Small Wars Journal

What Wins Wars

Tue, 04/26/2016 - 10:23am

What Wins Wars

Keith Nightingale

We win wars, battles and campaigns when we demonstrate a combination of discipline, responsibility, competence and attitude. The bulk of these attributes are not taught, they are individually acquired. They are latent values within the core of each Grunt that emerges within the small units that invariably do the very heavy lifting in combat. Their existence has been the catalyst that carried us from The Revolution to today. Its application is universal to wherever our combat units find themselves.

Leadership, both Uniformed and political may dither and debate the larger issues regarding a campaign but these faces and personalities do not waver. They know what needs to be done and go about doing it-however rough, uncomfortable or apparently minuscule their presence may be.

The quality does not come from any ethnicity, religion, state of wealth, health, prior occupation, education or place of origin. It comes from within the core of every person that steps forward, puts on a uniform, picks up a weapon and subjugates himself to the small group of men that are now his family and the object of his deepest devotion. Attitude and attributes are within all who have served and always will. It is one of the magic aspects of our Nation. Should we lose those, we will lose everything. With it, we can be invincible should we choose to be. This image represents all that have stepped forward. Study it closely, it is us.

These are men preparing to go to the next hill, village, beach or suspected enemy location. They are as clean as is necessary for the beginning but they are fully prepared for the soil, filth and bodily harm that is their constant companion. They have that combination of attitude and aptitude that have always carried us through the crucible of combat.

The gear is worn but clearly serviceable. It is maintained because the users understand its value and it has been used repeatedly to good purpose. A lot of rounds, magazines and grenades have been carried and expended as will many more. The weapons are immaculate and placed with care. They know enough not to be casual with such an important tool.

They seem relaxed and at ease. But underneath, they are just biding their time for the moment when they have to respond and draw upon their core to carry the day. They are not arrogant. They are sure. They know what they are all about and have no self doubt in this place and moment.

This is well demonstrated by the man and weapon in the forefront. He knows he has a tool of great value and one which is the center of his element's capability. He does not take this likely. With obvious experience and responsibility, he wields his Excalibur with important modifications.

His belt of ready ammo has less than fifty rounds which is the standard. He selected that number from experience as he knows more will likely tangle in either the brush or his own equipment. It retains just the correct stiffness to feed effortlessly for its immediate engagement. This is a point acquired by close and intense experience which is why he carries the weapon and not someone else.

He has made a highly significant addition that reinforces his professional qualities. On the forward portion of the barrel, he has wrapped two field medical dressings. These will shield his hands from the heat as he fires. He clearly plans to initially engage any target standing up where he can better direct a good volume of fire. That thirty round moment will allow the other members to seek cover, return fire and begin to maneuver in the time he has bought them. It is not the Benning solution but its the working solution and that is all that matters.

Lastly examine the face. It asks the photographer, Why are you taking it? What do you want with me? Are you going to be a problem? He and his companions are clearly separate in attitude and interest from the person to his front. They are not challenging. They are just setting themselves apart from those that do not do what they do. We have been fortunate that we have always had a generous pool of attitude and aptitude. The rest of the Nation may dither and discourse but these people know exactly what they are about and prove it daily. They are the one thing we can truly trust.


J Harlan

Wed, 04/27/2016 - 9:21am

What wins American wars? Industrial, technological and scientific capacity translated into firepower and logistics. What loses them? The people who wield that industrial power believe the war is limited and that there is a point at which it stops being cost effective.

It was a happy coincidence when I came across the foto. Actually, its a mixed US-Aussie patrol near Nui Dat-the Anzak base. The front guy is an Aussie but he has "borrowed" some of our gear because he likes it better-the ruck, the canteens and the Pig. His friends have the FN but there are 2 M16's from our guys.

I thought a bit about posting it but the looks said so much that I thought it irrelevant if they were Aussies or US.


Tue, 04/26/2016 - 4:59pm

Nice touch to publish this with photo's of Australians after ANZAC Day.

An amen to the comment. U have a huge leadership challenge in commanding troops into combat for what may be nothing more than filling time with the purpose to be lost in the future as an irrelevant and meaningless act. But it is decidedly mortal to those engaged. Our problem is that at a high level, this is apparently not very important.


Tue, 04/26/2016 - 11:03am

Sir, firstly, thank you for your tremendous service to our nation. Second, thank you for the distilled truth about where our wartime success lies. I would only offer that the men you describe win battles, and that despite their sacrifices and victories, our leaders lose wars. I don't think we can chalk Vietnam up as a win, nor can we do so to the nonsense happening in Iraq and Afghanistan. All three are examples of how we manage to translate tactical success into strategic failure. A contrasting example would be how the communists were able to translate their tactical defeat during Tet into a strategic victory of grossly disproportionate value. As a current infantry officer and former battalion commander, I worry deeply about what I'm being asked to lead my Soldiers into, and struggle with trying to convince our most talented NCO's to stay in given what I suspect the future holds. Without them, we will lose the battles and the wars. Thanks again sir.