OUR EVALUATION AT TBS was in three columns: leadership, academics, and military skills. The last was the most significant, and first among those skills was tactical command. We spent much of the winter in the woods and fields surrounding Camp Barrett, practicing tactics as squads and platoons. We attacked and defended, ambushed, raided, patrolled, and did reconnaissance. Lieutenants rotated as leaders of the missions. Before every operation, the leader wrote and delivered a formal order. Sometimes the orders stretched into dozens of pages, accounting for every detail of navigation, communication, resupply, and actions upon running into the enemy.
We bitched and complained about the onerous process of writing orders. Would we have time for this in combat? Of course not, and that was the point. We wrote so many orders in SMEAC format that its components became ingrained. In December, when I was given a tactical problem and one minute to identify key considerations, I may have come up with five. By March, I saw thirty. In May, fifty. Our assessment process sped up, and with it our actions. We learned to use speed as a weapon, to create opportunities and exploit them.
But the learning process was painful, sometimes humiliating. One snowy afternoon, I was chosen to lead the squad in an attack against a defended hilltop. I got disoriented in the white ravines, lost track of our position on the map, and led my twelve Marines up the wrong hill. Sheepishly, I followed an exasperated captain to the correct hill, and we resumed the attack. A few weeks later, after resolving never to screw up my navigation again, I was chosen by Captain McHugh to lead the platoon in a daylight ambush patrol. I picked a trail where we guessed our enemy was operating and split the platoon in half to ambush any traffic from two directions instead of one. We hid in the snow for hours, watching the path. Near sunset, a four-man fire team walked slowly toward us. I sprang the ambush, and the woods erupted with the pops and roars of blanks fired from thirty-five rifles and machine guns. Just as I began to feel smug, Captain McHugh called me over. “Your geometry’s all fucked-up. That half of the platoon,” he pointed at the group across the trail, “would have killed this half if you guys had real bullets. I sat here for two hours waiting for you to notice.”
One of TBS’s most important training evolutions was a five-day field exercise called O&D Week, short for offense and defense. It took place just before MOS selection, so the staff used it as a final vetting of the lieutenants who wanted infantry slots. Captain McHugh turned up the heat on me. On our last full day in the field, he pulled me aside. We stood on a low hilltop and could see through the budding trees for a hundred yards in every direction.
“Lieutenant Fick, I have a mission for you.” McHugh reminded me of the Civil War hero Joshua Chamberlain — a tall, austere New Englander. His smile hovered between mischievous and sadistic. “The Marine Corps fights at night. This evening, for the first time, your platoon will fight at night. I want you to be platoon commander for our first night attack.”
Captain McHugh ran through the scenario, using METT-T. Intelligence assets reported an enemy platoon somewhere in the area. They were static, guarding a cache of supplies. My job was to locate and destroy the platoon before midnight. McHugh smiled and added, “The terrain will be Quantico-like.” It had become a running joke that all our missions, in hypothetical countries around the globe, were conducted on Quantico-like terrain.
Bird-dogging me on the mission would be one of the staff instructors, Captain Gibson. Gibson was a tight-skinned little infantry officer. I had first noticed him in his dress blues in Camp Barrett’s bar. He wore the only combat valor award I had ever seen in real life. One of the lieutenants asked him how he’d earned it.
“I did my job,” he replied.
Now Gibson stood next to me, watching a helicopter drop into the landing zone behind us.
“That smell . . . that smell.” Gibson closed his eyes as if remembering a particularly delicious meal. “The smell of jet exhaust pumping out the pipes of a helicopter waiting to take you and your Marines to kill the enemy. I love that smell.”
I was unsure what to make of him, so I focused on the mission. A night attack. Thirty-five people. Unfamiliar terrain. I clicked through the checklist of tactical considerations we had learned in the classroom. First we had to locate that enemy position. Turn the map around. I unfolded the laminated sheet from my cargo pocket. Supplies meant supply lines — roads. There were only two road intersections in our zone, and we had patrolled within a hundred meters of one of them earlier in the day. It hadn’t been occupied. I was willing to bet my shot at infantry on the enemy platoon being at the other intersection. Begin planning, arrange reconnaissance, make reconnaissance.
“Sir, I want to recon this road intersection.” I pointed at the spot on the map. “And I want to leave now so I can get there before sunset.”
I settled the platoon into a loose perimeter. They would guard the hilltop until we returned. I gathered three other Marines and we set off toward the intersection, with Captain Gibson shadowing a few meters behind. We were racing the sun. I wanted to reach the intersection in time to see the terrain in daylight and then return to brief the platoon before it was completely dark. Following trails, rivers, or other “natural lines of drift” is a lazy Marine’s death wish, a tactical sin we had been taught never to commit. I led us straight down a creek bed, imagining Captain Gibson crossing out “infantry” in his notebook and replacing it with “supply.” But the risk was calculated, not a gamble. We had to hurry, and this little valley would be a comfortable feature to steer the platoon in the dark. Fog. Friction. Keep it simple.
For the first time all week, I was grateful for Virginia’s humidity. Moisture in the air muffled our whispered voices and dulled the clanks of rifles and gear vests on branches. Sodden leaves deformed compliantly underfoot, and we padded along as if on pile carpet. Draws cut into the hillside to our left. According to my map, the third one we passed would lead us up to the road intersection. I counted them, trying to match the lines on the map to the rolling terrain. When we reached the third notch in the hillside, I knelt down next to an oak tree and motioned the Marines around me.
“This is our turn. Take a good look and remember it for later. I’m taping an IR chem light to this tree so we have a guide in the dark.”
I unwrapped an infrared chemical glow stick, visible only through night vision goggles, and cracked it. Using a roll of electrical tape looped around a carabiner on my web gear, I taped the chem light to the tree trunk at knee level, positioning it to be visible from down the valley we would approach from, but not from higher in the draw near the road intersection.
Slowly and silently, we began to move up the draw. Less than three hundred meters from the tree where I’d taped the chem light, I dropped to a knee again. The human eye notices movement and contrast. Up ahead, through the dense leaves, I saw a color lighter than anything around us. Too light. Man-made light.
We crept forward, inching along on our hands and knees and moving diagonally out of the draw to the high ground on the side where we could take a better look. The color was dirt — freshly turned, piled, reddish orange dirt. Fighting-hole dirt, dug by the enemy platoon. I eased down onto my stomach and debated whether to move closer. We had found them. Now, with a little more snooping, I could figure out how they were set up, maybe even locate the end of their lines so we could come back with the whole platoon and turn their flank. Rather than attack into their defenses, we could go around and hit them from behind. Maneuver. Captain McHugh would be impressed.
But I fought the urge. This reconnaissance mission had already been a success. We located the enemy and marked a route by which to return. Greed could cost me all my gains. We would probably be compromised if we tried to get closer in daylight. The smart thing to do was to back away and be thankful. I remembered the “80 percent solution” — a good plan now was better than a perfect plan later. We had crossed the threshold of action. This was enough information to do the job; now the task was to do it. We backed slowly down the side of the draw. The other Marines fell into formation around me, and we looped back up the river valley to the waiting platoon, careful not to retrace our steps.
In the fading light, I briefed my squad leaders. There wasn’t time for a full operations order. I was thankful for all those months of repetition. Mission. Enemy. Terrain. Signal plan. Casualties. Navigation. Fire support. We huddled under a poncho to hide the red-lens flashlight. I ran through the plan. The other lieutenants nodded, confident that we had covered the most likely contingencies. We would step off one hour after sunset.
I guided the point man through the trees with silent glances and hand motions. A quarter-moon shone overhead, bright enough to see the outlines of Marines among the trees but not enough to cast shadows. I scanned ahead with my night vision goggles, hoping the infrared chem light was making good on its advertised eight-hour burn time. Every Marine is a cynic, and every cynic knows our equipment is made by the lowest bidder. I cursed myself for not taping two lights to the tree. For the cynic, two is one, and one is none.
Just when I began to worry that we had passed the turn, I saw the light ahead. I steered the platoon up into the draw and signaled for them to stop. Each Marine dropped obediently to a knee, turning the moving column into a stationary, cigar-shaped perimeter. I peered over the hill and saw the faint outlines of turned dirt. A dim red-lens flashlight bounced along in the hand of a person walking the lines of the enemy position. They were still there, and apparently they didn’t know that we were again here.
I grabbed Jim Beal, who was in charge of our machine guns. “Take the guns to the top of this hill. Set up quietly. I’m taking the platoon around to the right.” Jim nodded, and I whispered, “We’ll initiate with a radio call, green star backup, and then you suppress all along the ridgeline as we sweep across from right to left. Consolidate on the objective. Got that?”
Jim flashed a thumbs-up. I planned to start the attack with an order on the radio. If that didn’t work, I would fire a green flare into the sky as a signal to open fire. The machine guns would shift their fire across the enemy position in advance of our attacking Marines, hopefully mowing down resistance like a scythe.
As Jim crawled up the hill with his machine gunners in tow, the squad leaders took their Marines around its base to set up for our assault. We had to move quickly. This was the time of maximum danger — lots of people moving close to the enemy position. Conventional doctrine says that attackers should outnumber defenders by three to one. We were about one to one. To be compromised would rob us of our only advantage: surprise. The guys up near the road intersection were Marines, too, trained in the same school as we were. They would have security patrols out, and avoiding them in this darkness would be largely a matter of luck. I hoped ours would hold.
We reached our assault position without any shouting or gunfire disturbing the dark woods. I took a deep breath and a last look at my compass. It would be unforgivable to begin firing the machine guns and then charge off in the wrong direction.
“Machine guns, begin your suppression,” I whispered into the radio.
Jim’s only answer was the rat-a-tat-tatting of the guns. Even shooting blanks, the things sounded formidable. Ripping, guttural roars shattering the night.
“Let’s go,” I shouted. No more whispering now. Trying to strike my best Colonel Leftwich pose, I pointed my rifle at our targets and waved the platoon forward. Marines streamed up the hill, lit in the eerie, swaying light of overhead flares. Our positioning was perfect. We hit the enemy position squarely on its eastern flank. The goal of every attacker, and the fear of every defender, is enfilading fire — shooting along a position’s length so that more bullets have a better chance of hitting a target. We fired straight down the enfilade of the trenches. Marines in their sleeping bags struggled to find weapons in the dark and were shot point-blank.
Not everything went our way, though. Through the smoke and noise, I saw Captain Gibson and Captain McHugh moving across the hillside like angels of death. “You’re dead. You’re dead.” They pointed to my Marines and the defenders alike, pushing shoulders and backs to the ground, personifying the fate and caprice of the battlefield. “You, get down. You’re dead.”
To my left, the machine guns sparkled, shooting fake bullets but firing real tongues of flame from their muzzles. Standing in the center of the enemy position, with Captain Gibson at my side, I yelled to the Marines on the hillside, “Consolidate!”
Dark shapes appeared from fighting holes and clumps of trees, forming a loose circle around the crown of the hill. With a lot of luck and some good reconnaissance, we had accomplished one of the hardest infantry missions: locating and capturing a fortified position in the dark. I was elated.
“Lieutenant Fick, come with me.” Captain McHugh led the way back down the hill toward the trench lines. “Good attack. Well organized, fast, and accurate. But I want you to take a look around.” He reached into his cargo pocket and launched a white flare up through the trees. It hissed overhead, swinging in its parachute, casting moving shadows across the hill. Crumpled on the ground were the bodies of my fallen Marines. Eleven of them from a platoon of thirty-five.
“Even when you win, you lose. By the books, these are great numbers. You captured a fortified position, outnumbered, and lost less than a third of your people. But that’s eleven letters to eleven mothers, eleven funerals, eleven names you’ll never forget for the rest of your life. Nice job tonight, but you paid a price for it.”
I looked around at the bodies as the flare flickered out.
Captain McHugh smiled. “Dead Marines, rise. You are healed. Go forth and conquer.”
The lumps rose, dusted themselves off, and jogged up the hill.
McHugh motioned for me to follow them and put a hand on my shoulder. “This was an easy attack. No air to coordinate, no artillery, no other units to your flanks. We’re gaming the game: your enemy was stationary, and you knew where he was. It’ll be a lot harder at the Infantry Officer Course.” I froze and looked back at McHugh. “It won’t be official for another month,” he said, “but I’m going to make you a grunt.”
TBS graduation was a big deal for everyone except the grunts. Jim, the laconic Tennessean I had met six months earlier, moved to Oklahoma for artillery school, and our other classmates left for places like Pensacola or San Diego. We carried our few belongings to a row of rooms along an upstairs hallway in the barracks. The Infantry Officer Course (IOC) was just across the street. Its single brick building had an aura of mystery. The sign in front read DECERNO, COMMUNICO, EXSEQUOR — “Decide, Communicate, Execute.” None of us called it IOC. It was “the Brick House” or “the Men’s Club.” IOC was, in our terms, all balls, men only. If the Marine Corps was a last bastion of manhood in American society, IOC was its inner sanctum. Just before graduation, the twenty-eight future infantry officers in Alpha Company were called over to IOC for a meeting.
We went as a group and pushed hesitantly through the glass doors. Awards from Marine units and foreign militaries covered the walls: Ka-Bar knives and colorful patches on plaques with mottoes such as “Death on Contact” and “Whatever It Takes.” The building was cool, dark, and quiet. A sandy-haired captain bounded down the stairs and pushed us all into a classroom. His chest and shoulders threatened to burst through his camouflage uniform, and he grasped the sides of the podium with hands that could palm basketballs.
“Gents, I’m Captain Novack, your class adviser. I’ve got a task for you.”
We all looked at one another, wondering what our first mission at IOC would be.
“The class ahead of you is going to the field this week.” We had heard that our barracks rooms would be little more than storage lockers. Classes went to the field all week, every week. “I need you to mow the lawn and weed the beds while we’re gone.” Novack looked back over his shoulder as he turned to go. “And welcome to IOC. It’s not what you think.”