Closing in with Paul Cale

Written by Paul Cale

Not only can we learn a lot from soldiers’ experiences in close combat, we can learn from the way military training is borne out on the battlefield.

US-Marines-training-combatives-at-Quantico-base-Virginia-CREDIT-PAUL-J.-RICHARDS AFP Getty-ImagesWeb
US Marines training combatives at Quantico base, Virginia 

“For many years it was generally assumed that the improvement in power and range of firearms would lead to battles being decided at a distance, and that hand-to-hand fighting would be a rare exception...how completely has the 20th century campaign exploded this theory.” So said Colonel Sir John Macdonald of the British Army in 1917.

The Australian Army states that the role of infantry units is to “seek out and close with the enemy, to kill or capture him, to seize and hold ground and repel attack, by day or night regardless of season, weather or terrain”.

This sums up what infantry have done throughout history. Closing with the enemy is a must-do for any army to achieve a decisive outcome on the battlefield.

The development of weapons has always been linked to the goal of engaging the enemy from greater ranges, from the long spear to the bow and arrow, right up to the modern sniper rifle, cannon and rockets.

However, just as weapons develop, the ability to evade them or protect against their effects develops at a similar rate. For every new weapon to defeat a tank, for example, new armour will be tailored to thwart it. Armies cannot avoid the need to close with the enemy, and so they aim instead to avoid the enemy’s modern weapons.

Technology allows us to close with greater speed, as with military helicopters, or by avoiding detection, as with troop insertions by high-altitude parachute drop. In the end, the soldier will at some point be at close quarters with their enemy and so may be engaged in hand-to-hand combat.

The US Army’s ‘lessons learnt’ document looking at hand-to-hand combat in recent conflicts produced some interesting statistics on this. Peter R Jensen from the United States Military Academy stated in the report, “The 2009 US Army combatives field manual noted three specific lessons based on PAIs (post-action interviews).

First, grappling was an ever-present aspect of a hand-to-hand combat encounter. Although striking and weapons use were not absent from hand-to-hand combat encounters, soldiers reported that grappling with an opponent was an integral aspect of any encounter.”

So, grappling features prominently, but why? To answer that, we need to look at the environments the reporting soldiers were in when engaged hand-to-hand.

The soldiers’ descriptions of hand-to-hand combat situations were divided into four categories: (a) close combat, (b) crowd/riot control, (c) detainee and prisoner handling situations, and (d) security checkpoints.

The report goes on to state that the most common environment for combatives use was in the detainee and prisoner handling category (30.7 per cent), with close combat the second most common (14.2 per cent). Soldiers used combatives much less frequently in the security checkpoint (6.1 per cent) and crowd/riot control (5.7 per cent) environments.

It is logical for detainee and prisoner handling to fall into the highest percentage of combative use, for two reasons. Firstly, detainees and prisoners will usually be unarmed, and so must be subdued and controlled using non-lethal techniques — hence the grappling.

Secondly, arrest techniques are taught as part of US Army combative training and the questioner asked participants if they had to resort to the use of ‘combative’ techniques. So, any hands-on technique from the program could possibly be documented in this category even if it was a very minor altercation.

A point of interest here is that one of my men was attacked by a detainee who, while being questioned in the field, made a grab for a hidden knife and lunged at the soldier questioning him.

That soldier had been doing a lot of Extreme Close Shooting (ECS) training with my platoon during his deployment, and as a result he drove forward with his body, using his off hand to jam the knife while drawing his pistol and shooting the attacker dead. Yet this situation would not factor into the US Army report, as they describe combatives as a “hand-to-hand fight without the firing of the weapon”.

And one could argue that if my soldier had been trained in US Army combatives, he would have instead grappled with the attacker, pitting hands against blade. As Musashi said, “How you train is how you will fight.”

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