One very important thing American, and NATO, troops learned since September 11, 2001 was how easy it was to train hard in peacetime and still find yourself unprepared for combat. Once more, the troops quickly learned many critical things they had not been taught in peacetime. This was at the cost of many dead and wounded troops. This time, however, most NATO nations sought to follow the example of the United States and document this traumatic process so the next time troops were called upon to fight there would at least be a list of things you had to know to survive in combat, versus the quite different list of things troops are taught during long periods of peace.
The list is long and often embarrassing. For example, in peacetime troops are taught to drive carefully, in order to avoid accidents. But in combat the safest form of driving is fast and, to peacetime sensibilities, reckless. Even if commanders seek to practice “combat driving” in peacetime they do so in the knowledge that after a few bad accidents orders will come down to not drive like that because it causes bad publicity.
It’s a somewhat similar situation with battlefield first aid. It’s difficult to provide many troops with realistic training, especially since it’s harder to train on pigs or goats with the animal welfare zealots constantly trying to sue you into training methods that will get more troops killed in combat.
Another bad habit armies tend to drift into during peacetime is using weapons for training less and less. These things are, after all dangerous and with all the safety precautions and restrictions it is understandable why firing practice is cut and cut until it’s a rare event. But once war breaks out you quickly appreciate why sending troops to the weapons range several times a week is one of those lifesaving things you need to do.
Then there are the Emergency Action Drills. These are the things you do when there is an emergency. You must practice them with the people in your unit, to make sure everyone understands and does it the same way. You must practice these drills a lot until it becomes automatic. When someone new comes into your unit, you have to go through all the drills for them. The drills are varied, ranging from what to do during various situations while on the road, to where the bomb shelters (or trenches) are in your camp. For combat units, these drills are no great shock, as most combat operations are a succession of drills (which are practiced regularly). But for non-combat support troops, these drills are a new experience, and more practice is always useful. Drills save lives. In peacetime there are so many competing demands on troop time that the drills are just abandoned one after another.
Along with learning how to drive like a madman, you have to practice hard so you can change tires like one as well. In combat you will often have to do this under fire, so you must learn to do it quickly. This does two things. First, you learn how long it takes, even when you are in a hurry. This can be a useful bit of information if you are under fire while changing the flat. Second, practicing it forces you to make sure the spare tire is in good shape, and can quickly be reached (along with any tools needed.)
Then you must learn how Mister Grenade can be your friend, even on the crowded streets of a city like Baghdad or Kandahar. If your vehicle has a glove compartment, re-label it as the “grenade compartment.” Carry one smoke, one fragmentation and one tear gas grenade. If you’re stuck in traffic and the situation outside it starting to look dicey, then drop a smoke grenade out the window and try to get moving. You MUST be moving if you drop the tear gas grenade, because you cannot drive through the tears. Most other drivers will give you a wide berth when they see the smoke or tear gas grenade go off. For those who keep coming, with evil intent, the fragmentation grenade may come in handy (it is good for getting at bad people hiding behind something.) Remember, when using grenades, do not touch the pin until the grenade is outside the window. Accidents happen, and having a smoke grenade go off in your vehicle will ruin your day, at the very least.
Troops must also learn how to carefully plan each trip on the roads, especially in areas where the bad guys are particularly active. Remember, the most frequent targets are large convoys of big trucks. So stay off the MSR (Main Supply Route) used by those guys. Give everyone in your convoy a strip map of the coming trip, and make sure the “assistant driver” (the one who takes over if the primary driver is hit) studies the plan as well. Select a route that you feel is least likely to be watched, and attacked by gunmen.
Especially when outside your base, always have your weapon (usually an assault rifle or pistol, or both) with you at all times. Carry as much ammo as you can. In an emergency it will not be enough, but the more the better (14 or more magazines is not unreasonable). Only the stuff you have on you counts, as you may have to get out of your vehicle in a real emergency. Look around, the troops in Iraq and Afghanistan have discovered many clever ways to carry all these magazines.
Always wear you Kevlar helmet, and your armored vest when outside the base. When in the base, always know where your vest and helmet (and weapon) is. Keep the weapon clean.
Practice basic combat operations, like changing magazines. You must take cover when you do this as people who don’t, often get shot. Practice aiming and shooting. Lots of firing ranges were set up in Iraq, Kuwait and Afghanistan, and lots of ammo was provided for practice. We're talking billions of rounds over the last decade.
Practice shooting at long range (800 meters.) While it’s true that most combat is at shorter ranges (under 100-150 meters), you will sometimes find yourselves being shot at by people farther away. In a situation like this, a little practice before hand will pay big dividends. Might even say your life. Think about it.
Make sure your first aid gear, and skills, are always up to snuff. Get extra medical gear if you can, and learn how to use it. The Special Forces medics always get the latest and greatest stuff, so find out what they are using and see if you can scrounge some of it up.
Always be ready to return fire when on the road. Nothing discourages ambushers more, and ruins their aim, than lots of return fire. You might even kill a few of them.
Don’t throw candy to the kids while you are on the road. This just encourages them to get to close, and sometimes get run over. This is bad for the child, and for you as well. The dead kids’ family will come after you. Remember, in areas where you are fighting many families have an AK-47 or other firearm for self-defense.
If you are in a firefight and you wound one of the enemy, don’t let him crawl or limp away to safety. Kill him. These guys are doing holy war and will keep shooting even if wounded. They cannot hurt you if they are dead.
Cars and trucks, unless armored, are not bullet proof. If you are in a firefight, take cover behind concrete or steel. Fighting from behind an unarmored vehicle means you will eventually get shot when you don’t expect to. Indeed, when ambushed and in an unarmored vehicle that cannot move, the best thing to do is get away from that vehicle as soon as possible.
This is only a partial list, which makes it clear that to be successful in combat there is a lot to learn. The above items are but a sample of what you have to know to survive. These tips worked in Afghanistan, Iraq, for many wars in the past and will work again, if you learn these skills in time. But because of the cost, and risk of losing troops and training, this is usually not done.