combat writing badge C O M B A T
the Literary Expression of Battlefield Touchstones
ISSN 1542-1546 Volume 03 Number 04 Fall ©Oct 2005

Latent Shield

          I was with the British Expeditionary Force in France in May of 1940, and if you are prone to reflection, that was about the worst time and place anybody could have picked if he'd had a choice — and I did.

          I had earned my undergraduate degree in Military History at a North Carolina University the previous December, and was contemplating going on to earn a Master's. I had this harebrained notion I wouldn't make a very good teacher if I didn't have combat experience. Of course, I was disregarding the well-known truth that the last person to know what's really going on is the soldier in the field.

          But then I was only twenty-three. I even talked my best friend from home, Mickey Carelli, into going with me.

          "America isn't in this war — the only chance we're gonna have is in England," I said. "Maybe they'll see the light and make us officers."

          No way was this going to happen, regardless of my education. They let us in, and we ended up as low in rank as you can get. But we trained with the best and we went over with the others and we frequented the pubs and we dated the girls with the gorgeous complexions. Our first lesson about the army is what happens to your feet.

          I had studied French, so I was a step ahead of Mickey, who hadn't even gone to college. French was the best language for my field, because I could read Marshall Saxe and Napoleon without resorting to translations — a little German would have been helpful too, but you can't do everything.

          I had a German professor in my senior year. "Military Strategy is an art, not a science," he would say, at least every other day. It's difficult to understand how those static axioms which hold true throughout the ages are not science, especially when it takes four years to learn them, but once you realize how complex a battle is, you also begin to realize that knowing the rules isn't everything. A good commander senses when to use them, when to combine them, when to discard them, how to take advantage of what's happening, and how to seize the moment. And at the same time, always bearing in mind that he can't afford to ignore those axioms or to forget them, no matter what. It's kind of like what Chamberlain did on Little Round Top. He saw the box he was in, and regardless of what his colleagues thought, he was smart enough to fall back on the most basic axiom of all — the best defense is a good offense.

          Lily Burnham had green eyes and soft brown hair and a bust so large that slow dancing with her could in no way be termed casual. Dancing with Lily involved body and mind in one thing, and it comes in pairs. The weekend before Mickey and I left for France, I tried my best to get her to sleep with me. "I love you," I told her, knowing full well I didn't. "When I get back maybe we can get engaged. Come on, Lily, can't you give me something to remember?"

          Unfortunately or fortunately, depending on how you look at it, Lily had more sense than I did. "I'll write," she whispered.

          "My birthday's in three weeks."

          "If they let me, Tom, I'll send you a package. Mickey too."

          Mickey too, I mimicked mentally and stifled a groan of exasperation.

          The high drama I was expecting wasn't waiting for us. What was waiting for us was waiting. Little did I suspect that something else more important was also waiting — for me. A latent shield, so ancient in its meaning, was hovering in the future, ready to manifest itself when it was needed most.

          "What are we here for, anyway?" Mickey complained. "If the Maginot Line is impregnable, there isn't gonna be any action. Everybody says the Maginot Line is impregnable."

          I had a funny feeling about this. "So was Troy," I said. "But it was defeated. Besides, this war seems to have taken on a new character. Look how fast Hitler overran Poland — in only a week, man!"

          "Nothing's goin' very fast in France. I'm already tired of the food. And the landscape."

          Every night I read. We weren't allowed to carry much in the way of personal items, but I had a couple of condensed books that contained the major writings of Sun-Tzu, Vegetius, Saxe, Frederick the Great, Napoleon, and von Clausewitz. I read and I thought — a great deal.

          "Hindsight," I mumbled aloud one evening.

          "Huh?" Mickey grunted looking up from his solitaire game.

          "It's strange — Sun-Tzu said —."


          "Sun-Tzu. A famous Chinese strategist. I'm lucky to have some of his book; it's real rare. He said every battle is won or lost before it begins. But the only way you can see that is by looking back after it's over. I guess if you can see the answer ahead of time, you'd be a great general. Only they didn't always do it right either. Lee screwed up at Gettysburg."

          "Yeah?" Mickey shrugged. "What's it to us? We aren't generals. Hell, Tom, we aren't even officers."

          We were situated below Lille between the First and Seventh French Armies. The very name of the village made me grit my teeth — Lille was a bit too much like Lily and right now that name was anything but a pleasant memory.

          When things started happening, they happened faster than Mickey or I could have imagined. We were to move up to the Dyle River in support — the Germans had broken through the Little Maginot at Sedan, which wasn't even properly manned, and the Ardennes Forests had not protected the boundaries in the least. Decades of theory were blown apart in a couple of days.

          I didn't know exactly what kind of movements were taking place, being in the ranks, but it doesn't take brains to read a map. The Germans were surrounding us, cutting us off, and I don't think any army in that position is a happy army.

          "They've turned us," I told Mickey, who looked at me with a blank face. "They've gotten around us to the rear. They've turned the damn Maginot Line."

          "But Tom, I thought nobody could break through the Maginot Line."

          "They didn't, Mickey. They turned it. They came by way of that forest — the one they weren't supposed to be able to get tanks through. Only they did."

          "Huh. Okay. Say, Tom, there sure are a lot of rivers around here."

          I looked at him, puzzled. "What brought that up?"

          "Every time something bad happens we have to fall back to a river. Another river. All with funny names."

          And if I survive this, I'll have to know those names, I thought. Every last one of them.

          By May 13 there was panic and confusion, refugees were everywhere — then an order came to retreat. Mud on our boots, on our faces; insects chasing us in the evenings — my legs were so tired I had cramps from my knees to my buttocks. "Don't let go of your machine gun, Mickey," I kept saying, as if that one thing could make all the difference.

          I saw my first real action in a minor counterattack carried out by the British on May 21. It was over so fast I don't remember much about it except the exhilaration I felt over a victory so insignificant we had to retreat again.

          "Hell, Tom," Mickey said. "I thought we won."

          "I guess it didn't do any good."

          We were so worn out by then we couldn't do much more than trudge wearily forward, following whoever was in front of us. I was surprised I was still alive. I didn't feel alive — not with all the strafing going on and the constant drone of German planes that clung to us like a swarm of persistent mosquitoes.

          I didn't read now; any chance we had we rested or ate or slept on the ground. Mickey had ceased his endless solitaire games; a few days before he had complained about being short a card. All I cared about was keeping my hands on that machine gun.

          Then we got what should have been good news, but wasn't. We were going to be called home — to England. The Belgians had surrendered.

          "We're goin' home," a comrade crowed. "Keep your spirits up, Yanks; they'll have boats for us."

          "No kidding," I said. And we learned that while we were trying, in poor order, to reach a little port called Dunkirk, the Germans had gotten to the Channel and were in hot pursuit.

          "Bloody hell. They're only ten miles behind us. I heard they're already at Calais," a Brit said morosely.

          "That ain't the problem," his companion interrupted. "That's the problem," he said as he stuck his finger up in the air. I gulped, realizing what he meant. The Luftwaffe would be over Dunkirk, dive-bombing the beaches and the boats.

          "Goddam Stukas," I muttered. "We'll be sitting ducks."

          "Our boys'll be up there too, Yank, giving 'em what for."

          And our backs are to the sea, I thought, with nowhere to go but on it — or in it.

          That was the point at which I began to be afraid. Mickey, being a regular guy, had been jumpy all along, while I considered myself to be there to analyze, to soak up atmosphere. But I understood what a serious predicament we were in by then, and I don't think Mickey really did. If we made it to Dunkirk, would we make it the rest of the way? And what then? I decided I had had enough atmosphere.

          We were almost too tired to breathe, inhaling and exhaling in shallow gasps. My knuckles were sore from holding my gun in such a tight grip. But I wouldn't loosen it. If I did, I was sure everything would be over.

          I saw myself dead on that beach, after trying desperately to crawl to a boat; I recoiled at my sightless eyes open and fixed on the destruction around me; I felt myself drowning in blood and water in the Channel while our Spitfires engaged the German fighters and the Stukas obliterated the vessels on the surface above.

          That was my vision; the reality was standing in line for hours, exposed to gunfire and explosives, and waiting our turn to cross that beach to salvation. Meanwhile the enemy was busy destroying Dunkirk itself.

          We waited for days until it was finally time to go. We lifted our feet methodically one at a time, wet granules clinging to our boots, bullets making ridges in the sand on either side of us —.

          Something thudded into the back of my leg and it went out from under me. I was face down, my mouth full of sand and debris, my right hand still holding that almighty machine gun. A solid body landed on top of me — Mickey was yelling, "It's okay, Tom, I'll cover you!"

          "Mickey, no!" I screamed. My leg started to hurt; I could feel blood running down it. Oh, God, Mickey's dead, I thought. He shouldn't have done that — the idiot.

          Then I heard a chuckle. "They can't hit nothing, Tom," Mickey said. "Come on, I'll help you up."

          I struggled to my feet, aware that the sound of gunfire had subsided. Smoke from the remains of the port city covered the beach, combining with fog. The Stukas couldn't see to fire.

          "Let go of the damn gun, Tom," Mickey gasped. "You're heavy enough as it is."

          I ignored him as he half-dragged, half-walked me to the edge of the water.

          "That's our ride?" I asked, in astonishment. "That little motor launch?"

          "Shut up, Tom. Get in and lie down."

          I obeyed. I lay there staring up at the dreary sky, hearing the hum of planes, temporarily minus the continuous firing. Mickey huddled next to me. I vaguely noticed he hadn't let go of his gun either.

          The boat slowly made its way to the waiting transport and all I could think of was Sun-Tzu's writings; the part where he discussed at length the advantage of sunlight, of facing sunlight, of being in the sun, especially on certain types of ground — like hills. You wanted the shields to reflect in the enemy's eyes, rather than your own. Or was I confused about the shields? Maybe it was the Roman Vegetius who said that. So inapplicable in 1940 — and yet — wasn't it the lack of sun that had saved my life? When we neared the larger ship, a bit of bronze sunlight filtered through for a moment, reflecting on the stern. I watched it while they lifted us from the small boat, and I watched that little sliver of sunlight all the way to England.

          I would be a good teacher. Not because I had experienced a taste of combat, but because I had learned how unpredictable a battle can be. Who could have foreseen the importance of an overcast sky? ... a sky like a latent shield, waiting for the best possible moment to protect me from the worst consequence of war — death.

          Then I began to wonder if everything Sun-Tzu said should be taken literally. Maybe he didn't intend his writings to be taken literally. Didn't he say "... as water has no constant form, there are in war no constant conditions"? An interesting thought — and an intriguing way to begin a discussion.

          When the doctors said I would have a permanent limp, I was given a desk job translating French. Mickey went to North Africa with the Expeditionary Force. He fought at Tobruk, then re-enlisted with the Americans and served with them in Italy. He survived the whole damn war without a scratch.

          I knew that someday I would study the amazing campaign I had taken part in, and would conquer every detail. I would look back and see every mistake, every wrong move, every miscalculation. I would explain to my students why the blitzkrieg was so effective. And I would recount the statistics relating to men and tank and artillery and planes — and considering the loss of so much equipment, express how glad I was that Mickey and I had brought our guns back. And then I would tell the dramatic story of the hundreds of thousands of soldiers rescued from that beach.

          But what I would remember most was watching that slice of sunlight breaking through the clouds and smoke and fog late enough to keep me alive and get me first to England and finally back to America, where Mickey and I were reunited in 1945.

          Two years later, Mickey enrolled in school under the GI Bill and took my first World History class.

by Mary Brunini McArdle
... who is a freelance writer of fiction, nonfiction, poems, and plays, with numerous awards and extensive publication credits; she has also taught poetry and military strategy at the University of Alabama in Huntsville. This story, in an earlier iteration entitled "Hindsight", won the Second Place prize in the Historical Fiction category of the 1999 Mid-South Regional Writers' Contest.

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