Sand people always ride single file to hide their numbers…probably.
Ben Kenobi knew that Tusken Raiders couldn’t have destroyed the Jawa sandcrawler because of their cunning tactics. Unlike the Empire, which is happy to scour the desert with a battalion of troopers for stolen plans, Tusken raiders—or “sand people”—don’t want anyone to know how many of them there are. They “always ride in single file to hide their numbers,” the old Jedi reveals in A New Hope. It seems like a commonsense precaution, but does the Tusken adage actually confer an advantage?
The Tuskens of the Star Wars universe are a primitive, nomadic people who traverse the harsh desert sands of Luke Skywalker’s home planet Tatooine. But unlike another nomadic people who simply pack up and move, the Tuskens apparently are concerned enough about concealment that they move a certain way through their environment. Always riding single file does have advantages, unless you don’t want to be tracked.
A single file line formation has been apart of military strategy going back as far as the single lines of men that made up the ancient Greek phalanx. In modern militaries, the single file formation has many advantages, though they are specific ones. According to the FM-10—a field manual for the combat engineer platoon—the file formation is the fastest marching formation and provides very good cover of the platoon’s flanks. It is also the easiest formation for a commanding officer to control, nearly impossible to ambush, and good for moving over difficult terrain. However, noted in the same manuals are warnings. The single file formation does poorly when expecting enemy contact to the front or rear, and soldiers need to keep track of how much space is between them—they are advised to stand far enough apart that one bullet doesn’t kill two men.
If the Tuskens were looking for privacy, always riding in single file would be a bad decision. The US Special Operations Forces Handbook advises a squad of soldiers moving over ground that would show their tracks—such as desert sand—to split up from a single file formation to confuse would-be trackers. The US Army Ranger Handbook says the same. When trying to remain hidden from the enemy, “only in extreme situations should the file [formation] be used.”
If the Tuskens didn’t mind being easily tracked to their camp, the single file formation would actually hide their numbers. In the Marine Corps’ field manual of desert operations, vehicles are specifically advised to “follow the tracks of the preceding vehicle if it is possible to do so without breaking through the crust, as this reduces the possibility of an enemy intelligence analyst to calculate how many vehicles have passed.” Besides hiding the number of vehicles, this tactic also reduces the size of the dust cloud produced by the moving trucks, tanks, and humvees. To avoid giving away the Tuskens, Banthas do the same.
Infantry are told to use Tusken tactics as well. In a Twitter conversation, former Sergeant Alan Leggitt, who served in the US Army’s infantry from 2004-2009, told me that in terrain that would show their tracks—like snow—officers did in fact state that moving in a single file formation would hide the number of soldiers passing through the area.
Former Sergeant Leggitt also noted that all formations are conditional. The single file formation is good for quick movement through rough terrain, but isn’t very good in a firefight. The Stormtroopers that attacked the Jawa sandcrawler —leading to the reveal of the Tusken tactic in the first place—were probably in a wedge formation (like a big “V”), and is why Ben Kenobi could tell the difference in the tracks.
Like any good tactic, the Tusken single file formation only works in the right situation. The single file line is easy to track, considering it led an uber-pissed Anakin Skywalker right to a camp for a slaughter. But if Tuskens were savvy enough to keep moving, the tactic that Kenobi pointed out would really hide their numbers. And the shifting sand would probably cover their tracks anyway, like it is doing to the real-life Mos Espa.
Maybe Tusken raiders scare so easy because they are worried we will discover that they have a decent knowledge of military tactics.
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