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“The shovel is brother to the gun.”

Carl Sandburg, American Poet and Spanish-American War


Soldiers hate to dig. Soldiers have always hated to dig. No doubt

when the Roman Legions broke off their march early for the day to
dig and erect a defensive stockade, the legionnaires bitched about
that digging. But the Romans digging in every night in their castra
marching camps played a great part in their kicking butt across a
continent or too.

The advantages of fortified marching-camps were substantial.

Camps could be situated on the most suitable ground: i.e.
preferably level, dry, clear of trees and stones and close to
sources of drinkable water, forageable crops and good grazing
for horses and pack-animals. Properly patrolled, fortified camps
made surprise attacks impossible and successful attacks rare -
in fact, no case is recorded in the ancient literature of a Roman
marching-camp being successfully stormed. The security
afforded by fortified camps permitted soldiers to sleep soundly,
while animals, baggage and supplies were safely corraled
within its precinct. If the army engaged an enemy near a
marching-camp, a small garrison of a few hundred men would
suffice to defend the camp and its contents. In case of defeat,
fleeing soldiers could take refuge in their marching-camp. After
their disaster on the battlefield of Cannae (216 BC), some
17,000 Roman troops (out of a total deployment of over 80,000)
escaped death or capture by fleeing to the two marching-camps
that the army had established nearby, according to Livy.

In more modern times, as our pal Burt Gummer says, dirt is “the best
bullet stopper there is.” And not just bullets. The trend in wars past
has always been that shrapnel--from grenades, mortars, artillery,
bombs, etc.--has inflicted many more casualties than small arms fire.
To the enemies who found themselves at the mercy of massed
Western firepower, the keep up the fight it became “Dig or Die.”

Consider the following from a U.S. Army study. This represents a

platoon of 33 men spread throughout an area 250 by 50 meters. An
artillery battery firing 30 rounds at the area will probably cause the
following casualties under the conditions shown. By medium artillery,
we can assume something in the range of the NATO 105-mm or the
former ComBloc 122-mm. PD means Point Detonating, i.e. the shells
explode when they hit the ground. VT means Variable Time, i.e.
shells set for airbursts overhead.
Although light forces are supposed to be able to dig and dig fast, with
just an E-tool it is an exhausting endeavor. That’s with the old school
wooden-handled combination pick and shovel E-tool. Digging in
anything but soft loam with the modern U.S. tri-fold shovel is an
exercise in futility. Then again, U.S. forces haven’t faced any real
heavy incoming artillery from the enemy since the Vietnam War.
Iraqis and Taliban guerillas may lob some mortars or rockets at an
FOB, but in such cases heavy engineering equipment such as
backhoes and ‘dozers have been available to do the real work.

In the case of most opponents…Japan, Iraq, North Korea,

Afghanistan, Vietnam, even Germany in Italy and the coast of
France…their forces have had, sometimes quite literally, years in
which to dig elaborate fortifications, bunkers, pillboxes, bombproofs,
fighting positions, tunnels, trenches, etc. With years to prepare, even
guerilla forces can create positions virtually impervious to all but the
largest and most accurate heavy weapons. Examples include such
diverse places as Iwo Jima and Okinawa, the tunnels of Cu Chi in
Vietnam, and the Zhawar Kili cave complex in Afghanistan.
Just some of the Japanese fortifications faced by United States
Marines on Iwo Jima and Okinawa.
In WWII, at places like Iwo Jima and Okinawa, the Japanese had
months if not years, as well as heavy equipment and forced labor, to
fortify these islands. The larger of these fortifications proved
impenetrable to even 1,000-pound aircraft bombs and 2,000-pound
16-inch battleship shells. When the fighting in Korea stale-mated, the
North Koreans and Red Chinese burrowed into the mountains like
moles to survive U.N. artillery and air strikes. The Vietnamese had
been digging and tunneling for literally decades, and in the case of
places like Cu Chi, may have even had tunnels directly under U.S.


It came as a big surprise to most when Colonel David Hackworth did

an in-depth on-the-ground study of American troops in Vietnam called
the Vietnam Primer. Rather than jungle fighting or guerilla warfare, he
began with the age-old tactics of how to reduce an enemy fortress as
the most important item to be addressed.

“Though it may sound like a contradiction to speak first of the

tactics of engaging fortifications in a war where the enemy of
the United States is a hit-and-run guerrilla, seeking more at the
present time to avoid open battle than to give it except when he
imagines that the terms are more than moderately favorable to
his side, a moment's reflection will sustain the logic of the

His fortified areas almost invariably present the greatest

difficulty to U.S. tactical forces, and it is when we voluntarily
engage them that our loss rates are most immoderate. At no
other technique is he more skilled than in the deceptive
camouflaging of his fortified base camps and semi-fortified
villages. There, even nature is made to work in his favor; trees,
shrubs, and earth itself are reshaped to conceal bunker
locations and trench lines. Many of these locations are fund
temporarily abandoned, thus presenting only the problem of
how to wreck them beyond possibility of further use.”
The VC, when trapped by superior infantry forces, either slipped
away or used simple subterranean hidey holes which they could
disappear into as U.S. troops made their sweeps through the area
without finding them. When darkness came, they would slip out of
these holes and disappear from the battle zone.
At the other end of the spectrum, they had elaborate fortifications and
fighting positions in and around their base areas, and these positions
were hell itself for American infantry to root out without receiving
heavy fire and incurring casualties.

U.S. Marine Corps Intelligence noted of such bunkers:

+ Bunkers are constructed from locally available materials.

+Positions are interconnecting and mutually supporting.
+ Firing apertures are small, located close to the ground, and
extremely hard to see.
+ Fire lanes are cleared of brush and growth up to 18 inches
high and are difficult to detect.
+ In some areas…the fortifications are directional in nature.
+ Camouflage is exceptional; in most instances, bunkers cannot
be detected until the unit is fired upon.
+ Bunkers are built with a very low silhouette that blends into
the natural growth of the area.
+ Trench lines are constructed in depth; tunnels connect these
trench lines and provide safe and easy access to the numerous
bunkers and fortifications.

Then there were the tunnels, such as those found at Cu Chi…


Knowing their home terrain like the back of their hands and having
fought bitter tribal wars between themselves when not fighting
invaders, the Afghans have been building one type of fortress or
another for literally centuries. The newer ones have deep, artillery
and bombproof shelters with quick access to these bombproofs via
communications trenches; redundancy is built into the positions in
case of destruction of one. Two-man rifle pits are 2x3 meters, with up
to 1.5 meters of overhead cover.

In the mountains, firing positions for anti aircraft weapons were

circular and had no overhead cover so that they could fire in a 360-
degree circle on either air or ground targets. When strafed or
attacked by helicopter gunships, the personnel disappeared into deep
slit trenches or shelters resembling vertical mine shafts. Stone and
sometimes concrete reinforced these defensive works and
communications trenches, often covered, connected the positions.
Natural features of the mountains, such as caves, crevices, and
ravines were incorporated into their shelters.

In towns and villages, firing positions were built into or behind adobe
walls as much as two meters thick, and reinforced with sandbags
where needed. The Mujahedeen burrowed holes in the walls so that
they could move from building to building without being exposed to
fire. In the Green Zones, irrigation ditches were sometimes covered
over to provide shelters and invisible egress routes.

Even with good fortifications, the Mujahedeen sometimes conduct a

light forces mobile defense. Large numbers of positions, many
unoccupied, and redundancy is important to the style of defense
utilized by the Mujahedeen; an aggressive maneuver defense taking
advantage of their interior lines, covered routes, and intimate
knowledge of the land. Units were kept relatively small, able to launch
quick, minor, distracting local counter-attacks and then disappear into
the next set of fortifications. A reserve would normally be located in
deep fortifications near a central location for larger, more crucial
There is not much difference between Japanese WWII
machine gun positions and the general Afghani AA gun position.
The entrance to the nearby bombproof shelter can be seen in the
upper right of the bottom picture.

When it came to air power, although modern American aircraft,

targeting-systems, and weapons are much advanced from the Soviet
planes of the 1980’s, the fighting in Afghanistan showed yet again, as
in Serbia, that air power alone is no panacea.

Operation Anaconda: Moreover, enemy targets often were so

well protected by the surrounding mountains and ridges that
hitting them with strikes was difficult. Exact hits were often
necessary, and even precision JDAMs sometimes were not
able to achieve this accuracy. Even when exact hits were
achieved, only a single small target—perhaps two or three
enemy fighters manning a heavy machine gun—was normally
destroyed. Hundreds of enemy fighters were deployed in the
mountains and ridges, thus creating a very large number of
small targets, each of which had to be attacked individually. A
further complication was that enemy fighters often would
scramble for the protection of caves when they sensed an
impending air attack, only to re-emerge after the ordnance had
been delivered. The process of rooting them out by air strikes
thus was slow, frustrating, and time-consuming. Several days
of intense air bombardment were needed before enemy fires
began abating noticeably [emphasis added].

Fighting in the Panjwayi Valley in 2006 showed how the Taliban

attempted to use fortifications to shelter from air and artillery strikes
while they tried to hold the ground in a conventional defense:

The insurgents prepared to defend the valley like a

conventional army. They stockpiled weapons, mined roads and
footpaths, laid ambushes, and set up concealed defensive
positions. Many took cover in the valley’s numerous small grape
houses, which had sun-dried mud walls that were two to three
feet thick and as hard as concrete. These buildings had slits in
the walls, which made them natural bunkers. Tall marijuana
plants, grape orchards, and trees provided cover. Insurgents
moved unobserved using the valley’s many irrigation canals, as
well as a network of tunnels. They set up machinegun and
over-watch positions on hills and mountaintops…The
insurgents withdrew only after several days of heavy air and
artillery bombardment. They did so in a disciplined fashion,
taking many of their dead and wounded with them…The
insurgents quickly infiltrated back in, re-established control over
the population, and launched a devastating campaign of small
ambushes, suicide bombings, and IED attacks.

Insurgents occasionally fought through repeated airstrikes.

During a battle in Shewan village of Farah province in 2007,
insurgents ensconced in a set of fortified compounds kept firing
through repeated bombings. They did so again during another
battle in the same village in 2008. Insurgents frequently took
cover from airstrikes by hiding in tunnels, bunkers, behind
rocks, or inside fortified compounds. It was not uncommon for
insurgents to retreat into bunkers during airstrikes, then
reemerge and continue fighting.

Make no mistake. Air superiority has always been a must since the
First World War. Air strikes and CAS provide American troops with
unbelievable firepower which they can use at any time and in any
place. With air cover, conventional military units, such as tanks,
supply columns, and even anti-aircraft gun and missile positions, are
toast. Guerillas have little to no chance to fight back at modern
combat aircraft (with the exception of attacking them on the ground);
they often suffer prohibitive casualties from the air and the survivors
are forced to flee and disperse just to survive at all. In Vietnam, Arc
Light strikes by large numbers of B-52 dropping thousand-pound
bombs from 30,000 feet, unseen and unheard, wiped out entire
infantry units and entire base tunnel complexes. PGMs (Precision
Guided Munitions) can now “thread the needle” to hit small, hard
targets with surgical accuracy.

Even with PGMs, you still have to find ‘em to fix ‘em. Less than
half of the Taliban fighting positions used in Operation
Anaconda were found by intensive aerial and satellite high
technology search equipment.

The new Thermobolic “Mother of all Bombs” type of weapons now

offer yet another powerful weapon in the aerial arsenal that has
proven very effective at killing opponents within caves and bunkers,
in both American and Russian use in Afghanistan and Chechnya.
But, as with all weaponry, combat evolves as one side or the other
develops tactics to negate the other side’s advantage. Ziz-zag
construction of tunnels and trenches to isolate blast and
fragmentation has been an accepted practice since WWII. The VC
built water-filled sumps into their tunnels to seal out gas, devices
which would also help negate some of the effects of thermobolic
blast. There has already been evidence of the use of blast doors by
some insurgents as well.

American air power is indeed an awesome thing that gives our forces
a seemingly omnipotent weapon. No one can match it, and it can
strike pretty much at will. But, in and of itself, it still cannot flat-out win
a war single-handedly. Despite the firepower, fear, destruction and
casualties, in the end it still eventually comes down to boots on the

During Operation Anaconda, Objective Ginger proved to be a tough

nut to crack:

“…in spite of over a week of sustained heavy bombing, al

Qaeda positions on [Objective] Ginger survived to fire upon
U.S. infantry when the latter finally reached and overran the
objective [after 10 days of hard ground fighting]. One dug-in al
Qaeda command post was found surrounded by no fewer than
five JDAM craters, yet its garrison survived and resisted
until they were overrun by U.S. infantry.”

“You may fly over a land forever; you may bomb it, atomize it, pulverize it
and wipe it clean of life—but if you desire to defend it, to protect it, and keep
it for civilization, you must do this on the ground, the way the Roman
legions did, by putting your young men into the mud.”
T.R. Fehrenbach