combat writing badge C O M B A T
the Literary Expression of Battlefield Touchstones
ISSN 1542-1546 Volume 03 Number 03 Summer ©Jul 2005

Parthian Shot
a fleeting editorial dart inviting chase

Basic Training

"Training is everything. The peach was once a bitter almond; cauliflower is nothing but cabbage with a college education."
by Mark Twain [Samuel Langhorne Clemens; Pudd'nhead Wilson's Calendar in Pudd'nhead Wilson (1894)]

I began my second tour in Vietnam by reporting into the assigned unit while it was operating in the field, bringing along the payroll so as to learn the names and faces of unit members more quickly. The commander did not immediately release me to my duty assignment, an uncommon practice at the time, and one which had me second-guessing my capabilities, until I'd worked with other unit members for a few weeks. Since this occurred at the height of the war, it was done despite the need for the full participation of every replacement ... there was no surplus, as with whole units transferred entire from stateside bases. This is now a normal practice for replacements joining an operational unit in combat. It serves as an adjustment period for both the new guy and the old timers, who demonstrate how policy becomes reality, theory gets put into practice, and everyone accommodates each other. Adaptations are made for inherent weaknesses and modifications are made for innate strengths ... and the front line survival rate improves.

It wasn't long until my new unit completed its assigned mission, and our assets were returned to their parent commands so we could return to base for stand-down. My previous tour had been conventional, which meant that support personnel were rarely encountered and combat operations were perpetual ... the only stand-down that anyone ever got on my previous tour was an in-country pass for extraordinary performance, or evacuation to a hospital for a wound. All work and no play diminished our physiques and eroded our morale, making us more vulnerable to enemy tactics. Learning of the impending stand-down, I began to hope that this unit was not a meat grinder, and began to speculate about the forthcoming fun and games. Stand-down differed from field operations in only two ways: nobody was shooting at us, and we could live the life of garrison soldiers ... reporting at regular hours, eating in a messhall, sleeping in a bed, and using a latrine. It was only fun if you liked to sweat! ... and the only games were training scenarios!

My grandfather was one of the American Expeditionary Force volunteers for the Great War in Europe of which General John J. Blackjack Pershing reputedly said: All a soldier needs to know is how to shoot and salute. ... and saluting was the least of it! We cleaned our equipment, ran to the nearby beach, stripped foreign weapons, rappelled from towers, rigged helicopters, practiced first aid, tailgated a milk run to keep our jump status current ... everything we had all done innumerable times, but did again ... and again. And then we went right back out on operations against pop-up shoot-back targets in Vietnam's hinterlands.

I remember thinking at the time that I'd been in the Army for almost seven years and already knew all of this stuff. I was not some cherry, and neither was I a hot dog ... and my know it all attitude probably showed. I would pick up two more Purple Hearts on this tour while serving beside men who were on their fourth or sixth tour, or who'd been in Korea, so if I'd just looked around a little I might have discovered that I wasn't as smart as I thought I was before Mister Charles undeniably proved it to me! It has been said that life gives you the test before it gives you the answer, but all that training was as much of an answer as anyone needed ... at least anyone bright enough to get out of his own way. If wisdom is the result of hard learned lessons, then humility is its manifestation. And because my instructors liked to play cute little harmless tricks to prepare us for the deadly surprises that awaited us on the battlefield, I fear that my ostensible understanding is going to prove illusory during the ultimate final exam! ... Erasmus is probably right about the impending cosmic joke.

And the point of all this good training, if not just to redirect and concentrate all of one's inveterate hostilities, if not just to dissipate or sublimate all of one's perversities, if not just to waste time or squander tax dollars, is then to sustain the individual for a period sufficient to accomplish something by virtue of heightened awareness and keen responses ... in other words, to attain a goal by the timely application of thought and character. Talents and traits are marvelous assets, but training can improve results to the point that a dedicated person can accomplish more than an uncommitted one, given certain circumstances and goals. A combat truism is that a good big person will defeat a good small person every time, which also applies to contending nations. But it is also a fact of history that most of everything that has ever been accomplished has been done by people who didn't feel very good that day! ... or the day before, or the day after. Life is not a sports event of refereed heats under optimum conditions, and the fact that we are attempting to impose some staid scheme upon robust reality merely makes us more vulnerable. If we are not sleepwalking through a walled garden of predictable delights, we are apt to find insight and inspiration almost anywhere.

After Vietnam, I embarked upon a host of new adventures, beginning with college. I'd always been one of those promising students who detested school, and college was no different ... except that some of the subjects and a couple of professors managed to ignite my brain! ... sometimes I imagined that smoke must have been pouring out of my ears! My philosophy professor, a disabled World War Two veteran, confided to me shortly before his death that he used me as a paradigm through the years whenever students would complain about the workload, saying that he'd once had a student who never took notes, but just paid close attention to everything in class. I was pleased to reciprocate for this Socratic emulator by averring my dedication to eradicating sloppy thinking, which he'd inspired. But I owe a couple of English professors an apology for dogmatically resisting their allegorical interpretations of prose ... perhaps I was still too close to the ineluctable realities of a fell war to entertain pretty metaphors. Combat had taught me that the only thing hidden between the lines was the enemy.

Even though times have changed and the three R's are now being taught in multimedia labs, basic training is that essential process that will ... at least it should ... develop the necessary skills for survival. One may quibble about the priorities, and school boards do so regularly across the country, but the objective is clear: to graduate functional community members. Nobody has to like it; they just have to do it. If we are prudent, we will enhance the trainee's abilities, but we should also be wise enough to know that most people do not work in the narrow field of their interest or specialized education. If the trainees are equipped with intellectual tools, instead of calculators and videos, then they can find (or make) the tools they need when they need them. Anyone who can parse a compound sentence will have no problem with Venn diagrams, with geometric theorems, with administrative flowcharts, or with molecular chains. If the trainee is bored by the subject then the instructor is obligated to find a trigger that will make the information relevant ... introduce an attractant or repellent to stimulate fight or flight! To promote ingenuity, establish restrictions, such as curfew or chores at home, or prohibiting pogy bait in the barracks, and then watch the trainees get creative! Régimes around the globe are notorious for their prisons, but we are renown for breaking out of prisons ... even those of our own devising.

troops practice training with blank
adapters in combat zone
Troops of the 116th Infantry
Regiment in the 29th Division
practice quick reaction maneuvers
at East River Range
near Bagram, Afghanistan

One of the things that became apparent in Vietnam, and has again become apparent in Iraq, is that, for whatever reason and despite regulations, troops arrive in a hostile area without the requisite skills essential for job performance (or even for survival), and their training must be supplemented before their deficiencies become irrevocable. Although each major unit established a base camp academy to acquaint replacements with the latest lessons learned from their combat operations, the theater command also established an orientation and acclimatization course to refresh the training of the troops, while their bodies adjusted to the local conditions. As Samuel Johnson and others have observed, the mind becomes amazingly focused when death impends; so none of the trainees needed particular exhortations. With the notable exception of police officers, fire fighters, and emergency medics, life threatening situations are uncommon in the civilian arena ... but career mortality is conceivable. And the only remedy for students evacuated by lazy teachers or excreted from bad schools is autodidactism. Supplementing and expanding a mediocre basic training is now easier than ever, and the proficiencies acquired will redound to personal advancement and unit excellence.

As a literary magazine, we predominantly receive two types of submissions: a professional offering or a nascent venture. We welcome both. The former is almost always accepted without further exchange, aside from compliments. The latter is sometimes startling, and can be frustrating, on both sides of the putative editorial divide. The former is a veteran whose crafted work settles into the genre. The latter, regardless of scholastic attainments or worldly triumphs, is often ignorant (or careless) of mission, guidelines, and policies. Sometimes they write as if their native tongue were a second language ... using words to build a monument to the idea immured within their minds rather than a bridge to convey their ideas from mind to mind. Sometimes they write in imitation of another's style as well as someone else's attainments. And sometimes they write as if they hope to fertilize a storyline into maturation by the lavish application of fructifying verbiage.

We consider it to be part of our editorial responsibility to offer constructive criticism to anyone submitting work that manifests thoughtful construction and creative expression. We, of course, have form letters that communicate a polite rejection or an impersonal and imprecise encouragement, but when the writer is, in our opinion, very close to getting it right, then a vague attaboy might have them inadvertently trashing the wrong part and wrecking the whole thing! Although we have neither the time nor the inclination to teach creative writing ... publishing this magazine is labor enough, thank you very much ... but a few obvious comments proffered in private from the author's first disassociated reader of the work might help with revision. In fact, we have often found that a relative period of post-creative reflection will enable the author to ameliorate their own composition ... as one notable storyteller phrased it: I don't write much, but I rewrite a great deal!

I really hate to say it, but all that junk that we should've learned in school is a solid foundation for composition. It doesn't have to be as formal as the bad old days, but going through the motions almost always helps with focus and fulfillment ... even with inspired poetry. Like advice on child rearing and almost everything else, writing recommendations run the gamut. Some ostensibly creative writers treat composition as a job of work ... so many hours of application will generate so many pages of output each day, day after day. Others write because they have no other option for quieting their minds. Others have convoluted, if not involute and ulterior motives. In every case, the work produced will benefit from a critical analysis and a term of inactivity.

Back in the dark ages, when English teachers were pedagogical drill masters, the outline was an ordeal that squelched all enthusiasm from creative writing; but we have found that if an author cannot utter the theme of his work in a few words, then the reader will not discover the objective of the piece. In an arena of post-modern deconstructionism, missing the point of an author's projectile vomiting is not an unmixed blessing. We, however, strive for better communication, already knowing that some things are beyond anyone's ability to describe or explain ... we must still try to indicate the ineffable essentials. We recommend that authors make note of the salient points and principal objectives of their intended expression, and identify the ultimate goal of the work before beginning to write, and then identify a select word or phrase from the body, either at the climax or denouement, to use as the title when the composition is completed. If the writing is laborious and story development tedious, then the reading will be likewise. As the former Army nurse on our staff keeps saying: if it hurts, stop! ... and that is sage advice for the aspiring writer in the throes of imaginative agony.

Our former Army nurse staffer is also fond of saying: use it or lose it! This, of course, means that writers must write, but they must also practice good writing. One of the best ways to check one's skill level is for the writer to read good works ... not to imitate them, but to analyze their craftsmanship. The writer, as with any other artist, is not entirely a creative person ... at some point, and usually at several points of revision, he must become his own first editor. Probably the best way for an author to become objective about his precious emission is to set it aside so the intention and even the specification becomes dormant in the generator's mind. Such separation can be exacerbated by the beginning of a new writing project. Some professional authors attempt objectivity by working simultaneously on several different projects, but we have found that this tends to bleed or blend them, instead of differentiating them.

Once the idle piece has lost its immediacy and tempered its subjectivity, the writer needs to review the work so as to find what is missing and to improve its phrasing. One will be amazed to discover, in the cold harsh light of reflection, what is missing, and what is redundant. During the rewrite, the author should also attempt betterment in both language and plot ... by building verbal spans between scenes, emphasizing tension, clarifying conditions, enhancing characterization, and so forth. Words, which are the writer's stock and trade, should be as original and substantial as the story itself ... moil, inanition, and animadvert are words, but effectualization and impactization are not words, and neither is miniscule, indorse, heighth, nor irregardless. The gerundizing of rhetoric neither enriches nor improves communication! A spellchecker cannot repair vocabulary errors, grammatical mistakes, or trite clichés; and the apt simile or mot juste will elude any author who neglects the essentials of basic training.

The true lesson of basic training is that its import is so fundamental that its techniques are applicable at every stage of a person's development. When the novice breaks the rules and succeeds by a fluke, it's because he didn't know what he was doing ... and neither did anyone else ... but with more experience, his ingenuity or luck encounters the unforgiving axioms that he has previously ignored with impunity. In order to break the rules, of grammar, of design, of warfare, one must first learn all the rules ... and only then can someone exploit the opportunities inherent in every developing situation. Although some institutions attempt to abrogate this postulate, every instance of creative expression is as untrammeled as the very first time ... one may have written dozens of poems, climbed dozens of cliffs, fought dozens of firefights, but the next one is unique. Every confrontation is imbued with the potential for original triumph! Trying to create a story or poem without basic training is like trying to invent a society without knowing history or understanding human dynamics. The fundamentals always matter.

"He left nothing out [of his story], and in leaving nothing out, he created no villains and invented no hero[es]. It was a flat although bloody account, curiously lacking in either anger or passion. He did what he set out to do ... he made it dull."
by Ross Thomas

contributed by Ed Staff

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C O M B A T, the Literary Expression of Battlefield Touchstones