Poole: The Last Hundred Yards - The NCO's Contribution to Warfare
The Foreword and Preface:
The greatest weakness of the maneuver warfare movement in the United States Marine Corps has been its failure to address the Non-Commissioned Officer (NCO) corps.
As one of the founders of that movement, I have been aware of this failure for many years, and I share the responsibility for it. But, I also understand why it has occurred. Quite simply it takes an NCO to speak effectively and credibly to other NCO’s.
Here, in The Last Hundred Yards, Gunnery Sergeant H.J. Poole, USMC (Ret.), does exactly that. He translates the concepts of maneuver warfare into the tactics and techniques which are rightly the focus of NCO’s and Staff NCO’s.
The Non-Commissioned Officer must be a master of techniques, and also a teacher of techniques. This is no less true in maneuver warfare than in attrition warfare. As I wrote in 1985 in my Maneuver Warfare Handbook, “It cannot be said often enough that excellence in techniques is vitally important in maneuver warfare.”
But, the techniques of maneuver warfare are often different from those of attrition warfare, as The Last Hundred Yards correctly argues. For example, in attrition warfare, the assault is based on two elements, and the purpose is to take the objective. In maneuver warfare, the assault uses three elements, and the purpose is to pass through the objective and continue to advance deep into the enemy’s rear. Normally, the largest of the three elements is the exploitation element.
The Last Hundred Yards is the most detailed, most complete look at techniques in maneuver warfare. No FMFM even comes close, although the MCI Warfighting Skills Program does take a useful look at the subject. That alone should make this book of prime interest to any NCO or Staff NCO.
But, the value of the book goes beyond techniques. It also addresses tactics. In modern war, the NCO must be a first-rate technician, but he must also be more than that. He must be a tactical-decision maker who employs combined arms.
This may seem like a radical step to those NCO’s who have grown up in today’s Marine Corps. Seldom, in training, are Marine NCO’s or Staff NCO’s allowed to make tactical decisions; and “combined arms” usually refers to artillery and aircraft, which are controlled at higher levels (though the NCO may request support from either, he does not control them). But, it merely describes what German corporals, leading Stosstruppen, were doing routinely by 1918. They were deciding where and how to engage the enemy (and where not to) in attacks with unlimited objective, and they were employing combined arms in the form of the light machinegun and the trench mortar, both of which were squad weapons by that time.
Since 1918, the battlefield has not grown more amenable to centralized control; quite the contrary. Particularly in operations like those in Somalia or Haiti, an NCO may find himself making decisions with operational or even strategic effects. The fact that Marine Corps’ training seldom allows NCO’s or Staff NCO’s to make decisions beyond the level of techniques is a fault in that training, not a reflection of combat realities.
The Last Hundred Yards is a book about making tactical decisions, as well as employing effective, modern techniques. Most important, it is a book about integrating tactics and techniques. Techniques are the “tools” an NCO has at his disposal; tactics is the art of selecting the right tools for the particular job at hand. While the techniques themselves may be formulas, the art of selecting the right techniques can never be done by formula, because each situation is different. This book shows the NCO the right way to use techniques in his tactics, and makes clear the distinction between the two.
Correctly, Gunny Poole has made extensive and knowledgeable use of history in researching and explaining his topic. His example here should encourage other NCO’s to study military history. It is not a subject reserved to officers and civilians interested in the military art.
But, to the study of history, the author of The Last Hundred Yards has added something that previously has been missing in works on maneuver warfare: the experience of a Marine Staff NCO. Gunny Poole’s experience includes combat in Vietnam, plus many years of helping train Marine infantrymen. From that experience he has gathered the observations and lessons which, when combined with the lessons of history, make this book the extraordinary resource that it is.
The Marine Corps, and only the Marine Corps among the American armed services, has begun the long and difficult task of changing from an attrition style of warfare to maneuver warfare — from the French way of war to the German. It can only succeed if the maneuver warfare way of thinking becomes deeply rooted at the level where most tactical decisions are actually made, in the NCO corps. The Last Hundred Yards is the first book that gives NCO’s the knowledge and understanding they need to make that transition. As such, it is a book of immense importance, and a fitting tribute to all the NCO’s who have paid in blood for the lessons it so aptly distills.
--William S. Lind
U.S. Marine enlisted men have always enjoyed their fair share of self-esteem. But, as they face more destructive weapons on the modern battlefield, their capacity for self-reliance has become more critical to their survival. So much so, that today’s Marine Corps is redefining the role of its infantry Non-Commissioned Officers (NCO’s) and revamping its small-unit infantry tactics. One famous U.S. general has gone so far as to imply that, in the close-quarter combat necessary to neutralize modern weaponry, the proper role of the NCO is that of tactical-decision maker:
The last hundred yards in combat is the purview of the non-commissioned officer.1
This viewpoint is not difficult to substantiate. Many enlisted infantrymen spend almost half their careers in rifle companies. They experience numerous billet assignments and countless field exercises. By the time they become NCO’s, many have spent years where the “rubber (of their commanders’ decisions) meets the road.” By the time they become senior Staff NCO’s (SNCO’s), many have operated under a wide assortment of battlefield conditions and have become quite familiar with the most common. These experienced enlisted infantrymen have mastered the execution phase of small-unit tactics, in much the same way that career mechanics master the performance of car repair. For this reason, NCO’s are often called the “technicians” of tactics — their “tricks of the trade” being the ways to accomplish the various actions that make up any tactical maneuver. In other words, they’ve become experts in the detail of execution. But, experts must be fully utilized. A U.S. Army general noticed that the tactical technicians were underused in Vietnam:
The Army was successful in developing the military statesmen, staff planners, and management experts, but it had neglected the “military mechanics.” The results were beginning to show in the units.2
— Gen. A. Collins U.S. Army (Ret.)
Just as automotive mechanics become highly skilled at diagnosing car problems, so too do infantry NCO’s become adept at assessing tactical situations. Not only have they personally experienced many of the circumstances, but they have also realized the cost of ignoring subtle differences in each. They have learned that stormy nights can either hinder tactical coordination or enhance surprise. Because the ground to their immediate front has always been their priority, they have developed a unique appreciation for microterrain. Having themselves filled the shoes of riflemen and fire team leaders, they have unique insight into the training status of the “troops-available” aspect of the “combat situation.” And having participated in countless range details with every weapon organic to the infantry battalion, they understand how each weapon will perform under the “fire-support-available” aspect. In short, NCO’s are a little-used but excellent source of information about a dimension of the situation that is often overlooked — the detail of the situation. Only by meshing precisely with existing circumstances, will a tactical decision normally succeed. Without compensating for the subtle differences in situational variables, a field commander could logically arrive at a tactical solution that won’t work. His NCO’s could provide him with the missing situational detail.
This expertise in the detail of both situation and execution should qualify most infantry NCO’s to make sound tactical decisions. Again, the mechanic comparison serves to illustrate the point. When a mechanic encounters a bolt in a tight space under a car, what tool he chooses and how hard he twists it, establishes how easily the bolt comes out. For small units, tactical maneuvers are like tools. When a platoon encounters enemy on the battlefield, what tactical maneuver it chooses and how well it executes that maneuver, establishes how easily the enemy is defeated. Just as a mechanic’s level of experience affects his choice of tools and how to use them, so too does a platoon’s collective experience affect its choice of tactical maneuvers and how to execute them. In the average platoon, the NCO’s and SNCO’s provide most of the collective experience. For this reason, they should participate in most of the tactical decisions. This should in no way challenge the authority of their officers. After all, commissioned and non-commissioned officers share the same responsibilities in combat. If the lieutenant is wounded, the platoon sergeant takes over. When both work together, better decisions result. This brain trust can be further enhanced by including the squad leaders. The enduring satisfaction that comes from making a situationally correct decision, and then having that decision fully supported during its execution, far outweighs the temporary insecurity that may come from soliciting the advice of subordinates. On the other hand, it is courting disaster to rely on one’s personal impressions to provide the solution to a complex scenario and then not consider whether one’s subordinates have the skills to execute that solution.
Throughout this century, other countries have capitalized on the tactical expertise of their infantry NCO’s. By the end of 1917, the Germans had not only put their NCO’s in charge of the units spearheading their ground attacks,3 but also of the autonomous forts comprising their front lines of defense.4 Their success is indelibly etched in the Allied casualty totals for 1918.
U.S. infantry units have only just recently begun to rely more on the tactical-decision-making ability of their NCO’s. American SNCO’s have never had the opportunity as a group to commit their tactical insights to writing. They have had to pass along these insights to the next generation of infantrymen by word of mouth. The published guidelines on how to conduct fire team, squad, and platoon tactics are, for the most part, the broad conclusions of commissioned officers with a year or two of rifle company experience. The tragedy is that every time a seasoned NCO or SNCO leaves the Service, much of what he has learned about situational detail and the tricks of the trade of tactical execution goes with him. Field Marshal Zhukov — the Allied commander who turned the tide in World War II — said this about organizations in which NCO’s are not fully trusted:
My many years in the Army have demonstrated that wherever confidence in NCO’s is lacking . . . you have . . . no really combat-worthy units.5
— Georgi K. Zhukov
Because NCO knowledge has not been systematically retrieved, the U.S. Armed Forces have not learned as much about small-unit tactics as they should have. Before World War II, Chesty Puller — a prior-enlisted Marine veteran of nine years of small-unit combat in Haiti and Nicaragua — noticed a void in what should have been available in writing on small-unit warfare:
Puller often heard these officers [his instructors] admit that they did not know the answers he was constantly seeking. In truth, it seemed that little had been written about his favorite topic — limited, small-scale combat.6
To a U.S. infantryman actively engaged in a losing effort, this shortage of reference material can be quite unsettling. With a combat commission from Korea, Lt.Col. D.H. Hackworth was no stranger to war when called to serve in Vietnam. After two tours, he pointed out that U.S. knowledge on small-unit infantry tactics had not been significantly enhanced by the longest war in U.S. history:
Almost fifteen years since the tragic, inevitable fall of Saigon, there has been no major, honest post mortem of the war. There have been critiques dealing with the big picture . . . but none has addressed the lessons learned the hard way, at the fighting level, where people died and the war was in fact, lost.7
With their quip “Remember the basics,” famous Americans have continually warned of the consequences of ignoring tactical detail. For infantrymen, the basics have been categorized as “shoot,” “move,” and “communicate.” While, on the surface, these may look like simple concepts, in truth they are very complex. The enemy is not going to sit still while someone shoots at him, will kill whomever he sees moving, and can gain an insurmountable advantage by just correctly guessing his opponent’s intentions. Perhaps it was a mistake to refer to these crucial skills as basics in the first place. One would assume that the basics would be covered during basic training, or boot camp. In actuality, other military fundamentals — history and traditions, customs and courtesies, wearing of the uniform, close-order drill, marksmanship, discipline — are, for the most part, what is covered during basic training. The finer points of shooting, moving, and communicating must be learned by trial and error (sometimes the hard way) or from an experienced NCO. They are not basics in the sense of being elementary — something to be endured as a young infantryman and then outgrown. They are basics in the sense that no infantry unit can operate effectively without them. They are the detail of execution. And, with each departing generation of infantry NCO’s, much of what it takes for a unit to perform the simplest of tactical maneuvers is lost.
Yes, many of the skills that individuals and small units need in combat are described somewhere in the towering stacks of historical literature. But, these descriptions are so sparsely sprinkled throughout what are predominantly discussions about large units, that they are inaccessible to the average infantryman. Only by dedicating thousands of man-hours to a computer hunt, could a researcher identify meaningful trends.
And, yes, a significant amount of basic knowledge is presented in the manuals. But, here again, it is presented piecemeal in scores of locations. Furthermore, what is presented is seldom comprehensive. Whenever a discussion on something basic can be found (like how to crawl unnoticed through the enemy’s barbed wire), only a few sentences are allocated to it. This does little to raise one’s confidence that he could actually perform this function in combat. He also wonders how comprehensive the discussion can be, when only one way of doing the activity is offered, and generally without referencing the literature. The recent FMFM 1 — Warfighting — contains the central precepts for winning battles at minimal cost. But the larger FMFM’s on small-unit combat must be rewritten in the same professional style (with historical literature referenced). FM 21-75 — Combat Training of the Individual Soldier and Patrolling — provides young infantrymen with many important skills, but where is the manual on how to walk point? Point men perform the most dangerous job in war and affect the outcome of enemy contact every bit as much as the overall unit leader.
Some say that the formal schools cover what the manuals omit. They are correct — to the extent that enlisted instructors are allowed to teach the same subject long enough to discover what’s missing from the manuals, and to fill the void with common sense. But, all too often, instructors must teach verbatim from a handful of manuals and then change jobs before becoming comfortable with their subject matter. Without a wide assortment of military publications and historical references, the novice instructor can only do so much.
What NCO’s know collectively about small-unit tactics extends far beyond what is in the manuals. It is what has been learned by generations of NCO’s trying to adapt the one (official) way of doing things to more than one set of circumstances. It is also how to deal with unique circumstances for which the book solution does not compensate. This common sense of the NCO corps is unwritten, yet still alive around the campfires. It is every bit as valuable as what is in the manuals:
Basic Field Manual [italics added] knowledge is fine, but it is useless without common sense. Common sense is of greater value than all the words in the book.8
— Col. Amor Le R. Sims, 7th Mar. CO on Guadalcanal
There is nothing inherently wrong with the one way of doing each maneuver described in the manuals. The problem is that the manuals lack detail in situation and execution. In other words, they don’t specify under which circumstances, or with which pre-existing skills, the one way will work. Because this detail is missing, overeager practitioners of the book solution sometimes make poor decisions. They forget that this one way was probably never intended as “doctrine” that had to be obeyed every time, but rather as “broad guidance” that would work under ideal conditions. In truth, it is only one way to handle a unique combination of circumstances (which are for the most part unspecified and long since forgotten). Small-unit leaders who don’t realize this, may not only make illogical tactical decisions, but also become totally predictable in combat:
The central ideas of an army is [sic] known as its doctrine, which to be sound must be based on the principles of war, and which to be effective must be elastic enough to admit of mutation in accordance with change in circumstances. In its ultimate relationship to human understanding this central idea or doctrine is nothing else than common sense — that is action adapted to circumstances.9
— Maj.Gen. J.F.C. Fuller
Without NCO advice on situational variables, military commanders may become intimidated by the unlimited number of combinations possible. They may underestimate the effect of subtle differences in these variables and consider the “book solution” to be applicable most of the time. Or, they may overestimate the effect of these subtle differences, and consider it futile to prepare for any particular set of circumstances — i.e., futile to train. The small unit that too faithfully follows the method in the book will eventually attempt it under the wrong conditions. Furthermore, the unit may have difficulty surprising any enemy who has read their book. On the other hand, the unit that doesn’t prepare for any particular scenario will take too long to decide what to do (automatically sacrificing surprise and momentum), and then not have the teamwork to execute what it does decide to do. When considered in this context, enlisted one-liners, like “Forget the book” or “Out here you’ve got to learn fast,” seem less insubordinate:
The ordinary soldier has a surprisingly good nose for what is true and what is false.10
Because, as a group, infantry NCO’s enjoy vast experience, they can easily identify probable combat scenarios and through trial and error develop tactical solutions to those scenarios. Such solutions are called “techniques.” The squad that can develop the best techniques, and then combine them to counter a unique set of circumstances in combat, has a decided edge over the one that can’t. Any infantryman who has averaged three hours of sleep a night for months on end, and then tried to capture the momentum from a strong opponent, realizes the limits to impromptu problem solving under duress. In actuality, most small-scale combat is won or lost months before the battle — during training. What this training should consist of, can best come from the NCO corps.
It remains to be seen how badly the U.S. Armed Forces may have hurt themselves by not systematically recording the collective tactical knowledge of their NCO’s. If the famous general’s observation about the purview of the NCO is correct, the disturbing implication is that the U.S. military may have retrieved little of what young Americans need successfully to cross the “last 100 yards” in combat. And if, by chance, the “next 100 yards” falls under the purview of the NCO as well, U.S. infantry tactics as a whole may be less than perfect. Without NCO input, the tactics may have outlived their usefulness.
This book contains many techniques from the NCO corps, and how and when they might be combined to facilitate standard U.S. infantry tactics. It also discusses how to alternate these techniques to become less predictable. What has been intended is an easily accessible reference on, and starting point for further research into, small-unit infantry tactics. A Chinese military scholar by the name of Sun Tzu alluded to the importance of small-unit knowledge as early as 350 B.C.:
He who knows how to use both large and small forces will be victorious.11
— Sun Tzu
The techniques herein have been generated by consensus opinions from the forty or so U.S. Marine NCO’s and SNCO’s who attended each of the Camp Lejeune Platoon Sergeant Courses between 1986 and 1991, and the 3rd Marine Division Combat Squad Leader Courses during 1992 — roughly 1200 NCO’s in all. The method of collection was simple. The student body was asked in the classroom to identify promising solutions to common situations, and then again in the field to identify refinements to those solutions. While most of the techniques were developed in the forested coastal plain of eastern North Carolina, the vast majority of them worked equally well in the precipitous and heavily jungled terrain of Okinawa.
Many of the common-sense insights of these career enlisted infantrymen closely parallel the tenets of an ancient style of warfare that has recently gained popularity in the United States — “maneuver warfare.” This is significant, because it has been hypothesized that only through its NCO’s can any infantry organization fully adopt maneuver warfare. Several years of research have gone into supporting this hypothesis.
Why hasn’t more small-unit tactical knowledge been recorded for easy access by U.S. infantrymen? Were the founders of their military heritage somehow lacking? Or, has this oversight in learning occurred despite everyone’s best efforts? The final chapter will provide a possible answer to this mystery, and discuss how other nations have successfully dealt with the same problem.
To appreciate fully the contribution that U.S. infantry NCO’s could make to the body of recorded tactical knowledge (part two of the book), it will first be necessary to discuss the shortfall that has occurred without their systematic input (part one). Everyone has been affected to some degree by this shortfall in recorded knowledge. Before beginning the chapters, the reader should take the inventory test in appendix A. For NCO’s without formal instruction in maneuver warfare, a score of 50 is satisfactory, 60 is good, 70 is excellent, and 80 is outstanding. Seasoned staff NCO’s and officers score about 10 points higher. If the reader cannot agree with some of the answers to tactical questions, he should not become discouraged. Many of the questions are designed to gauge receptivity to a style of warfare quite different from the one traditionally practiced by most U.S. infantrymen. In other questions, the situation may be inadequately described to permit agreement on the answer. After all, there are no right or wrong answers in tactics, just many thought-provoking questions. The test is only intended as a way to stimulate further interest in the book and to gauge its impact.
To the United States Marine Corps rightly belongs the credit for this contribution to small-unit infantry tactics. Without the dynamic learning environment that existed in Marine Corps infantry schools from 1986 to 1992, this work would not have been possible.
None of the ideas presented herein are original; all have come from other people. Most of the tactical techniques have been developed by Marine infantry NCO’s and SNCO’s. In WWII, their predecessors were forced to deal with what could best be described as worst-case scenarios. The only way to root the die-hard Japanese from their holes on those tiny islands in the Pacific, was to go directly at them in broad daylight. But, in the early eighties, to compensate for the combat power disadvantage that the Marines were expected to encounter on future battlefields, General Al Gray and his civilian adviser Bill Lind began to emphasize what has since come to be known as “maneuver warfare.” This is a style of warfare that relies more heavily on the element of surprise. It helped Allied forces to attain a quick and relatively bloodless victory in the Gulf War.
Some traditionalists have had trouble accepting the looser control parameters of maneuver warfare. And, as is always the case with professionals, their concerns are partially justified. Some situations do take a more traditional approach. But, at the same time, many others can be solved at less cost by following the new way of thinking. There is no reason why both points of view cannot coexist in harmony. All that is needed is a better understanding of which conditions might favor one warfare style over the other. Then, any difference of opinion could only provide a healthy stimulus for additional learning.
There is a body of knowledge that allows the opposing viewpoints to coexist. It comes from the segment of military society that prides itself on supporting the decisions of every commander — the NCO corps. Passed along verbally from one generation to the next is an expertise in tactical detail that has played no small part in the establishment of the proud heritage of the United States Marine Corps. The collective experience of NCO’s in handling every conceivable combination of wartime circumstances provides a framework in which both styles of warfare can play important roles. In an effort to reconcile the opposing viewpoints and to shed more light on the situations in which maneuver warfare can work, this book provides a brief glimpse into this immense body of knowledge.
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