Fine Men, Fine Dogs, Fine Knifes: Use with Care

By | February 28, 2013 | 0 Comments

I just finished reading “Suspect” by Robert Crais, a superb novel concerning a war dog. Coincidentally I watched “Glory Hounds” on Animal Planet. I love dogs, so I knew that a documentary on war dogs in Afghanistan would rivet my attention. I was intrigued by the life-saving work of the dogs that sniff out improvised explosive devices. And I was moved by the close connection of the men and the dogs.

The dog handlers were members of the Army, Marines, and Air Force. Most of the men were very young. The embedded camera team showed the men as dedicated to their mission – which we gave them – as well as to their comrades. My respect for them was already high, but it grew even stronger.

And yet, another thought kept intruding. It concerned a knife I used to have.

Some time ago, I was driving my old car. As I pulled out of a parking lot, I heard a terrible screeching noise. Looking under the car, I found that the exhaust pipe and muffler had rusted out and were dragging on the street. To free them I had to remove the rubber rings holding up the tail pipe. Unable to do so, I took out my pocket knife and tried to cut the rings.
It was a fine knife with a sharp edge. But the rubber rings had steel centers, which I discovered only after destroying the blade. Eventually I pried the thing loose with a screwdriver. I learned three lessons that day:

● Things are often a lot harder than they appear on the surface.
● It is easier to ruin a good tool than to obtain a new one of equal quality.
● It is better to use the right tool than to ruin the wrong tool and still not get the job done.

I didn’t think about this incident until I read “Lone Survivor,” the story of Marcus Luttrell, a Navy SEAL who was the only member of his four-man team to survive a fight with a much larger force of Taliban in Afghanistan. Wounded, Luttrell was saved by friendly Afghans and eventually rescued. Sixteen special-operations troops also died in a helicopter crash while attempting to rescue the men, making a total of 19 American deaths. I wondered whether political correctness has impaired our ability to fight wars.

The book left me filled with admiration for these men’s courage. The team leader, Michael Murphy, was awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously, while Luttrell received the Navy Cross. But I felt anger as well as admiration. Their training and weapons were far superior to those of their enemies. They were the most highly skilled warriors in history. But low-tech weapons and superior numbers overcame them, and only one of the four lived to see home again.

And then it happened again. A helicopter was shot down by the Taliban, killing all 30 Americans aboard. Among them were 22 SEALs from the same unit that killed Bin Laden. This quick-reaction force was sent to back up a ground unit, but that unit was forced to break contact with the enemy and provide security at the crash site. Three SEALs from the ground unit were also killed, making a total of 33 American deaths.

In short, neither the original mission nor the back-up mission succeeded, and 33 of our elite warriors died. Yes, they died fighting the Taliban, who had harbored the planners of 9/11. But the war in Afghanistan has been going on for over 11 years. How long can we go on trading our finest Benchmade and Emerson knives for their cheaply made but more numerous hardware-store junk?
I thought that these two incidents were tragic but isolated. However, while watching the documentary on Animal Planet, I realized that they were all too typical of our experience in Afghanistan.

● Sometimes what is needed is not a fine knife, but an axe.
● Sometimes what is needed is not a “light footprint,” but a size 14 boot-stomp. We can’t afford to trade our few highly trained elite for their numerous cannon fodder.
● Sometimes what is needed is not a small team of elite troops, but larger numbers of ordinary troops, together with planeloads of daisy-cutter or fuel-air bombs.
● Sometimes what is needed is not 11 years of payback, but one stiff dose of deterrence.
● Sometimes what is needed is not a “sensitive war” that meets the “global test,” but a few stern words of warning from a president and a secretary of state who obviously mean them.
● Sometimes what is needed as the “nuclear option” is not a maneuver in Congress, but something that causes our enemies to break out in a cold sweat if they even think about another 9/11. That’s the real “nuclear option.”

Bin Laden said, “When people see a strong horse and a weak horse, by nature they will like the strong horse.” If we hope to prevail, we must be the strong horse. Or we can just forget the whole thing and go out to stud − assuming that, unlike Europeans, we still can propagate. Geldings don’t do well at stud.

Technology is an enormous help to humanity. Medicine has advanced by huge strides. Military technology can save lives − consider bullet-resistant vests. But if we rely on technology too heavily, it will let us down. The M16, and its current incarnation the M4, are finely made weapons. The AK47 and its progeny are crudely made. They are designed to be used by poorly trained troops in dirty or sandy conditions. Most weapons designed in Russia or China are like that.

Years ago, our ROTC instructor taught us how to disassemble the .45 pistol. One of my classmates shook the pistol and complained that it rattled. The master sergeant smiled and explained that it was not a finely fitted target pistol, which would be more accurate but less reliable. The loosely fitted parts allowed the weapon to function when it was dirty. The rattle reassured him it would save his life under combat conditions.

But some people are not lucky enough to be taught by combat veterans. Some people have excessive faith in technology. Some people are willing to squander elite troops in a primitive environment. Some people never ruined a fine knife by trying to cut material too coarse for it.

Still, we must not fall into the trap of believing that our troops are too well trained, and our weapons are too expensive, ever to use them. We must not be like Gen. McClellan, who trained the Union Army so well that he was reluctant to use it. He was replaced by Gen. Grant, who was not a stickler for drill and whose uniforms were rumpled, but who was willing to fight

We need to find a balance:

● A balance between common sense and high technology.
● A balance between real-world experience and imaginative theories.
● A balance between superior numbers and superb training.
● A balance between choosing our fights so carelessly that we fight when we shouldn’t, and choosing them so carefully that we don’t fight when we should.
● A balance between being so violent that we win the war but lose the world’s respect, and being so politically correct that we lose the war − and lose the world’s respect as well.
● A balance between generals who are subordinate to civilian authority, and generals who become mere yes-men who agree with whatever politically correct notion the president dreams up.

But first we must recognize that we need to find a balance. I don’t think this has happened yet.
Fine men, fine dogs, and fine knives should be used carefully, by people who appreciate their capabilities and their limitations − and most important, who value them as highly as they deserve.

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