“Like a rich armour, worn in the heat of the day, that scalds with safety.”
~ Shakespeare, Henry IV
How do you win a counterinsurgency campaign, if you can’t catch the enemy?
Imagine, friends, four combatants in march order, as they march to, through and from history. One is a Macedonian phalangite, a pikeman, accompanying Alexander and trudging toward Herat. Then next is a Roman legionary of the middle Empire, on his way to drub some band of barbarians or rebels. Third is a Pashtun fighter in Afghanistan, whether he is fighting us or was fighting the Soviets makes little difference. Last, in more ways than one, comes an American soldier, also in Afghanistan.
What is the phalanglite lugging on his body? Sources for things like this are always a little iffy, with ancient military history, but modern scholarship, driven in good part by finds at Vergina, believes that the typical phalangite carried about 23.1 kilograms (about 51 pounds) of arms and armor, consisting of his Sarissa, shield, helmet, dagger, sword, torso armor and such. He may have also started his march, nine days prior, carrying some 30 pounds of food. Now he’s down to about three pounds and expecting the trains to keep him supplied from here on. Water, clothing, footwear, camp and cooking utensils, might have added 20 pounds or so to that (I’m swagging that, of course; we really don’t know). Call it a 73 pounds on our pikeman’s back, just before he settles into camp outside Herat.1 He goes into action with about 51 pounds, but nobody expects him to be all that mobile on the battlefield.
Our Roman? He never made it to Afghanistan or, if he did, we don’t know about it. But his grandfathers and uncles met and generally defeated the phalangites of Epirus and Macedon, on more than a few battlefields. What is our Roman’s burden?2
He might have carried 80 pounds on a road march. That’s apparently the outside limit though and then only if he’d pissed off his centurion. More likely, in accordance with Hans Delbrueck’s studies of the matter, and SLA Marshall’s The Soldier’s Load and the Mobility of a Nation, that the legionary ported under 60 pounds routinely and went into the battle line under 40, and possibly with as little as 33.
Note, too, that like the phalangite approaching Herat, the Roman rarely went into battle from the wearying march. Instead he builds a camp or siege works or both, then rests before action, while his commander plans, and reconnoiters, and the light and mobile troops struggle for what amounts to information dominance. He goes into the fight as fresh as he can be made.
And our Pashtun? He’s got a Kalashnikov, call it an AK-74 (7.3 pounds), maybe 120 rounds (2.7 pounds) in four loaded magazines (about 3.7 pounds, assuming fairly modern mags), a BDU jacket he bought at the bazaar, and some clothes under that (negligible but call it a couple of pounds, anyway, if only for the dirt), sandals (a pound? If that?). Let’s assume he’s a team leader and has an ICOM radio (about half a pound including the batteries and a spare set of batteries3). He’ll have a filled canteen or water bottle (maybe two to two and a half pounds), and one of those Chinese manufactured canvas vests that hold five or six magazines and strap or tie across the chest (maybe a pound and a half or so). For support he’s got a bag of almonds, maybe some naan (flatbread), possibly some dried meat and, depending on where he is, a couple of figs, a handful of dates, or a pomegranate.
If our enemy Pashtun rifleman is carrying more than 25 pounds I’d be shocked. That’s good for him because, though he’s often tough as hickory and hard as nails, his health is probably rotten.
Before I get to the American in Afghanistan, I need to digress a bit to interject a personal story. Once, way in the dim mists of antiquity (in this case, 1975), I was a young trooper, a mortar grunt at the time, in the 101st, on Fort Campbell, Kentucky. The 101st was (and as far as I know, still is) a division deeply in love with pain as a character-building tool.
One carried some pretty impressive loads as a mortar maggot anyway. But one march in particular stands out. I had a pretty heavy ruck already, for the day, probably something on the order of 55 pounds. Might have been more. Rifle, web gear, two quarts of water, helmet, boots and uniform (all the cloth soaking wet); maybe 22 pounds. 81mm bipod; 42 pounds. And – no joke; we were understrength – 81mm barrel, 28 pounds.
I weighed – again, no joke – 145 pounds.
My load was on the order of 147, which I carried for about 18 miles, kind of fast, on a warm — but not hot — spring day.
I think I had the heaviest load, that day, followed closely by the platoon leader who had a bipod and a PRC-77 radio. It was far and away the heaviest as a percentage of body weight. Thus, I retain still a certain pride at making it all the way.
But here’s the punch line. I made it all the way, sure. But I was useless – I mean practically delirious levels of useless – weak, uncoordinated, sick… just worthless for any activity beyond going to the bathroom, for three days afterwards.
Note the comments above about ancient soldiers resting before actions. One can take whatever fanciful figures for loads borne by those mythic men of iron of mythic ancient days and toss them. Even if true, it doesn’t matter; they rested before action.
The American soldier in Afghanistan can’t count on resting before battle if he’s had a long foot march under a heavy load. The enemy attacks when he feels like it. He defends when he feels like it. We may be, and are, bigger, stronger, healthier, better trained, better educated, all too lavishly equipped.
The initiative is still mostly his.
And a good chunk of the reason for that – not the totality, no, but a good chunk – is the loads we inflict on our infantry. Here are some figures extracted from a 2003 report for the loads carried by our men in Afghanistan. The percent is the average percent of body weight.4
Now compare some of those loads with what a Roman legionary carried. We have people going into a fight, presuming the enemy deigns to engage us, bearing two or two and a half times what the legionary did on an approach march. Then compare them with the more heavily burdened phalangite. Alexander’s veterans would have mutinied over that kind of load. All that’s bad enough, but when you compare them to the Taliban insurgent?
In some sense, maybe to some, that could sound like something not as bad as that heavily burdened road march I mentioned above, in 1975. Not so. That road march was a one off. Nobody was shooting at us. Conversely, the men in Afghanistan were, and, to the extent we’re still trying to fight, still are, carrying that crap day in, day out. Are they able to spot the enemy reliably? One doubts. Are they able to spot his mines and booby-traps and IEDs? One doubts. Are they alert enough to react to the enemy’s actions properly and reliably? One doubts. Can they even shoot well, under and after that kind of fatigue? One doubts.
Ah, but I hear the Pollyannaish cry, “Well that was 11 years ago. Surely things have improved…”
Well… we’ve not done a thorough study as we did in 2003, but more recent data does suggest there’s been a change, probably across the board. Change? Oh, yes, the platoon leader’s load has gone up by seven pounds.5 Since the big difference appears to be the “improved” armored vest, the IOTV, one suspects that increase carries across the board. What an improvement.
As one soldier said, “Sir, we are weighted down with all this equipment and we are fighting a 60-year-old Hajji in flip flops and an AK-47 who can run faster than me?”6
And that’s another reason why we’ve been losing.
Note that I haven’t even addressed the long term physical wear and tear. I will. Also, in some future columns, we’re going to talk about why we’re in the position we’re in. Probably nobody’s going to like what I have to say about that – maybe me least of all – but it has to be said.
1 One of the problems with ancient military history, logistics, admin, and the lot, is that, at the time, everyone that mattered pretty much knew the details of how it all worked, so almost nobody bothered writing them down. Of those who did, it’s not entirely clear that they fully understood what they were describing. Some modern historians seem to have no trouble inventing these details from whole cloth: I can’t think of a better example than one, who shall remain nameless, who imported the Zulu age group / Impi system into the recruiting system for the legions on no credible evidence that I could see. Still, for a little reasonably well documented insight into the army of Alexander, see: https://hetairoi.de/en/history/military/the-phalangite/
2 This is actually an impossible question to answer precisely without reference to “when and where?” I’m generalizing, if that wasn’t obvious.
4 By all means consult this: https://thedonovan.com/archives/modernwarriorload/ModernWarriorsCombatLoadReport.pdf.
Read last week’s column: How to Get Out of Afghanistan The Right Way
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 Amazon.com 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 baen.com.