many many dead buildings. I think the proper infantry tactic for cities that contain the enemy is simply to turn them into rubble. If you think that’s too mean regarding the people who own the homes, please have your son come up and be the point man for charging into this next house.

So that’s what boots do. Walk toward the enemy who locates themselves for the Americans by shooting at the Americans. Then the Americans direct large weapons where the enemy are located and blow them up. When firing ceases, repeat farther forward. That’s your boots on the ground. It takes huge numbers of them and they require a tremendous logistical supply train behind them as well as lots of cannons and combat aircraft behind them. They use a lot of ammo, eat a lot of food and water and use a lot of fuel and parts, and suffer a lot of casualties. And they have never had much success against enemies who wear civilian clothes and deny they are your enemy in between episodes of shooting at you.

Keep them poor

The correct military strategy is to destroy the enemy’s control of large money-making facilities like oil fields and to attack leaders selectively using intelligence and to simply carpet bomb them when they get concentrated as in their “capital city of Raqqa.” Civilian casualties be damned—the World War II standard. No targeting of civilians, but no avoiding them either. They should get out of the way as they did in World War II.

Don’t like that? Then do nothing. This will probably burn itself out as long as we keep them from getting nukes.

But speaking as a former boot on the ground in Vietnam, don’t you dare put some small number of my current counterparts in there to pull off the loaves-and-fishes mission of performing World War II Army/Marine tactical operations over an area as vast as the eastern 2/3 of the US. The number of allied soldiers doing those beachheads and front-line pushing in World War II was about 42 million men just in Europe, not the grudging 42,000 Obama might agree to.

When they are all in civilian clothes, who is the enemy?

With the enemy mostly wearing civilian clothes, you would not be able to secure your rear areas. As you push forward World War II-like, the enemy simply hides their weapons and claim to be innocent. Then they go get them and shoot you in the back. Unlike World War II, hardly anyone living there will welcome you as liberators.

I want the children of all who advocate boots on the ground drafted into this boots-on-the-ground operation if we do it. They will be the “tip of the spear.”

John T. Reed

I appreciate informed, well-thought-out constructive criticism and suggestions. If there are any errors or omissions in my facts or logic, please tell me about them. If you are correct, I will fix the item in question. If you wish, I will give you credit. Where appropriate, I will apologize for the error. To date, I have been surprised at how few such corrections I have had to make.