I am fundamentally weak, in both physical strength and emotional resolve, so it's quite odd that I ended up as an Infantry officer in the U.S. Army. Just goes to show what a series of ill-considered decisions by an individual, coupled with low-quality screening on the part of large public bodies, can accomplish. It didn't take long for me to realise that I was more likely to follow in the footsteps of Gomer Pyle (okay, he was a Marine) than those of Patton and Bradley.
I showed up at my first unit - one of the few light infantry units in Germany, where tanks dominate the terrain - when my company was on a field exercise. The lieutenant whose platoon I was taking over (as he moved to another role in the company) let me borrow his equipment so I could get straight out to lead the next mock operation. I literally didn't even drop off my bags back at the garrison.
My platoon had three squads of about ten men each, plus a communications specialist, a medic and an NBC (nuclear, biological and chemical) specialist. They had been 'in the field' for a number of days before I arrived and were already pretty tired. They were, though, understandably excited to see their new platoon leader. I had the tough-man's short haircut and the badges to show that I was parachute and Ranger qualified. Surely this let them know I was a leader worthy of their respect???
We were to conduct what is called a 'movement to contact' in the wee hours between midnight and sunrise. A force embarks on this type of mission when they have a rough idea but no specific intelligence of where the enemy is. Essentially, it involves moving in a formation that lends itself to rapid deployment from traveling to fighting posture, so that when you encounter the enemy you can quickly transition to the attack.
My platoon sergeant, the oldest and most experienced member of the unit, was injured, so one of the squad leaders was acting in his place. Our plan was based on a standard template of such operations. I would travel behind the lead squad, with him just ahead of the trail one. The radio man was with me, the medic and most of the heavier weapons (machine guns) with him. When we met the enemy, his contingent would quickly pull up beside mine to gain and maintain a superior base of fire on the enemy forces. Then I would peel off with an assault force to swing around the flank while the platoon sergeant and half of the platoon continued to lay down covering fire.
I carefully mapped out our route and distributed the relevant compass azimuths and distances of each leg of the mission to the squads. After a thorough briefing, careful equipment preparation and detailed rehearsals of the scenario described above, we set out on the mission.
The movement was going well, but in the relatively featureless terrain I had a hard time (which I never admitted, of course) verifying our position on the ground relative to the map used in the planning and in guiding our movements. By the time that we had covered more than the planned distance to the enemy without any sight of them, and as the scheduled hour of the confrontation came and went, I had to stop the formation and convene a leaders' meeting to double-check our position relative to the map.
We (myself and these over-tired squad leaders and stand-in platoon sergeant) decided that we were actually very near where the enemy must be. I took an executive decision to quietly move the platoon sergeant and his contingent into a perfect position to lay down fire on the identified terrain. Then I set out with my assault team to sneak up on the enemy from the flank. When I gave the signal, we would spring a perfect surprise attack on the opposing force, none of whom had yet realised we were on their doorstep.
It was all coming together. In addition to demonstrating textbook planning and preparation and executing a good (if somewhat uncertain) tactical movement, I was exhibiting the sort of flexibility that came with real tactical genius. I was on a buzz; my men had shrugged off their sleepiness and looked sharp and poised. We stealthily swept around in an arc, knowing we were moments from dealing death to the baddies.
A shot rang out just ahead. One of the enemy must have spotted us. I ordered my assault team to return fire and launched a green flare - the signal to the platoon sergeant and his fire support team to start shooting as well - into the air. All hell broke lose. The rattle and cough of automatic weapons echoed in the pre-dawn darkness. The smell of cordite filled the air.
I moved my assault team forward in bounding rushes. First one half, then the other. Everyone moving in short bursts - three steps then hit the ground, three steps then hit the ground. We closed in for the final assault. Time to signal to the platoon sergeant to lift his fire, as we were about to sweep across the enemy position and didn't want to get shot by our own men - the ultimate tragedy.
Before I had time to launch the appropriate flare for that signal, I caught sight of several faces of the enemy, only to realise that they were not the enemy at all! My sweeping arc had had a rather grander swing to it than I thought. I had circled round completely. Both my assault team and the platoon sergeant's support team had inflicted heavy casualties, but unfortunately we had inflicted them on one another! In a spectacular display of tactical ineptitude, I had completely destroyed my own unit.
The actual opposing force was sitting a half mile away, it's men getting bored, waiting eagerly for sunrise and breakfast and wondering what all the fighting was off to the southeast.
My company commander, who always had a soft spot for me and luckily subscribed to the school of learning through mistakes, assured me that my unit and I had done many things well. My men were also strangely forgiving of the fact that I'd led them to slaughter themselves. Over not too great a time I was able to (re?) gain their respect and enjoy a great year, including many more field exercises.
My commander was right - we learn from our mistakes. Despite having bucket loads of fun with a quality bunch of guys, I left the infantry when I got the chance and left the military once I had completed my obligatory service. I'll leave the fighting to those better suited to it.