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Death Ground

Daniel P. Bolger
In Print
Presidio Press, Ballantine Books (1999)

darthfozzywig writes:

I read this one shortly after it came out. It's a must for anyone who wants to understand the need, uses and limitations of infantry in full spectrum operations.

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This entry created 14 June 2008. Last revised on 5 September 2016.

4,129 hits since 13 Jun 2008
©1994-2024 Bill Armintrout
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Death Ground

Today's American Infantry in Battle

Rating: gold star gold star gold star gold star gold star gold star no star no star no star no star (6.40)

360 pages. 14 black-and-white photo pages. Maps. Footnotes. Index. Appendix listing all active-duty infantry battalions (as of 1998).


Prologue: A Few Good Men
1 - Death from Above
2 - Stormbringers
3 - Hell on Wheels
4 - Direct Action
5 - Brave Rifles
6 - Africa Corps
Epologue: The Last Riflemen

This book has been out for quite a while, but it finally floated to the top of my reading pile - and I'm glad it did. And I think it's still relevant.

Bolger (a career army officer) sets out here to write a book specifically about the American infantry. His argument is that the unintended consequences of the 1973 abandonment of the draft have produced a significant improvement in quality, both in terms of motivation and skill. The military has been able to recruit willing volunteers, while also having the freedom to discharge those who didn't make the cut. While previous generations of American infantry were over-reliant on artillery and air support, Bolger contends that the new generation expects (and even seeks) close combat - "death ground," as Sun Tzu called it.

A Few Good Men (p.27):

Commencing in the mid-1980s, all U.S. infantry became elite in nature. Remaining battalions of generic line infantry converted to light or mechanized configurations, each with specialized training and tactics. These joined the existing airborne, air assault, Ranger and Marine types. The ninety-one battalions in the Regular force retain all the ability to tap firepower that characterized their brothers in World War II, Korea, or Vietnam, now complemented by their close-combat will and skill often absent in mass-produced draftee infantry outfits.

The prologue first describes a firefight in Haiti in 1994, between a Marine foot patrol and Haitian military police. In an amazingly one-sided affair, the Haitian police from the cover of a headquarters building attempt to open fire on a line of U.S. Marines in the street below - but the Marines open fire before the Haitians can finish drawing their weapons. The author uses this combat example to document his case for the quality of modern American infantry, and explains the recent history of infantry development.

The rest of the book is spent exploring the different types of American infantry. Each chapter leads with a combat example, then analyzes the fight to show the particular strengths and weaknesses of each infantry type.

Hell on Wheels (p.140):

Floor one was now empty. Might as well start on the rest, thought Stempniak. He motioned his lead team up the central stairwell, determined to clean out the hard-core characters up top. Garza nodded and the squad went topside, using the noise of enemy shooting and explosions to muffle their footfalls. Even with the echoes and all the commotion outside, they could tell that the AK fire was coming from a room on the right. Garza decided to clear that end first.

The lead fire team moved forward carefully, right shoulders touching the smooth, cool, unfinished wall. They could not tell if anyone was in the first cubicle even though it had no door. The four riflemen lined up along the wall, as in training. While the back pair watched the empty hallway, just in case, the second man kept his muzzle slanted down, ready to swing it up when he rushed in. In front of him, the first man prepared a grenade, yanking off the big pull ring and flipping away the little wire handle clip. (No, you never pull these with your teeth, not if you ever want to chew meat again.) Then the soldier inched his arm forward, wrist around the doorjamb, and let fly.

One thousand, two thousand, three - ka boom!

From a wargamer's viewpoint, the fights described in these chapters are documented with enough information (including maps) to easily turn them into scenarios - and they provide an interesting series of tests to judge any modern rules, to see if the outcomes are as one-sided as most of these were in reality.

The engagements described are:

  • Cap-Haitien 1994 (Marines vs Haitian military police)
  • Tinajitas 1989 (Airborne making a delayed, daylight helicopter assault against Panamanian military in their barracks, with Dignity Battalion support)
  • FOB Cobra 1991 (Air Assault attacking an Iraqi fortified position during the Gulf War)
  • Al Mutlaa Police Post 1991 - (Mechanized assault on Iraqis defending a former Kuwaiti police complex)
  • Microwave Tower Raid 1991 - (Major raid by the Marines against a communications center in the Gulf War)
  • Mogadishu 1991 - (Light infantry comes to the assistance of the Rangers, as depicted in Black Hawk Down)
  • Monrovia 1996 - (Marines defend the embassy during civil strife in an African country)
  • Ras Al Khafji, 1991 - (Marine recon teams stay behind as Iraqis overrun a Saudi Arabian outpost)

Bolger's conclusions about the different troop types' capabilities will no doubt be controversial - and in many cases, difficult to replicate using most wargaming rules. For instance, he rates Light Infantry as generally better tactically than Airborne and Air Assault, essentially because Airborne and Air Assault spend more time training for their unique specialties. He prefers the large Marine platoons over the smaller army organization - particularly the Mechanized platoons. Most interestingly, while he fairly criticizes the Rangers for errors at Mogadishu, he also accepts that the nature of their specialty - raiding - is always high risk.

With his final chapter, the author again leads with a final combat example, then provides his forecasts and concerns for the future of American infantry. He worries that military planners may have learned the wrong lessons from recent wars, and will emphasize airpower while further curtailing infantry resources. He identifies the Mechanized infantry as an endangered species, and worries that Korea is too thinly protected with insufficient immediate reserves. He critiques the "Starship Trooper" upgrade program as impractical, wonders how long the Bradley can serve without being replaced, and feels the Pentagon is retrogressing with recruitment changes. But mostly, Bolger worries that the planners aren't making provision for sufficient infantry.

The Last Riflemen (pp.325):

The most serious peril in this increasingly elite, decreasingly numerous American infantry equation involves the one factor we can never control: the enemy. Our potential foes do not have big air forces or decent navies. But they definitely have sizable armies. Many states employ able infantry in large numbers, backed by lots of artillery, tanks, and the like. They do not have to worry about transoceanic deployment or sending bullets instead of men. They just have to concern themselves about winning, and the blood debt for victory may not be an issue.

Reviewed by Personal logo Editor in Chief Bill The Editor of TMP Fezian.