Riot Control, Part 1

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Mon, Jan 30 - 8:00 am EDT | 2 years ago by
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Lines of Departure - Riots

Since the enemy has decided to use rioters in an attempt to delegitimize and destabilize the current administration, it seems to me more than ordinarily worthwhile to discuss riot control.

My own background? Well, besides the law degree, which is of highly limited utility, I assure you, I was an infantry enlisted man, non-com, and company grade officer in what was probably the only portion of the US Armed Forces which actually knew its ass from a hole in the wall with regard to riot control. No, this was not the 82d. No, it was not any group of military police, nor the military police corps as a whole. No, it was not the National Guard. No, it wasn’t the Marine Corps.1

The 193rd Infantry Brigade – then in the Panama Canal Zone and now reduced to a mere basic training headquarters, on Fort Jackson, with no real continuity between the two – was the only US military organization of which I am aware that could control and suppress a riot. There were reasons for this, the big one being the 1964 Panama riots, which caught the Army completely by surprise and saw four American soldiers killed and, depending on whose figures one cares to believe, between twenty-one and one hundred and twenty-five or so Panamanians.2 These were not trivial riots in other words. From that day until perhaps the late 1980s, the 193rd took training for riot control very seriously, indeed.3

Seriously? What would you call but “serious” a routine exercise in which five soldiers playing rioters are bayonetted? What would you call a paired set of exercises in which twenty percent of each of the companies involved ends up in casts?4 What would you call an exercise in which twenty-one people have to be evacuated for CS5 inhalation, five of whom stop breathing on the Dustoff6 helicopters?

Two incidents of the way we used to do things resonate unusually strongly with me. In one case, to clear some of the OPFOR from the roof of a low building we had a technique. We’d simply toss up one or a few tough troops and he or they would have to fight it out on their own until help could scale ladders and beat the OPFOR off the roof. We had a nice kid in the company with a GT (roughly IQ) of 138, which is, surely you’ll agree, fairly smart. I knew this because, as company XO, I had access to any records I wanted. So this kid gets launched up and, before he can get to his feet the OPFOR grab him, carry him to the edge, and toss him off…head first. He landed on his head and the young private wasn’t so smart any more, at least so far as I knew him. A related technique involved using trucks rather than ladders.

The other incident concerned the Class IV (fortification / building materials, but in this case, barbed wire, concertina,7 engineer stakes and post pounders) truck. Wiring off areas as they are cleared is key to riot control, because you rarely have enough troops for the problem and need to recycle and reuse them. Hence, we got very good – not engineer levels of good but still very good – at building concertina fences in a hurry. One side effect of that was that there was a massive wad of tangled up concertina off to one side of the training area. So, when a few rioters swarmed the truck, the truck didn’t stop but kept on going. This meant that about fifteen rioters were left behind (in fact, jumping for their lives because, ya know, safety wasn’t a big thing with us). It also meant that five or so rioters were on a moving truck with a dozen mean-assed, armored up, shield and club bearing grunts.8 They were quickly beaten into submission. Then the truck moved to the big wad of old, rusty, nasty, tangled up concertina. And, then, one by one, the rioters were picked up and tossed onto the concertina….where they hung…ten feet off the ground…cut and bleeding…all day…without water…in better than ninety-five degree heat. And did I mention, all day? No, of course we didn’t help them get out after the exercise was over. “Well, if you insist, sir, but I say ‘fuck ‘em,’” said the wise old sergeant. “Yeah…fuck ‘em. Let ‘em hang. Motherfuckers.”

It’s not like the carnage and outrage were one sided, either. Typically, a unit tasked to be OPFOR for a riot control exercise would start fermenting garbage from the mess hall. The more aggressive ones would start pissing and shitting in buckets and saving that in garbage cans. Then the glop – shit, piss, or garbage – would be put into baggies, tied off, and thrown at members of the riot control force with enough force to scatter the contents. It can kind of piss a normal man off, you know, to have shit thrown on him.

Some, it is true, were more civil and just threw mud, rocks, and dirt. But mud or rocks or shit, the objective was to get the riot control force to overreact, especially to break formation and charge, preferably with his baton raised, so the papers and television, which are the real enemy in riot control, could get pictures and video.

Some had lassos, with which they would try to drag the riot control force out of formation, which would also tend to break the formation and cause the good guys to charge. Sometimes, it wasn’t a lasso but a grappling hook on the end of the rope. Those can hurt.

Still others would make pikes, twelve or fifteen foot long sharpened poles, with which they would attempt to either break ribs through our flak vest (old style nylon, not all that much use, really), or smash face plates, or break legs.

We had face plates, the flip up-flip down kind, that seemed okay, provided that every company had a couple of cleaning teams to wash the face plates down when they got too filthy to see through. But then some enterprising sort figured out that the government issue squeeze bottle insect repellent not only had considerable range, but that the face plates, when doused with it, turned opaque and could not ever be cleaned. The formula was insect repellant + face plate = complete loss and blind or vulnerable soldier.

You’re not going to learn things like that from riot control training that consists of forming up in close ranks and half-stepping about a parking lot, half-stepping in both senses, with the troops chanting, “hut-hut-hut.”

There are some other things you get and things you learn from training like that. That’s next week’s subject.

Photo by istock / Getty Images


1 I saw a battalion of the Tenth Marines do a creditable job suppressing the Haitian riots in the Guantanamo migrant internment camps, but to some extent discount that because a) we had the numbers, b) we had considerable prep time, c) the Haitians were divided into sections already, which made the job easier, and, most importantly, d) the Haitians were conditioned by their own culture and the ruthlessness of the police of their half-assed excuse for a country to expect extreme frightfulness from the authorities. In other words, they folded almost instantly, once the flares went up and the Marine redlegs and the soldiers crossed into their camps.

2 I’m inclined to believe the higher figures, but we didn’t kill all of those. The Panamanian mounted police had an interesting technique for dealing with rioters. Two of them would come up on either side of one and each grab an arm. They would then gallop for the nearest telephone or street light pole and slam the rioter into it, head or chest first, at that full out gallop.

3 The skills and attitudes were apparently allowed to lapse after we agreed to surrender the Canal and had no more reason to expect Panamanian riots aimed at us. See, for example, the ass-whipping administered to the 193rd here:

4 This was unusually bad and illustrates a subtle lesson in training for riot control. In this case, two rifle company commanders, from different battalions, 4/10 and 3/5, on different sides of the Canal Zone, agreed to get together and take turns having their companies play opposing force for each other. What they missed was that infantry companies are not like rioters. Good ones, and these were both very good companies, tend to have massive social cohesion and guts. They will fight in a way rioters will not. The lesson there is that if you want to train for riot control, you must simulate rioters who act like rioters, not like Caesar’s legionaries.

5 Think: Tear gas +++

6 Aeromedical evacuation


8 Infantry

Tom Kratman is a retired infantry lieutenant colonel, recovering attorney, and science fiction and military fiction writer. His latest novel, The Rods and the Axe, is available from for $9.99 for the Kindle version, or $25 for the hardback. A political refugee and defector from the People’s Republic of Massachusetts, he makes his home in Blacksburg, Virginia. He holds the non-exclusive military and foreign affairs portfolio for EveryJoe. Tom’s books can be ordered through

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