Murphy's Law: February 3, 2004

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"Force Protection" (keeping your troops safe in their bases, especially when they are off duty) has become a major issue in the American military during the last two decades. The death of 241 American marines in Beirut during a 1983 suicide truck bomb attack on their barracks, had a lot to do with changing attitudes towards force protection. By the 1990s, and the arrival of American peacekeepers in the Balkans, most of the currently used force protection techniques were in place. The American approach was now to put the troops under house arrest. This was expensive, for lavishly equipped bases, full of amenities, had to be built lest morale take a dive. Despite that, American troops catch a lot of ribbing from other NATO troops, who are allowed to spend their off duty time with the locals. It was worse than it appeared, as the officers in the Balkans had been told, in writing, that their first priority was force protection. Everything else, including military operations against hostile locals, came second. This annoyed other NATO contingents in the area, and for practical reasons. The U.S. was allocating about half its troops for force protection duties, while other NATO nations used a third, or less, for that duty. This meant that an American infantry battalion had fewer troops available to do actual peacekeeping than a British or French battalion. The other NATO troops thought they were doing some of the work the Americans should be doing. The situation for individual American troops was even worse. They were confined to their base when not out on patrol or a raid, while other NATO troops could go off base when they weren't on duty. It particularly vexed American troops who, while on patrol, passed a caf and saw other NATO troops having a drink, and a good time with the local girls. The American soldiers were not allowed to have alcohol (although tobacco and caffeine are allowed) on base, nor go off base to get a drink. The other NATO troops would call the American soldiers "ninja turtles" because whenever they left their base it was with body armor, helmet, weapon and full battle gear. British troops, for example, would not wear flak jackets and helmets unless they thought there was an immediate threat. Since they were down in the villages more often, they had a better idea of what the threat might be. The other NATO troops saw this bunker mentality among the Americans as counterproductive, as it kept them out of touch with the locals. 

The force protection attitude changed somewhat after September 11, 2001. But only slightly. American troops are still restricted to their bases, and kept away from locals and booze unless on duty (and wearing full battle gear.) But force protection is no longer the primary mission. However, the rules that developed in the 80s and 90s were for peacekeeping operations, not war. In Iraq and Afghanistan, well protected bases are still a high priority, with locals being hired to help with the security so that American troops can take care of the war being fought. 

The troops have not been completely negative about the force protection policies. The security aspect is appreciated. NCOs and officers, while they miss having a drink, also don't have to deal with alcohol problems among subordinates, or the trouble the young troops often get into with the local women. Since September 11, 2001, the terrorism threat has made the security angle even more appreciated. Another change, not often mentioned, is that today's troops have more ways to entertain themselves than with the traditional whiskey and loose women. Game consoles and laptop computers are usually available, and most bases have Internet access (at least for email.)

The current force protection policies have become institutionalized. The troops take it for granted that the first priority is always to "secure the base." This attitude towards security is always supposed to be there, but in most armies it isn't. This kind of security mania can be a real asset. The ancient Romans were noted, and often chided, for their dedication to building an elaborately fortified camp every time their army stopped for the night. But the Roman attitude towards force protection saved them from defeat many times. In Iraq, the American force protection policy has not been adopted by all other coalition troops. This is mainly because American soldiers have occupied all the really hostile parts of Iraq. 

The American policy is not likely to change, but the troops will constantly be reminded by troops from allied armies that it is quite different from the usual practice. 

 


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