Only angels tread without footprints

footprintAnd footprints are unique, or close enough for government work. A short time ago Michael Yon put up an intriguing post that only someone with his experience and long persistence in the UWOA could have imagined, and as you should have come to expect from Mike, it’s well written, with some of the imagery flirting with us, ducking behind and scooting out from the edges of the veil of poetry.

The post covers foot tracking, print/sole databases, and the mystifying shoe/sandal culture of rural Afghanistan. Here’s a taste, but you know what we’re going to tell you to do afterwards:

With thousands of tiny factories, and many big ones, no single mind can catalogue all of the footwear that exists. The variety of footwear helps tracking, but if you plan to maintain a footwear database—which numerous organizations do—you will need a staff, a budget, and a strategy.

Footwear is not as unique as snowflakes and fingerprints, but it is different enough for combat work.  An entire law enforcement industry revolves around the forensic study and the statistical incidence of sole and tread.

In combat, forensics are simple.  The enemy commits an attack.  Troops find the prints at the site, and track them down.  No more evidence is required.

For combat tracking, the hunter does not need to know who made the shoe.  He does not need to be ready to discuss the nuances of Bayes’ Theorem.  He needs to draw, to measure, and to remember the pattern.  He needs to be able to communicate it to other teams.  He needs to know how to track it.  He needs to have the heart and the martial skill to kill the guerrilla wearing that sole.

Shoes come in different sizes, they wear out differently, and nobody walks the same.  Combining all of these variables brings the prints closer to snowflake status: no two are alike, and they are sufficiently different to tell each of them apart.

The fact that humans can easily distinguish many voices, baby cries, and dog barks should dispel the idea that tracking is voodoo.  We can hear a voice and say, “That is a woman, and I think that she is French.  She sounds happy.”

Likewise, a skilled tracker can glance at tracks and say, “My quarry looks tired.  He is carrying a heavy load.  He rested here.  He has an AKM with at least one magazine.  He is about six feet tall, so he is not a local.  He is wearing American jungle boots.  He put on his gear and walked to here.  He looked over his right shoulder, then ran three steps here and hid for a short time.  Maybe this was when the helicopter came ten minutes ago.  It is all fresh.  He started running.  He did not dump his gear, so he thinks we still do not see him.  I bet that he is hiding in the swamp 100 meters ahead, and in fact I see where something pushed through the grass 100 meters ahead.  Fresh.  We are in danger standing here.  I recommend that you box him against the river.”

via Wolf Pack 103: Sole Mates | Michael’s Dispatches.

Like Heinlein’s Arthur C. Clarke’s famous comparison of technology to magic — it was him, right? — (correction in the comments below, thanks!) tracking seems mysterious to those who know it not because they don’t know the information the tracker does — they don’t have his principles and rules, not just his experience. In the real world, it’s more science than art.

Actually, James Fenimore Cooper did tracking, as a practical military art, a terrible disservice with his overheated description of the skills of the frontier Indian and his famous half-breed Natty Bumppo. (Maybe once-famous. Schoolkids that once suffered through Cooper would be doubly appalled to see the politically-correct Noble Savage dreck that has replaced him and those like him in the public school canon).

Like door-kicking CQB once was, tracking is a skill that is probably held too close in the military. It is useful to  much wider range of soldiers than are currently taught it.

One thing that does show up in Yon’s writing is the 1970s and 80s SF appreciation of the counterinsurgency skills of what was arguably the most successful COIN campaign in all history, that of the UDI Rhodesians 1965-80. They ultimately lost on the world geopolitical stage, not in the field; President Carter and other world leaders thought black men ought to be ruled by a black man, even if he was a dictator, and many of the black men wanted that, and so they got it — good and hard.

The racism of the white minority government makes it untouchable today, but it doesn’t make the tactics of its shoestring-funded military any less worthy of study. In the 70s and 80s in SF, we studied them intently, and Mike remembers that.

And so, as you knew we were going to tell you, Read The Whole Thing™. And then check out his follow ups.

One thought on “Only angels tread without footprints

  1. neutrino_cannon

    It was Arthur C Clarke, actually:'s_three_laws

    Re: Rhodesia, had you seen this summary of the “cover shooting” tactics used during the conflict there?

    Sorry about the mess of a URL, but the standard link is broken.

    I’m amused at the passing reference to the relative ineffectiveness of Robert Mugabe’s ZANLA guerillas compared to the Soviet-backed ZIPRAs. ZANLA, the majority Shona and Chinese-backed insurgency group later became ZANU-PF, the current pack of imbeciles running the country into the ground. The first thing Mugabe did when he got into power was genocide the minority Nbebele:

    But all this was ignored by the Western media, who were still in love with the guy.

    I’m told that whites and Ndebele get along pretty well in Zimbabwe today. Is it a mutual admiration grown from a grudging respect grown for martially capable adversaries during the war, or is it just the fact that they’re in the same boat now with Mugabe trying to kill both of them? Rationally I would suspect the latter, but I am a romantic at heart.

    Also interesting to note that most MRAP designs come from those days.

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