Tuesday, June 03, 2003
Anyway, it gave me time to finish my column, so I can stop using it as an excuse for being antisocial. It fought me quite a bit, and came out longer than I thought.
DOING THE WAVE
The ants were indeed mighty, but not so mighty as the boss. Let them come!
--Carl Stephenson, “Leiningen Versus the Ants”
Somehow, every once in a while, among all the painfully-bland fiction my high school English teachers would assign us—raise your hands if you hated Catcher in the Rye too—they would slip and actually let us read something interesting. I remember in our Short Story class the day I first read Carl Stephenson’s classic adventure “Leiningen versus the Ants.” I was twelve years old, but I remember the story vividly today.
For those who are unfamiliar, it’s a very simple 9000-word tale of a Brazilian
plantation owner who, unlike his neighbors, refuses to run away from a terrifying horde
of army ants advancing toward his farm. Instead, he fights them with every possible means—diverted river water, gasoline, folk medicine—and eventually he prevails. There is one description that I always remember, from a passage describing how the ants were drowning themselves in a water-filled trench just to allow other ants to cross over on their bodies:
Many thousands were already drowning in the sluggish creeping flow, but they were followed by troop after troop, who clambered over their sinking comrades, and then themselves served as dying bridges to the reserves hurrying on in their rear.
That passage came to mind when I was reading about the final assault on Dienbienphu on May 6, 1954, where the Vietminh launched their largest human wave attack against the French line. “That night,” it is recounted, “as the valley lay wreathed in explosions and smoke, Vietminh troops swamped the remaining French positions, using the bodies of their dead comrades to cross the French wire.” Almost exactly like Leiningen’s ants.
The comparison of human beings to hive insects doesn’t come pleasantly, but it simply is not avoidable when people make up their minds to emulate ant warfare. In fact, the human wave is a horribly inefficient method of attacking. What won Dienbienphu for the Vietminh, far more than the human wave, was General Giap’s stunning and completely unexpected ability to portage heavy artillery pieces across roadless mountains. Unfortunately, Dienbienphu had a tendency to give the HW tactic a cachet of success. Korea may have been nothing more than a hideous meatgrinder for the Chinese human waves, but Giap’s successes with the tactic romanticized it all over again.
Modern wars of attrition and their inevitable corollary, the human wave assault, have a (necessarily morbid) fascination for me. My interest is purely in the psychology and the ethics behind them, because from a tactical point of view, the straight-on HW attack is not very interesting at all. It doesn't (to my mind) simulate very well on the board, and one could probably express it best with some sort of brute-force dicerolling mechanic a la Risk or even the "dice tower" contraption that the German boardgame Wallenstein uses.
The specific phrase “human wave” goes back in popular usage to the massive Chinese attacks during the Korean War, though the concept is obviously far older. In a broader sense you can say that any direct assault that seeks to overwhelm the enemy with numbers is a human wave. Many direct sieges—Malta and Rorke’s Drift come to mind—were technically human wave attacks.
In modern usage, however, the term has come to connote attackers (often but not always overcoming technological inferiority) using numerical superiority to try to swarm over better-armed defensive emplacements. Stalin's famous adage "quantity has a quality all its own" could easily be its motto.
Essentially the modern HW idea dates to the trenches of World War One. There, the masses of eighteen-year-olds armed only with bayonets running toward entrenched machine gun positions changed the way the West thought about war. Afterwards, it became culturally unthinkable for most Europeans—even the Nazis—to waste their own men that way.
These days, the HW assault is pretty much the exclusive property of the tankless and the desperate and the fanatical. But in World War Two the Japanese and the Soviets both used it often.
To be completely fair, I have to admit that sometimes these attacks are successful. In particular the Ataka zhivoy volnoy (the term’s Russian literal translation) on the Eastern Front was brutally effective at times, especially when German air and armor support was lacking. There is a remarkable description of one such action on the streets of Budapest in 1945, from Nicholas Nyaradi’s Ringside Seat in Moscow:
There was no crawling, no sniping; a line of Soviet infantrymen simply marched, as though on parade, straight toward the German barricade. Naturally, they were mowed down by German machine guns; all of them dead before they even half reached their objective. But no sooner had they fallen than a second row of Russians began a suicidal march, only to be wiped out. Then a third, a fourth, a fifth-rows of soldiers, marching like automatons to what could only be death. I counted a total of twenty such attacking waves of Soviet infantrymen, each wind-row falling on top of the dead until there was a mountain of bodies. Then the last waves of Russians, charging up the stack of corpses, vaulted the barricades and slaughtered the Germans with savage ferocity.
There are also stories from Afghanistan of masses of lightly-armed Al Qaeda jihadists charging dug-in Soviet, and later Northern Alliance, positions and overrunning them. When I think of successful HW attacks like these, I am drawn to another insect metaphor, the opening scene of Sam Peckinpah’s film The Wild Bunch: Thousands of ants overwhelming and devouring a scorpion.
But of course there are limits. Scorpions don't have AC-130 gunships loitering nearby, the way the Americans did in Afghanistan in 2001 when the jihadist HWs were turned into red gristle every time they tried to attack. If HW assaults are insect-like, it's best to react to them calmly and with discipline—for lack of a better word, like exterminators.
Which brings us to the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-88. The conventional wisdom, repeated endlessly by lazy reporters-that the Iraqis needed chemical weapons to stop Iranian HW attacks-is simply wrong. Chemicals are extremely poor defensive weapons. They require favorable wind and weather conditions, meaning that they are only militarily significant, let alone effective, in offensive action. Additionally, mustard agents, a relatively cheap chemical that the Iraqis used often, can require hours to take full effect, making them all but pointless for the defender. In World War I, chemicals had marginal effectiveness at punching holes in defensive fronts, especially where they defenders were unprepared for this tactic-but a primary reliance on chemicals to beat back assaults would be insanity. The Iraqis seem to have used chemicals, in the main, offensively; and to a much lesser extent to enhance kill ratios in combination with other, more lethal defensive tactics.
Post-Korea, the Iranians seem to have employed the HW tactic on the largest scale. Though all human wave attacks are reprehensible, probably the single most appalling variant of the tactic was the Iranian theocracy's use of massed "volunteers," including boys as young as nine, to attack Iraqi positions. The "volunteers" were typically roped together in groups of twenty to prevent desertion. Their numbers were enormous-"tens of thousands," said one journalist who observed a battle in 1984. Smaller groups of girls were used specifically to clear minefields with their bodies.
And to combat them, the Iraqis experimented with various solutions. Chemical weapons proved less effective against the HW than other methods, some of them quite ingenious: Anti-personnel mines dropped from helicopters. Flooding parts of the battlefield to force the Iranians into narrow kill zones. And, most significantly, artillery. The Iraqis found that nothing dealt with masses of oncoming attackers like massed artillery.
This was a lesson the Americans had learned in Vietnam, where they had far greater success against the HW than the French did: Tactical artillery, plus available close air support, turns the tactic into certain suicide. A Vietnam veteran friend of mine described for me the effect of the M102 105mm towed howitzer gun, modified to use "beehive" flechette rounds like an enormous shotgun, on an advancing Vietcong HW. He watched as the gun fired and a score of guerillas fell down instantly, dying in unison as if choreographed, as did each successive wave.
But we still see the HW if the combatants are ruthless and desperate enough. Both sides in the recent Ethiopia-Eritrea war claimed that the other was using the tactic, though there is far more evidence that the Ethiopians were. Human Rights Watch has reported that the Ethiopian HW attacks were organized by ethnicity, with the ruling Tigre tribal group forcing the rival Omoros to serve as HW fodder, including their children. This is yet another permutation in the tactic: The human wave as deliberate ethnic cleanser.
But of course this is only fitting. The maddening act of HW warfare is in and of itself an abrogation of humanity and a surrender to the values of the insect world. Worse, from a strictly military viewpoint, is the unforgivable tactical laziness, the switch-off of the brain at every level of command.
Which is why I am such a Leiningen fan. “With me,” he says, preparing to wipe out the attacking ants, “the brain isn't a second blindgut; I know what it's there for.”