combat writing badge C O M B A T
the Literary Expression of Battlefield Touchstones
ISSN 1542-1546 Volume 01 Number 01 Winter ©Jan 2003

On Point

There is a certain cachet with some occupations, such that their exemplars are perceived as innately courageous or inherently glamorous; but most admirers forget that these talented people worked exceptionally hard to achieve their status, and endured a ruthless winnowing procedure to be retained.

ARVN Jump Status Designator From among the multitude of various military occupational specialties, the hardest job is being a pointman. It requires thousands of eyes to detect all the telltales, big ears to differentiate unnatural from normal sounds, and a little extrasensory perception to supplement repetitious muscle memory. It requires coordination, endurance, and intelligence. It takes aptitude, discipline, and initiative. It's the realm of quiet professionalism, where braggarts and dilettantes are unwelcome.

An essential objective of military indoctrination is to discern those trainees who are intuitively aggressive combatants. Since almost anyone can be taught to shoot or swim or fly, it's crucial to identify those with inherent fighting spirit, because nobody can teach guts! This discrimination is utterly personal, because each individual is judged on his merit; but is ultimately impersonal, because the requisite qualities are selected for rated competency, for unit correlativity, for mission accomplishment. For the good of the service, there must be a distinction between enthusiastic hustlers and compulsive workaholics, between superstars and whiz-kids, between sweat-hogs and eager-beavers. The boy-wonders can usually be molded by appropriate schooling, but cowboys and hot-doggers inevitably prove to be unsuitable.

ARVN Mobile Strike Force Most people outside the military don't know that main forces operate subsequent to developed intelligence; that major units follow the lead of minor units. Commanders and planners develop operations based upon the patterns reported by specialized surveillance elements. During D-Day, for example, the beach landings followed the routes prepared by UDT divers, and the in-land routes were prepared by paratroopers. The vigils conducted by recon teams, from coast watchers and trail watchers to radio interceptors and photo analysts, have had a disproportionate bearing upon operational success. It has been justly said that more battles have been won by information than by bravery.

Unlike the usual routine, the parameters of recon missions are usually defined by external circumstances. As per operational orders, the point squad for a company-sized combat deployment was moving quickly to implement the planning schedule, instead of pacing itself to the terrain, when the pointman stepped on a booby-trap trigger, and instantly froze in place. After a great deal of discussion about elaborate releases, some fanciful in the extreme, they settled upon a scheme to pad the ground around the pointman with flak-vests, and then jerk the pointman to safety with a rope pulled by a platoon. Since nothing moves faster than an explosion, it was predicted that the pointman would lose at least a foot, and maybe a leg; but the amazing trick actually worked! The operation, which had previously been so important to headshed gunslingers that it had to be rushed, was not only delayed, but had to be rescheduled. There will always be casualties in battle, but deliberate sacrifices only need to be made when the mission is imperative.

ARVN Mike Force Command As analysts of social stratification have discovered, military administration is less a stereotypic bureaucracy than an integrated monolith. By design, nobody is indispensable, and everybody's duties are interrelated. It takes at least fifteen specialists to treat one wounded casualty; and it takes ninety people in various service jobs to keep one combat soldier on the front-line. The communication and intelligence specialties that augment surveillance are not part of an operational recon team. Neither is planning, supply, or administration, despite their relative support. Likewise, the pilot of a convoy, the advance element of an insertion, and the spearhead of an assault formation are not recon elements. In main force operations, even leap-frog or cloverleaf maneuvers have separate lead elements. Highly trained pathfinders setup Drop Zone landing areas or airhead assembly areas. Each of these lead elements establish the direction and pace for followers, but the genuine pointman heads a ranger or reconnaissance team.

The patrol pointman is the lead, but not the leader. Although teams are more informal than conventional units, the hierarchy still exists. Every team member has an assignment, and each is an expert. Milcraft skills are based on advanced infantry techniques, and most recon teams practice cross-training to ensure that the skills to successfully perform will survive any combat losses. It's important to rotate duties to keep the pointman alert, and everyone else flexible. Teams usually include a radioman and medic, and everyone has weapons and orienteering proficiency. During stand-downs, each specialist will instruct his teammates in signals, explosives, and emergency lifesaving treatments. Rapid reaction drills are learned by rote. Depending on the mission, team members may need water or airborne proficiency, desert or mountaineering competence, and counter electronic defenses. When known in advance, area studies will include language and culture, because recon teams have to get up close and personal, so they can get to know the enemy first.

ARVN Special Commando Unit One of the consequences of the Vietnam War was a rescission of micromanagement in leadership. Inappropriate applications of special forces had squandered too many talented people, so recon teams directed that commanders could either tell them what to do or how to do it, but not both. After being alerted with a Warning Order, the designated team would study their options, and report a brief-back on the procedure to be followed. This helped prevent mistakes, and improved operational security. Once the team was launched, it was usually beyond conventional assistance, so milcraft was premium. Getting there is crucial, but getting all the garnered intel back is even more critical. If the patrol is covert, then exfiltration can be more significant than infiltration. The whole point of being the point is not just to lallygag in the enemy's backyard; but to give the policy-makers enough information so they can point the way for further productive missions.

Once on their patch of ground, the recon team moves very slowly and carefully. They stop frequently to look around and listen out. The pointman can't worry about pace or speed ... he must concentrate on being undetected and unnoticed. They search for enemy sign or movement, so they'll reach their objective. The pointman can't worry about direction ... the team's slackman serves as navigator. They break a trail through their area without disturbing the terrain ... they want to leave as little sign as possible of their passage for discovery by counter-recon trackers. The pointman can't worry about the back-trail ... the team's dragman serves as rear security and route sterilizer.

ARVN Strategic Technical Directorate The process of lightfooting their way into unknown land is both a physical and emotional ordeal. The pointman will check the ground before taking a step, will examine foliage for tampering, will look overhead for traps or giveaways. Each member will scope his zone, and overlap with his cohorts. Each act will be repeated thousands of times, and it must be as fresh as the first time every time it's executed. Casualties occur and missions fail when teammates look without seeing. Members will only communicate with hand-signals or finger-talk, because there's nothing in the wilderness more unnatural than speech. At irregular intervals, they'll buttonhook to clear their back-trail, and to ambush any trackers. Each evening they'll scout a Remain Over-Night position, and fallback to it only when fully dark. Rally points will be designated so the team can reassemble if they become separated during detection. If they're surprised by ambush, they'll break contact and evade. They can survive indefinitely without resupply. Escape is just another form of surreptitious walking.

Reconnaissance demands superior physiology and abnormal fitness, but the specimen applicants invariably exhibit marked altruism. Some want to be the surety against perils, to be the catcher in the rye. Some want to be the guardians of expertise, to be the soldier priests who preserve the true faith and allegiance. Being pointman is not just taking the lead in the right direction, it's walking the shadow-line, so everyone who follows will have a better chance in the Valley of Death.

by Pavlovich Bakunin
... who served as an advisor to a Vietnamese Airborne-Ranger unit, is retired from the U.S. Army, and now writes freelance.