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No Magic?

Once upon a time there lived a herd of reindeer in what is now known as Iceland. Graceful creatures with long, slender legs and a majestic rack of antlers on both the bucks and the does, they would have been considered beautiful had any humans been around to observe them. They loved to run through the forests – which were plentiful in those days – and to eat the lush grass that grew in the many mountain meadows.

But the most amazing thing about these reindeer was the fact that they could perform magic. With a sweep of their antlers, they could paint a rainbow in the air before them; with just a glance they could cause a star burst of colored lights to explode over one’s head. And the most powerful among them, who was their king on account of this power, could cast lightning bolts even from a clear sky.

While the reindeer were delightful creatures who loved to play at startling their friends with a star burst over his head or a burst of popping noises under his nose, these antics were not just for fun. Indeed, they were the most serious sort of military exercise, for the reindeer were plagued by occasional visits from trolls who lived deep below the Earth in the magma chambers of the volcano now known as Grímsvötn.

Every so often – nobody could predict when – the trolls would emerge from their sulfurous lair to eat the reindeer, grilling them over open fires with juniper berry sauce drizzled on top. And so the reindeer lived in fear, always striving to perfect their magic tricks, for it had been foretold that there would someday be a reindeer whose magic was so strong that it would deter the trolls from all future depredations.

Into this world was born a doe with a white coat lacking the brown pigmentation that is natural to reindeer. In spite of this rather unattractive feature, her mother had high hopes for her and thus named her Ultima: The Ultimate One. But the proud mother’s hopes were soon dashed, for the young doe could not perform even the simplest magic trick. No star bursts were forthcoming and, even though Ultima screwed her face up into a grimace of concentration, she could not produce even the slightest popping noise. Little Ultima received an F in every course she took at reindeer school and was put in special classes for the mentally challenged.

Worse yet, as Ultima matured, instead of a matching set of antlers branching out into a multitude of tines, poor Ultima grew only a single horn from the center of her forehead. It did not branch out but grew in on itself like an ingrown toenail, eventually forming an ugly spiral that ended in a sharp point and with an unnatural gold tinge. It was the most hideous thing the reindeer had ever seen!

Uglia they called her; only her mother persisted in calling her by her given name. And sometimes even her own mother would say Uglia, a faux pas that stung Ultima more than all the taunts of her mates.

And Uglia – I mean Ultima – was no good at sports either. The reindeer played a game that millennia later would find its way into human society under the name of lacrosse. But Ultima, with her single pointed horn, was hopelessly inept at ball handling. And neither could she distract her opponents with star bursts or popping noises, which was an integral part of the game, for she could perform no magic.

The hero of the lacrosse team, who sported a massive rack of antlers and who could produce spectacular star bursts and popping noises to make one’s ears ring, was particularly cruel.

“Uglia! Uglia! Uglia!” Jock would chant, prancing around her, “What will you do when the trolls come? Will you scare them away with a star burst? Oh, now I remember, you can’t!”

“Come on, Uglia!” he would sneer, “Let’s see a rainbow! Even just a little one.”

But Ultima would just walk morosely home from reindeer school, her head hung low, trying to ignore his taunts. For she knew it was true: thrust her head about to the left and to the right with all the force that she could muster and yet her spindly horn would not produce even a glimmer of a rainbow. Jock could cast lightning bolts – provided that the sky was overcast and threatening of thunder storms – but poor Ultima could not produce even a little rainbow.

Everybody knew that trolls were afraid of lightning and it was expected that, if Jock could master the art of casting lightning bolts even from clear skies, he would ascend to king. Their current king was old and gray around the muzzle. It took all of his energy to produce a lightning bolt and then his magic was spent for the day. Everybody knew – Jock more than anyone else – that the king was soon for that great pasture land in the sky.

When the young reindeer held their annual Midsummer’s Night Dance, even Ultima’s own mother advised her not to attend.

“You’d best stay home tonight, dear. With that, that deformity on your forehead, no buck will want to dance with you.”

When Ultima insisted on going anyway, her mother suggested rubbing mud into her coat to give it a more natural brown color, but Ultima would have none of it.

“I’m proud of my white coat,” she insisted.

“At least let me rub chalk on your horn. It is the color of the gold that the goblins hoard in their vaults – disgusting!”

But Ultima would have none of that either and so went to the dance unadorned.

Ultima quickly found a corner in the meadow where the dance was being held and from where she could crouch and watch the other reindeer dancing and prancing across the arena. The night air was crisp and clear and there must have been a thousand stars overhead, though this beauty was lost on Ultima, who brooded in the corner, sad and alone.

“Hey Ultima, want to dance?” asked Jock, using her real name for the first time in memory.

Ultima’s face lit up with joy and she rose to her feet and just started to say, “Why yes, thank you,” when he shouted “Not!” and spun around so abruptly that his hooves kicked dirt into her face. Ultima sank back onto her haunches, a tear staining her face.

Ultima left the dance alone and turned towards the 1000-foot cliffs that defined the southern border of the reindeer’s pasture land, fully intending to throw herself off them. What use was it to go on living? It was all over for Ultima; she would never be accepted into reindeer society.

Far underground, in the magma chambers of Grímsvötn, the trolls were getting hungry.

“We’re tired of catching and eating rats and mice,” they grumbled, “We want venison!”

“Soon,” the troll captain replied sternly, “On Midsummer’s Night we will feast. But for now you must wait.”

The troll captain did not see himself so much as a military captain – after all, what defense had the reindeer ever made? – but more as a game manager. He understood that, if he allowed his troops to feast whenever they felt hungry – and trolls were always hungry – they would deplete the reindeer herd to extinction. And so, like any good game manager, he limited their depredations so there would always be at least one breeding pair left alive to restock the troll’s venison supply.

“Remember,” the troll captain told his troops on Midsummer’s Night Eve, “after emerging on the surface, we must quickly form a skirmish line facing south. The reindeer are faster than us but, if we march shoulder-to-shoulder, we can herd them towards the 1000-foot cliffs that define the southern border of their pasture land. From there they can retreat no further and it’s bar-b-que time!”

“Do not tarry,” he ordered sternly, “I shouldn’t have to tell you what happens if we are exposed to sunlight. When dawn approaches, abandon any meat still uncooked and hurry back inside the volcano.”

“The skies appear clear and hopefully that will hold through Midsummer’s Night,” he continued, for it was indeed true that trolls are afraid of lightning and plan their forays above the surface only on starry nights, “If it is overcast, I will postpone the feast until the skies clear.”

“Is there anything else we need to know?”

“I think that is all…”

“Oh, there is one thing,” he added, “The reindeer will try to distract us with star bursts of colored lights and popping noises. Just ignore that.”

“We live inside a volcano,” the trolls reminded their captain, “Are we afraid of colored lights?”

And with that they all burst out laughing, a horrid noise that reverberated through the magma chamber, not at all like the merry laughter of humans, but more like that of hyenas, who are indeed a distant cousin to trolls.

Ultima was standing on the edge of the 1000-foot cliffs, looking into the abyss, when she heard a commotion behind her. The sky was lit with starbursts and there was much popping noise.

“Oh, they’re celebrating,” thought Ultima, and was turning back to her abyss when she heard the neighing. Unlike horses that neigh on a whim, reindeer only do so when they are truly frightened.

“What could it be?” thought Ultima, trotting towards the noise. She quickly saw that she was the only one moving north – everyone else was galloping pell-mell to the south, away from something fearful. Yet Ultima persisted in trotting north, mostly out of curiosity.

A line of trolls walked shoulder-to-shoulder, being careful not to walk too fast or too slow but to stay abreast of one another. Most of the trolls carried war clubs but some did not bother; after all, they expected no resistance from the reindeer. All carried bottles of juniper berry sauce in their tunics.

Ultima caught sight of Jock near the front, though it did not appear that he was providing the reindeer much leadership. His sides were heaving like he was on the verge of a heart attack and his eyes were bugged-out like a frog’s. Something about his eyes told Ultima that he was out of his mind, insane with fear and rage.

Jock ran in circles three times and then charged straight into the troll line. He struck one of the trolls with his antlers and, twisting his head to the left and to the right, in a shower of rainbows, he disemboweled the soldier. Intestines went flying as Jock continued to twist and stamp, even after the troll was down.

The troll’s comrades to either side of him in their skirmish line quickly closed on Jock’s flanks, pummeling him with their clubs. They were too slow to save their comrade, but it was soon over for Jock, his back and ribs broken under the heavy blows.

“So, the trolls are not immune to physical assault,” Ultima observed coolly, assessing the situation from the vantage point she had taken.

But when she tried to advance, she realized that her own sides were heaving just as Jock’s had been, and her hooves felt as though they were weighted down with heavy stones.

“I must calm myself,” Ultima thought, “I must wait for the fear to pass before I attack.”

But, on reflection, she realized that, if she waited for the fear to pass, she would wait forever.

“Fearlessness is not the same thing as courage,” she reasoned, “Courage is advancing in spite of the fear.”

And so Ultima advanced, but not hey-diddle-diddle, straight-up-the-middle as Jock had done.

“Madness is not the same thing as courage,” she reasoned, recalling Jock’s frog-like eyes, “Courage requires retaining the wit to maneuver – to know where and when to attack.

“Flank a skirmish line. Jock failed because he was immediately beset on three sides; but if I attack the troll’s flank, then I will only have to deal with one troll at a time.”

Suddenly, out of a clear sky, there was a flash of lightning that struck the troll captain, knocking him flat on his back. There was a wisp of smoke from his singed chest hairs and a bizarre zigzag pattern of burns in the grass around him. He did not move another muscle. The troll captain was dead!

The troll’s advance immediately halted and the trolls stood looking nervously around, first to the sky and then to their dead captain. Even from a distance, Ultima could see that they had the slack look to their faces of those who have been knocked unconscious but haven’t fallen down yet.

But then a lieutenant jumped onto a birch stump and began shouting orders and gesturing. Ultima could not understand the guttural trollish language, but it was clear that the lieutenant was taking command. A few of the trolls turned and faced south again and, second-by-second, Ultima could see the slackness leaving the faces of the troops as their feeble minds kicked back into gear.

“Follow up a sniper attack with close assault,” Ultima reasoned, “There is not a second to spare before they regain cohesion and the king’s lightning bolt is for naught.”

Ultima felt as though she were in a nightmare, running through quicksand. But the dim-witted trolls, still recovering from the shock of their captain’s death, moved even slower, always just a little too late to check the thrusts of her horn or the kicks of her hooves.

The other reindeer did not think Ultima was running through quicksand. What they saw was a white reindeer in a blur of motion, almost too fast for the eye to follow, her golden rapier-like horn flashing in the moonlight.

Ultima enfiladed the troll skirmish line, knocking down one troll after another. Fists and clubs flailed, but always a fraction of a second too late.

The troll’s war clubs held no fear for Ultima.

“Their weapons are really a disadvantage,” she reasoned, “An unarmed troll might punch me with his left fist or his right fist, kick me with either foot or bite me, but what can a troll with a club do? Raise it over his right shoulder and then bring it down in a 45° arc. So predictable!”

“Run!” shouted the troll lieutenant, staggering to his feet covered in blood from where he’d been gored, “Retreat! Back to the volcano! It’s all over for us!”

The reindeer gaped at a sight they had never seen before: the back of a troll.

Cheers erupted and immediately there were calls to make Ultima their queen. The prophecy had come true! Ultima had performed magic that would deter all future troll depredations.

“But I didn’t do it alone,” Ultima protested, “Stand-off weapons that can accurately hit a point target are essential to throw the enemy into disarray AND shock troops that can overrun an enemy in disarray are essential. Combining two disparate weapon systems does not just make one more versatile; it is what wins battles while the use of only one, no matter how well chosen, does not bring victory.”

“Well spoken!” exclaimed the king of the reindeer, handing his crown to Ultima.

And so Ultima became the queen of all reindeerdom; not because she could do magic, but because she was magic. Wisdom, you know, is magic – the most powerful kind of magic.

That was thousands of years ago. Since then, the reindeer have forgotten how to perform magic – star bursts and rainbows no longer interest them – and, during the Middle Ages, the humans took control of Iceland, bringing their sheep with them, which eventually reduced Iceland to a cold, barren desert.

The trolls have not been seen since that fateful day. But they are not extinct. They catch and eat rats and mice inside their volcano and grumble to their captain of their hunger for venison – and for human flesh, which they believe to be even tastier, though none have sampled it.

It is foretold among the reindeer, and now among the humans too, that the trolls will come again. And this time their hunger will be so great that they will overrun the whole world, driving first reindeer and then humans into extinction. There will be no stopping them, unless…

Unless the humans are led by people with the wisdom of Ultima:

  1. Fearlessness is not the same thing as courage; courage is advancing in spite of the fear.

  2. Madness is not the same thing as courage; courage requires retaining the wit to maneuver – to know where and when to attack.

  3. Flank a skirmish line. If you attack across the short axis, then you are immediately beset on three sides; but if you attack down the long axis, then you only have to deal with one enemy unit at a time. Similarly, with guns, you should enfilade the enemy line.

  4. Follow up a sniper attack with close assault; there is not a second to spare before the enemy regains cohesion. If the sniper’s extra training is spent just to deliver a single 175-grain bullet to the enemy’s center of gravity – their source of strength – then it is wasted. Hit their critical vulnerability and then assault their center of gravity.

  5. Combined arms are not the same thing as versatility. They are the temporal maneuver of two weapon systems, like following up a sniper attack with close assault; or the spatial maneuver of two weapon systems, like simultaneously using a SCUD on enemy tanks where they congregate and infantry armed with RPGs where they disperse.

  6. Weapons can be a disadvantage if they make one’s movements predictable. Do not let the tail wag the dog. Just because you have a 1000-yard sniper rifle or a 2500-yard Javelin missile does not mean that it is a good idea to seek out promontories. Let the tactical situation dictate the distance; letting your weapon dictate your tactics makes you predictable.

The single guiding principle of armed conflict is distance. Fight at a distance where your weapon is effective and your opponents’ are ineffective and you can prevail against overwhelming odds, shatteringly-powerful weapons and tack-driving accuracy. That is really all there is to it.

Even when the belligerents’ weapons are comparable, maneuver accomplishes nothing but to maintain control of distance. In (3) above, you are controlling distance – you close with one while keeping the others outside of their weapons’ range until you are done with the first one.

A deer rifle is most effective at ranges of 300 to 500 yards. If civilians never close within the 200-yard maximum range of machine guns and RPGs or stand off farther than the 600-yard minimum range of artillery and air strikes, they can defeat even professional infantry. But lose control of distance for even an instant and defeat is imminent. This is why motorcycles are so important to civilian snipers; distance can change in a matter of seconds and only a motorcycle is fast enough to close in or withdraw from enemy troops.

What is the single worst tactic for the civilian sniper? Engaging mounted troops from over 600 yards away by firing down the length (the long axis) of a street. The enemy has cannons that, unlike your deer rifle, really are accurate at that range. Also, they have vehicles that can quickly close in on you with machine guns and grenade launchers, which are very dangerous at close range. Thus, by attempting a shot that you will probably miss, you have given the enemy two can’t miss opportunities to kill you. Asymmetry is supposed to work the other way around.

Consider Bruce Lee, here describing “economical footwork,” which he calls the essence of Jeet Kune Do:

The maintaining of the proper fighting distance has a decisive effect on the outcome of fighting. Constant gaining and breaking ground in the effort to obtain the distance which suits you best – to get where you are safe and he isn’t. – Bruce Lee

Take it from Bruce. Whether you are fighting with fists and feet, assault rifles and sniper rifles or cannons and mortars, tactics can be summed up in a single sentence: Get where you are safe and he isn’t.