Best Defense

The military perimeter: An appreciation

Grunts form a perimeter, which is a sanctuary for both the body and the spirit.



Col. Keith Nightingale, U.S. Army (Ret.)
Best Defense professor of ground combat studies

Religions build churches, synagogues, mosques and sanctuaries. Grunts form a perimeter, which is a sanctuary for both the body and the spirit. The perimeter is the one and only respite from the work at hand. It is the place where a person gets in touch with himself, relaxes if he can, and recovers because he must. It is wherever the infantry is. It both constantly changes and is totally immutable. It is a contradiction, a blessing, and a curse.

The perimeter comes in many forms, but the function is always the same. For the grunt, it is a refuge against whatever is out there and the source of succor and recovered senses. It is as much a home as there can be — even if for just the smallest moment in time.

It is a small cluster of buildings with dirt packed walls, earth floors, and cracked tile roofs. It is a small triangle of men laid out behind their rucks — in both hot sand and deep, rotten jungle. It is a collection of steel boxes, Texas barriers, Hester bags, and plywood walls. It is two troops in the wasteland, scared to their core and back to back prepared for whatever fate brings — together.

The perimeter may be a large as Bastogne, as isolated as Restrepo, as symbolic as Khe Sanh, or two Grunts temporarily lost and alone. It can be the hundred plus positions held during Tet 1968 by small isolated elements cut off from their primary support. The perimeter says: Here we are. Here we stand. If you want it, you have to take it. We may be few, but we are together and here we fight. We stand alone, together.

A perimeter is the one sanctuary that temporarily relieves the grunt of some small portion of the anxiety carried during the operational day. Here, conversation may be in a normal tone. Hyper-vigilance is relaxed. The niceties of available food and drink are consumed — almost like home, but not. Letters and email are written and read. Uniforms and skin simultaneously cool. Shoulders rest and recover their shape. Leaders become more obvious as the led recover into their societal pecking order, free of the requirements of command. The perimeter is as close to “normal” as circumstances permit.

Weapons point outward. Dangers are assessed from a distance. The other tools of combat are placed in their desired positions. The instruments of the night are readied in the dwindling last light.

Soon a green caste illuminates all the world that can be seen within the various prisms. A furtive glance skyward reveals stars in an abundance not previously noted. Rest is an option. For some.

Within the temporary sanctuary, some are required to ensure security. They extend their presence outside the small haven but remain part of the whole, albeit at a distance. In their mind, they know if bad things happen, they will return to their assembly and that provides some emotional relief.

In dark circumstances, the perimeter is a hasty bastion of defense. Walls and barricades are erected. Weapons align in deadly design and minds focus on the external threats. Internally, the members are together for whatever fate may bring. Association provides additional strength — both physical and emotional.

In the worst of circumstances, the dead, dying, and incapacitated are gathered toward the innermost womb to be ministered to and supported by the surrogates for mothers and fathers that an infantry family provides.

Under better circumstances, the perimeter is the locus for external support and assistance. Food, drink, and the various sundries of war are augmented. Home is momentarily provided in the way of letters, emails, and other connections reminding the membership that someone outside the perimeter also cares.

Internal to the perimeter, the several levels of leadership more clearly assume their positions within the hierarchy. They are responsible for the health, safety, and future of the members surrounding them. This will not change until each member is freed from the physical perimeter in a different land. A land not here.

Each grunt occupies the physical space and erects a personal, emotional perimeter. This is the last refuge if the former begins to succumb. The emotional strength of the group and the internal bonding of allegiance provides a final quality to the perimeter in its darkest moments.

In time, the perimeter is dissolved as new requirements and movements dictate. The grunts travel in moving individual and collective perimeters among each other, much as a shoal of fish. The perimeter constantly changes but always remains the same. It preserves both the person and the force, and is the strength and refuge of the unit.

Col. (Ret.) Keith Nightingale commanded four infantry companies, three battalions, and two brigades. He served two tours in Vietnam, the Grenada invasion, and several classified counter-terrorist operations, including the Iran rescue attempt. He was a founding member of the 1-75th Rangers as well as one of the original members of what is now Joint Special Operations Command and U.S. Special Operations Command. He has written numerous articles regarding the infantry in both Vietnam and the Desert Wars. He is a member of the Ranger Hall of Fame.   

Photo credit: U.S. Army

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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