War, Reality, And Ditz-Bunnies

Fred's Final Military Column. For Now, Anyway.

When I read week after week of the silliness in the military, of the focus on sensitivity and consideration for others, of the lack of discipline or realism in training, and all the social moralizing and punishment of the incorrect, I wonder whether a lot of these nice people understand what a war is. Do they have any idea at all what business they are in?

I remember the first body I saw in-country as an AMTRAC crewman in Vietnam, a VC sapper who took a mag of 7.62 outside the wire. He was lying on a stretcher on a plastic sheet gummy with clotted blood. I would see lots more like him.

The sun was hot, flies were going in and out of his mouth, and his right arm was smashed, bent at a ninety-degree angle where it shouldn't, the bone sticking out. The eyes were open but wrinkling and foggy. The Marines held the head up by the hair for trophy photographs. Hey, he didn't care.

Then next day there was the guy on the trail with his head split open like a melon, day-old brains sliding out. The flies crawled inside his skull. There was the time a Chicom 122 sailed into Phnom Penh and landed on Monivong, cutting a cyclo driver in two at the waist. For a brief moment he look surprised and tried to crawl, but you don't go far with intestines plopping out. Or guys hit bad with shrapnel, their whole bodies streaming blood.

The sucking chest wound, bloody froth coming out the mouth, the man desperate for water. Loss of blood does that. The guys caught in a tank when an RPG-7 hit it. The hydraulics ruptured, and the cherry juice cooked off and just seared their whole bodies. They were still sort of alive when I saw them. Or the men who didn't get out of a vehicle that hit a mine. They were cooked the color of country ham and flesh had popped open like an overdone sausage. Or grenaded bunkers full of blue-gray decomposing guts.

Veterans of Vietnam know this is what happens. So do men who fought in Korea, or WWII. I wonder whether the comportment teachers and niceness officers of today quite know what line of work they are in. Training, if you care about your men, is about very ugly stuff, not about awareness of feelings and swinging on little ropes. I sometimes wonder whether Desert Storm hasn't given a generation the idea that wars are easy and fun. Not every conflict is Desert Storm.

From The Sharp End, about WWII in North Africa:

"A tank that is mortally hit belches forth long searing tongues of orange flame from every hatch. As ammunition explodes in the interior, the hull is racked by violent convulsions and sparks erupt from the spout of the barrel like the fireballs of a Roman candle. Silver rivulets of molten aluminum pour from the engine like tears...When the inferno subsides, gallons of lubricating oil in the power train and hundreds of pounds of rubber in the tracks and bogey wheels continue to burn, spewing dense clouds of black smoke over the funeral pyre." If the hatch jams, you burn alive, screaming.

That was an M4, but a tank can still do it, never mind the Halon-and-hope system. That's the trade that soldiers are in.

Know what happens when your bowels act up under fire in armor? You use your helmet and try to toss the contents out of the hatch. If you think this is inelegant to read in a column, try doing it in a tank. A latrine in a base camp is twelve holes in a board over a ditch, twelve guys sitting in a row, no privacy. When I hear of women protesting about the nastiness of urinals in aircraft carriers, I wonder where they think they are. Most of the country seems to believe that in war we will always have comfy ships safely off shore, or bases that the bad guys aren't allowed to attack.

Know what happens when a ship gets hit? Nothing good. Things explode. Huge fires burn out of control. A warship is a box of flammable things--fuel, paint, oil, av-gas, munitions. Men get trapped in flooding compartments. The ship takes water and develops a list. Wounded need to be moved by people strong enough to move them. Pumps need to be carried right now, by people who can lift them.

There are missiles on the international arms market that can do this to our ships. Remember the Starke?

I went through Advanced Infantry Training with the Marines at Camp Geiger in October of 1966. The instructors were men back from Nam. They knew what lay ahead for us. We didn't really. For days on end we were up at 0345 after hitting the rack at midnight, and this is not a war story. It was "S Troop on the road!" and hard sodden marching over slippery clay hills that had you sliding back almost as much as you went forward. We were tough country boys, a lot of us, but it was about all we could do. Our lungs hurt, our legs didn't want to move, and we could hardly stand up. We learned to be miserable, and that's an important lesson.

If we never get into a war that the Air Force doesn't do for us, none of this will matter. But if kids ever have to do it without having had whatever partial preparation you can have for war, without having learned to be just godawful wretched and exhausted and still perform, it's going to be ugly.

The assumption today of course is that technology will do it all, the Navy will never get hit, pilots will almost never get shot down, and we won't use ground troops. Nice if you can get it. Smart enemies force you to fight wars that negate your strengths. That means jungles, as in Vietnam, and cities, as in Beirut, Mogadishu, and Port au Prince. There we don't have an easy win. If you think that we will never have another major war, reflect that ten years before all our big wars, we didn't have any idea what was coming. Maybe we've seen our last war. Maybe we haven't.

I spent a year on a ward at Bethesda Naval Hospital, watching the wounded come in. I remember the young guy from Tennessee when his girl came to visit him. He was blind, with half a face and one arm. I'll never forget her expression. Kinda tough for a girl of seventeen. The guy above me on a medevac 141 coming back from Danang had lots of tubes in him. He died on the way. That's how things were. I guess it warped me, and made me lose patience, any patience at all, with people whose interest in the military lies in demilitarizing it without understanding it.