Tuesday, July 7, 2009

National Jackass Training Center (UPDATED)

I had heard about Special Forces guys riding horses with the Northern Alliance during the early days of the Afghan war, but I didn't know we were training junior Marines on how to handle pack animals.

For Campbell and Cross, the day with Annie could be a preview of days to come. The two may soon deploy to Afghanistan, where donkeys and mules have been the preferred mode of military transport for centuries -- and remain so.

With the U.S. shifting its focus from the deserts of Iraq to the mountains of Central Asia, this course on pack animals at the Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Training Center has become critical to the new mission.

Opened in 1951 to train troops for Korea, the center -- with its administrative buildings, barracks, corrals and an enormous tent for visiting troops -- is set on 47,000 acres of the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest, where serrated peaks above 10,000 feet are the perfect terrain to teach high-altitude combat skills.

Five donkeys, 24 mules and five sergeant trainers are stationed at the center for the course, which is given eight times a year to Marines, Army soldiers, Navy SEALs and some foreign troops.

Humvees and even helicopters are of limited use in Afghanistan's mountains. There are few roads and the air is thin. But a 1,000-pound mule or 400-pound donkey can easily carry a load one-third its weight -- or more, if necessary.

The weapons of war have changed, but the basics of handling donkeys and mules -- like the sawbuck saddle and packs on Annie -- are not much different from how they were in the time of Genghis Khan.

"It's a very primitive way to carry very modern weapons," said Sgt. Joe Neal, one of the instructors. "But it works."

Here's my favorite part:

On those half a dozen occasions when Annie refused to budge, Campbell and Cross stuck to the dictum drilled into them: Donkeys do not respond well to rough treatment or harsh language.

Sgt. Chad Giles sat on his horse and watched the two 20-year-olds coax and cajole Annie. He urged persistence but admonished against rude language, saying they should talk to her as they would a woman they loved.

So basically the Marine Corps wants you to talk to donkeys precisely the opposite of the way you do junior enlisted.

UPDATE: SNLII reminds me in the comments that there's actually a Field Manual for this (AKO access only).


  1. So they're training them to do pop-centric donkey-handling? Maybe Gentile is on to something after all...

  2. It's all love and hugs around here, man, whether you're talking about the enemy, the civilian populace, or the, uh, livestock.

  3. As a young Marine, I recall a much different use for donkeys in the Tijuana dives frequented by those from Camp Pendleton. I would suggest, however, that metaphorically there might be something akin to COIN theory involved.

  4. For those who don't know, there's actually a FM 3-05.213, "Special Forces Use of Pack Animals."

    I concede that I've actually read it.


  5. SNLII makes an appearance. Nine posts in, and we've already made it!

  6. That donkey FM was mentioned by some SF officers during a conference I attended at Leavenworth. The only people in the room who weren't stunned at the revelation were the doctrine-writers.

  7. Got to be honest with you, though: I 100% did NOT realize that it was written (or revised, rather) in 2004. I figured it was hanging around from the 19th century.

  8. It's actually up on the FAS website as well...


    and on their Secrecy News Blog: http://www.fas.org/blog/secrecy/2007/01/special_forces_use_of_pack_ani.html

    where a commenter suggests additional materials (though it looks like the articles may be about older operations...).

    Jl. of Equine Veterinary Science:
    The Military Mule in the British Army and Indian Army: An Anthology (a review of work by Nicholls, Malins, and MacFetridge) May 2003, vol.23, pp194-197. Illus. refs. and Burma’s Long-eared Paratroops. Vol.21, No. 22. 2001. pp. 519-523. Illus. refs

  9. "Gulliver," not only does it date to 2004, but its very existence became a rhetorical point for Nagl, et al. All we ever heard was, "We can have a FM for donkeys but not for counter-insurgency? We need to update the FM for counter-insurgency."

    Blah blah blah.

    Well, I'll just suggest that the FM on pack animals ended up being more utile to the user than effing FM 3-24, that's for sure.

  10. And as for SNLII making an appearance, you emailed me and asked me to make an appearance. I feel like Paris Hilton.

    Do I get any swag?

  11. While I have your attention, you might like to link to a blog I rather enjoy: http://marilee-inthisworld.blogspot.com/

    I mean, anyone who writes about the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) can't be wrong!

  12. SNLII -- Thanks for the blog suggestion. Adding it, since I can't turn down a request from our first fan.

    Oh, yeah, and you're first on the list when we print t-shirts.