Top Ten War Movies

Update: Ace-alanche! (Sorta, DinT put it up after I begged)

I hope you morons will take a look around. The EFP post was popular.

The Exurban League, via The Sporting News, has a list of the 25 movies that make men cry. I’m not going to go down that road, but it did get me thinking about this: What are the Top Ten War Movies? I’ll give you a list, but by all means, let us hear YOUR nominations.

In no particular order:

  1. Apocalypse Now
  2. Blackhawk Down
  3. Hamburger Hill
  4. Full Metal Jacket (if only for Private Pyle)
  5. Saving Private Ryan
  6. The Longest Day
  7. A Bridge Too Far
  8. The Bridges of Toko-Ri
  9. Patton
  10. Gettysburg

Readers may note a bias towards WWII and later in my list. So sue me? Got a better idea? Here’s your chance to be heard.


Honorable Mention? Stripes. I always used to joke that it was the most realistic war movie ever.

Heat Rounds and Sabots

We’ve covered Explosively Formed Projectiles here. EFPs however, are a relatively small slice of the anti-armor pie. Far more common are the HEAT round and the Sabot.

HEAT stands for High Explosive Anti Tank. HEAT rounds are also known as “shaped charges”.  Just using high explosives doesn’t do much to penetrate armor. By shaping the explosives in an inverted cone, and usually lining this cone with a copper sheath, the explosive effect can be channeled into a very small spot on the target. This superheated jet of fire and molten copper then “burns” through the armor. While this produces only a small hole in the armor, the fire and copper tend to ignite anything inside the vehicle. Military vehicles are stuffed with flammables (people count as flammables)  or explosives, so any penetration of the armor can have devastating consequences.

  1. Ballistic cap
  2. Chamber reduction – to improve the penetrating beam’s characteristic
  3. Inverse-cone hollow room, covered with thin metal layer, which the penetrator is built from
  4. Fuse
  5. Explosive combat charge
  6. Piezoelectric bounce-on fuze initializer

The rule of thumb is that a shaped charge can penetrate six times its own diameter. A 4″ warhead, then would notionally penetrate two feet of armor.* This means that relatively small warhead can provide quite a bit of punch. The first common use of shaped charge warheads was in WWII by the “Bazooka”. To this day, we still see small, man portable rocket launchers all over the battlefield. Common examples are the Soviet designed RPG-7 and the US AT-4. Whereas the RPG-7 is a reloadable launcher, the AT-4 is a disposable, one shot weapon.

Anti-tank missiles also almost always have a HEAT warhead. Since the speed of the warhead on impact makes no difference in penetration, relatively slow (hence lightweight) missiles can be used. In US service, both the TOW missile and the Hellfire have HEAT warheads.

But missiles and rockets aren’t the only place HEAT rounds are used. Tanks can also fire HEAT rounds. In fact, one of the reasons why the M-1A1 Abrams tank has a smoothbore main gun is that HEAT rounds work better when they aren’t spinning rapidly. Instead, they use pop-out fins to stabilize the shell. The original 120mm M830 HEAT round looked like a coffee can with a probe attached.

The probe is designed to detonate the warhead at a set distance from the target, giving the hot jet of gasses space to fully form. To close in, and the jet doesn’t form. Too far out, and the jet loses it’s focus.

In the past few years, the M830 was replaced by the M830A1, with a slightly smaller warhead, but with a proximity fuse to allow it to defeat helicopters and other soft targets.

While HEAT rounds are simple and cheap, and fairly effective, there are countermeasures. A simple, low cost countermeasure is the cage, seen here on a Stryker Infantry Carrier Vehicle.

The cage either prevents the fuse from detonating the warhead, or causes the warhead to detonate too far out to be effective. Explosive reactive tiles can be bolted onto the outside of vehicles as well. These explode when hit by a HEAT round and the explosion disrupts the jet of the warhead.Tanks like the Abrams use composite armor with layers of steel and ceramic to defeat HEAT rounds.

Sabot rounds overcome these weaknesses. Sabots, also know as kinetic energy penetrators, use sheer momentum to penetrate armor. In the early days of armored warfare, AP (armor piercing) rounds were solid shot or had a small bursting charge. Basically, they were just big, hardened steel bullets. But as armor grew thicker, AP rounds lost their ability to penetrate armor. The solution was the long rod penetrator. By making the solid shot thinner but longer, the projectile would maintain the same weight while focusing its impact on a smaller area. This improved penetration. To make this thin, dart shaped projectile fit into a cannon, the dart was wrapped in a “sabot” or shoe. These sabots would fall off as the dart left the barrel.

There are no explosive in the dart. Just the energy transferred from the impact will generate enormous amounts of heat as it slices through the targets armor. Also, chips of the dart and the targets own armor are superheated and sprayed inside the target vehicle, setting afire fuel and ammo. This quickly leads to the catastrophic destruction of the target.

The drawback of a sabot round is that it takes a very big gun (like a 105mm or 120mm) to generate the velocity needed to penetrate armor. This means a big vehicle to mount the gun. The trade off here is that while a heat round can be transported easily, tank takes a lot more logistical support.

Also, while sabot rounds have great penetration, they don’t do a lot of damage outside the immediate area of impact. Sabots are of little use in urban combat such as Iraq. Tank crews there are far more likely to use HEAT rounds to engage the enemy.

*When we talk about armor penetration, we are measuring against a benchmark of Rolled Homogeneous Armor or RHA. Different armors will have different protections. Two feet of aluminum won’t provide as much protection as two feet of RHA steel.


When a shell explodes, it isn’t usually the explosion part that gets you. It’s the shapnel. Shrapnel takes its name from Henry Shrapnel, an English artillery officer who invented a bursting shell designed to produce a huge number of deadly fragments.

Many times, pieces of shrapnel are small and loose their speed and energy at relatively short ranges, as little as 5 meters. Sometimes though, you get bigger pieces. They go a little further. For instance:


Flashback to 1989. I’m new to my unit in Germany. We are on the range at Grafenwoehr. I’m wating my turn to shoot and talking with the CO and the First Sergeant, the usual “getting to know you” stuff. We hear a buzz and a “thunk”. Close. REAL Close. A chunk of shrapnel about 11/2″ by 6″ smacked into the ground about four feet away.  Just so you know, shrapnel isn’t supposed to be landing here. It’s a major no-no. My CO absentmindedly bent over to pick it up. The First Sergeant and I were too slow to stop him. It burnt the hell out of his hand.

Turns out that one of the artillery units firing that day had made some sort of error, either in plotting where they were shooting, or in putting too much or too little powder behind the shell. All I know is that the closest I ever came from getting killed by shrapnel was by our own side.

On Tactics and Strategy

Many people have heard the terms tactics and strategy but don’t know exactly what the difference is. In fact, there’s even a level in between that most people haven’t heard of, the “operational art”.

Several folks have asked me to explain why some of the armies of the past have fought on the ground they did and why and how they moved. To understand, we need to understand the tactical, operational, and strategic levels of thinking. We’ll also have later posts that explore geography and terrain from the grunts point of view and from the generals point of view. defines strategy as it pertains to war in part as:

1. In military usage, a distinction is made between strategy and tactics. Strategy is the utilization, during both peace and war, of all of a nation’s forces, through large-scale, long-range planning and development, to ensure security or victory. Tactics deals with the use and deployment of troops in actual combat.

That’s a pretty good definition, but what does it mean in the real world? In the Global War on Terror, our strategy has been to attempt to change the political landscape of the Middle East to introduce democracy, removing the impetus for oppressed people to resort to terrorism. We’ve seen tools such as war, diplomacy, trade, intelligence sharing and information operations used to advance this goal. That’s the strategic arena that the Army is working in.

When the decision was made to invade Iraq, that was executed at the operational level of the art of warfare. Decisions about how to defeat the enemy included plans to form a giant pincer movement with a force to the south of Iraq driving north through the Tigris Euphrates River valley, and forces in the north attacking out of Turkey to trap the Iraqi forces and prevent them from fleeing. That’s the operational level at work. In the end, Turkey denied US forces the ability to attack from the north, meaning the attack had to proceed on a single main axis. Military operations at the operational level are influence by factors such as local political climate (see Turkey above), logistics ( you have to be able to supply your forces), and local terrain (the desert is wide open, but there are relatively few routes that are actually passable to vehicles.

The movement of formations to fulfill the operational objective are tactical. As a rule of thumb, anything done by a Corps or below, is tactical. In fact, when you get to the smaller units such as companies, platoons and squads, they tend to fall under the heading of “tactics, techniques and procedures”, or for a “canned” response to a situation that pops up, a “battle drill”.

A prime example of a tactic is the Holding Attack. If you can do a holding attack, you’ve mastered about 90% of tactics. And a holding attack is pretty simple. One unit pins the enemy in place (this is called the “base of fire”) while another moves to attack the enemy in the flank.

In Desert Storm, we saw a massive Holding Attack. The Marines and most of the Arab allied units attacked from Saudi Arabia straight north into Kuwait, pinning the Iraqi Army in place (it’s hard to run when people are shooting at you). While they were pinned in place, the VII Corps of the Army swung wide out to the west in what GEN Schwarzkopf called “The Hail Mary”. In fact, it was just a huge flank attack.

Here’s the elegant thing- much like a Russian matrushka doll, inside this giant holding attack, each unit was making it’s own holding attack. If you look in the south, the Arab allies pinned the frontline Iraqi forces in place while the Marines made a shallow flanking movement to the west to hit the first set of reserves. This “attack inside an attack” can go all the way down to the squad level.

And it doesn’t just work in the attack. A good defense would work the same way, with one element slowing the enemy in a position while a second attack from the flank. The Battle of the Bulge saw this when Patton’s Third Army came north and attacked the souther German flank.

Now you know the basic levels of military theory, and have a firm grasp of tactics. Unfortunately, this is all easier said than done, or we’d all be generals. I’m working on giving a lesson or two on terrain soon, just as soon as I can find a map.

Recruiting and Waivers

My last job in the Army was as a recruiter. The news for the last 7 years has often looked at the recruiting numbers of the Army and the other services, parsing them to spot trends toward a broken force. Some on the left are hoping to see the numbers fall and like to scare folks by saying that we’ll soon have a draft. Um, no. That’s the last thing the Army or the other branches want. The other theme often bandied about is that the quality of the services are falling. You can expect to see this news touted to support that view.

Let me give you a little background on waivers. Every person who joins the Army must be physically, mentally and morally fit for service. Finding people willing to join the Army was never a problem. Finding people that met those three criteria was the challenge. Something as small as a patch of psoriasis could be enough to disqualify someone physically, and whether they could receive a waiver was always a big question. As a recruiter, I had no influence on the physicians who reviewed the waiver applications. The mental qualifications were a kind of complicated. Everyone who joins the Army has to pass the ASVAB test. That’s the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery. Many of you may have taken it in high school as a warm up for SATs. What constituted a passing grade depended on your level of education. The test is scored on a curve, and the bottom 32% of the population fail the test. For a long time, people that had only a GED needed to score in the 50 percentile or better just to qualify. Whether we would grant them a waiver depended on how many other GEDs were trying to get in. If my recruiting battalion (which covered all of Indiana and the northern half of Kentucky) had space for 3 GEDs that month, it would generally be first come, first served. The fourth guy (or gal) who showed up with a GED was out of luck. The numbers actually allocated changed from month to month, based on the needs of the Army. This has been relaxed somewhat, both because of the pressing needs of recruitment and because many people now pursue nontraditional high school education, such as home school.

Finally, morally qualified. One of the first questions we asked was “have you ever been arrested, cited, charged, held or convicted of any crime?” I don’t care if charges were dropped, of if it was just a speeding ticket. If you spoke with the police, I needed to know. If there was a criminal history, we’d check it out and go from there. But even if we couldn’t get the prospect to admit to any criminal history, if they wanted to join, we would check police records at the city, county, and state level for every place they lived, worked or went to school for the last three years. Often, applicants would have some sort of record (though they usually told us, first). Let’s take a look at a typical case.

Mike was a high school graduate when I met him. He hadn’t really thought much about the Army, but he quickly became interested in working as a cannon crewmember. He took and passed the ASVAB with no problems. He didn’t appear to have any physical problems and I didn’t think the physical would find any. He did, however admit to a misdemeanor burglary charge. I ran the police checks on Mike and got a surprise. He had been arrested on felony burglary charges. That’s a disqualification right there. The next step was to go to the court and get their records on Mike. Mike’s charge had been reduced to a misdemeanor and he plead no contest. He was “conditionally discharged”, meaning that if he didn’t get into any further trouble with the law for one year, the charge would be dropped. Mike kept his nose clean and in due course, the charge was dropped. But as far as the Army was concerned, he was still disqualified. I had to help Mike apply for a waiver for enlistment. My rule of thumb was to test how bad the guy wanted to join. I would take care of all the Army paperwork, and Mike had to go get everything else, such as letters from his neighbors, teachers, clergy (I told him if he didn’t have any clergy, now would be a good time to find some!) and writing an explanation of why he thought he should be given a second chance.

After collecting all the materials for the waiver I sent it to my company commander. He reviewed it for completeness and accuracy, and to ensure that Mike could qualify for a waiver. My CO then sent it to the Battalion Commander, who had to decide to grant or deny the waiver. In this case, the waiver was granted, Mike went on to join the Army, serve his enlistment, and return home to attend college.

One reason more people need waivers these days is that more people are being charges for crimes that in the past, the police would have given a warning or handed them off to their parents. In addition, many crimes that were formerly misdemeanors are now felonies.

When you read or hear stories about how the Army is full of felons and thugs, take that with a grain of salt.

Why you should listen to me…

Sweet! Just got touted by the fine folks at Castle Argghhh! As you read my posts, you may be wondering, “what qualifications does our author have to comment and pontificate on matters of such import?”

Well, none, really. I served twelve years in the Army. My career was not by any  means a spectacular success. But it was varied and interesting. I bounced around from one position to another quite often and had a lot of peeks into many facets of the Army life.

Let me say right now, the sum total of my combat experience consists of riding in the back of a Bradley for four days. I have absolutely no awards for valor. The longest deployment I ever made was only 5 months. I have no special training in strategy, no security clearance to look at intel, few contacts giving me the inside scoop.

What I do have is a deep, abiding love for the US Army as an institution. I am certainly not blind to it’s faults, but looking at the history of the Army, with the attendant highs and lows, I am amazed by the number of truly impressive people that have given so much to the service. I mean that in two ways. The young citizen soldier who serves on the front lines, in times of peace, and now, in time of war. People worry about the future of our nation, always bemoaning “kids these days”. I don’t. If you go back and read the letters from the Revolutionary war, they said the same things. We’ve been going downhill for 233 years now-look where its gotten us!

The other folks that have been so impressive to me are the hidden heros. They made their impact not so much on the battlefield, but toiling in relative anonymity in unglamorous staff positions, deciding things like our doctrine (that is, how we fight), how to best organize the Army (you think your business goes through a lot of re-orgs, try tracking 200+ years of re-org charts!), how we equip our forces, and how we train folks. These folks don’t get a parade, and they do get a lot of grief-everyone hates a staff weenie. But without their efforts, we don’t win on the battlefield. I’m not going to put up a lot of posts about the post housing officer, but I do want to look at the roles of people like Gen. Marshall in the pre-WWII days, and the amazing, untold story of how the Army was rebuilt after Vietnam.

A lot of my point here is to make the institution of the Army  more accessible to folks without a military background. I’ve tried to strip away most of the jargon and acronyms so people can understand concepts. By all means, if you have questions, just ask. If I goon the answer, ask again. I’ll keep trying till I get it right.