Infantry School

I DON'T KNOW if the Fidelistas learned how to march while being trained in Mexico. I cannot find any resource describing the training that they received there. However, the New York Times correspondent, Herbert Matthews mentioned seeing the rebels marching during his visit to their camp, and I was able to infer that marching found its way into their little army. The Fidelistas must have learned it in Mexico to be able to pass it on the peasants recruited in Cuba by Celia Sanchez. Again, I did not expect to find diaries or letters written by mostly illiterate peasants. 
The importance of marching isn't as apparent as it once was. It's easy to see how the Romans used well- practiced formations and movements to defeat barbarians and build an empire. However, it's not so easy to see how such tactics apply to modern combat wherein individual riflemen fight from scattered positions. Still, marching is important as a tool for instilling discipline, building a sense of camaraderie, and teaching men to react unquestioningly to commands.

In my novel, Rebels on the Mountain, I supposed that the recruits would not have liked learning to march. I used that resistance to create a conflict between the recruits and the Fidelistas, one which I resolved in a manner that helped build bonds between them as compañeros. Interestingly, in my own experience, the recruits themselves asked to be trained to march.

Just after we had been issued our uniforms at the U.S. Army Reception Center, we were moving as a mob to our next processing station. A company of men, basic trainees I suppose, marched past us and men around me began asking the corporal who was leading us to call cadence. The corporal looked confused at first, then shrugged and began, “Left, right, left, right.” Within a few paces we had sorted ourselves into a crude formation of ranks and files, and began marching in step. We weren't going to win any awards, but we looked like soldiers for the first time.

I believe that we simply wanted to belong or, at least, appear to belong. Although I was in my early twenties at the time, I was surrounded mostly by teenagers, and it may just be that they were responding to peer pressure and I got caught up in it.

Marching became integral to everything we did once we began Basic Combat Training. Everything occurred in formation. There were formations to facilitate moving a large group of men from point A to point B. There were formations for exercising. I suppose you could even call a single file waiting to enter the mess hall a kind of formation.

Formations in ancient times were densely packed. Shield bearers occupied the front ranks and carried short stabbing swords to pierce enemy defenses when they were pressed up against them. Spearmen followed close behind using their long weapons to reach past the shield wall. Other shield bearers and spearmen followed in ranks behind to replace the front two when they fell in battle. Archers and javelin throwers launched their missiles from behind.

Modern warriors fight at more widely spaced intervals. Soldiers who form up into clusters invite destruction by exploding weapons. However, widely spaced warriors are more difficult to control effectively and even greater discipline is needed to keep them fighting as a cohesive team. Thus, infantry trainers begin teaching recruits ancient formations and movements to learn the discipline and cohesion of a unit, and later increase the interval as they teach them modern weapons and tactics.

Marching alone does not make an effective fighting force. Indeed, too much of it can be detrimental to combat effectiveness. Historically, garrison troops march well and fight badly. For example, as I studied the war in Korea in preparation for writing my next novel, Behind Every Mountain, I learned that the first troops rushed to Korea from American garrisons in Japan following the Communist invasion of the south, were driven back relentlessly by the enemy. Likewise, in Cuba, although the army outnumbered the rebels 40,000 to 300, they were beaten in every engagement, but they marched well in Havana.

The most extreme form of marching is the goose step. It was developed by the Prussians in the 19th Century to help keep ranks in line as they approached the enemy. Inasmuch as closely spaced ranks of goose stepping soldiers are not practical in modern warfare, and it is no longer used except in ceremonial parades. It remains popular in as many as thirty nations to this day as a symbol of military discipline. It was long derided in the United States as symbolic of oppression. As George Orwell observed, “It is only used in countries where people are too scared to laugh at their military.”
Goose stepping in the modern Cuban army
As I wrapped up this posting, I was amused to find that it is used today by the Cuban military. 


03/21/2012 01:30

The army is all about unity, about teamwork. I remember the marched hour after hour when I wondered if the day would ever end. Looking back, I think that marching was the one thing, at least in the beginning, that built unity and teamwork. In your book, REBELS ON THE MOUNTAIN, I was made to realize that learning to march was the first thing that the Cuban rebels did to turn themselves into a credible army.


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