Why you should care

It might never again be so much fun to read about combat.

For lessons on strategy, readers have long turned to Sun Tzu, who wrote The Art of War just about 2,500 years ago. Or von Clausewitz, the Prussian military theorist who observed that “war is merely the continuation of policy by other means.” And then there was Mao’s famous aphorism: “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.”

But what if you’re a lieutenant leading inexperienced men and women into combat? These great theorists won’t help very much. Instead, try this century-old classic that’s still little-known outside of military circles: Ernest Swinton’s The Defence of Duffer’s Drift. Actually, read it even if you’re not headed into combat. (It’s free in some e-book editions.) It’s a slightly tongue-in-cheek gem in storytelling that explains how the central character, an English officer named Backsight Forethought, figured out how to defend a river crossing in South Africa during the Boer Wars against a much larger force, after repeated failures.

Do not put off taking your measures of defence till the morrow.

 

Of course, in real combat the cost of failure is impossibly high. Much better to fail in your dreams but remember the lessons, which is precisely what Backsight Forethought did after he trekked to Dreamdorp. There, the “local atmosphere combined with a heavy meal” caused a series of repeat-loop nightmares — six of them — in which the first five ended in death and surrender. “It’s almost like Aesop’s Fables, moral lessons, semi-eternal truths in thinking about tactical leadership,” says Jon Scott Logel, who teaches war gaming at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island.

Defence of Duffer's Drift book cover

Source The Defence of Duffer’s Drift

Poor Backsight Foresight learns his lessons the hard way. His men arrive tired in the afternoon at the river crossing, survey the scene and conclude that since the enemy is far away, they can rest for the night before setting up defenses. Scouting the area turns up farmers anxious to sell fresh farm produce, and they’re welcomed into the camp. Naturally, the farmers are spies for the other side, the English are ambushed in the night and their position proves impossible to defend, with the enemy hidden by thick bushes. Oh, well.

Yet each dream leads to a collection of insights, each progressively more subtle than the last, from the first, obvious lesson (“Do not put off taking your measures of defence till the morrow”) to the 22nd (“A conspicuous ‘bluff’ trench may cause the enemy to waste much ammunition and draw fire away from the actual defences.”)

The method and thinking make it a favorite of some officers, and yet warfare has changed. Two Army captains, Michael Burgoyne and Albert Marckwardt, modeled their 2009 book The Defense of Jisr al-Doreaa on Duffer’s Drift, using the same sort of dream sequence to build lessons for Iraq. The book may have less literary merit than the original, but perhaps nothing so graphically vaults the reader into the difficulties and complexities of counterinsurgency warfare. “There’s no clean ending to a counterinsurgency,” says Logel.

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