DEPUTY'S OBSERVATIONS: Tactics and Attitude
The view from Cootes Hill looking towards Columbus and Fort Furlong: the scene of Poncho Villa’s attack on March 9, 1916. Photographer unknown.
I recently read a historical novel by David Morrell entitled Last Reveille (Warner Books, 1977.) It is the story of Poncho Villa’s attack on Columbus, New Mexico in 1916 and of the resulting punitive expedition after Villa into Mexico led by General “Black Jack” Pershing. World War I was already waging in Europe and the United States was soon to enter it. Besides perusing Poncho Villa to punish him for attacking a town and Army post on U.S. soil, the expedition served to help train and prepare the Army for its coming involvement in the European conflict.
I found this book interesting for several reasons. I have visited Columbus and stood on Cootes Hill in Columbus, looking out across the desert towards Mexico. Interestingly, we were joined on that hilltop by a patrol agent of the U.S. Border Patrol who was watching for a suspect spotted sneaking into our country, just like Poncho Villa’s army did.
But on another level I found the book interesting for its discussion of tactics. Not the tactics of large units of armies, but the tactics of individual warriors.
Last Reveille is the story of a young trooper who reports for his first assignment to the cavalry post Camp Furlong at Columbus the day before Villa’s raid. During the attack his life is saved by an old Army scout, himself a veteran of every conflict and war that the U.S. has been involved in since the Civil War. The young trooper than asks the old scout, who is about to turn 65 and will be forced out of Army’s employ, to teach him the old scout’s “tricks.” The trooper’s baptism under fire has instilled in him the desire to learn the tricks that will help to keep him alive, both on this expedition and when the Army sends him to Europe. What the trooper and scout refer to as “tricks” are commonly referred by us in law enforcement today as “tactics” or “officer survival skills."
Update this story by 80 or 90-years and change the word “horse” to “patrol car” or even what is still called in Detroit, “scout car,” and Mr. Morrell would have a best selling cop-novel to rival those of Joseph Wambaugh. Change the old veteran scout to the veteran patrol officer about to be forced into retirement, passing on a little of what he has learned to his rookie partner. Other than their company commander the old veteran has no friends or family left; they are all dead. Now he only has the rookie to listen to his sage advice and to take up where he is leaving off.
The first trick that the old veteran scout (training officer) demonstrates to the rookie trooper is by directing him to dismount from his horse. To do so the trooper must turn his back on the scout, and when he turns back to face the scout he is looking down the barrel of the scout’s pistol. The scout than shows him how to dismount safely; the scout turns his horse around so that when he dismounts he continues to face the trooper. He than walks around from behind his horse (cover,) and again appears with his sidearm drawn. He instructs the younger trooper to use this trick whenever he must dismount and does not trust the people around him, which is every time he dismounts.
Later the scout discusses the (tactical) advantages of the Colt 1911 semiautomatic pistol, explaining the increased firepower over double action revolvers. He himself was serving in the Philippians fighting the Moro (Muslim extremists) when the new hard-hitting .45ACP pistol was introduced. But in the very same breath he draws his concealed hide-out weapon, an old .45 Colt Peacemaker. He coaches the rookie to always carry an extra pistol even though he will have to keep the unauthorized weapon hidden from his sergeant. But when the rookie thinks that he will need it he should retrieve it from his saddle bag and carry it on him, and to be ready for the unexpected.
Later the rookie trooper and his tricks are put to the test: while riding down an arroyo the column of cavalry is ambushed by Villa’s soldiers. The old scout climbs up the arroyo wall and begins creeping along the top to outflank the ambushers. The old veteran never looks back but waves for the young rookie to follow him. Together they flank their enemy and save the column from the ambush. But the veteran warrior criticizes the rookie for not having his backup gun with him and shooting his semiautomatic pistol empty (out-of-battery reload) instead of reloading a fresh magazine before his pistol was empty. He cautions the rookie for not thinking during the battle; for not using his training and the tricks well enough. He was lucky this time but the next time the old vet might not be there to look after him.
The veteran, the training officer, points out that it not the tricks that will keep the rookie alive as much as him learning to use the tricks, and using them constantly. He points out that it is his attitude that will keep the younger man alive, not the tricks. He must use the tricks constantly and make them second nature for them to do any good. He emphasizes that the younger man must remain calm and never panic, that he must remain ever vigilant and think of the consequences before acting. The veteran tells him to figure on the worst and preplan what to do, and to know his equipment and understand how it was made to be used.
These were the same lessons taught to us in the academy and by our training officers. They are as applicable on our urban streets today as they were in the Mexican desert in 1916, the Philippians villages in 1911 and before. Vigilance, planning and tactics have kept cops and soldiers alive for centuries. Tactics and the proper attitude; in police work, as in life, your attitude is half of the battle. The attitude that you will survive and that you will make the most out of any situation, be it an arrest, a career setback or even a relationship.
As for the old grizzled veteran charging off without even a look to see if the rookie was following him… My old partner Deputy Marshal Phil Ford did the same thing to me once. He pushed past one subject and charged into an apartment when he spotted a fugitive that we were looking for. That had not been our plan and Phil had not signaled me with our code word what he was going to do. Our profession calls for aggressive action and self-confidence and Phil Ford pushed one subject aside and grabbed the man that we were hunting for. And when we got back to our unmarked car he turned and said, “I knew that you’d follow me and watch my back while I was hooking him up. I knew that you’d follow me inside.”
I wasn’t happy that he had made the arrest that way, but I was honored to know that he was confident in me; he knew that I would follow him, wherever that led us.
And our code word… that was one of “our tricks.”
Stay safe, and stay alert.
Author’s note: David Morrell is the author of First Blood (1972), Rambo (First Blood Part II) (1984), Rambo III (1988) and many more fiction and non-fictions books.