Concerning Marines and Mules

BY Herschel Smith
5 years, 3 months ago

Yes, there is many a Marine NCO out there who after reading the title of this post, is asking himself “what’s the difference?”  Well, Starbuck at the Small Wars Journal Blog has written about the recent Marine Corps training in mule handling as a means of transport of heavy supplies, including ammunition, ordnance, and the other things that weigh the Marine down while patrolling and travelling.

With 75 pounds of military gear cinched on her furry back, Annie was stubborn the whole way.

The two Marines assigned to her pushed, pulled and sweet-talked her up the steep, twisting trail on the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada.

“C’mon, girl, you can make it,” Lance Cpl. Chad Campbell whispered in her ear.

“Only one more hill,” promised Lance Cpl. Cameron Cross as he shoved Annie’s muscular hindquarters.

The red-hued donkey snorted, nibbled on grass and let loose that distinctive braying, which begins with a loud nasal inhalation and concludes with an even louder blast of deep-throated protest.

She also dropped green, foul-smelling clumps, which the Marines carefully sidestepped.

On the rocky, uneven path, Annie never stumbled. A good donkey, Marines say, knows three steps ahead where it wants to walk.

For Campbell and Cross, the day with Annie could be a preview of days to come. The two may soon deploy to Afghanistan, where donkeys and mules have been the preferred mode of military transport for centuries — and remain so.

With the U.S. shifting its focus from the deserts of Iraq to the mountains of Central Asia, this course on pack animals at the Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Training Center has become critical to the new mission.

I just have one bone to pick.  I dealt with this almost four months ago in Marines, Animals and Counterinsurgency.  I also linked and embedded the video of the Big Dog, a mechanized set of processors, servos and other components that will malfunction, have no power when the batteries degrade or die, and require constant maintenance due to dust, mud, and overuse.  Brandon Friedman at the SWJ has it about right.

The BigDog seems pretty ridiculous. We could probably buy a mule for every infantry squad in Afghanistan and feed it for a year for well under the price of one BigDog. How does the BigDog work in the rain? Can it make a water crossing? How many batteries does it require? How heavy are they? How are they charged? Who’s trained to do maintenance on it? Will he or she have to accompany the BigDog on missions? I really love the stealthy buzzing sound it makes, too.

Yes, the thing sounds like a million angry Africanized bees.  I am all in favor of weight reduction for warriors, and have constantly advocated R&D for ESAPI plates to reduce body armor weight.  But the low hanging fruit has been picked, and any further weight reductions will come at high expense and hard work.

I can’t escape the feeling that some of the drive at DARPA to build mechanical beasts to support logistics has to do with the eradication or neutralization of gender differences.  We have dealt with this issue before in:

Marines, Beasts and Water

Scenes from Operation Khanjar II

Where we discussed the fact that Marine infantry and Army Special Forces don’t allow females to occupy billets.  Females have different PT requirements than males, and suffered an inordinately high number of lower extremity injuries compared to males in the Russian Army while they conducted their campaign in Afghanistan.

When the average Marine Infantryman leaves the line at greater than 120 pounds, it’s obvious that gender differences become pronounced, as do differences in conditioning and training.  If one supposes that this load is reduced to 90 – 100 pounds, how does that allow for the eradication of gender differences?  In fact, suppose that the Marine is only carrying his body armor, hydration system, weapon (let’s suppose a SAW), ammunition (let’s suppose several drums of ammunition), and a few other essentials for a daily patrol.  How does a reduction in the weight to 60 – 70 pounds eradicate gender differences when the Marine needs to sprint from compound to compound in order to avoid sniper fire?

As for the mules and donkeys, I have previously described my view of what fathers should be doing with their sons.  My Marine knew how to train Quarter horses and care for dogs before he ever went into the Marines because I taught him.  He eventually became better than me.  Every Marine should know something about how to handle dogs, mules, horses, and other animals, and should also know something about the anatomy of animals (e.g., how do you prepare a snake to eat after you have killed it, how do you care for horses in the absence of a farrier, and so on).

As we pointed out before, the discussions about animals in the Small Wars Manual doesn’t seem so far fetched in this day and age, does it?  The Afghanistan terrain and climate that would kill most machines is ready made for beasts of burden.

In summary, weight reduction ought to be pursued with available funds to reduce the burden on the Infantryman.  But Marine infantry is for young men, and the push to eradicate gender differences, if that’s what this is about, makes the DoD and DARPA look stupid.  Marine Infantrymen must be males for a whole host of very good reasons.  The push to eradicate gender considerations should stop, as the money is needed elsewhere.  All Marines should know something about the proper care of animals, and there is no excuse for leaving this out of pre-deployment training.  The Marines aren’t so busy that they can’t rotate through a week long course with another Marine instructor who has himself been more thoroughly trained on animals.

Seriously.  What could possibly be controversial about what I have said?



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  • Chem

    I believe you are over thinking systems like the Big Dog. Yep, it expensive, noisy, clunky and unsuitable to Afghanistan. But they used starlight scopes and occluded optical gun sights in Vietnam and they paved the way to todays M10 sniper scopes and CCOs.

    In light of the many heavy systems that an infantry unit needs I think you are being a tad paranoid on the udea that we are developing load carrying systems so we can put women in the infantry. Young men and mules CAN carry a lot but humping a mortar sucks be you man or beast. That doesnt even account for ammo. A significant supply of ammo for an 81mm mortar is cripplingly heavy in an area that precludes vehicle movement.


You are currently reading "Concerning Marines and Mules", entry #3367 on The Captain's Journal.

This article is filed under the category(s) Afghanistan,Animals in War,Marine Corps,Women in Combat and was published July 13th, 2009 by Herschel Smith.

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