(1) RESTREPO Monday, 11/29/10 at 9PM ET/PT; (2) Maj.Gen. Scales on Small Unit Dominance

This is the television premier of this extraordinarily film. I wrote about seeing this filmhere.

Restrepo chronicles the deployment of a platoon of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley. The movie focuses on a remote 15-man outpost, Restrepo, named after a platoon medic who was killed in action. It was considered one of the most dangerous postings in the U.S. military. This is an entirely experiential film: The cameras never leave the valley; there are no interviews with generals or diplomats. The only goal is to make viewers feel as if they have just been through a 94-minute deployment. This is war, full stop. The conclusions are up to you.

I highly recommend this film to all of our readers.

An information page for Restrepo is here, including video.

On a related note, I also highly recommend this article entitled Small Unit Dominance: The Strategic Importance of Tactical Reform, by Maj.Gen. Robert H. Scales.

Slightly more than 40 years ago my unit was butchered by elements from the North Vietnamese 29th Regiment at a mountaintop firebase overlooking the A Shau Valley. Nineteen of my 55 soldiers were killed or wounded severely enough to warrant evacuation. The loss was mainly my fault. I wasn’t new at the job. This was my fourth command so I thought I knew what I was doing. A much smarter and better trained and equipped enemy taught me that I did not.
The event made me promise that I would never go to war again No. 2 in a two-sided contest. It also burned into the depths of my soul several questions that have lingered and festered ever since. I asked why the most technologically advanced country on the planet was unable to make better weapons and equipment than the enemy. I asked why my soldiers were so poorly prepared physically, intellectually and emotionally for this fight. I asked why my experience as a combat leader could be gained only by spilling their blood.

Maj.Gen. Scales goes on to say:

In July, I watched the Afghanistan war documentary “Restrepo” play out on the screen and compared it to my experience decades ago: same type of unit (airborne light infantry), same lousy rifle (M16/M4), same helicopter (CH-47), same machine gun (M2), same young men trying to deal with the fear of violent death. Seared in my brain is the image of a young soldier at Fire Base Restrepo hacking away at hard clay and granite trying frantically to dig a fighting position. The U.S. is spending more than $300 billion on a new fighter plane. We haven’t lost a fighter pilot to enemy action since 1972. Why after nine years of war can’t we give a close-combat soldier a better way to dig a hole? For that matter, why do soldiers exiting fire bases not have some means of looking over the next hill? Why doesn’t every soldier have his own means to talk to his comrades by radio? Why can’t soldiers on a remote fire base detect an approaching enemy using sensors? Why can’t soldiers rely on robots to carry heavy loads and accomplish particularly dangerous tasks? I could go on, but you get the point.

Why indeed. I was struck by the same questions. Much of the American arsenal verges on science fiction. But what you see in Restrepo would be familiar to soldiers from 50 or more years ago. In fact, an infantry platoon from 1918 would be very roughly like one of platoon depicted in Restrepo, while an airplane from that era is from an entirely different universe from the aircraft of today.

Air and sea dominance have served us well, though the cost of maintaining them seems to be snowballing out of control. Nonetheless, with the USA fighting land wars against committed opponents we need to spend effort on gaining an edge in that domain as well. Our enemies drag us down to their level, where their numbers and home-field advantage are most telling, when we engage in this type of labor-intensive combat. We cannot match their numbers, and skill and training alone will not prevail over those numbers. Additional tools beyond what they can match may make the difference. Having a Buck Rogers aircraft overhead, while hacking out a hole with a shovel in the hard earth below, shows a misdirection of resources.

(h/t to Adam Elkus for this article.)

21 thoughts on “(1) RESTREPO Monday, 11/29/10 at 9PM ET/PT; (2) Maj.Gen. Scales on Small Unit Dominance”

  1. Lex, the link to Scale’s article is bad, you have quotation mark in there at the end. Feel free to delete this when fixed.

    [Fixed, thanks EB – Jonathan]

  2. What’s funny is that I recall seeing the Israeli soldiers in the Summer War (2006) on TV and thinking their kit was hopelessly old. At least our soldiers have new webbing, boots, camelbacks, etc; and the weapons are the same, but much better versions. I also wonder if some tasks cannot be approved on, is there really a better shovel? If the enemy can fight us with tennis shoes and an (probably poorly maintained) AK, how much better can personal kit get to make a difference. Part of what restrained the soldiers in Restrepo was that they weren’t as willing to be as ruthless in threatening the local population as the Taliban were – nor would we want them to.
    Still, many things stood out. Scales mentioned communications between soldiers and firebases, given our tech, this should be much better. I know some worry about overflow of info for the individual soldiers, but the guys we have these days can handle the flow. Also, what about radio intelligence. The soldiers at REstrepo could sometimes hear the Talibs on the radio. They should have atleast had a someone to monitor all bands that could understand Pashto. Even better, how easy (and cheap) would it be to outfit a simple UAV (or model airplane) with a reciever and repeater to head up to the infiltration passes and just sit – just crash land the thing so it can monitor traffic.

    BTW, a cynical friend’s response to the article was that $300M airplanes provide a lot more jobs to congressional districts than do useful tools in soldiers kit. I can’t believe he’s too far off.

  3. “Fire conquers, infantry occupies.”, said Marshal Petain.

    American infantry was fairly mediocre until the 1980s. However this was compensated for by American superiority in artillery and tactical airpower. This superiority provided the qualitative edge the Americans needed over the Wehrmacht. While ~50% of enemy casualties caused by the Wehrmacht were caused by artillery, ~70% of enemy casualties caused by American forces were caused by American fire support.

    It is this advantage that has been nullified by media-driven enemy tactics beginning with Vietnam and continuing to the present day. During Second Fallujah, the attacking American forces were actually numerically inferior to the Takfiri defending the city. In a rational military environment, we would have flattened Fallujah with artillery before we launched an infantry attack. As it was, our infantry was superior enough to counter this disparity but the experience was tougher than necessary. You see many other examples in the past decade of infantry deprived of firepower due to similar sensitivity and having to slog it out man to man.

  4. BTW, a cynical friend’s response to the article was that $300M airplanes provide a lot more jobs to congressional districts than do useful tools in soldiers kit. I can’t believe he’s too far off.

    I’ll guess that that’s a lot of it.

    TV ads directed at teenaged boys offer electric remote-control toy helicopters with video and still-photo capability. $80 shipped. I suspect that the military has comparable tools of high quality. Whether they are allocated in sufficient quantities and to the right people is another question. I suspect also that our procurement system, which combines a bipartisan Congressional pork machine with a bloated military bureaucracy, tends to produce expensive weapons that are optimized politically rather than functionally and tend to be complex, expensive and slow to be delivered.

  5. Scales:
    These challenges can be met only by demanding that our national-level policy and planning staffs look at war from the ground up rather than the top down. What’s missing is not a lack of empathy or concern but the crushing imperative for our leaders to bridge the enormous cultural gap that has existed for two generations between the political and government elite and the soldiers they send to do the dirty task of intimate killing.

    This cultural gap also exists between the political/govt elite and business, and even more broadly between our elites and ordinary Americans in all walks of private life. Inadequate rifles and 20-year weapons-system development cycles are merely the military manifestations of bloated govt.

    There are three broad approaches to this issue. The elites’ approach is to ignore it or to blame/punish the public. That hasn’t worked. Another approach has been to try to change the elites by encouraging them to be responsive to the public. That hasn’t worked either. The third response, the Tea Party approach that radicalized members of the public increasingly are coming to advocate because nothing else has worked, is to cut back govt spending in order to reduce the elites’ ability to interfere with everyone else. Thus military reform may be a subset of governmental reform in general rather than a unique issue.

  6. In the Civil War, the US Army rejected the repeating rifle due to fears that soldiers would waste ammunition. One unit (The 7th Illinois) bought their own Henry repeating rifles and that battalion held off a Confederate division at Antietam. The Spencer repeating rifle was also widely purchased privately by soldiers. The Confederates armed themselves with captured Union rifles but the repeating rifles used brass cartridges, which the South had no means of producing.

    In World War I, US soldiers, as well as the British and French, were devastated by the German Maxim machine guns. Maxim was an American whose invention had been rejected by the US Army. John Browning invented a light machine gun that was very reliable, the BAR, but the US Army decided not to use it in WWI for fear the Germans would capture them and use them against us. It was a standard weapon in WWII.

    It’s an old story. Obama recently cancelled the Future Combat Systems program. By the way, my understanding was that the program included future infantry systems like those in The Next 100 Years.

  7. @JF – Danner Boots are a great example of that. Plus, another pattern seems to be that Special Forces, which has looser uniform standards will adopt something and it will then spread to the larger forces. In this case, they act as a good testing lab for new kit.

  8. I suspect also that our procurement system, which combines a bipartisan Congressional pork machine with a bloated military bureaucracy, tends to produce expensive weapons that are optimized politically rather than functionally and tend to be complex, expensive and slow to be delivered. – Jonathan

    That sounds about right, J. And you sound just like Gulliver at Inkspots.

    Is this partly logistical? Moving stuff around is hard in these environments. The terrain in Afghanistan looks pretty darn brutal from my keyboard “view”. Larger than Iraq, largerly untouched by road or rail, mountainous, desert-y, mudwalled and treed compounds. Winter and summer seasons of not-fighting and fighting.

    There’s a discussion going on over at SWJ Council (can’t remember which thread, exactly) about the difficulty of moving drinking water around!

    The simple act of drinking water is not so simple. Can’t drink the local stuff, at least until you get used to it, not much water in arid regions, water purifiers tie you down, and so on and so on.

    Not that I don’t agree with the main points, Lex, and with what Jonathan said. All of this stuff is so much harder than I ever appreciated before I started reading around. I had no idea. The sad thing is, I bet many of our civilian decision makers don’t much think about it, either.

    – Madhu

    [Link fixed – Jonathan]

  9. My link don’t work.

    And I meant to be all artistic with “mud-walled and tree-ed” but that didn’t really work, either.

    – Madhu

  10. Okay, couldn’t find the water logistics thread from my brief thread, but here is one on using lasers to power batteries from Strategy Page:

    November 21, 2010: A U.S. firm (LaserMotive) has successfully demonstrated a laser that can recharge batteries on UAVs or ground based robots. Current range of the rechanrging laser is about a kilometer or so, but it opens up all sorts of possibilities for keeping battery powered robots at work longer. The basic problem is, as always, that you need a lot of energy to operate a long range laser (which has to burn its way through the atmosphere). This limits range, and the amount of energy you deliver. But the LaserMotive technology has shown that, for transferring energy, they have a working system despite those limitations.


    The question is this: how to allow this sort of development to take place in a rapid manner, as needed, and relatively cheaply. I know, I know. Just take the question for what it is….

    Gulliver at Inkspots makes the point that there are only so many companies that do this sort of thing so that the competition that we all love around here as free-marketers just isn’t there. Is that so? I have no special knowledge of the subject.

    – Madhu

  11. The War Department resisted introducing repeating rifles but was forced into it by the support of their most powerful backer: Abraham Lincoln. In what seems to be a scene from an alternative universe, all sorts of wannabe inventors were able to walk into the White House carrying loaded firearms, get an appointment, go up, and show them to the president. Often times Lincoln, the inventor, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, Tad, Willie, John Hay, or some other passersby would go down to a field near the Washington Monument and test fire the guns.

  12. One would think that it wouldn’t be too hard to develop a small ground penetrator that worked in conjunction with a moderated concussion grenade to dig a hole. Among the things I thought about while digging those very holes.

  13. Before everyone goes overboard on soldiers’ kit, some things to consider. A retired officer working at one of the Centers and Schools told me he had three questions when a contractor (or inventive civil servant or soldier) showed him the latest and greatest gizmo:

    1. How much does it weigh? – because some poor grunt is going to have to carry it around.
    2. Does it use batteries? – because if your frame of reference is picking up batteries as needed at the corner 7-11 you have no comprehension of the nightmare they can become at the end of a 12,000 mile logistic train.
    3. How much does it cost? – Because we really can’t afford to give every soldier his own $5,000,000 set of kit.

    Yes, there are good potential products out there that promise to make our troops more lethal, more survivable, or both. They generally emerge incrementally, and usually as a result of spiral development (whether intentionally or not). But however it comes, answer the three questions above correctly (as in: ounces but replaces something that weighs pounds, no, and dirt cheap).

    As an aside to the poster above commenting on the Future Combat Systems, it was a public relations success and an engineering catastrophe. Insiders who understand war and weapon systems referred to it as the “Fantasy Combat System.” It was a mismanaged, bloated, example of the worst design effort possible. The only certainty about it is that it would have gotten a lot of our troops killed if anyone had been stupid enough to actually build and deploy it. That Obama canceled it only proves the adage that even a blind hog finds an acorn now and then.

  14. For Dennis: “One would think that it wouldn’t be too hard to develop a small ground penetrator that worked in conjunction with a moderated concussion grenade to dig a hole. Among the things I thought about while digging those very holes.”

    It’s been looked at, with no success. But people keep trying because the reward is never having to pay for a beer for the rest of your life. 8^)

  15. http://www.foxnews.com/scitech/2010/11/24/armys-revolutionary-rifle-use-afghanistan/

    “U.S. Army Unveils ‘Revolutionary’ XM25 Rifle in Afghanistan” By Joshua Rhett Miller on November 28, 2010 at FoxNews.com

    After years of development, the U.S. Army has unleashed a new weapon in Afghanistan — the XM25 Counter Defilade Target Engagement System, a high-tech rifle that can be programmed so that its 25-mm. ammunition detonates either in front of or behind a target, meaning it can be fired just above a wall before it explodes and kills the enemy.

    It also has a range of roughly 2,300 feet — nearly the length of eight football fields — making it possible to fire at targets well past the range of the rifles and carbines that most soldiers carry today.

    Lt. Col. Christopher Lehner, project manager for the semi-automatic, shoulder-fired weapon system for the U.S. Army’s Program Executive Office Soldier, said … the first XM25s were distributed to combat units in Afghanistan this month. The 12-pound, 29-inch system, which was designed by Minnesota’s Alliant Techsystems, costs up to $35,000 per unit and, while highly sophisticated, is so easy to use that soldiers become proficient within minutes.

    * * *

    Lehner said the Army plans to purchase at least 12,500 XM25 systems beginning next year — enough for one system in each infantry squad and Special Forces team.

    The military isn’t overly concerned that the weapon might be captured by the enemy, because they would be unable to obtain its highly specialized ammunition, batteries and other components. …

  16. I watched Restrepo for the first time last night and read your review just today. I couldn’t help but think as I read your review that you have no idea what combat is really like other than watching it on film. It appears to me that you were looking for some type of bias on Junger’s part. I think you missed the point. Your obvious assessment that the “overall feel of the film is grim,” probably stems from the fact that combat is grim. While most warriors go into battle with the aim of fulfilling the mission given to them by their commanding officers, the fact of the matter remains that each and every one of them fall back to that most human of instincts: survival. When you go into combat, you want to survive. The only reason why you want your buddies to survive more than you is because your subsequent survival at the cost of their lives is unbearable. I’m not sure you got that message from this film. It was indeed grim. But it was also honest. I don’t know if Junger had an agenda, and I don’t know what, if anything, he cut out of his 100+ hours of film because of his “ideological template.” What he gave you was an up close and personal view of what it is like to get shot at and shoot at your enemy, and mourn the loss of your brother. You seem to need more. Unfortunately, combat usually doesn’t offer more and this film kept pretty honest.

  17. “…you have no idea what combat is really like …”


    I presume you do. Thank you for your service.

    Soldiers fighting wars are not concerned with politics while they are fighting. They can’t be. I know that much.

    “You seem to need more. Unfortunately, combat usually doesn’t offer more and this film kept pretty honest.”

    I have no needs regarding the movie.

    I, and every citizen, does have a need to understand why Americans are engaging in combat in Afghanistan at all.

    Combat by US troops in Afghanistan is a political decision.

    The political decision to commit troops to combat in Afghanistan requires a justification beyond survival of the troops we have sent there.

    If there is no purpose beyond survival, then survival is best served by our troops not being there.

    The message I found implicit in the movie was that the purpose of the combat is beyond our grasp. It was in fact beyond the grasp of the troops in the Korengal Valley at the time. They could not push back the Taliban and begin to bring the benefits of peace and law and order to the population there. That was clear in the movie.

    I was shocked that Mr. Junger, in his presentation afterwards strongly contradicted this implicit political message, as I described.

    The honesty of the depiction of combat is not at issue at all.

    And you are a better judge of that than I am.

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