Best Defense

The debate continues: Being in the infantry means you have to decide which of your close comrades might die today

Before we discuss gender integration in the Infantry any more, please take a moment to learn a soldier's language.



By Lewis Higinbotham
Best Defense guest infantryman

Before we discuss gender integration in the Infantry any more, please take a moment to learn the language of my world.

You must understand that it is an environment with no civilian equivalent, where lethal risks must be allocated fairly to squad members. For example, Who walks point?  If you  put your best man on point all the time, you will eventually get him killed.  If you take the point yourself all the time, you will eventually get yourself killed.  If you put less than your best man on point, even one time, you may get the entire squad or entire platoon killed.

— To “hump a ruck” is soldier slang for carry a rucksack.

— “Ambush patrol” means small group, maybe a squad, maybe fewer men, leave unit main position after dark, attempt to move quietly/undetected either into enemy territory or just in no-man’s-land between friendly and enemy forces, then set up a clandestine position along a known or likely enemy route of movement. They must remain undetected all night or until some enemy pass through the selected ambush location, where all the soldiers can execute a sudden, surprise and violent attack on the enemy, concentrating their fire on the kill zone. Then, since friendly unit (the ambush patrol) presence and location has been disclosed, execute hasty withdrawal away from the ambush site, attempt return to friendly positions, still in the dark but at risk from enemy action (perhaps an enemy ambush patrol emplaced to engage our ambush patrol’s movement out or back). All patrol members must remain at 100 percent alert all night, have no protection of dug in individual fighting positions, must remain completely still and silent to not give away the ambush position. Certainly more dangerous for those patrol members than for other soldiers who stay back in the main position, where they can share the alert, are in the greater protection of dug in individual fighting positions and are in much greater numbers as part of the larger unit — squad as part of platoon as part of a company as part of a battalion etc.

— “OP and LP.” In daytime Observation Post (OP) means one or two soldiers out in front of the friendly position, in the direction of potential enemy approach, to observe and provide early warning of enemy approach. How far away from main body? Far enough to give rest of the unit early warning and avoid potential for enemy surprise attack. However, by the time enemy gets close enough for soldiers on OP duty to see them, enemy is also close enough to see our OP and those one or two soldiers are at significantly greater risk because they are way outnumbered in their present position. They will be as much or more vulnerable when they attempt to move back to the friendly position, after having given early warning of enemy approach. Infantry unit leaders’ deliberate placing of those two soldiers at much greater risk is to protect the entire unit, to prevent enemy from making successful surprise attack on entire unit. At night time, since we can’t see as well, the term is LP for listening post, still out “in front” of the unit, in direction of potential enemy approach, again to detect enemy approach and provide early warning. Two man OP or LP may offer the opportunity for one to be on full alert while other does something else (perhaps eat a meal, maybe sleep a little), but very seldom will either the LP or the OP be in a prepared/dug in position, mostly just out in the existing terrain/vegetation*or lack thereof, hunkered down to remain undetected. Certainly at much greater risk than other soldiers back in unit main position.

— “Name tag deep foxhole” means deep enough to have the standing soldier protected to above the fatigue uniform upper shirt pockets. 50% alert means you sleep while I stand guard for an hour, then I sleep while you stand guard for an hour. But your sleeping position is likely just sitting down in the fox hole, still fully dressed with your rifle at the ready. Rain and or snow or just cold weather makes the sleeping less than restful. (In Korea, the Infantry units never allowed more than 50% sleeping bags on position, knowing that when my turn on guard was over, I would be certain to roust you out of the one sleeping bag we shared, so I could get warm for an hour while you stood guard.) If the unit stays in one place longer than one night, then more elaborate and comfortable sleeping positions may be prepared but it is still 50% and alternating one hour sleep periods. Extremely unrestful.

— “Charlie rations,” or today’s “MREs,” do not ever really satisfy one’s hunger so even though there is great physical exertion and energy expenditure, one is always hungry. Army terminology for rations was A rations meant fresh food, cooked in a mess unit, served as a normal meal, even though it was eaten out of a mess kit. B rations meant canned food, heated and served by a mess unit, eaten out of a mess kit but certainly more food and heated by unit cooks. C rations (now MREs) issued four or five days worth of individual meals at a time, carried in the rucksack, and eaten whenever the opportunity allowed under squad leader supervision (some eat while others stand guard). Usually eaten cold, although we were issued heat tablets, a small compressed chemical tablet of flammable material, placed in an empty can stove so one could either heat the main food element or a canteen cup of water to make instant coffee in the accessory packet for each meal (really bad coffee, by the way). Don’t remember exact quantities but the main element — chicken, pork, beef, or ham, sometimes with beans or potatoes — was in a can smaller than you would find with tuna fish in your grocery store. Then a similar small sized can of fruit and another can of a desert bread/cake. Infantry duty meant one was always hungry.

Lewis Higinbotham, a retired Infantry Lieutenant Colonel, is a veteran of 49 months Infantry service in Viet-Nam as a Vietnamese Ranger Advisor, an Infantry platoon leader and a rifle company commander with the 101st Airborne and 173rd Airborne, between 1964 and 1969. 

Photo credit: U.S. Army Signal Corps/Wikimedia Commons

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1

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