Studying Squad Tactics

by Col Michael D. Wyly, USMC(Ret)

How encouraging it is to see that the Gazette continues to publish articles on the all-too-often neglected tactical level of war-right down to the squad! In the August 1993 issue, Capt Daniel J. O’Donahue’s “The Last 300 Yards” and Army Maj Richard D. Hooker’s “Light Infantry Assault Tactics and the Night Attack” were usable grist for the squad leader’s mill. After years of hearing, “But down at the squad level it’s all the same, whether in maneuver warfare or the stuff we used to do . . .” some of our young lions in the Army and Marine Corps are pointing out how much is indeed different.

Both pieces imply a central idea that lies at the heart of the change from old to new. But neither author brings it out explicitly. I first caught sight of it in Vietnam when it began to be evident that much of what we had gotten in training was obsolete in modern combat. I noticed it first in the behavior of squads and squad leaders. Capt O’Donahue alludes to it briefly when he says, critically, of our premaneuver tactics, “The emphasis [was] on inward control.”

In training, riflemen had worried most about keeping the formation, while squad leaders concerned themselves with controlling their Marines’ spacing and speed of movement. Focus was inward. But in combat, focus was outward. Riflemen scanned the terrain and so did squad leaders.

Clearly, what we were called upon to do in combat, including the “last 300 yards,” was quite different than what we had been called upon to do in training. When I finished a 29-year career as an infantry officer 2 years ago, however, I was still too often seeing in training the behavior my Marines in Vietnam had rejected.

Next time you are in the field, notice a squad in action. First, look at the squad leader. Are his eyes on the terrain before him and around him? Is he looking for targets and danger areas? Or is he watching his men, trying to catch the eye of a fire team leader and give him a hand signal? Most often, you will find his attention divided between the two. He glances anxiously outward, then, signals to the fire team leader to move forward or to stop and wait for others to “close up.” Perhaps he looks behind him and directs the fire team following to fall back a little, and then shifts his attention to some particularly dense foliage to his front that might be hiding a well-camouflaged enemy.

Notice the squad members. Are their eyes and rifles fixed on their surfoundings, searching for opportunities to kill and disrupt? Or are they looking backward, toward their squad leader, trying to find him, watching for his signal directing them where to go, where to look, and at what speed to proceed? As with the squad leader, the chances are that you will find riflemen torn between two conflicting claims to their attention.

A fundamental difference between maneuver warfare and what we used to do, and between my Marines’ style in Vietnam and what we did in training, is that in maneuver warfare and the real thing, focus is outward on the enemy and surroundings. But more essential, in combat, their attention must be undivided. Often in Vietnam we talked to one another about the importance of concentrating all our senses on the enemy. “Getting into his head,” we called it. We shared stories about the strange intensity of our senses in combat. My Marines even believed the enemy would feel it if they looked at him directly. “Never look at ’em in the eye when they come in the kill zone,” they counseled. I doubt the enemy could really feel my Marines’ eyes on them, but obviously my Marines were aware of their heightened senses and the importance of keeping them tuned and focused.

So you have, on the one hand, the outward-focused squad of 13 men, together, doing what the ever-changing situation demands, each one out to undo the enemy. And on the other, you have 13 men, wary of their surroundings, but concerned with transmitting and receiving the squad leader’s commands and keeping the squad under control. The difference may sound subtle, but actually it is stark.

In Vietnam, squad leaders departed from the doctrinal “Be wherever you can best control your squad” and customarily moved toward the fronts of their units. Control was not the issue. Awareness was. Awareness of surroundings. So it is in maneuver warfare. (See page 69, FMFM 1.)

In Vietnam, squad leaders depended on their Marines to be alert and move into opportunities without waiting for orders. It was the squad leader’s job to be there with the point man or whoever first met the enemy. It was the squad leader’s job to exhort and encourage, to send for help if it was needed, and to make sure his Marines moved on and got fire out, sometimes more “out of control” than “in control.” More important than keeping them under control was the squad leader’s task of keeping them in action. And, by being up front, he was lending his own eyes and ears as the most expert “hunter” in the squad.

Likewise with squad members, all eyes looked outward for the enemy, not inward, waiting for a signal or to get the formation right. The worst situation imaginable would be for their attention to be divided in any way. Only the enemy counted. The squad leader was secondary once the squad moved out because he had done his job. And he could be depended upon to do it again the moment the enemy appeared. If the mission wasn’t understood before the squad moved out, it was unlikely it would be conveyed in the midst of a fire fight. So riflemen were guided by the unfolding situation upon which their survival depended.

Grenadiers and designated automatic riflemen, focused to the front but vulnerable in other directions, required protection. We found this was best provided by a buddy system, not unlike wingmen in aerial combat, assigned to protect attack aircraft from enemy fighters. Again, this mission-who would protect whom-was understood before moving out. Combat unfolds too quickly for the squad leader to signal a formation change in hopes of protecting vulnerable elements. But focus for both the “assault men” and “wingmen” was outward-toward the enemy. The wingman positioned himself according to the movement of the Marine he was protecting, but he followed his moves as a secondary matter, never slackening his attention toward the enemy. After all, the threat was the enemy, wherever in the 360 degrees around the assault man he might appear. It was the enemy’s position that had to be pinpointed. The exact positions of the Marine assault man and his wingman were unimporant.

The well-trained squad can operate this way. The squad leader depends on his men to be in the right place, to set the pace, to find targets, and to attack them.

In Vietnam, replacement riflemen spent weeks discovering what was demanded of them. Noncommissioned and junior officers were ill equipped to articulate it. What we saw before our eyes, and came to understand intrinsically, had not been part of our training. We knew it was there; we knew what our Marines had to do and we told them. Had we been trained in advance, we could have explained it far better. As it was, we said, “Keep your eyes and ears open and watch; you’ll learn.”

What we need to be doing now is radically changing the training we give at the most basic levels. From the moment he first puts on the uniform, the new Marine must know that his primary function is to act and that he must direct his attention to the enemy, that unless he does so he lets his squad down and he doesn’t survive. That was the lesson in the infantry squads of Vietnam. It is also the central difference, so far as the rifleman is concerned, between maneuver warfare and old-fashioned tactics.

In the days when riflemen armed themselves with semiautomatic weapons and when we were willing to fight a slower moving methodical battle, Marines may have waited for orders and kept formation in combat. Though even still, I wonder sometimes if World War II and Korean War veterans fought according to the methods in the manuals we were given when I came in the Corps in 1957 as a private. What I know for sure is that by 1965, when we went to Vietnam, those manuals were obsolete, and most of them being used today, e.g., the FMFM 6 series, still are. Happily, now that Marine noncommissioned officer schools have been formalized, the new training can be quickly instilled at the tactical level. But if we are not teaching it to recruits and officer candidates, then we are waiting too long. If the recruit and officer candidate’s first lesson is to wait and obey, then he is learning lessons he must unlearn the first time under fire.

Discipline must be stricter than ever. But modern combat demands proactive Marines at the lowest level, not Marines who let someone else think for them.

Such training is necessary to enable Marines to do the kinds of things O’Donahue and Hooker propose. With the old training, which emphasized formations, control, and awaiting orders from a central authority, we were reacting to the enemy’s initiatives, and never doing it quite fast enough. Interestingly, it was down in the squads and platoons that young Marines finally broke the Viet Cong’s “code” and learned to fight as their enemy did, only better.

Training that imbues initiative is the starting point for enabling all of FMFM 1’s philosophy, and, in particular, the kind of assaults and night attacks proposed in the August Gazette. Consider infiltration, which Hooker writes about in his treatment of the night attack. Capt O’Donahue takes us up to the enemy lines but not inside. Nevertheless, I think his plan for the attack would likely include an infiltration, or at least we can call it that if one of his small units breaks through and enters before the other units do, a possibility which he allows for in his article. Whether or not we use the term “infiltration,” the assault in maneuver warfare becomes an endeavor to get in as close as you can-inside the position if possible. And both authors are correct that it cannot be done well through centralized orders dictating fire and movement. Riflemen have to make decisions as they go. But it is essential to realize that infiltration-especially night infiltration-can only be achieved through training of the sort I have described, where squads are equipped to fight as a team, all focusing outward.

The Viet Cong were masters of infiltration, and we would be neglectful not to learn from our enemy. Indeed, he failed to dislodge us from our positions; however, this must not be interpreted as a condemnation of his tactics. He lacked the reserves to come in and hold on to the terrain where he wreaked hovoc, and more important, lacking any aviation whatsoever, he well knew he had to be out of there when the sun came up.

But the lesson the Viet Cong’s tactics offer is that once inside our enemy’s position, we can anticipate a change in his behavior. A paralysis sets in. Having viewed it from the standpoint of the defender, I can attest that when your troops think that maybe even one enemy is in their position at night, the assumption is quickly made that there are multiple intruders. With this in mind, leaders who believe they are infiltrated are less inclined to move from man to man and encourage them. The prospect of being mistaken for the infiltrator becomes distinctly real. My point here is that the tactic of getting a small assault force inside an enemy position, as O’Donahue and Hooker suggest, is extremely powerful.

Once Viet Cong were inside U.S. positions, they seemed totally focused on seeking targets of opportunity. Centralized command and complicated control measures to prevent fratricide were left behind at the American perimeter. There was no luminous tape on their backs or flashed signals of recognition. Distinguishing friend from foe had to be done intrinsically by noticing the Vietnamese manner of running and walking compared to the American, language, and shape of headgear. And it worked. The lesson is clear: Only troops who are good at acting on their own are good at operating inside enemy positions or close to the enemy in any role-as attacker, defender, or infiltrator.

Through the course of two tours in Vietnam, I watched Marines discover these subtleties. Discovery occurred at the lowest echelons and seldom went very far up the chain of command. We failed as often as we succeeded in applying the lessons, progressing through a process of trial and error. But what we were beginning to see was that in the age of the universal issue of fully automatic assault rifles, a more outward-focused fighting man was demanded. (Capt O’Donahue states that a “squad equipped with only assault rifles can deliver 6,000 rounds a minute during the last 300 yards.”) The methodical tactics of our predecessors had seen their day. When I left Vietnam for the last time in January 1970. we were a long way from maneuver warfare and ideas of shattering an enemy’s cohesion. But in the form of decentralized tactics, high dependence on individual initiative, and outward focus, we had the necessary beginnings.