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SWEAT MORE, BLEED LESS
2/24/2010 8:32:53 AM    [ Flag as Inappropriate ]

SWEAT MORE, BLEED LESS

Of the e-mails I receive from well-intentioned friends and relatives, ninety-five percent or more never make it past my browser’s privacy shield, which automatically deletes them if they contain pornography, political propaganda or religious nonsense (even innuendo.) One that recently got through, however, was “A French Infantryman’s View of American Soldiers.” It was written by a scribe named Jean-Marc Liotier, and it was in French. Translated and slightly edited, this is what it said:

This is a view of American troops in Afghanistan as seen through the eyes of a French OML* infantryman. . . . The U.S. often hears echoes of worldwide hostility against its foreign policy, but seldom do they hear the voices of we who are in proximity to the U.S.A. troops In spite of political differences and the conflicting interests that generate friction, we share the same fundamental values. And when push comes to shove, that is what really counts.

Through the eyes of a French OMLT* infantryman you can now see how strong our bond is. In contrast with the Americans, we French soldiers don't seem to write much online—or maybe the proportion is the same but because of our population, we have less people deployed over here. Whatever the reason, this is a rare and moving testimony, which is why I decided to share this—that Americans can catch a glimpse of the way European soldiers see them. Not much high philosophy here, just the first- hand impressions of a soldier in combat that perhaps makes it more authentic.

I have shared my daily life with two U.S. units for quite a while—they are the 1st and 4th companies of a prestigious infantry battalion whose name I will withhold for the sake of military secrecy. To the ordinary citizen, it is a unit just like any other. But we live with them and get to know them, and we know that it is an honor to live with one of the most renowned units of the U.S. Army! It is the one that TV has portrayed depicting "ordinary soldiers thrust into extraordinary events". Who are they, these soldiers from America? What support do they bring to the men of our OMLT* every day?

A few of them belong to “Easy Company,” the group the TV series focuses on. For purposes of this essay, I will call them “Echo Company,” and they have become our support team. They have terribly strong American accents—to our ears the language they speak is not even close to English. How many times have I had to write down what I wanted to say rather than trying various pronunciations of a common word? Whatever state they are from—New York, Georgia, Idaho or California—no two accents are alike, and they even admit that in some crisis situations, they have difficulty understanding each other. Well-built and husky, they were well fed at an early age, probably with Gatorade, proteins and creatine—maybe from the Waffle House or McDonalds—and every one is heads and shoulders taller than me, and their muscles remind us of Rambo. Our frames are amusingly skinny compared to them—we are wimps, even the strongest of us—and because of that they often mistake us for Afghans. Huge irony!

This is how we learned America is often depicted: their values are taken as knee-jerk reactions, often amplified by some brand of promiscuity and the loneliness of our outpost in the middle of an Afghan valley. Honor, duty, homeland—everything here reminds them of that. The American flag floating in the wind above the outpost is just like the one on the stamps on the boxes from across the sea. Even if recruits often come from the streets of American cities and gang territories, no one here has any ideal higher than to hold proud the ‘Star Spangled Banner.’

Each American here knows he can count on the support of a whole country to provide him if only through the postal service all that an American could miss in such a remote front-line location: books, chewing gums, razorblades, Gatorade, toothpaste, etc., in such way that every man is aware of how much his countrymen back him on his difficult mission. And that is a first shock to our misconception that the American soldier is an individualist. The team, the group, the combat team is the primary focus of all his attention. We dream of wine, baguettes and a plethora of women; he dreams of his home, baseball games and a family to take care of. Well, maybe one or two women; usually only one.

And they are impressive warriors! We have not come across a single bad one, as strange at it may seem to you when you think how critical we French people can be. Even if some of the Americans are a bit on the heavy-set side, all of them provide us everyday with lessons in infantry know-how. Beyond the wearing of a combat uniform that never seems uncomfortable—helmet strap, helmet, combat goggles, rifles, ammo, packs, etc.—the long hours of watch at the guard post never seems to annoy them. On the one square meter wooden tower above the perimeter wall they stand for five consecutive hours in full battle fatigues and night vision goggles on top, their sight focused solely in the direction of lurking danger. No distractions, no pauses, they are like statues night and day.

At night, all movements are performed in the dark—only a handful of subdued red lights indicate the occasional presence of a soldier on the move. The same is true with vehicles whose lights are covered. Everything happens in pitch dark, even filling fuel tanks with the Japy pumps.

And combat? If you have seen a Rambo movie, you have seen it all—always coming to the rescue when one of our teams gets in trouble, and always in the shortest amount of time. That is one of their tricks: they switch from t-shirt and sandals to combat gear in less than three minutes.

In contact with the enemy, the way they fight is simple and disconcerting. They just charge! If there are no civilians in the way, they disembark and assault in stride—they shoot first and ask questions later—which eliminates any pussyfooting around. This is the main area where I'd like to make definitive comment. Anyone with a passing knowledge of Rudyard Kipling knows his lines from Chant Pagan: “If your officer's dead and the sergeants look white/Remember it's ruin to run from a fight/So take open order, lie down, sit tight/And wait for supports like a soldier.” . . . This, in fact, is the basic tenet of both British and Continental soldiers: in the absence of orders, take a defensive position. Indeed, virtually every army in the world lives—and dies—by this.

The American soldier, however, is imbued from early training with this ethos: In the absence of orders—Attack! Where other forces, for good or ill, will wait for precise commands and precise plans to respond to an attack or any other incident, the American force will simply go forward, counting on firepower and standard operating procedures to carry the day. This is one of the great strengths of American forces in combat, and it is something that even our closest allies, such as the Brits and Aussies (the latter being closer, by the way) find repeatedly surprising. No wonder it also surprises the hell out of our enemies!

We seldom hear any harsh words when from 5 AM onwards the chores are performed in beautiful order and always with excellent spirit. A passing American helicopter with remarkable PJ’s aboard stops near a stranded vehicle just to check that everything is all right and no one is wounded. Suddenly, an American combat team rushes to support our men who are pinned down before even knowing how dangerous the situation is, and from what we have witnessed time and again, the American soldier is a magnificent and worthy heir to those who liberated France and Europe.

To those who bestow us with the honor of sharing their combat outposts and who everyday give proof of their military excellence, to those who pay the daily tribute of America's deployment on Afghan soil, to those we owe these humble words, hoping that we will always remain worthy of them and to always continue hearing them say that we are with them, the same band of brothers.

Many of the veterans who read this will say, "Yeah, well, duh, ‘course we do our camp chores and stand our posts like we’re supposed to. There's a reason why we do that, ‘cause if we didn't we'd get our heads handed to us by the c.o.. And, yeah, we're in shape—we work out every chance we get. Makes fightin’ easier. The more you sweat, the less you bleed."

What is hard for most people to understand is that this philosophy was subscribed to by only the elite units of the past. Everyday conventional military activity is boring. It was during the Vietnam War that infantry units began to exceed the training levels of Special Forces—they exceeded them as well as the IQ and educational levels of even the Waffen SS, WWII Rangers, the Air Force PJ’s, WWII Airborne and British Commando units. Their per-unit combat-functionality is essentially immeasurable because it has to be compared to something, and there's nothing comparable on today’s combat agenda.

This group is so much better than “'The Greatest Generation” at conducting a war that WWII vets who really get a close look at how good these men and women are stand in absolute awe of them.

Everyone complains about the quality of “the new guys.” Don't. The screw-ups of this modern generation are head and shoulders above the “high-medium” watermark of any past group—including mine. This is “The Greatest Generation” of soldiers. They may never be equaled.

I wish to hell this would actually get reprinted in the NYT.
(Blogger’s note: It won’t, but it’s a worthy aspiration.)

*Operational Mentoring Liaison Team

Copyright©2010 by Jean-Marc Liotier and Robert A. Mills


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