Scratching an Itch

  • by Pete O'Brien
  • 05-01-2023
In Caesar’s Commentaries on the War in Gaul there’s an account of his army being ambushed. In 57 BC, as his army moved towards an encampment site in what is now north-east France, they entered the lands of the Nervii, a tribe that Caesar described as “fierce and courageous.” Caesar’s army consisted of 8 legions (due to losses and attrition perhaps 40,000 men, plus a small cavalry and a baggage train - at most 45,000 total). Six legions led the movement, in a loose march through the woods, followed by the baggage train, followed by two more legions, the cavalry having scouted ahead.
The Nervii, under Bodougnatus, numbered - per Caesar - 75,000 warriors. The Nervii knew their terrain and had picked a section of wood, just south-west of modern Amiens, France, an area with thick hedges, made thicker by the Nervii bending branches and wrapping them with thorns to make them impenetrable.
When the lead legions had reached the camp site the Nervii attacked the trail legions out of the wood - roughly 10,000 Legionnaires of the XIII and XIV legions, in loose formation attacked by 75,000. Caesar quickly marshaled his forces and organized a defense. He noted that the Nervii attack was so fast that in many cases his men had no chance to get into their assigned centuries or maniples or cohorts. Rather, the Centurions took command, organizing in the middle of battle, getting men into pick-up units and fighting a disciplined fight, the only way they could possibly survive an ambush. As Caesar notes: his officers “Did what seemed best on their own initiative.”
Caesar gives the credit for what turned out to be a remarkable victory to the training his soldiers had received, and the leadership of his officers, his Centurions, who were able to control the soldiers, and focus their - in Caesar’s words - “determination” to fight, “eager to do his best, whatever the risk to himself.”
With the ambush blunted, one of his Legion Commanders, Titus Labienus, commander of the X Legion, recovered and attacked, defeated the Nervii forces in front of him and pushed through to the Nervii camp; the attack turned around and soon the Romans were pushing them back on all sides.
In the end Caesar’s army nearly destroyed the “courageous” Nervii, with casualties approaching 60,000 men.
That sort of engagement embodies the essence of what makes any military a capable force: good junior and field grade officers, good senior NCOs, a well trained and well disciplined force that nevertheless, when challenged, is willing, eager to fight; the officer’s duty being to control that eagerness just enough to focus it on the right spot at the right time. It is the soul of any army. With it, no matter what else is lacking, an army is capable of great things. Without it, no matter what else is available, the probability of defeat is very high.
What has that got to do with anything?
As it turns out, young men, since before Caesar (consider the Greek hoplites for a thousand years before Caesar) have been drawn to that experience. Psychologists might bemoan that fact, but psychologists aren’t responsible for protecting the country - armies are. (And by armies, I mean all the uniformed services: Army Navy, Marines, Air Force.) An army that focuses on those sort of things, that provides training AND discipline AND at the same time just the right mixture of control and latitude is an army that attracts young men to this profession. And it must provide that latitude.
An Army with any other focus will lose its way - and fail to recruit the right soldiers.
During my first tour in the Navy I recall coming into the hangar on a Monday morning and over the course of the morning was told about a minor - very minor to us - event that had taken place at the Officer’s Club on Friday night. One of the LCDRs in the squadron - great guy, very level-headed, a real professional, with an outstanding combat  record in Vietnam, I’ll call him “J” - had gone over to the Club with a few other guys to have a beer - and then head home. And did. Except, before he went home he took care of a minor problem. It seems that there was a fellow at the Club - call him “X” - who was giving another fellow, I’ll call I’m “F,” some real grief. F was just a great guy, a good officer and a good man, and had been a POW in Hanoi. "F” was being polite, but it all went too far. So, J dragged the miscreant X into the Men’s head, and left him head down in the trash can. Problem solved.
The story drifted around the base, and basically, everyone agreed that that was the right answer, the jerk had it coming to him, and J did the right thing. Next issue.
Over the next couple of years, and over the next 3 decades, the guys in that squadron found ourselves in similar situations and we sometimes managed to come up with similar answers. And that is exactly how it should be. Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine commands, tactical commands, are supposed to be ready to fight. In a very real sense, the young troops and young officers are supposed to be itching for a fight. It is what they are for, those commands’ prime function is to be ready to fight and, if called upon to fight, to be able to do it well. To be able to do it well requires that the officers and men want off the leash. It is the job of the senior officers, of higher headquarters, to hold the leash, and to know when to let it go.
And when you let it go, there should be an unhesitating surge to fight. If there is not, there’s a problem. If the people who are going into these units don’t feel this way, there’s a problem.
A friend tells a story about a MEU (Marine Expeditionary Unit) going ashore in a liberty port and getting into a large, ugly brawl. When the colonels and captains got together it turned out that the Marines and Sailors from one MEU were fighting with Marines and Sailors from another MEU. They made sure damages to private property were paid for, and then filed it away… they had Sailors and Marines who were willing to fight alongside each other - they had a team. And that is a good thing.
That aggression and eagerness to fight is what allows armies to survive when ambushed, as was Caesar’s army; you can’t have the one without the other.
At the same time, that is what draws young men to want to join the Army or the Marines, join the service. That is what the services need. Scratching that itch is what gets those young men to join. At their cores, the services need soldiers and sailors who want to fight. Good Legionnaires, Good Marines, Good fighter pilots. Everything else is secondary. It is not equity, it is not a right, you do not have a right to serve in uniform any more than you have a right to serve as a physician at a government hospital; you have to earn your way, and that means you need to have the skills necessary to fit the job. And the core job of a solider is one that requires aggression. Spend some time with the shooters, the guys who actually kick in the doors in the SEALs, Army SOF, Marine Recon - they would fit in with the men of Legion X - aggressive, tough, ready, eager for a fight.
Failure to understand that will get a great many people killed.