School of Sand
By Sgt. 1st Class John K. D'Amato
119th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment
*Originally published in the inaugural Spring 1991 issue
Download the PDF
Military experts call it a “target-rich environment.”
Battles fought across its barren,
trackless terrain have been characterized by
their speed and lethality. It has no friend, no conqueror,
and no equal. It is unforgiving and allows for
no mistakes. It recognizes no middle ground — only
complete victory or complete defeat.
It is “The Desert,” and if the American Army is to be
successful in the deserts of the Persian Gulf, its leaders
must learn the lessons of the desert and learn them well.
Fortunately for NCOs in the Gulf region and for those
awaiting deployment, there are thousands of desert war
lessons learned — from the time of the battle of Carrhae
in 54 B.C. to those from Desert Storm.
Hundreds of simulated battles at the National Training
Center (NTC) and other desert training areas point
clearly to areas where noncommissioned officers (NCOs)
need to place training emphasis.
Lack of vegetation and prominent terrain features in
the desert make pinpointing
one’s position extremely difficult,
even during daylight hours. NCOs must train their
Soldiers to use their compasses, to accurately measure
distances traveled, and to navigate in a land nearly void
of man-made and natural terrain features.
Experience gained at the NTC has shown that,
although their map-reading skills are adequate for
the training areas near their home bases,
Soldiers in the desert may either become
disoriented or be forced to hug the roads
and dry streambeds for fear of getting lost.
Many units now have more sophisticated
land navigation or location determination
equipment than the standard compass and
map can provide.
Unfortunately, the Soldiers of such
units sometimes become too reliant on
these means and allow their map reading
skills to slip. Satellite links, electronic or
other equipment can be lost in battle or
unavailable, and overdependence on any
one method of land navigation or location
identification system can lead to disaster.
The best-led Soldiers are those who can use
available systems, such as the Position Azimuth Determining System, yet fall back on sound map
reading skills when necessary.
If land navigation in daylight is difficult, it’s worse at
night. There are dozens of stories out of the NTC of units
stumbling through the night, missing rallying points or
objectives, and finding themselves with tired, demoralized,
and lost Soldiers at daylight.
Night is when most units move. NCOs, therefore, must
know that their Soldiers can operate in near or total darkness.
Newcomers to the desert often say it seems that they
can “see forever.” More experienced Soldiers might describe
it as seeing the world through a full goldfish bowl.
Objects seem closer than they are, shapes distort, and
important terrain features disappear entirely.
The shimmer of heat on sand creates mirages of
water or hills in the distance. There are accounts from
World War II of lost Soldiers walking for days toward
mountains that did not exist.
Dust also impacts on observation. It can, at the same
time, obscure movements and give them away.
Crew-served weapons, especially field artillery
and tank main guns, tend to kick up huge clouds of
dust, blinding the crews and equipment trying to put
follow-on rounds on target.
Taking a page from the German Afrika Korps or
the British Desert Rats in World War II, some NCOs operating in Desert Storm have their troops limit the
dust clouds by laying down wet mats or oil in the sand in
front of their big guns. Another way crews are overcoming
the siting problem is to have one vehicle fire and
another sense where rounds are impacting.
The Kuwaiti and Saudi sands effect far more than siting,
however. With sand temperatures reaching 165 degrees,
rubber weakens, wood shrinks, and metal softens and
bends. To those units slow to adapt to their new environment,
the desert soon becomes a maintenance nightmare.
Sand mixed with lubricating oil forms a thick, gritty
paste that fouls weapons.
A little sand inside radio cable connectors causes operators
to force and break them. Filters clog and engines
stop. Tires weaken and puncture easily in rough terrain.
Proper equipment maintenance is an NCO’s responsibility,
and breakdowns of vehicles, weapons, radios and other
electronic equipment in the desert are often more a function
of inadequate Soldier training than poor equipment.
Whether it’s in the Saudi desert or in the rugged terrain
of the NTC, smart NCOs devote a good portion of each
day training and supervising maintenance. And the wisest
of leaders are calling in the experts — the armorer, motor
maintenance and communications NCOs, etc. — to doubly
ensure that training and maintenance are by the book.
Breakdowns will occur, however, so there have been
times when Soldiers have become stranded. To minimize
problems NCOs have learned to expand the buddy
system so there are extra safety checks before and during
movements. And to limit injuries, Soldiers are receiving
reinforcement training in survival and rescue techniques.
Heat is the most obvious and immediate physical
danger in a desert environment. During World War II,
air temperatures in the Sahara Desert often reached 136
degrees Fahrenheit. Inside their tanks crews recorded
temperatures of 160 degrees.
Soldiers in all desert wars have gone
without hats and shirts in the mid-day sun,
thus losing valuable cooling perspiration
and becoming heat stroke victims. Others
have fallen victim to dehydration when they
didn’t force themselves to drink at regular
intervals. Both are problems that can be
attributed to lack of NCO supervision.
Another problem identified by the study
of past desert wars is the effect of poor
hygiene and sanitation. Diarrhea from
fungus infections and debilitating rashes
have severely limited the capabilities of
numerous desert armies. Yet, both are easily
controllable through leader supervision and
awareness. For example, even when water
is unavailable, Soldiers can diminish the
chances of infections by wiping away perspiration
and dirt with clean, dry cloths.
The war in the desert is often described as a “war of
water,” with victory going to the side that conserves and
uses its available water wisely. The British Desert Rats of
World War II became masters of water conservation. As
standard practice, water used to heat rations was then
used to wash clothes and finally poured into vehicle
cooling systems or used for vehicle decontamination.
Lack of water threatens the life of every living thing in
the desert, but the dangers there are not all physical.
“An oppressive feeling of immense loneliness overcomes
everyone more or less frequently in the desert,
a feeling that one is cut off from everything one holds
dear,” wrote World War II veteran, German Generalmajor
Alfred Toppe. Leaders, according to Toppe, “must
recognize such moods and depressions and offer sincere
encouragement so that pressure will disappear.”
Experience has shown that NCOs who keep their Soldiers
informed about what is happening or what is about to
happen, and show genuine concern, have far fewer soldier
morale problems and can keep their troops motivated.
Training, always important, can serve the double purpose
of filling empty hours while honing soldier skills.
The greatest fear of any Soldier is the fear of the unknown.
NCOs can help Soldiers face and overcome those
fears through training and counseling.
The “encouragement” Toppe mentions is especially
important. The 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault)
recognized this early in its deployment to the Gulf and
instructed leaders to “continue to counsel Soldiers.
Everybody is somewhat new to this (desert warfare). Let
them know how well they are doing, what they could
American Soldiers historically fight longer and harder
when they know why they’re fighting and what is happening
around them. The more battle information they have, the
more informed choices they make and the more initiative
they take. In the desert “keeping Soldiers informed” ranks as
one of the most critical principles of NCO leadership.
Long before hostilities erupted in the Gulf, Army
NCOs were finding that they had more than the Iraqi
Armed Forces to contend with. They learned that the
desert, with its temperature extremes, barren wastes and
desolate loneliness is a formidable adversary, as well.
The Nafud, Ad Dahna and Rub Al Khali deserts of
Saudi Arabia will continue to teach that preparedness is
the key to survival. NCOs new to the desert environment
must become adept students, learning from the experiences
of others to avoid making fatal mistakes.
But those NCOs who’ve become graduates of the
“desert school of hard knocks,” either through prior
training or during the Desert Shield phase of Operation
Desert Storm have an advantage they must share — by
evaluating their experiences then training and informing
others of the lessons learned.
Back to Top