The most annoying person in the world is the write-only device. You know that guy: he never shuts up, yammering on and on, and never stopping to listen, only to take a breath. As you might expect, that habit which makes everyone want to kill him in a peacetime classroom or office, makes it easy for the enemy to literally kill him in combat.
There is much to be said about stealth and silence. The first thing that we will say is this: truly silent motion across terrain is not possible. It is an ideal for which you must strive, but even Mark Twain recognized it as nothing but a literary convention, when he was beating the defenseless James Fenimore Cooper senseless in a battle of wits:
Another stage-property that he pulled out of his box pretty frequently was the broken twig. He prized his broken twig above all the rest of his effects, and worked it the hardest. It is a restful chapter in any book of his when somebody doesn’t step on a dry twig and alarm all the reds and whites for two hundred yards around. Every time a Cooper person is in peril, and absolute silence is worth four dollars a minute, he is sure to step on a dry twig. There may be a hundred other handier things to step on, but that wouldn’t satisfy Cooper. Cooper requires him to turn out and find a dry twig; and if he can’t do it, go and borrow one. In fact, the Leatherstocking Series ought to have been called the Broken Twig Series.
It was always a Cooper white man who broke the twig, because Indians were born to patient stealth, at least in his universe. (Cooper, one must remember, was no frontiersman, but a cashiered Naval Academy midshipman). The Indian, in fact, was no more capable of silent movement than a ninja, an SF soldier, or you.
It was a crushing disappointment to learn that we would not, in SFQC, learn the Indian ninja art of silent walking on dry oak leaves. Instead, however, we learned something more practically useful: how to be quieter than the other guy, and as quiet as we needed to be.
If silent movement is not possible — and it isn’t, if your enemy can’t hear you, his dogs, with their superhuman hearing, can — then moving stealthily at night requires several things:
- Masking local noise with background noise;
- Altering the kinds of noise to attenuate sound travel; and,
- Periodic listening halts.
The first two are fairly obvious: you can move much more rapidly without giving yourself away when a train is passing by, and high-pitched sounds travel poorly. (You do need to bear in mind that sound travels differently in different atmospheric conditions). The most complicated of those three principles of night movement to apply is the periodic listening halt.
Immediately after inserting, assembly, or crossing a danger area (of which more in some subsequent article), the patrol or team must conduct an initial listening security halt. While the details of the halt may vary, something like this works:
- Freeze in place.
- Remain there for five full minutes.
- Maintain 360º security.
- Actively listen the whole time.
- After five minutes, make a decision: move, or continue listening?
Why five minutes? You can change that time if you like, but it’s a good minimum because it’s quite a long time to be frozen in one place. Even a patient enemy, who stops when you do, will move and give his existence and position away before five minutes is up.
Active listening? That means concentrating on listening. You’re not only listening for the enemy, but also to develop a mental picture of what normal night sounds in your location are like. What are they like immediately when you stop? If you have been halted for a time, are there animal noises that come back (and that presumably stopped while you were moving)? Knowing this gives you an edge in the woods, compared to someone who doesn’t.
After the initial halt, the element leader must have a way to silently signal the element to begin moving again. If there is sufficient illumination, hand and arm signals may be effective; if not, touch signals should be used. Only in the most extreme case should a command be verbalized, and then, it should be whispered (remember, a higher-pitched whisper will travel much more poorly than a normal-pitched vocalized word — which is a good thing in a night full of hostiles).
It goes without saying that all these modes of command and control, and the listening security halts themselves, must be practiced in controlled conditions in garrison before attempting them in the face of an armed enemy. Night combat patrol operations are at the far end of a long crawl-walk-run pipeline; they’re the Boston Marathon of crawl-walk-run.
Animal and bird sounds make both effective stealth command and control means, and also excellent “cover” if you inadvertently make a sound in the possible presence of the enemy. Do a Leatherstocking and break a twig, or snap back a branch? The risk of exposure may be mitigated, if you can fake the snort of a deer or porcine species native to the area.
Once the element is on the move, further listening security halts should be executed at relatively short but variable periods. You can set these by distance or by time; it’s also helpful to be cognizant of terrain. If you have just passed through some stuff that was impossible to be truly quiet in, like dense mountain laurel or the dry leaves of an oak forest in winter, a listening security halt on the far side should be able to reassure you about the prospect of being tracked or tailed. As in all patrol technique, principles are iron but the means of serving those principles are best mixed up so as not to simplify the enemy’s counterpatrol planning.
Don’t be the foot-shufflin’, twig-snappin’, noise-makin’ equivalent of the yammering guy in the first paragraph. On patrol, the silent man comes home; the guy who loves the sound of his own noise dies from it.