For My Daughter
My Dear Collette:
I will begin with the war, for that is what took me from you.
If you hadn't been ten, and if I'd understood war's aftermath better, I might have been able to reveal more of this back then. But no ten-year old should be burdened with this darkness, or witness it; and even describing this to you as a mature and thoughtful 21-year old worries me.
Like most reluctant veterans of combat, I have spoken little of the experience or the aftermath; I finally unburdened myself to your mother after my recuperation—or more accurately, as one of the final steps of my recuperation—but I have said nothing to you, my daughter, for fear that you would find such a distance between my experience and your own that you might look upon me as a stranger.
But now I realize that it isn't the honest recounting of my war experiences which will separate us, but your ignorance of those experiences. For if you don't ever see the war and its aftermath through my eyes, then what can there be between us but unbridgeable distance?
If I had been able to describe combat to you then, you would have heard a fresher, more anguished version. But the passage of time has smoothed and filled some of the memories, and this is what remains.
I apologize for being unable to provide you with a more snap-crackle-pop version. This is the tired version, the one which has replayed in my mind too many times, the one I have grappled with for too long, the one I continue to grapple with from time to time in my sleep.
It began with a practical financial decision; I'd just been laid off in a corporate merger, and by joining the National Guard at 24 years of age—shortly before meeting your mother, and just a year before you were born—I reckoned that the monthly duty would allow me to both pay off my student loans and fulfill my civic obligation.
In those days the National Guard was only called upon in natural or civic disasters, and in a youthful enthusiasm for contributing to society—one I sense you already share—I joined with no reluctance whatsoever.
A taste for solving problems with solutions—for not all problems in life have solutions—had led me to computer security, and the Guard was delighted to make use of my civilian skills. Later, after you were born, the monthly weekend of Guard service which had seemed so brief arrived with burdensome frequency, and I felt a bit guilty leaving your Mom with all the parenting duties while I went off to play soldier.
Since my service had always been part of your life, it needed no explanation; I recall you asking once why other daddies weren't in the National Guard, and me giving you one of my usual convoluted answers. Although I didn't mention it then, since we'd decided that your Mom should not have to work until you went to school, the extra money was welcome.
When my first six-year term was up, you were about to start kindergarten. Your mother was having trouble finding part-time work in the biotech industry, and we concluded that the benefits were worth the weekend of duty; and so I re-enlisted at 30 for another six-year tour. I'd made friends in my unit, and jobs like filling sandbags were both a break from the computer and a practical service to the community and nation—which was part of why I'd joined.
Toward the end of my second six years of service, just after my 35th birthday and your tenth birthday, the world abruptly changed; and as war clouds formed over Mesopotamia, my unit was called up.
Deserts, I reckoned, lacked much variation; but the desert of Mesopotamia was unlike any I knew in the Great American West, for it was barren and featureless in a way I had not imagined. The composition of its surface was another unwelcome revelation; if there is an American desert with such uncommonly tiresome dust, I've missed it. The extreme fineness of Mesopotamia's windblown dust lends itself to a pervasive sort of trespass; it drifted beneath tent flaps, seeped into equipment cases, and clung to sweaty skin in a ubiquity of annoyance.
A colleague had a matrioshka nested Russian doll in her kit, purchased on leave in Odessa; to no one's surprise, she found the dust had worked its way through the seals to the innermost figurine. Working as we did in network security, our work environments were largely insulated from the suffering laid on truck mechanics and infantry, but the dust still managed to permeate our world in a most irksome fashion.
Having walked a bit in Death Valley one May before you were born, I foolishly reckoned myself inured to desert heat; but Mesopotamia soon deposed that illusion. The desolation of the landscape was matched by the enervating permanence of the open-furnace air; shade and night offered shallow relief, but not enough to restore vitality. Humans habituate to virtually any climate, but the relentlessness of the desert's heat and dust worked to reinvigorate our misery at regular intervals.
As a rear-echelon technician, the odds of being shot were low. The risks of a sudden death were certainly present in a low-probability roulette—a helicopter carrying men and women from my unit would be shot down within the first month, and any tent could be struck by a randomly aimed night-time mortar round—but after a few weeks of camp boredom my fears had quieted.
A high fever laid me low just as hostilities began, and in my absence our unit was transferred north along with the great bulk of the American Army. Once the fever broke, I asked to join a supply convoy heading to the general vicinity of my unit, which was safely ensconced behind the rapidly advancing front lines.
The convoy had picked up other wayward soldiers trying to join their units: a chaplain, a Marine corpsman, and a motley assortment of transferees. Our young commanding officer was also National Guard, and had never seen a day of combat. But as this wasn't a combat unit, his lack of experience didn't trouble me. Unit cohesion, so highly valued in war, was entirely missing; most of us had nothing to do with the supply unit and had never laid eyes on our fellow travelers.
As we were chaperoning supplies into what was at least nominally a combat zone, M-16 rifles were scrounged up for the non-infantry among us. I strapped the rifle over my shoulder and wondered in a remote way if it had been cleaned recently, for M-16s were notorious for jamming in dirty environments. It seemed doubtful I would ever find out, as the convoy's route was through territory long since overrun by our forces.
But for reasons which never reached the rank-and-file, our convoy was sent out beyond the rear echelon to the right flank—presumably to re-supply a frontline unit. On the way we saw neither American troops nor the enemy; everyday life had retreated inside, and the only evidence of war was dirty plumes of black smoke on the horizon.
We were ordered to take possession of a circular highway intersection on the edge of a small city. Driving into the circle, we found no activity; the streets were utterly deserted, though the nondescript flat-roofed concrete buildings surrounding the roadway appeared untouched by the war. The convoy pulled to a stop, and the only sound seemed to be the idling engines of our trucks. The heat inside the vehicles can only be described as Death Valley contained, and I was looking forward to being outside, even if the temperature difference was fractional.
With an uncanny suddenness a great shattering roar of rocket-launched grenades and heavy machine guns erupted around us. What little sonic void remained between the rolling-thunder explosions were filled by the staccato pops of AK-47 gunfire. It seemed as if an entire regiment of the enemy was firing on us all at once; it was as if the air itself was being torn apart.
As bullets struck our vehicles—jarringly loud to anyone inside—we leaped out and hugged the pavement, wriggling like overactive worms toward any cover.
Amidst this instinctive rush for shelter, I slithered from the rear of the vehicle and tumbled into a defensive trench which had been dug by the locals beside the circular roadway. There were no enemy soldiers in sight, and with my heart beyond wild I crouched for a moment, trying to gather my wits.
Glancing up, I expected to see many dead or wounded soldiers beside our trucks; but the Guardsmen around me were all shooting at the squat curve of the concrete overpass and the surrounding buildings.
Bullets kicked up dust in front of the trench, and I lowered my head in renewed panic. Images from the Tet Offensive in Vietnam filled my mind, and in mimickry of those embattled urban warriors I clicked my M-16 to semi-automatic and held it above the trench; desperately hoping the gun wouldn't jam, I braced myself and fired aimlessly at the unseen enemy.
My curiosity about the rifle's condition gave way to an immense relief, for squatting in a trench with a jammed gun was suddenly an extremely vivid version of Hell.
The clip went quickly, and in my first non-panic thought I realized my ammunition should be used more wisely. As I set the rifle to single-shot firing, I remembered my own gun, a single-shot .22 which had afforded me many hours of pleasure plinking tin cans in my early teenage years.
You are probably surprised that I once owned a gun, but the reason is simple: in a rural setting, it's natural to own a rifle in a way which it is not in the city. And as a boy, the desire to shoot cans is as natural as an attraction to vehicles and engines and things which whir off at high speed.
I hadn't shot an M-16 since training years before, but the feel of a rifle was not alien to me; the M-16 is basically a high-velocity .22 rifle, and the recoil was not unlike larger caliber rifles I'd fired as a boy.
Despite the many boxes of .22-short ammo I'd expended as a youngster, I had never killed anything but lizards; with the rather detached amusement peculiar to boys of a certain age, my friend and I had shot them repeatedly with a BB gun, all the while marveling at their ability to keep moving after being shot. His mother, horrified by our cruelty, scolded us so sharply that I recall her outrage to this day.
But a mother's outrage is only a temporary brake on boys' genetic propensity for shooting; while we might have been less frolicsome with larger non-reptilian creatures, that is far from certain; we might well have shot mammals with the same sort of detached glee.
My presence in the trench soon attracted unwelcome attention, for I saw the heads of enemy soldiers bobbing above a nearby concrete barricade. My position was precarious, for they had both a clear shot straight down the trench and the relative safety of the concrete barrier.
Seeing that doing nothing would get me shot in short order, in an instinctive desperation I began aiming at anything rising from behind the barrier. One enemy soldier lifted his head up and I fired at him.
In a kind of infantryman's luck, he was crouching in front of one of the overpass's concrete pillars. As a result, I saw my shot chip off concrete dust well above his head. Realizing that my sighting was high, I instinctively calculated how much lower to adjust my aim.
This same soldier leaped up and fired his AK-47 directly at me, and I braced for the impact of his bullets. Instead, the bullets rent the air above my head; he too had overshot. No sooner had he ducked down than he rose up again and fired a burst directly at me. I was close enough to see him well, and his features reminded me of a Turkish friend from college. I could see the dark bands of perspiration on his uniform, and his surprise at missing me.
In a panic of over-correction, I jerked my aim down and squeezed off several shots; with a hard strange relief I watched him shudder as each bullet hit him in the chest. We each had weapons that shot high, and the only reason he was now dead and I remained alive is that I'd had the good fortune to note the defect before him.
A half-dozen rifles suddenly bristled over the barrier, and a hail of bullets began kicking up dirt around me. Edging back to the very rear of the trench, I knew it was only a matter of time before a stray round hit me.
At that moment one of the enemy made a dash from the barrier to another which snaked around by my trench. Once behind that shelter, he could slip within a few feet of me.
I automatically swung my rifle around and fired at him. As he stumbled, I recalled an account of a U.S. Ranger who had survived the grim battle in Somalia; he'd reported of one opponent that it had taken several of the lightweight M-16 bullets "just to get his attention." With that thought firmly in mind, I shot the fallen enemy soldier several times without hesitation. He stopped moving, and I swung my rifle back to the barricade. In a final bit of luck, another soldier raised up to draw a bead on me just as my barrel lined up with his head. I fired, catching him a split second before he squeezed his trigger. His rifle fired a shot into the air as he fell back, and I knew that sort of luck couldn't last.
I realize a non-combatant like you may feel my use of the word "luck" is horribly misplaced, but I am hoping you will understand the terrible finality and randomness of such a setting.
I could have refused to fire a shot, as it is estimated some 10% to 40% of soldiers in combat do, preferring to let the odds of being killed roll without being part of the killing. But when someone is aiming a rifle at your face and pulling the trigger, the urge to do something to stop him is, I think, stronger even than the desire not to kill.
At that moment a burst of gunfire from behind me spattered the barrier, and the enemy soldiers withdrew behind its bulk. Someone grabbed me by the shoulder, and as I jerked in fear I heard the young Commanding Officer—he must have been ten years younger than me— shout, "Come on, buddy." He half-lifted me from the trench and I scurried after him to the line of parked trucks.
The vehicles had all been riddled like the tin cans in my boyhood target practice, and for the first time I took notice of our unenviable tactical position. The barriers and trenches behind the trucks had been cleared of enemy troops, and our unit was clinging to these positions. The enemy was pursuing a classic flanking movement from both sides, trying to encircle us; if they succeeded in working around either flank, they could easily overrun our precarious defenses. There were about 60 of us, and some hundreds of them, so the odds did not favor us.
I was not a good soldier, but I was a dutiful one; when the CO grabbed a very young corporal— I would guess she was about the same age as you are now, 21, or perhaps even younger—the chaplain and myself, and instructed us to stop the flankers trying to work around the barricade, we crept forward and took up a position at the edge of our defensive perimeter.
As we steeled ourselves for a dash across open ground to the contested barrier, I heard our CO shouting into the radio, reporting that we were low on ammunition and about to be overrun, and begging for whatever air cover could be scratched together. Then the chaplain touched my arm and I no longer heard the CO's desperation, for my own displaced all else.
The fury of the firing was unceasing, but after the first few moments, the din which had seemed overpowering to me at first no longer dominated my attention. My focus was now on the ten yards of open dirt between the trucks and the concrete barricade. The CO had promised us suppressing fire for the mad dash, but there were so many enemy soldiers shooting at us that even a partial suppression seemed impossible.
I should mention here that we were severely outgunned; against our lightweight M-16s, all firing single shots to conserve ammunition, the enemy had rocket-propelled grenades, each of which spewed deadly flechettes over an indiscriminately wide area, and heavy machine guns, as well as hundreds of soldiers with AK-47s and apparently unlimited ammunition.
The corporal went first, and I fully expected to see her cut down in the first few seconds. But though the dirt was kicked up by bullets, she tumbled behind the other barrier unharmed.
"I'll cover you," yelled the chaplain, and when he raised up to start shooting, I ran as I have never run before, low and fast and expecting a bullet to find me any second.
In yet another miracle I made it to the barricade, but instead of respite I found the corporal under fire by enemy soldiers crouching behind the other end. The trenches and barriers curved to conform with the circular shape of the overpass, and as a result, opposing sides could each maintain a tenuous hold on one end of the snaking concrete barrier.
Outnumbered at we were, the odds of us holding out in such an exposed position were poor, and it came down to who could shoot whom first. It was an odd thing, to hope that the chaplain was a good shot; and my fears were alleviated when I saw him shoot a man edging down the barrier toward us.
For my part, I took up a prone position and waited for the enemy to advance. It lay with them to do the advancing, and a few moments later three enemy soldiers crept around the slight curve, hoping to find a clear field of fire; but the clear field of fire was mine, and I shot at least one of them before they slipped back behind their end of the low barrier.
The feebleness of our hold on the barricade was easily visible, for an RPG round exploded against the barricade, showering the area in front of us with weirdly whistling shards. The corporal had cleared a trench parallel to our contested barricade, and as she drew up to a position where she could pick off the enemy clumped at the other end, they hesitated and then withdrew.
I should note here that I had never met any of my fellow citizen-soldiers before the previous morning, and now we were depending entirely on each others' training to survive a battle stacked heavily against us. At the time, I only hoped each wouldn't die and leave me even more vulnerable; but the fear that they might fail in their duties dissipated within the first few minutes of the battle.
As the enemy soldiers fled, a heavy machine gun swept over our position, and our future bleakened considerably. The corporal was pinned in the trench to our right, vulnerable to rooftop fire from the surrounding buildings, and the chaplain and I were trapped behind one end of the barrier. It was only a matter of time before an enemy squad crept close enough to lob a grenade behind the barricade, or we were overwhelmed by a sudden rush.
An RPG swept over our head and exploded on the roadway behind us, and we crouched tight against the hot concrete as the resulting shrapnel cut through the air around us. In a sort of instinctive curiosity, I looked back at where the shell had landed, and at that instant another exploded to our left.
I instantly felt a hot stinging in my face and shoulder, and my first thought was a peculiar relief that the wounds did not feel catastrophic, followed by a resurgent fear that perhaps they were yet fatal. That morning I'd seen the body of a teenage boy crumpled alongside the road; he appeared to be resting, as there was no visible wound on him. A medic rolled him over and found that a tiny flechette of shrapnel from an explosion many yards away had severed an artery within him; the wound, when finally exposed, looked like the puncture of a small penknife. Yet the boy was dead.
I quickly felt my neck for any blood and was relieved to find none. There was something wrong with my vision, however, and I automatically closed each eye as a check. My sight appeared normal until I closed my right eye; then it seemed as if I was underwater, for objects around me swam in an unrecognizable blur. Something was wrong with my left eye, but I did not know what.
Sweat trickled down my forehead, and I wiped it away; it was blood, and the amount surprised me, for I did not feel the wound.
The chaplain caught me sitting dumbly and he gazed intently at the left side of my face.
"You're hit," he shouted. "Are you OK?"
I nodded head 'yes,' and a third RPG exploded behind us. Our situation was increasingly untenable, and I thought, This is it, I'm going to die right here. There was a very coarse sense of unreality to the thought, even as it struck me as undeniably true.
The chaplain spotted movement in the building just beyond the corporal's trench, and it soon became clear that snipers were taking up position to pick us off. If we switched to the other side of the barricade we would be swept by the machine gun, but if stayed put then the snipers had clear fields of fire on us.
With no better choice, we gamely took up firing at shattered windows in the upper story of the flat-roofed building, hoping to stave off the inevitable.
At that moment fierce gunfire pocked the upper floor windows, and we swung around to see who was covering us. Our CO must have observed our plight, for a squad had slipped along the elevated roadway and surprised the snipers.
Seeing our chance, the corporal leapt from the trench and frantically waved us to follow her back to our unit's fragile perimeter.
In a lagniappe of good fortune, the roar of a jet engine became audible over the steady staccato of gunfire, and from the relative safety of a more sheltered concrete barrier we glanced skyward to see a gray F-18 lazily circle our small battlezone. The twin tails and exhausts were clearly identifiable, and I knew it had taken off from some distant aircraft carrier, for only the Navy and Marines flew F-18s.
The plane disappeared from view, and I wondered what the pilot had seen in those few seconds. The fear that he had left us abated when the plane swept overhead in a ground-shaking roar, and the buildings across the roadway shattered and burst under its cannons. Such warplanes shoot exploding bullets, which do fearsome damage. Although it sounds terrible now, I was madly hoping that the F-18's guns would kill every enemy soldier.
Racing toward us in a gray sort of invulnerable majesty, a second plane roared over us and riddled the building facades with a hail of exploding shells. Our CO must have been in radio contact with the pilots, for the first plane lined up some distance out and then came straight in, guns winking in the haze, blasting the sniper's nest in a shower of explosions and puffs of concrete dust. His wingman followed suit; then the jets roared off at a seemingly leisurely pace. They were probably low on fuel or out of ammo, I reckoned; and I would have traded any possession or any future hope for a seat in that plane.
With the F-18s blasting from on high, the odds seemed to favor our survival; but with the red wavering glow of their engine exhausts receding, the odds turned back against us.
There was little time to ponder the exact probability, for the CO knelt briefly by the corporal and ordered us to accompany the squad who had covered our retreat into the sniper's nest building. The wisdom of not waiting for the next flanking movement seemed obvious, but with a renewed lump of fear I could only hope the F-18s had cleared the building rather than simply forced the snipers inside to take cover.
The Marine Corpsman—and we were lucky to have one with us, as he was only heading north to join his unit—was working on a gunshot wound in someone's ankle, and the corporal gave me a shove toward him.
The medic was a young man, far younger than me; his face was a comic mask of sweat-streaked dust below his helmet, punctured by red-rimmed eyes and nostrils caked with grime, and with a peculiar recognition I realized we all shared—even the female soldiers in our unit—the same grim, dust-caked anonymity.
He looked me over with the unhardened eyes of a combat virgin and then quickly pressed bandages on my forehead and shoulder. Peering at my eye with a professional curiosity I shall never forget, he wiped the blood from my brow and gingerly taped a bandage over the damaged eye. Then he patted my shoulder and shouted "You're good to go," and a gratitude that will never leave my memory hit me hard; he turned to attend another wounded soldier and I arose to rejoin my squad.
Following the corporal, the chaplain and I scuttled first to the barrier and then along the roadway to join our mates. As we edged toward the building, the sergeant crept up and gave us a gruff warning. "Once inside, don't shoot wild or we'll end up killing each other." The thought had never occurred to me, and a new fear traced through me. The sargent gave brief orders to the corporal and another senior infantryman, and then it was my turn to cross open ground again.
The firing from the enemy had been greatly reduced by the F-18's sweep, but bullets were still kicking up dust around us as we huddled against the shell-pocked building, catching our breath. The corporal led us through a doorway, and I was grateful to follow; I hadn't the foggiest notion of urban warfare, and was terrified by the possibility of ambush within the shattered building. I had no idea if the corporal had any infantry training or not--unlikely, if she was attached to a supply unit--but her combination of caution and verve made me trust her.
We ran upstairs and burst into a room overlooking the circular battlefield below. The F-18's 20-millimeter cannon shells had blown off sections of the aluminum window frames and chunks of concrete; beneath the blasted windows lay shattered furniture and several fallen enemy soldiers. We'd all heard of boobytrapped bodies and enemy soldiers faking death just long enough to roll a grenade under you.
The trick, I'd been told, was to poke the apparently dead soldier in the eye with a rifle barrel, as no one could unflinching absorb that pain; but who wanted to get close enough to try that? Unsure what to do, we hesitated and warily eyed the wreckage.
The F-18's exploding bullets had torn the room apart as surely as a wrecking crew; what had once been an office of some sort was now scattered debris. The wooden desks lay in splinters, so fresh that I could smell the resin of newly-cut wood through the stink of gunpowder and my own sweat. The enemy soldiers might well have been killed by the fierce splinters flung off the furniture rather than the shells themselves.
Color photos of families still clung inside the broken picture frames strewn on the carpets, and wall posters in Arabic script still exhorted the absent workers; but now, three crumpled figures lay still in the office, and we could only hope that the adjacent rooms would be equally harmless.
A movement in the corner caught my remaining good eye and I turned, rifle raised, to watch one of the seemingly dead enemy soldiers shift position. He had raised his head, and had one hand on his rifle. Whether he intended to gesture surrender or lift his own rifle, I could not tell, and as our eyes met a sudden flush of fear caused me to pull the trigger. He was the Enemy Other, implacable, heedless of anything but my death, and in that split-second instinct for survival I shot him several times. He twitched as each high-velocity bullet hit him and then slumped to the blood-spattered carpet.
"Jesus!" the corporal yelled, as frightened by my sudden firing as I had been by the enemy's movement. "He moved," I shouted, and in response the corporal gingerly approached another fallen enemy soldier, rifle at the ready. The man lay in a splayed rag-doll pose, as if he'd been dropped from a great height, and the corporal motioned the chaplain to check the third body.
"This guy's still alive," the chaplain reported, and the tension in his voice reflected the danger and dilemma this created for us.
"Christ!" the corporal said in a peculiar tone of anger, for it fell to her to decide how to handle the wounded enemy. The chaplain looked up, and it was clear he was unwilling to shoot a seriously wounded soldier, even if the man posed a potentially terrible danger to all three of us.
"Get his weapon," the corporal ordered. "Roll him over and make sure he doesn't have any grenades."
She turned to me and snapped, "Make sure your guy is dead."
I reluctantly approached the corner and with my heart in my throat I knelt down by the man I'd just killed. I knew he was dead the moment I'd shot him in the chest several times, and his half-closed glazed eyes only confirmed the obvious. With a squeamishness I could not have predicted I touched his shoulder; fearful of a boobytrap—an unlikely possibility, given the short time between the F-18s shattering the room and our arrival—I noticed the chest pocket of his sweat and blood-stained uniform bulged with a rectangular object.
Bracing myself, I gingerly pulled it free. It was an ordinary ripstop nylon wallet, as worn as my own; I flipped it open and saw a photo of the man with a young woman, either his sister or wife, I could not tell. Without making a conscious decision to do so, I slipped the dead soldier's wallet into my pocket and turned with a newfound shame to face my fellow soldiers. Although there was no time for anything but the anxious task of clearing the next room, I could not erase the photo from my mind.
The corporal motioned for us to cover her, and with a sharpening fear we paused by the doorway, listening through the staccato gunfire outside for any movement in the next room. None of us wanted to be shot by another nervous Guardsman, but shouting out might signal our presence to a lurking enemy.
As the seconds ticked by I wondered if the corporal had lost her nerve, and with a grim ardency I hoped she didn't order me into the lead. With a sudden resolve she edged round the doorway and shouted, "Hey!"
In an inexplicable reaction the firing outside suddenly diminished and a muffled American voice next door yelled out an answering, "Hey!" As the chaplain and I peered round the doorjamb behind the corporal, another American soldier eased out of the adjoining room and motioned to the room across the hall. So we might have been shot had we rushed the next room, I thought, and the proximity of bad luck and irrevocable error drained me.
It was not an idle threat, being killed by another American soldier; by some reckonings, up to a quarter of all casualties are caused by friendly fire. That alone should give you a taste of what chaos reigns in combat.
Joining up with the others, we readied ourselves, and the sargent kicked open the opposing door. The room was empty, and we listened with puzzlement as the gunfire outside faded to sporadic shooting.
A moment later a heavily armed American convoy rolled through the circular battleground and took up position on the other side of the overpass. I looked out the gaping window at the ground below and realized a miracle had occurred; the dead, dozens it seemed to me, littered not our side but the other side. We had persevered, and been lucky, and so victory was ours.
The enemy soldiers had been our equals in bravery, but we had survived despite our inferior numbers, arms and position. Luck, training, an inexperienced commanding officer who displayed uncommon aplomb and leadership, the F-18's intervention: it was impossible to say which mattered most, but Divine Intervention did not seem at all improbable.
The only American combat deaths, it turned out, were suffered by the column which relieved us; they had been attacked on the way, and two of their number killed. Our unit of citizen-soldiers, a group without cohesion or combat experience, had somehow escaped with only wounds. Not one of us had been killed, despite the fierceness of the attack and the overwhelming firepower aimed at us. My own guess had been that at least half of our number must have been hit in the initial fusillade; and so it was incomprehensible that we'd been spared from what should have been a lopsided slaughter.
I have often thought that this small engagement, as it's called in military terminology, should be studied as a textbook example of what citizen-soldiers can do when adequately trained and properly led. But to my knowledge it is a forgotten battle, unwitnessed by the unblinking eye of the media, and thus reduced to a brief footnote in the official accounting.
When I think of Divine Intervention, the image which comes to my mind is the chaplain shooting the enemy soldier who was creeping along the barricade toward us. He saved our lives by that killing, although it violated his spiritual training and beliefs; so the intervention is rather cloudy. Was his calm aim the intervention, Divine Will wrought through human hands?
In pulling me from the trench, the CO had saved me from certain death. Maybe it was that simple; an especially plucky CO saved a grunt he didn't even know. But from the point of view of the grunt, it certainly felt like a miraculous intervention.
The cliche is that there are no unbelievers in combat. I cannot say if this is statistically accurate or not, but I can say the desire for something approximating Divine Intervention must indeed be universal. The atheist may wish for Luck or Karma with capital L and K to save him, while the believer is tempted to cut a deal with God, a deal which only slants more in God's favor as your situation becomes more precarious.
I myself invoked prayers for deliverance without even thinking; prayer came as naturally as breath itself. Whether this stemmed from a deep-seated human instinct to appeal to the supernatural when endangered or from my early religious training, I cannot say. But I am troubled by the notion that God saved me and took the lives of the men I killed.
I prefer my divine intervention to show more majestic distance from human will and fortitude; and of course divine intervention cuts both ways.
If we were protected, then why did God forsake the other side, who no doubt prayed just as devoutly and perhaps even more diligently, for deliverance and victory? Didn't they deserve victory as much as we did?
Their loss makes a mockery of divine intervention, it seems to me, and nothing can quite explain this away. I wish I could banish the ambiguities of randomness, death and chance, but I cannot; those of sufficient faith may be able to do so, but I am deficient in the genes which code for that kind of faith, and so I lack the grace needed to dismiss ambiguity in favor of certainty.
For some, it was God's will; how much easier I would rest if only I possessed the genes which made this apparent.
You will notice that I have consistently used the term "enemy soldier" to describe the men who were vigorously trying to kill us. I know they were sons, husbands, and fathers, just as we were, men who didn't deserve to die in some dusty highway intersection any more than we did; but they were trying to kill us, and even though I will never erase the face of the first man I killed, the one who reminded me of my Turkish friend, I cannot feel remorse as I understood it before the war.
I have dreams, of course; many of us do. Mine are of being rushed by enemy soldiers, and as I lift my M-16, it turns to sand and dissolves in my hands. I snap awake, and remind myself that the dreams are getting less frequent; but that doesn't reassure me in the long moments of stark alertness.
I must also explain one other element of the battle to you; we were not all of one race, my little squad of the corporal and the chaplain. Our skins were all different, but I defy you to say whose was light or dark or chocolate or tan; and in the entire unit, which were men and which were women. What mattered was your fellow soldiers protected you, and in this I was fortunate.
I have left one sensitive topic unaddressed, but honesty demands that I give you—now the same age as the corporal, or perhaps even a year older—an account of the differences between men and women in combat. The idea of female U.S. soldiers killing people—let's be direct and acknowledge that they killed enemy soldiers in combat—is troubling to most people.
As for our young corporal, thrust so unexpectedly into combat leadership, I cannot say I ever saw her shoot anyone, or even fire her weapon. I believe she did, in the sort of aimless way one fires at a generalized enemy, but she may well have been one of those many soldiers who cannot bring themselves to kill someone else, even in peril of their own life. I know she considered killing the wounded soldier as a way of ending the threat he posed—after all, I had just done so—but she rejected it, as a violation of the rules of war or as an assessment that he posed no danger, or as a private decision, I cannot say.
I can say, however, that if she did not kill anyone, it did not detract from her leadership, or endanger anyone under her command; nor does it mean she would not have reacted just as I did if the wounded enemy soldier had reached for his rifle.
On the other hand, she might have frozen, unwilling to kill him, and let him kill her instead. As with any other individual decision in combat, there is no way to answer such questions except to witness the moment and then survive to recount it.
As for the woman I know best, I would guess that your mother might well let herself be killed simply because she would not be able to shoot anyone, no matter how pressing the need. She is, after all, the type of person who catches a moth indoors and releases it outside rather than simply extinguish it as a nuisance.
But if someone were about to shoot you, I think she would deliberate; and if no other way of stopping the killer were at hand, she would shoot them with the intention of incapacitating rather than killing.
But no one knows how a human will react in extremis, and so I could be wrong about Waiahn's reaction to deadly force. It's best not to lean too heavily on the differences between the sexes, though such differences do undeniably exist.
But at the moment our corporal had to decide whether to shoot the wounded enemy soldier or not, I did not see her so much as a female but as another soldier caught in a chaotic environment where a wrong move could be fatal. She did not have the luxury of making a decision for herself only, for by the rigid rules of rank she was responsible for all of us.
I think this responsibility weighed on her more than her sex or her religion; if the wounded enemy soldier had reached for a grenade, I would have expected her to kill him instantly, for this responsibility to her fellow soldiers demanded it.
There is something else I must describe to you: I know too well what is commonly called survivor's guilt; the two soldiers who died on the way to rescuing us haunt me. It is the supreme injustice, I think, that the rescuers die and the rescued live; I know, I know, it is the nature of combat that we all take orders and the chips fall where they fall. But this does not answer the injustice; it simply shunts it aside.
We choose none of our genes and precious little of our experience; I did not ask for combat duty, nor for the terrible consequences of my wounds. Not the consequences to myself, mind you, but to innocent others; for I am ashamed by the insignificance of my injuries in a way you cannot understand.
Yes, a tiny flechette of wickedly bent steel sliced through my cornea and iris and embedded itself in the retina of my left eye. But even though I lost 95% of the sight in that eye, the eye itself could be salvaged—and I still had my hands and feet, treasures you cannot possibly imagine unless you have seen bloody pulp where once a foot throbbed with untroubled life. As I went through the field hospital and then another in Germany, I saw the wounds of other men and was overcome with the special shame of one let off so easily.
Despite what you may think from watching films, the injury to my eye did not hurt much; and so I was spared the lifetime travails others must endure from their brief moments of combat. I am ashamed of my good fortune: a million-dollar wound in my first firefight; no leg blown off, no arm shattered, no lung torn by a high-velocity claw of shrapnel.
And I was blessed with an enemy I could see; the soldiers after us had to face the uncertainties of cleverly hidden bombs, and the frustration of no one left to fight.
My modest wounds, not to mention my rear-echelon duties, guaranteed that this one day would be the sum of my combat experience; and as a result, I experienced only the incredible first ascent of combat, which is to survive your first firefight.
But beyond that initial exhilaration, the experience dims and then grows dark; you see your friends killed, the weird chances and random mishaps of the battleground pile up inside you, and sometimes even a lifetime is too short to sort them all out.
Or the boobytrap goes off, and your leg is left hanging by a tendon which does not even look like part of you, for it was never visible before; and then your stump is cleaned off, or perhaps two stumps, and you have a life far more arduous than you could possibly imagine before that split-second explosion.
The exhilaration of the survivor fades, but for some reason the shame remains, lingering on like an invisible wound.
But I have not been entirely truthful with you, and you will soon understand why. I am not so ashamed to tell you of my survivor's guilt; it is another aftermath of that day which I want to keep from you: I did not hate combat. Perhaps I would have grown to hate it, but it is just as possible that it would have grown even larger within me. As it is, I must admit that it was the most exhilarating day of my life.
I assume this is incomprehensible to you, and I have no answer for that. This is the gulf which may well remain between us, and I ask only that you try to feel the physical intensity, the surge of instinct and the profound emotions of survival which marked me that day, and every day since.
Copyright 2008 Charles Hugh Smith all rights reserved in all media. No reproduction in any media in any format (text, audio, video/film, web) without written permission of the author.
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