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Book Review – ‘Phantom Soldier: The Enemy’s Answer to U.S Firepower’, by H. John Poole

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“To maintain the initiative, the Easterner relies heavily on deception. At the heart of deception is
‘varying concentration and dispersion of forces.’ To win each engagement, the eastern infantry
commander depends on forces that appear not to exist. (p25)” 

The Phantom Soldier: The enemy’s answer to US firepower discusses how the east have tackled western methodologies in modern warfare. It is set out in three parts. First, it discusses the eastern way of war, exploring underpinning philosophies. Second, it reviews the differences in east/west tactical techniques, describing in detail the practical ways in which the east have used these tactics against the west. Finally, it looks at options for developing techniques to counter the eastern way of war and suggests how western armies can learn from their eastern counterparts.

The author focuses on the tactical level of war and uses modern examples to help the reader understand various tactics and methods. He also provides an insight into eastern philosophy by highlighting key philosophers and texts. Three areas of the book were particularly valuable: the eastern perspective on command and control, the practical use of deception, and numerous examples of east/west conflict drawn from modern history.

According to the author, a characteristic of eastern warfare is that strategic intent is considered at every level of command. Even at the tactical level, commanders must consider the strategic implications for committing to battle. If the action does not meet the strategic intent or conditions to support it, then they do not do battle. The author discusses this reasoning, using the Communist Chinese Army as an example. The use of retreat is a perfectly acceptable action, even with a strong initiative; a somewhat foreign mindset to western forces. Mao Tse-Tung advises that ‘through retreat, a commander can seek to discover the enemy’s weak spots; wear out the enemy both physically and morally; and induce his enemy to make mistakes.'(p21)

Eastern command and control
Whilst it is often thought that eastern armies prefer centralised control, Poole demonstrates the high value placed on junior leaders and their ability to execute mission command. Four factors are used to maximise a unit’s fighting capacity; formation, military posture, flexibility and initiative. The concept of flexibility and initiative is well demonstrated with examples of a typical attack. Squad leaders decide when to commit once a general attack has commenced in their zone. They have the flexibility to reconnoitre their attack location and if they successfully penetrate or find a gap, this is reinforced with further squads (p86). Reconnaissance pull is not only espoused but resourced and practised efficiently. The author details the different reconnaissance that is applied as a norm for any committed action. When conducting an attack, eastern forces will infiltrate an objective days before, conduct close target reconnaissance 24 hours prior, conduct probing immediately before, and conduct recon pull during the attack.

Practical use of deception
The eastern way of war espouses deception as the heart of every action. The author provides a number of examples and case studies of deception methods at the tactical level. He first outlines traditional deceptions used by eastern forces and then discusses specific examples from World War II (Iwo Jima), Vietnam and Korea. At the end of the book, there is a detailed appendix which lists eastern “Stratagems for deception” for reference. The examples illustrate that deception underpins the design for simple engagements at section level through to battles between larger units. The techniques used by small teams such as camouflage, concealed fighting positions, defilade fire and tunnelling are clearly articulated and include diagrams. He also includes more complex manoeuvres such as ambushing, withdrawing and attacking, painting a vivid picture of how deception is built from the small team upwards to complement operational design.

Examples from modern history
Phantom Soldier is an excellent reference for small team tactics. It provides several detailed case studies and compares an east vs west approach. The case studies include Guadalcanal 1942, defence of Iwo Jima, Yudam-Ni valley – Korea, Operation Badger Tooth – Vietnam, Operation Buffalo – Vietnam, and the Battle for Hue City – Vietnam, to name a few. These case studies include different operational environments from the mountains of Korea to the jungles and cities of Vietnam.

Summary

Phantom Soldier is a good read for junior infantry officers wishing to expand their knowledge of small team tactics and a good place to start advancing their knowledge of deception at the tactical level. This book will also serve those studying the operational and strategic levels of war, providing a point of reference for continued study of Sun Tzu. Phantom Soldier explains many eastern war philosophies and mantras and compliments this with detailed examples.


About the author:  Beau Hodge is a RAinf Officer who is serving in the 3rd Brigade Headquarters as an Operations Officer.

 

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