Tactics of the Crescent Moon

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U.S. forces have taken Falluja. Were we fighting a war in the Spanish Netherlands in the 17th century, and were Falluja the fortress city of Breda, the victory might mean something. Caught up as we actually are in a Fourth Generation war in Iraq, the event is almost meaningless. Most of the guerillas fled before we attacked, as guerillas are supposed to do ("When the enemy attacks, we retreat.") U.S. forces are finding few dead resistance fighters; the 1,200 to 1,600 "body count" the American command is claiming will prove as phony as those in Vietnam. Meanwhile, the resistance is hitting us elsewhere. When U.S. forces leave Falluja, they will return there too. And the U.S. military has again destroyed the village in order to save it, giving its enemies a victory at the moral level. Will we ever learn?

If we do ever learn, a good bit of the credit should go to one of the most innovative and practical modern writers on military tactics, retired Marine John Poole. His first book, The Last Hundred Yards, was the best small unit tactics manual published in many years. Now, just in time for Iraq, Afghanistan and wherever else the neo-cons want to send American soldiers to die, he is offering his take on how Islamic non-state forces fight. Tactics of the Crescent Moon: Militant Muslim Combat Methods should be in the backpack of every American soldier and Marine.

Here’s a sample paragraph that might usefully have been read by those who planned the Falluja operation:

Through better tactics, U.S. forces could take fewer casualties at close range without alienating the local population and without sacrificing their long-range capabilities. More powerful than firepower in this new kind of war will be the preservation of infrastructure. For it is the lack of social services that gives the foe his recruiting base. In the 21st century — as it was at the end of World War II — food, water, clinics and jobs will do infinitely more to secure the ultimate victory than bombs. Better small-unit technique costs nothing. It requires only a slower operational pace and the authority to experiment at the company or school level.

Interestingly, Tactics of the Crescent Moon begins at Gallipoli, where the British were handed a major defeat by the Ottoman Turks during World War I. How did they do it? Poole argues that the Turks won in part because of better tactics.

It would appear that Middle Easterners were using "maneuver warfare" at the individual and squad level some 65 years before Americans could do it at the regimental level. To lure an entire British battalion into a trap, the Turks had needed only bogus orders, harassing fire, and deliberate withdrawal…When they reemerged to stalk the flanks and rear of the British formation, they may have further enticed it to advance. By the time their quarry realized that it was alone and fragmented, it was too late.

After examining lessons from the Iran-Iraq war and Israel’s expulsion from southern Lebanon, Poole goes on to consider each of the main Islamic Fourth Generation forces the U.S. may find itself facing. His discussions of the Afghan resistance to U.S., not just Soviet, invaders and the Iraqi opposition could not be more relevant.

Part Three of Tactics of the Crescent Moon offers his prescription for how U.S. forces should act. As in his other books, Poole stresses small-unit tactics and techniques. Seeing clearly the moral disadvantages that massive use of American firepower brings, he notes how good small units — true light infantry, which America sadly lacks — can win without the vast collateral damage and civilian casualties that work against us. The keys are high levels of small unit autonomy and far better peacetime training, training that permits experimentation and adaptation rather than forcing everyone into a cookie-cutter sameness.

For those who want to learn, Tactics of the Crescent Moon is an invaluable resource. The question is whether the U.S. military can learn and adapt. At the small unit level, it can, when it is allowed to do so. The problem is that, typical of a Second Generation military, the U.S. armed forces must bear the burden of a vast, centralized, bureaucratic command structure that has little interest in adaptation. Populated with rafts of modern major generals who cannot tell at sight a Mauser rifle from a javelin, but know all too well how to grab more bucks for irrelevant high-tech weapons, our headquarters resemble the British at Gallipoli more than the Turks. The result is likely to be more flattened Iraqi cities like Falluja, more victories on the moral level for our opponents, and in the end, ignominious withdrawal and defeat. Now, if we could just convert all those headquarters and their staffs into mine-clearing platoons…

William Lind [send him mail] is Director of the Center for Cultural Conservatism at the Free Congress Foundation. The views expressed in this article are those of Mr. Lind, writing in his personal capacity. They do not reflect the opinions or policy positions of the Free Congress Foundation, its officers, board or employees.

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