The ground doesn’t lie. Short of teleporting or being a ghost, a human being will leave some evidence of its presence or movement. It is science; tracking is empirical and fact-driven. It is not an abstract, ancient art form.
Those two basic tenants would be drilled into our brains during the week-long combat tracking course with the Scott-Donelan Tracking School.
The tracking skillset first captured my attention (more appropriately my imagination) when I received a reproduction of the 1911 Boy Scouts handbook. In addition to assorted fieldcraft and exciting activities that would likely result in a lawsuit in 2015, the handbook also contained a significant chapter on tracking. After all, Robert Baden Powell (founder of the British Boy Scouts) was a veteran of the Boer War and was familiar with the value of tracking in warfare.
Earlier this year, while doing research on the Rhodesian Bush War, I took a closer look at the applications of tactical tracking and its potential use in modern warfare, particularly small wars. There is a certain romance revolving around the simplicity and universality of tracking as a skillset that spans the centuries and generations of warfare, despite technological advances in warfighting and tactics. Like many others, I placed the skillset and its practitioners high on a pedestal reserved for sage warriors who possessed an enlightened relationship with nature and their surroundings. After reading the exploits of the Rhodesian soldiers in the bush war and Rhodesian tracking manuals, I decided that a tactical tracking course was on my bucket list.
After doing my homework on the multitude of courses available in the U.S., I decided that the Scott-Donelan Tracking School (TSDTS) was just what I was looking for. Founded by former Rhodesian SAS operator and Selous Scout David Scott-Donelan, the school taught the Rhodesian tracking method but also incorporated counter-IED and tactical acuity training to make tracking more potent for the modern warfighter. The team at TSDTS had been instrumental in developing the USMC’s Combat Hunter Program and the more comprehensive Border Hunter curriculum. I set my sights on the weeklong combat tracking course that TSDTS uses to introduce the skill to the Navy Special Warfare, Army Special Forces, MARSOC, and EOD communities.
After a whirlwind adventure across the country, with delayed flights and a long drive through rural Oklahoma, I pulled into the patch of wilderness, where the course was hosted, in the wee hours of a Monday morning. A few hours later, I peeled myself out of my sleeping bag and dragged my uncaffeinated corpse into the camp community hall where the classroom portion of the course would be conducted. Cornelius Nash, a West Point graduate and a seasoned Army intelligence officer, would be our lead instructor. He quickly settled the class and fired up the LCD projector.
He directed our attention to a video featuring a South African game ranger who had discovered a murdered rhino with its horns cut off. The ranger used his tracking skills to reconstruct the crime in a matter of seconds, sweeping his fingers meticulously through the air to portray the scene and point out blood spoor, matted grass, shell casings, and the assassin’s shooting stance. The soft, mouse-like precision of his speech (a hallmark of Rhodesian extraction or parentage) described in Holmesian detail exactly how the deed was done. Cornelius flicked the lights back on and assured us that by the end of the week, we would be able to provide the same level of detail while we conducted “follow-ups” on our quarry (the term used for those a tracker pursues). I shuddered at the insurmountable charge to match this experienced tracker’s skill.
The first several hours were spent in the classroom as we digested the tracking fundamentals at a breakneck pace. Though intense and highly scientific, I was blown away by how interactive the cadre made the lectures — we absorbed the knowledge without noticing the passing time. Cornelius was quick to dispel the most widely held myth about tracking being a “lost art.” Tracking, especially combat tracking, was far from being lost and was still being employed even in the most technologically advanced conflicts.
More importantly, tracking was about science and not art. Intelligence cannot be collected accurately without hard facts and science to back it up. If we wanted to fancy ourselves wise, primitive elders that practiced an ancient art form, we were simply wasting our time.
The classroom portion on the first day focused on the hard science of tracking. We learned how our brains and eyes process visual information so that we could make unbiased judgments about what actually occurred on the ground, rather than let our brains make biased assumptions based on our previous knowledge. We interpreted black-and-white profiles of tracks and were asked to discern what happened in the scene (similar to the game ranger and the rhino).
Initially, the class used words like “maybe,” “looks like,” and “might,” before being corrected by the cadre. He’d say that we could 100 percent prove our assertions based on looking at the ground. The remainder of the afternoon was spent outside in the “spoor pit” where we studied tracks firsthand under the most optimal of conditions, soft dirt. Cornelius’s expectation that we should be able to provide the Holmesian detail of the game rangers and Selous Scouts by week’s end seemed daunting as we struggled to discern tracks in perfect lighting, weather, and medium.
During the course, I started watching AMC’s “Turn,” which tells the story of the Culpepper Spy Ring that provided Washington with intelligence during the American Revolution. The series features Robert Rogers, a loyalist guerilla fighter who the 75th Ranger Regiment claims as an ancestor and father of American Ranging. The character of Roberts is obsessed with tracking, and in one instance is furious with a conventional British soldier who contaminates the scene of an ambush by the Continental Army.
Rogers began rifling off the same tenets that we had been taught during the course: Had he been given access to the scene, he could have determined access routes, the number of men, the planning of the assault, and very well could have determined that it was an American spy that betrayed the British troops. Rogers’s insistence on tracking as a critical skillset for warfighters is immortalized in his standing orders, which live on in those of the modern American Rangers.
The remaining days were spent primarily in the field, with only brief lectures in the morning about more advanced topics (backtracking, counter-IED, tactical acuity, and small-unit tactics). Each field exercise gradually built up our confidence as we moved further away from the comforts of the spoor pit and into the harsh reality of the woods. The cadre intentionally boosted our confidence as the evolutions became more complex, providing teaching points and encouragement from their years of experience. The students split into teams and headed for the woods, where we would take turns being trackers and quarry.
Though on the surface it would appear to be an elaborate and methodical game of hide-n-seek, we were rapidly building our skillset brick by brick. Each venture deeper into the woods taught us to track with greater “economy of movement,” to be silent and preserve the spoor, hone our situational awareness, and move securely as a unit without exposing the team in open terrain. On our second day in the woods, the quarry began using anti-tracker devices (emphasis on tracker– more about anti-tracking later).
Now we would need to blend tactical acuity and tracking skills so that we could pursue the quarry, but do so without walking into an ambush or an anti-personnel device. The cadre reminded us that we would need to use a “sliding scale,” constantly switching between our micro-focus on the minute details/spoor and our macro-view of our surroundings in scanning for potential threats.
“The best tactical trackers have short attention spans,” bellowed one of the cadre in a grave voice that was devoid of sarcasm. “They focus on tracks for just the right amount of time before breaking their concentration and looking up to check the greater environment around them. Then, they look back at the ground with a fresh set of eyes.” He was right.
As we patrolled along a small ridgeline in pursuit of our quarry, I glanced up to scan for possible egress points down the ridge and “track traps” (soft patches of earth that hold clear tracks) that might indicate where the quarry went. I scanned the terrain and the natural choke points. I slowly approached a deer trail between two scrubby trees, where two tracks had been preserved in a patch of fine dirt. My first glance at the narrow pass between the branches came up clean, but as I got closer, I noticed the razor-thin glare of the tripwire that had been set to snare my teammates and me.
The tripwire was nothing more than a training dummy that emitted a loud, repetitive shriek, but the lesson was clear: Tactical acuity and awareness of your surroundings is a matter of life and death in difficult terrain. We carefully brushed back the branches hiding the device before disarming it and documenting the tracks of the quarry that had placed it. Once we caught up to the quarry, we asked them to show us their boots and correctly identified the “insurgent.”
For the remainder of the course, it would be our charge to correctly and empirically identify the specific culprit for each IED placement, weapons cache, and clandestine trail marker. The final exercises covered more terrain, through mediums difficult to track in, and without any verbal communication. Security became more important as we carefully moved through open areas. Potential ambush points were glassed with optics by the flank trackers before the rest of the team moved forward.
I had always relied on convict movies like “Cool Hand Luke” for my knowledge of anti-tracking: brushing up tracks, moving through water, or using roads where no tracks could be preserved. In reality, brushing up tracks only conceals your numbers and leaves an even clearer and more defined trail for your pursuers. Moving through rivers or water allows trackers to run parallel to the river, scanning for the obvious wet tracks that you would leave while exiting the water, speeding up their chase. Several elite military units have approached TSDTS for anti-tracking training, but there is no “anti-tracking” curriculum; one must first learn to track before using methods to hinder the efforts of trackers.
By graduation, the tactical applications of tracking rang clear and true for me: “the ground doesn’t lie.” If the simple, scientific principles are applied correctly, they can be used to apprehend a fleeing insurgent or criminal, gather intelligence about their operations, or identify IEDs and other hazards to friendly forces.
From an intelligence perspective, the truth told in the spoor’s story can be used to critically evaluate an asset’s intentions or the validity of their information: For example, an asset whose tracks intentionally avoid IEDs on the way to a meeting but denies knowledge of their existence is not one to be trusted.
Despite the vast applications of tactical tracking on the modern battlefield, there is still much to be done to bring the skillset and its lessons in tactical acuity to the American warrior ethos.
Editor’s note: This article is courtesy of the Applied Memetics, LLC Blog.