Part IV of our series South African on surplus gear for arid climates.Please find the previous parts here, here, and here.
In America, we’d see someone dressed head to toe in a brown uniform and guess “UPS delivery driver.” But if you put him in southern Africa, maybe with a gun as a hint, “browns” would connect him with the South African Defense Force (SADF), South Africa’s pre-1994 army.
The SADF stood out among Western-style militaries of the Cold War, differing from everyone else in little details. One was their unusual brown uniform, which now is coveted on the surplus market. South Africa began the Sixties dressed in impractical, smart-looking British-type uniforms but knowing they needed something they could move around and get dirty in. And by the end of the decade, the troepies were spending a lot of their time in the field, preparing for a conventional war against Soviet proxies but also running around in the bush looking for Chinese-backed guerrilla forces too.
So in 1971, they adopted what became their trademark, the “nutria brown” color. Nutria sounds like the brand-name for a hippy protein powder made from brewer’s yeast and algae, but it’s actually the name of a cute (but invasive) rodent. However, that maligned rodent had the honor of lending its name to some of the best surplus of the Seventies.
Earth tones conceal stuff incredibly well. In search and rescue, it’s shocking how effectively plain colors conceal people in nature. I’ve searched a pine forest next to a man in a light tan uniform, and he completely disappeared from view just 10 yards away in moderate foliage. That makes khaki a terrible field uniform for SAR—orange or red is the way to go—but if you want to vanish in a forest, you can get there in chinos, loafers, and a tan button-down.
With just a couple branches between you and a searcher, they will have trouble picking out your shape, criss-crossed by a couple lines, from the chaotic background clutter. They might also miss you even if you just stand under overhanging branches, provided you are crossed by a couple shadows of branches.
Of course, if you want to hide on purpose, then you’re even better off with a darker color. Armies experimented after the 1860s with dull grays, yellows, and greens so soldiers wouldn’t get them shot from afar by the new, high-powered ammunition. Over the next century, they progressed toward steadily darker hues. The Russians didn’t settle on one standard color, retaining a mix of yellows, greens, and browns that nevertheless all looked like they issued from some part of a baby. But everyone else converged on nearly the same color, just described with different names.
British Commonwealth armies still called that color “khaki,” though it no longer matched its Urdu meaning of “soil-colored.” The Germanic armies all called theirs “field gray” (Feldgrau), and the Americans named theirs “olive green.”
Olive, gray, even (super-dark) khaki—all justifiable descriptions of pretty much the same, hard-to-define color. We do know one thing. It is officially Proven By Science that it’s the ugliest color in the world. When Australia ordered tobacco companies to redesign their cigarette packages so as to “minimize appeal,” government researchers identified this very color in experiments as the most morbid and depressing. The Australian olive lobby begged the officials not to call the villainous color “olive” and besmirch their fruit’s good name, so the government accommodated them and dubbed it “drab dark brown.”
In tests, plain old olive drab (OD) camouflages people in a forest almost as effectively as a well-designed camo pattern. So olive is still the standard in tropical Venezuela and Cuba, temperate Austria, and the mixed terrain of India. And amazingly, it actually works well in a desert too! The Israelis found it worked there almost as well as purpose-made desert camo, reportedly, so the IDF still wears olive. Maybe olive really is the closest thing to a “universal camouflage!”
South Africa had roughly the same idea. They needed a single uniform for forests and mountains and deserts, so they tried olive. But there was a twist: those varied southern African landscapes did share one commonality–they were all very dry. So when the South African army experimented in Namibia, olive was edged out by “nutria brown” in the parched landscape. (For the same landscape, the Kaiser’s short-lived colony of “South-West Africa” chose a lighter brown they called “sand color.” Probably not a coincidence.)
When South Africa adopted their signature nutria browns in 1971, most major armies were still uniformed in monochrome too, including the United States, the Soviet Union, China, France, and West Germany. But South Africa retained theirs longer than most, economically sapped by war and inflation. It is telling that, when finally adopting camouflage uniforms in 1993, the army’s chief felt he needed to justify the slight cost increase of just US $24 worth per uniform of his country’s falling currency.
For our purposes, South African nutria and other monochrome surplus is also attractively economical, even if we do enjoy a hard currency. It’s cheap and indestructible, and it’s extra versatile because, lacking a camo pattern, it doesn’t make you look like Mall Rambo. Even though that doesn’t matter when you’re out hiking and camping, afterward you might want to stop at the grocery store and not sow terror of a rebel attack on the frozen aisle.
Successful people have a trusted someone who tells them truths that they’d rather avoid. When a conquering Roman general paraded in triumph, decked out as the god Jupiter, a veteran next to him would murmur in his ear, under the crowd’s cheers, “Remember you are mortal.” Modern generals and leaders employ a “red team” or some kind of “loyal opposition” to pick holes in their plans.
This is because, as Orwell wrote, “To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.” So sometimes I think master trainer Tom Furman’s greatest talent is just that he confronts me with truths that are good for me.
Yes, it runs deeper than that: he reads all the journals, attends the workshops, follows the new trends, and then filters them through his bullsh** detector that’s five decades thick. Sober people like Tom are the reason that I survived the early 2000s without severing my spinal cord or blowing tendons by following stupid trends like high-rep timed barbell snatches or back squats on a wobble board.
But above all, Tom keeps the truth the truth. I owe him a report every Monday on the week’s eating, exercise, weight, and waist. And when I delude myself about the tale of the tape, “Tom the Truth” tells me what I’m choosing not to know.
If the most effective way to lie is to change definitions, Tom guards them from me. If the sneakiest way to subvert success is to move goalposts on the sly, Tom fixes them in concrete. The blue collar fighter from Pittsburgh tore up the “Everyone’s a Winner!” memo and crumbled it up between his thumb and pinky to train grip strength.
Hence I could have had no better coach during this past year of family troubles than Tom, to help me self-arrest before I slid down a mountain of travails and into a Himalayan crevasse of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. Tom gently but firmly kept me pointed upward and didn’t entertain my self-accommodating illusions that maybe faeries were causing me mysteriously to hold water temporarily-for-months-at-a-time.
Now that I’ve climbed back out of the Valley of the Shadow, I’m still on track. Under Tom’s wholesome influence, I’ve regained lost ground and also shaken nagging mobility limitations and periodic joint issues too.
This Summer’s Game
This summer I’ve been ordered by the doctor to lay off serious training for a couple months following a small (but perfectly benign) surgery. I’m prohibited from anything to raise intra-abdominal pressure, which is tantamount to a prohibition against doing anything.
That means no running, kettlebells, backpacks, pullups, presses, or punching bags. Barbells are banned; dumbbells are disallowed, except those tiny ones coated in neoprene.
Athletically, this sounded worse than a jail sentence, since even in lockup I could maybe pump out hours of bodyweight convict workouts. Instead, it’s more like three months in a nursing home, shuffling slowly and doing water aerobics.
But you can make a game of most anything. After all, what are strictures except rules of a game that you haven’t invented yet? So this summer’s game has been, “Doing something, anything, to move around that won’t get me in trouble with the doctor. My score is total minutes per day. Bonus points if it improves something that I’ve neglected.”
To my surprise, this has been fun and productive! Aside from walking modest but growing distances, I’ve found ways to say occupied with light Indian clubs, dumbbells, and bands; rubber tubing to do I, T, Y, and W pulls to prehab the shoulders; modified pushup and crawling variations; the few stretches that don’t violate the surgeon’s rules; and easy static holds in one- and two-legged squat positions, up high with no abdominal bracing.
Particularly fun have been wall pushup variations to strengthen finger and forearm extensors. Whenever I get sore elbows, I’ve learned, it means I need to work those extensors, which are always too weak to match the flexors.
Calorie Balance and Deficit
To my great surprise, I’m staying in a small calorie deficit without trouble. I feared that I’d be consigned to the couch all summer, with no ruck on my back and a spoon in each hand.
Tom had a simple preventive medicine for this: Eat less. Tom subscribes to the school of “Calories in, calories out. You can’t deny physics and chemistry, and you can’t outrun a donut.” It’s a simple truth, an unpopular one, and it survives perennial attempts at hand-waving circumvention. You have entered “The Tom Furman Zone.”
Fortunately, if you accept that an unwelcome truth is, well, true, life gets much simpler! When I had to get much less active and scale down my calorie intake, I learned that Tom really has been speaking the truth when he tells me, “You need less food than you think.” There’s plenty of utility in hacks like volumetrics, where you fill up on foods high in fiber and water content, but I always take a good idea too far. In my case, that looks like me compulsively eating horse-sized bulk meals out of with a family-sized salad bowl, trying to satisfy myself on sheer poundage.
But when I have a normal, low level of activity, I’m okay eating normal (and measured) servings of food. (And for tracking food, Noom is a gift from the heavens. It makes logging and budgeting calories supremely easy.)
I’m even leaning vegetarian again, which is a balm to my conscience, and my body isn’t objecting. Maybe this is an upside of getting being lean and light, not carrying extra weight (fat or muscle), and going light on the exercise.
Next stop on the Tom Train is to trim off a final six or seven pounds, two more inches of waist, and get to a good fighting weight in the 150s. (Call it 70kg and change.)
At that point, I’ll want to reward myself with something I hope to write about soon, the “Skinny Cat Challenge!”
Here at Lean, Solid Dogs, we maintain a special interest in light infantry because we love to romp around the outdoors carrying heavy things. And there’s a whole profession dedicated to that! They’re called light infantry and they work for the government, which does research for them and gives it away for free. It also sells off their old gear almost as cheaply.
Of course, they’re not a perfect model for us. For the sake of joint health, no one should ruck more than 30 lbs. (14kg) habitually unless they make their living by carrying a mortar. And some of us need to unlearn some of the “push, push, push!” mentality. Nevertheless, lean solid dogs can pick up a lot from light infantry.
But first, a word from our sponsor … me!
In the 20th century, light infantry seemed like a specialty mostly for East Asians: the Imperial Japanese Army (IJA), China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA), and the People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN) worked stunning miracles, like Michael Jordan defying the laws of gravity and reinventing the game of basketball.
Those East Asian armies specialized in light infantry because they had to: It’s all they had. They couldn’t support highly mechanized armies with their limited industrial bases. The Japanese and the PLA rationalized their reliance on light infantry in ideology: superior courage, commitment, and the spirit of the bayonet would prevail over firepower and technology. They were helped by existing cultural ingredients–for example, the IJA taught conscripts to revere their bayonets as latter-day samurai swords–but they were making a virtue of necessity. Their armies would have liked to be heavier, but then, I’d like be taller. Too bad.
But the French Army is different. They chose their own “cult of light infantry” freely, despite having other options, because they love the light fighter as an idea.
The Feline Fighter
Wolves. Bears. Sharks. Tigers. Lions. Wildcats and hellcats. Falcons. “Screaming Eagles.” “Devil dogs.” How many badass animals have been adopted as names and similes for history’s warriors?
But domestic cats? How many armies psyche up the young heroes-in-training with thoughts of elegant Siamese cats? Languid Persians?
The Armée Francaise, that’s who! Go ahead, make your silly jokes! The Fighting Calicoes! The Battling Marmalades! Maybe a parachute regiment called “The Finicky Persians.” Or “Hell’s Turkish Angoras.” Oh yes, quel drôle!
The French Army likes its soldiers agile, flexible, and nimble: in French, chats maigres, “skinny cats.” Not emaciated, of course, but rangy and optimized for endurance. And not lacking strength, to be sure–there are lots of ropes for you to climb, soldat de France, and pullups too! But excess muscle would weight you down, when we want you light and quick. In a word, feline!
That means no protein powder for you, légionnaire! It’s forbidden. In fact, not too much food for you either! In memoir accounts of new trainees in the Foreign Legion, being constantly hungry is almost as much of a trope as “march or die” in old movies. American servicemen who train with French units remark on how much running they do and their level of endurance. And among visiting French troops, a common refrain is to exclaim about the American troops’ huge breakfasts of eggs, potatoes, and sausage.
Why this cult of the skinny cat? It’s what academics like me call “overdetermined,” which is short-hand for “lots of reasons, any one of which would have been enough.”
One is that France is drawn to the “cult of light forces” ideologically, writes Benoist Bihan, because it happens to fit well with France’s untidy heritage of mixed of aristocratic and republican ideals. On one hand, the French army drew most of its officers from old military families, some with traditions of service stretching from the ancien régime through the 20th century, that formed a sort of aristocratic caste. On the other hand, they served a republic, the birthplace of Enlightenment egalitarianism, officially hostile to class difference and aristocracy. You can’t fit just any ideal into the narrow middle ground on that Venn diagram. But you actually can fit the “quick, nimble light fighter!”
It fits OK with aristocratic heroism: The light infantry officer is a figure of daring, dash, and élan. His battle is won or lost by the wiles, daring, and fortitude of identifiable individuals, not a superpower’s vast, hemispheric system, where whole divisions are just components and the individual man counts for nothing except a nameless cog in a clanking machine. In other words, in the light infantry officer’s war, there’s lots of room for conspicuous heroism. He may distinguish himself individually and re-inscribe his ancient family name with glory in the annals of French arms. Vive le roi! Vive l’empereur! Vive la France!
But also, the light infantryman’s heroism is open to any son of the Republic, irrespective of birth or even education. He need not be bred as a chevalier right from his gilded cradle, nor need he even spend his whole youth studying military science. Yes, a talented boy will be educated at the public expense at the military academy of Saint-Cyr if only he show a clever mind and firm spirit, but even that is not necessary. France’s greatest paratroop officer, the patron saint in the “cult of light forces,” Marcel Bigeard, rose from an ordinary soldat de deuxième classe with an 8th grade education! In the warfare of agility, daring, and maneuver it is enough for any French conscript to show resolution and aggressiveness. L’esprit de l’attaque!Vive la République!
In a word, goes the thinking, light infantry were satisfyingly French as few other options could be.
Add to this that the French Army has been doing this for two centuries. Napoleon knew a thing or two about maneuver warfare, and his famous light infantry chasseurs fought in Spain against the world’s first “guerillas.” So France failed against an agrarian irregular resistance before it was cool!
France’s 19th century African and Asian colonies have been called “a gigantic system of outdoor relief for army officers … designed to give them something to do.” Whatever the French Army thought they were accomplishing out there, they gained tons of experience at maneuvering light, nimble bodies of infantry and marines around vast spaces and tight spots. And along the way, they contributed a lot to the military art and science of light forces.
Just as important, their officers were honing the subtle, soft skills of military diplomacy and local politics that turn out to be everything in what are now called “small wars.”
This points to an another important ingredient in the French cult of light infantry: unofficially, France had two parallel armies, a heavy one for the defense of Europe, and a light one for overseas, and the two grew apart culturally and eventually politically.
Even after the whole “collaborate with Nazis?” quarrel, the Army faced a dilemma with its overseas commitments. Like the British Army, they were tied down in Europe with NATO and struggled to protect their overseas colonies, but the French Army had it worse: they were constrained by a French law that forbade deploying French conscripts (i.e. most of the army) outside of France or Algeria. For colonial garrisons—in Southeast Asia, the Middle East, the Pacific, South America, and all over Africa—they were limited to using units from the Foreign Legion, regular units of French professionals, and the Troupes coloniales. (These sound like “indigenous forces,” but not really: the enlisted ranks were about half Arab, African, or Asian and half French volunteers). Diverse in origins and unit designators, what these overseas forces had in common was that they were light fighters. And collectively, these overseas forces came to feel unsupported and estranged, like the Breakfast Club of the French Army, and developed an “outsider” identity as square pegs, the misunderstood streetfighting punks to the rich preppies of Big Army and its heavy divisions back in Europe. From their perspective, these colonial paratroopers and legionnaires were doing France’s actual gutter fighting, unloved and half-disavowed by Paris and the respectable general staff officers who enjoyed clean kepis, starched tablecloths, and sherry with dinner. They fought dirty little wars in dirty places with dirty tactics, but that was how they got results—c’est la guerre.
The dynamic is dramatized in Jean Lartéguy’s novel The Centurions (1960), in which paratroop officers in Vietnam and Algeria come feel more kinship with their revolutionary enemies than their estranged countrymen in anti-military France and even from the army’s own respectable but clueless mainstream. Taking seriously the Maoist doctrine that war is a political struggle much more than a military one, they organize themselves in effect as a radical Maoist insurgency and influence French and Algerian politics in their own right. In real life, some of the paratroop officers then attempted a putsch in 1961, briefly seizing control of Algiers in hopes of thwarting Algerian independence. (Lartéguy wrote that up in a hasty sequel, the aptly named Praetorians.)
The icon of these real and fictional paratroopers was the aforementioned Marcel Bigeard, the working class conscript who rose to general and later Minister of Defense. If the “skinny cat” is the spirit animal of the French light fighter, Bigeard was their their exemplar, prophet, and patron saint. He preached a holy trinity that became paratrooper gospel and a French Army mantra: “flexible, feline, and mobile” (souple, félin et manœuvrier). The skinny catalso had nine lives in each sweaty running shoe. His whole resume of tough guy stuff is way too long, so I’ll skip all of WWII and his first eight years in Vietnam (!) and just mention that he parachuted into Dien Bien Phu twice, suffered 90% losses in his battalion, survived the subsequent death march and prison camp (which killed another 50%), and just a couple years later was shot in the chest in Algeria. Three months after that, he was jogging(!!) and was shot in the chest twice more in a failed attempt at assassination. (He kept working too, chest wounds be damned.)
There are even more reasons for the French cult of the “skinny cat”–see, I told you this was overdetermined–but that is a subject for another day. I grow tired, and I haven’t even been shot once today!
For now, let it be known henceforth that there are no “dog people” and “cat people.” The lean, solid dog shall lie down with the skinny cat, and the beasts from the wild / Shall be lit by a child / And all do bear walks and lizard crawls.
Part II of our series, “Sherpas of the Desert: How South Africa Mastered Rucking in Dry Heat.”
This was the predicament that Britain faced with its load-carrying gear and mishandled farcically. And here we will begin our story of South Africa’s contrasting success in developing its really ingenious gear. Because South Africa made it look so easy, we can only appreciate their achievement by comparing it to the contemporaneous British effort, which advanced as quickly and decisively as an elderly person working at the Dept. of Motor Vehicles while also having a stroke.
Britain in the Seventies was less a land of hope and glory than one of stagflation and dinginess, and its standard of living had fallen to the second-lowest in Europe.
The British government was slashing its military in size and kind. They scaled down their commitments and forces, closed bases, withdrew garrisons, and shrank the order of battle. The Navy was even made to auction off its two remaining aircraft carriers.
And to the forces that survived the cuts, the government also gave less of everything: less materiel, less training time, and less new equipment.
And quite apart from the bad budgetary climate, the Army was suspected and feared by the Labour government of Harold Wilson, who sincerely thought it might be plotting to depose him in a military coup. He was not in a mood to strengthen their hand any further.
In this atmosphere of desperation, like a drought in which gaunt, delirious animals gather round the shrinking water hole, you did not have to look far for quixotic absurdities of governance and management. The Army badly needed to replace its huge main battle rifle with a smaller, modern gun, but it was condemned to wait for a slow-growing monstrosity designed by engineers who (and this is true) had never even fired a rifle before, much less engineered one from scratch. After a decade, what they finally got was the L85A1, widely deemed “perhaps worst modern military rifle” and “a scandal of plastic and metal.”
But for us, dear reader, what’s relevant is that the Brits needed better load-carrying gear, but they weren’t getting it. During this period, they probably cared less about rucksacks than almost anything else on their very long list of problems. Certainly nobody in the Ministry of Defence was having urgent meetings about backpacks.
So some British soldiers were still stuck with gear from the 1930s. Even Britain’s “newest” gear, adopted in 1958, still hadn’t changed much from World War II. Made of heavy, uncomfortable canvas, it gave soldiers two inconveniently-shaped “kidney pouches” and a 3’ shovel running between them down their backs, and perched atop this awkward Tin Man suit was a small haversack that looks like the ones in mawkish Norman Rockwell paintings of Boy Scouts.
If ever there was a thankless task, this was it. It fell to the “Stores and Clothing Research & Development Establishment” (SCRDE) to consult all the many, many, many stakeholders around Britain’s disintegrating planet-wide empire and get them all to agree on one set of equipment.
Many Masters, Many Disasters: The Problem With Committees
Committees suck. It’s possible for two people to compromise and balance two competing interests. Three is a lot harder. And at four or more, you start getting “solutions” that are nothing of the sort. Everyone sacrifices and dislikes the end product.
And when bosses try to devise something “universal” for all use-cases, it is easy to fail at all of them. The famous US example is the M14 rifle, which tried to do the work of a submachine gun, a rifle, and a light machine gun (!) and ended up sucking at all of them.
(The Communist Bloc did much better with the Kalashnikov, where the undisputed masters of “satis-ficing” and economizing combined the roles of rifle and submachine gun only. And very successfully.)
And as anyone knows who has served on a large enough committee, institutions can be very dumb, even ones comprising only exceptional people, when they are thrust into absurd circumstances. And certainly, if you were made responsible for the suffering British military’s rucksacks and load-carrying gear in this period, you were definitely dropped into the soup.
The poor British designers were pulled in a half-dozen directions by different constituencies. The lightly equipped foot patrols in Northern Ireland needed something different than the heavy, mechanized infantry defending Germany. Then there were the jungle fighters in the Far Eastern Land Forces, who wanted smaller packs that could fit through brush and foliage lining a narrow trail in the bush. And the Arctic fighters wanted much bigger packs for all their bulky cold weather gear. But the parachutists wanted packs short enough to jump with, which militated against the long, tall design favored by the Arctic guys.
And that was just the infantry! There were all the other branches like armor, artillery, and signals. They would have to use this “general service” stuff too, and they didn’t want all the attention going to the infantry, since they had needs of their own. For instance, the one thing that pretty much all the infantry guys agreed on was that they loved framed packs. Finally, some consensus! But then the tankers weighed in: they hated frames. They wanted a pack they could cram into a Challenger tank’s few empty nooks.
Starting in the Middle
Worse still, the designers at SCRDE weren’t told quite what they were designing for. They needed to allow for future developments in body armor, but no one could predict what those would be. Same for “NBC” equipment, protection against nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons. How were they supposed to design equipment to hold other equipment that was still TBD and also not get in the way of the hypothetical future body armor that also didn’t exist yet?
Worse still, they knew the Army was changing rifles in a few years, meaning different ammunition, magazines, tactics, and heaven-knows-what else. So the designers knew that whatever load-carrying gear they made now would soon be obsolescent.
So after years of temporizing, the developers decided to forget about anything ambitious. Instead they proposed a temporary measure. In the terms of the figure skating analogy, they proposed a cheap pair of temporary skates.
For web gear–the belts and suspenders that hold the most important items–they whipped up a batch of their same old 1950s gear, but in place of the old heavy duck canvas they substituted modern materials like nylon. In this way, the designers hoped they could help the squaddies through the next few years. The guys in the field would still be saddled with the weird kidney pouches and shrimpy knapsack, but at least it wouldn’t be made of smelly, waterlogged cotton. And sure enough, even though it was a consolation prize, in trials the squaddies in the field appreciated that at least it was lighter, more waterproof, and cooler than their sweaty canvas.
But the Ministry’s money people still said no. Try to guess the reason … It was just a temporary measure and didn’t improve much on the old design! So now, after ten years of research and development, there was still no tangible progress, nor even any decisive choices. Back to another ten years of smelly, wet canvas for Tommy and the squaddies.
The Rucksack War
Hilarity ensued over the issue of rucksacks in particular. The plucky designers bravely threw themselves at their task, which was essentially “design a rucksack to unknown specifications so that it costs virtually nothing and pleases everyone.”
Despite the farcical constraints, the designers gamely accomplished as much as human ingenuity could. They trialed a compromise “general service” or “GS” rucksack for the entire British Army, and they answer they got was, “Hey, good enough! It’s better than our skimpy 1950s Boy Scout haversack.” The designers must have been rightfully proud of themselves, because it was one of those rare moments in a big organization when you offer a one-size-fits-most solution that draws at least a resigned shrug from everyone.
Almost everyone, that is. Only the Royal Marines complained. A lot.
The Royal Marines were high-speed Arctic warfare studs, specialist troops with specialist needs. They did not like the one-size-fits-most “general service” ruck because it was too small. They had a mountain of bulky Arctic gear and they needed a huge, specialized rucksack to carry it. Arguably they were among the only soldiers who really relied every day on their rucksacks. However, they had to “lump it” and make do with what they were given, because Big Army needed to settle on just one general service rucksack.
But in the end, the Ministry decided not to issue the “general service” pack to everyone because it was too expensive, just the specialists. So now the high-speed Royal Marines got the very pack that they never liked and the “general service” got nothing!
In other words, the Royal Marines compromised in vain. It was like when you order a pizza and reluctantly settle for crappy vegetarian toppings so your friends can have some, but then they bail on you and now you’re still stuck with a pineapple and onion pizza.
For apparently the Ruck Gods were miffed at being slighted. In 1982 Britain found itself pitched almost overnight into … an Arctic war! And by incredible mischance, they lost most of their helicopters and had to hike in their materiel by rucksack.
The supply people were caught with their pants down. “Serious clothing deficiencies for soldiers were corrected only after the intervention of an officer’s father in the House of Lords,” writes Kenneth Privratsky. “Eventually, the [Ministry of Defence] scoured civilian shops to obtain bergens [rucksacks] for the soldiers, but supply still fell short…”
Media showed troops boarding ships with blue packs that were obviously not military, and the Ministry began to be asked embarrassing questions, like “What have you people been doing for twelve years?” and “Don’t we have more sophisticated war plans than just ‘send an intern to Target with a credit card?'”
The Ministry assured Parliament and the public that they had things well in hand, but that is a matter of interpretation. Even after that scandal, they still took another seven years more to begin issuing replacement for the old 1958 pattern webbing, with the troops receiving it in the 1990s, just in time for Operation Desert Storm.
What they eventually received–a system called “PLCE” (Personal Load-Carrying Equipment)–was and is superb stuff. But some of the troops who received it where teenagers conceived after their equipment was! And a whole “lost generation” of British troops before them were left to schlep around heavy wet canvas with shovels attached to their backs.
* * * *
South Africa started their own saga with almost the same equipment as Britain, but it ended up with stuff far better, partly through good luck, partly desperation, and partly by being the outsider who must make its own way and ends up with something unique and brilliant. We will continue our series there, with the reasons that where Britain flopped, South Africa shone.
Here at Lean, Solid Dogs, we think a lot about backpacking in hot, arid landscapes, and we’re always seeking wisdom for dry heat from neglected corners of world.
Why? Because of a cosmic joke. Even though my ancestors and I lived in foggy, damp, northerly climes ever since hominids left Africa, fate has resettled me in the bone dry, scorching hot western US interior. My genes think we’re wearing bear skins in a German forest, but my ass is cooking in sun-baked chaparral.
But what am I going to do, waste my life playing video games in the A/C? Hell no, I must romp around outdoors—rucking is not optional for me.
So I learn from people with experience in hot savannas and arid hills. Especially relative late-comers who adapted successfully. Americans and Brits have learned a lot about deserts in the last 80 years. But we also have some other teachers out there too, who have worked within their own distinct traditions.
Certainly Israel qualifies. Half of their country is desert. ‘Nuff said. Besides, despite close ties with the US, the Israeli army is absolutely unique in many ways and the very opposite of an epigone of any foreign military advisors.
Then comes France. Though the Land of the Gauls is not a desert environment, since Napoleon’s time French troops have romped very actively around North Africa, and even today they are intimately involved in Djibouti and Chad. With a distinct military tradition of her own, France diverged from Anglo-American practice almost as sharply as it is possible for a Western European country to do. (OK, Switzerland and Sweden diverged even more, but they are not exactly princes of the desert.) And France invented the awesome, light canvas boots that Israel later adopted!
And the Chinese can probably offer lessons about desert operations. Their military interest in “the Great Northwest” (e.g. Xinjiang) and Inner Mongolia goes back several continuous centuries, and the PLA has been upgrading its desert forces. And it exemplifies a lot of the qualities that make for ingenuity, like outsider independence.
And then there’s … South Africa?
I never associated South Africa with “desert warfare”—a phrase that conjures images of T.E. Lawrence with Bedouins and scimitars in the shifting Arabian sands. But South Africa includes three deserts and plenty of other arid terrain that many groups have trekked and fought over. Moreover, in the 20thcentury alone, South Africans found themselves fighting the Boer War, both World Wars, the Rhodesian Bush War, the Mozambican Civil War, the Natal Civil War, and the South African Border War (plus some others) and operated on desert/arid terrain in the Cape, Natal, Botswana, Rhodesia/Zimbabwe, Zambia, Mozambique, and Namibia, and also in Egypt and Libya against the Axis.
Those are some dry places, my friends. South Africa itself gets only half the global average of rainfall, and the main theater for the Border War, Namibia, is the driest country in sub-Saharan Africa.
Even better for us, South Africa remained unique. It never assimilated much into the Anglosphere (at least not for a British dominion) and because it was ostracized for much of the Cold War, it was left to innovate in relative seclusion.
And it did so among a shocking variety of influences: the SADF itself had a British heritage institutionally, but culturally it was overwhelmingly Afrikaans. Though mostly white, it also accepted non-white volunteers. The SADF interacted with its counterparts in Rhodesia and Israel, and it had some support from the US. And it operated in a theater crowded with more players than a Bollywood dance number: not just the immediate neighbors–Angolans, Namibians, Zambians, and Mozambicans–but also their foreign sponsors: the Soviet Union, Cuba, East Germany, China, and North Korea. At one point the SADF even fought head to head against a division-strength Cuban enemy.
That meant that Seventies and Eighties southern Africa became a kind of melting pot and R&D lab for many of the features of 21st-century “small wars” and insurgencies: the rise of roadside bombs; the drawing in of foreign volunteers; the high importance of informants and police work; three-sided wars with multiple insurgencies who also fought each other. South Africa and neighboring Rhodesia became the early experts in counterinsurgency, developing the “fireforce” concept and new vehicles for traveling vast distances with little in the way of secure roads. Mine-resistant troop carriers that can thwart IEDs? South Africa invented those. All those new tanks-on-wheels? South Africa has done that for decades.
And we care about this … why?
Sorry for the history lesson. I’m a professor by trade…
None of this would matter to us at Lean Solid Dogs, where we just ruck and rarely hit IEDs or parachute into gunfights, except for one pivotal trick of fate. South Africa was unique in a very consequential way: They could not rely on air power so they had to start walking a lot.
See, other countries in a predicament like South Africa’s, outnumbered and isolated among hostile neighbors, all do the same thing: they rely on their aircraft. The French did it in Indochina. Israel did it in the Six-Day War and Yom Kippur War, and the Americans in Vietnam, and the Soviet and Western forces again in Afghanistan. Since I don’t have a helicopter, that doesn’t do anything for me.
But unlike those others, South Africa could barely supply its aging air force with spare parts because of the UN embargo, so they flew very sparingly. Lacking the plentiful air support of other Western-style armies, they were forced to compensate with very, very long foot patrols, in dry country under a bright sun.
Paratroopers might walk a parched, sandy Namibian or Angolan landscape for a week or more, carrying all their necessities on their backs. AJ Venter describes 7- to 11-day patrols in Ovamboland (northern Namibia), walking 12+ hours per day in sand and packing about 40kg (88 lbs.). Granger Korff writes of similar patrols in Angola lasting for several weeks with resupply only every five days.
The SADF adapted impressively to this unexpected new reality and changed out a lot of its “soldier systems,” the kit for the individual guys.
For our purposes, what they did was to figure out the bestsystems for their guys to carry stuff on their bodies. With a special view to arid climates. What Sherpas are to high altitude, the SADF made themselves to dry heat.
They proudly filched ideas from both sides of the Iron Curtain, and they invented another so outlandish that it became a science fiction icon.
This is the story of South Africa’s “Pattern 83,” and this is the subject of our new series. Watch this space.
Here at Lean, Solid Dogs, we have previously lamented the problem of finding pants that do not bind active, thick, “plus-sized thighs.” When buying pants off the rack, unless you are shopping for BDUs, then often you must choose between too much room in the waist and not enough room in the thighs.
But it was not always thus. Another, better way was once known to our hardier, more vigorous, manlier forefathers: short shorts. Thirty to forty years ago, when men had over twice the grip strength and sperm count of men today, men had bigger thighs and had the good sense not to cover them with baggy, oversized shorts. It was understood that the proper length of shorts was roughly like so:
If you wear shorts that stop above the swell of your thighs, they can’t bind your thighs, even if they get wet, and no matter how big your thighs are.
This truth was once known to every man in America and informed the design of basketball shorts, wrestling and weightlifting singlets, and military shorts like UDTs and ranger panties.
However, practical is not always presentable. The shorts that work great in a hot yoga class can get you the wrong sort of attention on the street (especially if you’re near sketchy public men’s rooms in municipal parks). You will need something just a little longer if you don’t want to be mistaken for a pride marcher or a catamite.
If you are a thickly thighed outdoorsman who gravitates to cheap surplus gear, you already have ample reason to be thankful to France. With its “almost Juche-like self-reliance” in design and “riens a foudre” (“zero f***s given”) attitude of indifference, France was unafraid to try ideas that looked weird. That’s how we got the GAO shirt, the most underrated hot weather garment in existence, and the stupendously light but tough “bush shoes.”
But wait, because only now do we come to the greatest of France’s gifts. Voilà! The “F1” tropical/desert shorts! These are truly the perfect “dual-purpose” shorts for athletic use and social wear. They are equally at home rucking around in the desert propping up a neo-colonial strongman regime and making droll conversation at the yacht club.
What is so great about F1 shorts? First, they keep you cool. With a 4″ inseam, they are the perfect length: just long enough to keep your thighs from rubbing each other raw when you run, but short enough to vent body heat without looking like a banana hammock.
Second, they are tough. I have surplus pairs made over 30 years ago, and they still look ageless. And though hard to find in the US, if you’re persistent you can find them for $20. And being a plain OD serge herringbone, they do not look military. You can wear them in polite company and not look like a Three Percenter.
Ten years ago, a young entrepreneur with a struggling backpack company wanted publicity photos of real people using his backpacks in rough-and-tumble ways. So he held the first-ever GORUCK Challenge, in which 20 or so hooah weirdos paid good money to sign up for an event of unknown distance carrying backpacks of bricks punctuated by PT beatdowns at the hands of an ex-Green Beret.
People loved the Challenge so much that they wanted more, and entrepreneur and SF vet Jason McCarthy realized that he wasn’t so much in the business of making tough rucksacks as tough ruck beatdown events.
Tomorrow we celebrate the 10th anniversary of Class 001. I don’t know how ready I am. I’ve rucked little in the last two months while healing an injury, and though I’ve been blazing away on the kettlebells in the meantime, I didn’t really know where my aerobic base is right now.
Here’s what I do know:
I’m waaaaaay more experienced now than at my first awesome GORUCK event two years ago. I’ve troubleshot my gear, made friends with the horror of hypothermia, and learned that the emotional/physical lows are soon followed by great highs.
I’ve packed enough peanut butter M&Ms, cashews, and caffeine for a one-man ruck rampage through six counties.
I have great mentors and advisors: Sgt. Šileika, Scott, Griff, I’m looking at you.
And there’s no substitute on earth for this kind of camaraderie.
And finally, I know that I won’t quit. I’ll be back tomorrow, with my shield or on it!
Lean Solid Dogs is honored to present our first guest post by Sgt. Šileika, a kindred “marching philosopher” and my oldest and most reliable mentor in everything related to rucking. I dearly hope that one day he will write a whole autobiography, but the part of his resume that concerns us here is that the good sergeant has logged many, many, many miles on his feet, first as a vagabond-adventurer-pilgrim, then as an infantryman of The Black Watch (Royal Highland Regiment) of Canada serving overseas, and later as a reservist in his homeland of Lithuania.
Sgt. Šileika sent this advice to Lean Solid HQ in response to my recent curiosity about the idea of “third-line” equipment, items that you don’t need to carry attached to your person (the absolutely essential “first-line” gear) or in your ruck (“second-line”) but would still be nice to stash somewhere in the field.
The info is too good to keep to myself, so with the Baltic trail Yoda’s permission, we are publishing it here for the benefit of lean, solid dogs everywhere.
Over years of experimenting with “third line” equipment, I’ve come up with my own “formula” designed for the three most common scenarios:
Scenario 1) You will operate out of a vehicle. In this case, you have lucked out. You can bring all the third-line equipment you want. Pack it in a duffel and leave it in the vehicle. In fact, go ahead and pack a huge steamer trunk if you want. When Theodore Roosevelt embarked on his African safari, he brought leather-bound editions of Shakespeare, Homer, the Bible, Milton, Dante, and 54 other volumes. It didn’t matter, because he wasn’t carrying them all. Personally, I’d have skipped Walter Scott’s sentimental Victorian genre fiction to make room for Carl Jung’s Red Book and a modest kettlebell instead, but it’s immaterial: you can go bonkers on third-line gear provided you’re leaving it in a vehicle.
Scenario 2) You will carry everything into the field on foot, set up your own base camp/staging area, and operate from there. When I was in recce platoon, usually there would be an ORV (objective rendez-vous) prior to the objective itself, and that was where we’d drop kit, and some would stay to man the radios and others of us would continue on to patrol, man the vantage point, or hunt for chantarelles and catch butterflies.
I would carry third-line kit in an ALICE pack or Canadian Pattern 64 pack, and to the top of that I would lash a small pack containing second-line gear. (See image above. It’s grainy, but in the background you can just make out a Pattern 64 with a small Camelbak pack on top.) That way, when we hit the base camp, I could shed the main pack and continue on with the small pack. When we returned, I simply attached the small pack back onto the ALICE/64 pack and carried on. That saved me from repacking things hurriedly, which usually devolved into a frantic goat rope.
Here the general principle is modular packing, so you can shed gear and pick it back up quickly, without fuss. You can drop it and go, then recover it and go, with just one or two clicks of a buckle.
The Pattern 64 and ALICE packs are great for modular packing because of their big external frames: they’re perfect for lashing stuff to. But if you don’t have one, you can just attach your small pack under the bottom of your larger back, where you would traditionally strap your sleeping bag, or you can attach it under the floating lid of a modern pack.
Scenario 3) Surprise! You have to carry extra things! Sometimes you’re just on foot and there won’t be any further base camp/staging area. You’ll be carrying everything, so you’re not bringing any third-line gear to stash along the way. If you’re bringing it at all, you’ll be carrying it the whole time.
But now—surprise!!—you stumble across a pot of leprechaun gold. Are you just going to leave it there and hike back to look for a truck? Hell, no. You have to carry it.
The worst way to haul something heavy or awkward is to actually carry it in your hands. It’s slow, uncomfortable, and fatiguing. And carrying it on your shoulder like a stevedore isn’t much nicer. Instead, if you can somehow put it on your back, the difference will be like night and day.
To prepare for this possibility, you have two options, which I call “pack in a pack” or “partly empty pack.” I go with the first option: inside my small pack, I keep an empty “crunch pack,” some sort of satchel or other carrying device that scrunches down to 1L or less. If I discover buried pirate treasure (which used to happen all the time in Quebec), I fill the satchel and lash it to the top or bottom of my pack.
The second option is cheaper: you just carry an oversized pack, with more room than you need for your gear. If you meet a village full of Smurfs who want to stow away with you, you just expand your pack to its full size and then dump them in on top your field stove. Close up the pack and no one will be the wiser, unless they burst into song.
Being part 2 of my field notes from a glorious 48 hours with my boots on. (Find part 1 here.)
The anguish of my unrecognized comic genius: At one point, the command post radioed our group to make sure that we hadn’t eloped with sasquatches or been eaten by raccoons. In the terse language of the Incident Command System, this came out as “Team Twelve: welfare check?” I wanted to drawl, “Thank you kindly, but we work for a living.” I’m pretty sure they weren’t in a mood for my mirth on a command channel, so I kept the fun to myself. But it hurts to be blessed with talent like mine and not be able to share it with the world. One day… One day search base will see me for the genius that I am!!
Map-reading and cognitive load: Since childhood I’ve loved maps, an unsurprising love for an intellectual, someone who interacts with the world more through concept and abstraction than through his moment-to-moment senses. When you read a map, you encounter the earth through a sort of “God’s-eye view,” taking in at once a panoply of information about the surroundings that far exceed what any one observer on the ground can see. But being a basically unobservant person, I must work hard to reconcile what I see on a map with what my eyes see. If I am in a canyon surrounded by distinctive ridgelines and peaks, then in principle I should be able to find those formations represented on a topographic map and thus find my location, but I’ve found it far harder to do in practice than in theory. Imagine that.
But I keep on practicing, and finally I’ve been succeeding. On this trip I played a game with my hiking buddy: occasionally I tried, in my comical professorial way, to guess our location with just a map and eyeballs and then he checked my guess against GPS or a compass. And … it worked! Pretty consistently!
But fatigue blunts mental acuity. One teammate, Gunny, told me about a mud run he used to organize. Between wall climbs and rope swings, participants had to stop at other stations and solve math problems in their heads and other brain teasers. I would suck at that. When I suck wind, my head gets “thick” and turbid, like the thoughts are wading in knee-deep Jello. During the search I was navigating non-stop for hours in dense, tiring vegetation, and by the end of our assignment I lost 30 IQ points.
What to do about this? I’m sure practice and experience helps: the first time you “grid” a nasty slope of tough foliage, you’re at the steep part of the learning curve. I’m sure the tenth time is a different experience than the first. And it helps to travel as light as possible. As we’ve discussed before on this blog, researchers have quantified how much extra energy you burn by hauling unnecessary pounds. (Especially on the feet—we’ll return to that point soon in our post on French boots.)
However, beyond that, another factor is aerobic conditioning, and that’s squarely in your control. As an erstwhile strength athletes, it pains me to say this but there is no substitute for cardio, and I doubt you can ever have enough cardio, simply because I can’t imagine a time when you couldn’t improve further, or be better prepared for an emergency, just by having a bigger gas tank, better speed, and longer range. Don’t get me wrong—I still love strength, strength is still important, and most people have plenty of “room to grow” and get noticeably stronger with just a small investment in “easy strength” training. But in strength there are some very real points of diminishing returns. One is that, for almost any activity except powerlifting and maybe certain positions in American football, there comes a point when enough strength is enough. As we’ve written here before, Navy researchers found that aspiring SEALs who were too strong in certain events actually fared worse in training. Their explanation? If you’re deadlifting with such focus that you pull triple bodyweight, you’re robbing training time from equally important things like running and swimming and pullups. That is, you’re over-focusing. This brings us to the second point, which is efficiency. It takes almost nothing to train a healthy man to deadlift two “wheels” (225#, about 100kg). From there, it takes only a little more time to pull three wheels (315#). Four wheels takes a lot longer, and five (495#) takes many years. For six, you need several of the following: freakish talent, drugs, good coaching, a willingness to sacrifice your health, and many years of persistence. Each level gets harder, takes longer, and gives you less improvement in exchange for your time. Once you’re at the top of your game, you might spend a year trying to bump up a given lift just 10 pounds. You’ve become a highly specialized athlete and sacrificed lots of other attributes to become a strength specialist.
In my own life, I won’t run into many problems that call for a 500# deadlift. But I often would like the freedom to move farther faster longer and with more surplus energy and mental clarity that comes from a huge aerobic gas tank. And I can maintain a deadlift of close to 400# without thinking about it. That’s enough for a deadlift—for cardio, I don’t think enough is ever enough.
Captain America and “third-line” equipment: Many teammates have introduced me to the idea of what some describe as “first-line” and “second-line” equipment, meaning roughly the stuff that’s so essential that you attach it directly to your body (e.g. in a pocket or a belt pouch) and the stuff that you relegate to your pack. That way, in case you get separated from your pack, you’ve still got the indispensable “must-haves” for staying/getting out of trouble.
But this weekend, a teammate’s example got me thinking about what I guess could be called “third-line” gear, stuff that you can’t schlep around all over the field and probably won’t need—but you’d still like to have options. Normally I keep that kind of “just in case” stuff in my car—tons of water, a hatchet and shovel and knife, ropes, lights, and spare clothes. And that’s great—until I catch a ride to a call in someone else’s car! This other teammate, a lantern-jawed Captain America-type, had a better idea: he showed up at staging with both a pack and an elephant-sized duffel bag that he stashed in the truck. As he told me, “Sometimes you can’t be sure what to bring, so I bring everything.”
This sounds like a good piece of insurance for when I show up at a call and find a situation that’s different from what I expected—which is every blessed time. I always arrive to find weather or terrain or something that’s different from what I expected. And in that moment, I think, “I can get by with my usual boots/gloves/layers/whatever, but I would have brought something specific if I’d known it would be this swampy/parched/dusty/thorny/humid/ drizzly/windy/cold/hot/rocky/slippery.
Food, Non-eating of: I still prefer not to eat much in the field. Over two days I spent about 4000 calories more than I ate, subsisting mostly on milk and pistachios, and it was only late in the second day that I developed more than a casual interest in food. If the keto crowd are right, this means that I’m sufficiently “fat-adapted” to draw my energy directly from fat stores (which I have in plenitude right now). This is a nice perk. Aside from mere convenience, I love being liberated from the alternating hunger and nausea I felt during the Star Course, when I was all sugared up.
Chest rig and dump pouches: At the big search, the chest rig was a dream. As often happens, I suddenly had to start manipulating a bunch of tools at once and clear space in pouches for a second radio and batteries, and the chest rig kept everything in order almost effortlessly. Losing stuff is a thing of the past for me—thank you, chest rig! And I finally I realized what I should be using those thigh pockets for: dump pouches. When somebody thrusts a jumble of spare radio parts into my already full hands just as I need to ruck up and jump on a departing vehicle in a hurry, I can either (a) juggle like a circus clown, (b) lose stuff, (c) drop everything on the ground and start sorting the puzzle pieces while everyone waits there, or (d) use those big thigh pockets as dump pouches and then sort out the whole Rube Goldberg machine when there’s a quiet moment. I’ve tried A through C before, with unimpressive results. But D looks like a winner!