combat writing badge C O M B A T
the Literary Expression of Battlefield Touchstones
ISSN 1542-1546 Volume 04 Number 03 Summer ©Jul 2006

Focusing on the Wrong Things

It's a truism of war that combat is mostly tedious and boring, except when interrupted by moments of sheer terror and frenzied activity. In the tenacious pursuit of mind-numbing routine, where exhausted concentration has subordinated the threat profile and relegated the danger index into hypothetical probabilities so as to function, it is easy to focus on the wrong things. The intimacies of field existence makes the artificiality of the military rank structure obvious; since no one will obey a stupid order from an untrustworthy superior, and any tactically essential chores will be done as a matter of self-preservation. There is no privacy in the field, so everyone learns more about each other than they ever wanted to know, and respect is a relationship more than an imposition. Habits become commonplace, and character is exposed. Just as no one can hide their hygiene, aptitude, or integrity, so no one can hide their timidity, sloth, or unreliability. The unit shares mess, mail, and misery. To relieve the monotony, there are macho matches and cool coteries, pissing contests and indolent games, Dear John letters from Susie Rottencrotch and Dear Jane letters from Jody Diddlemaster. A defensive perimeter may be populated by sleepers and readers, sun-bathers and card-players, musicians and catchers ... sometimes tossing stuffed socks or rocks, and occasionally lobbing a smoke-grenade. It would've been easy to criticize these troopers. The manual says that a defensive position can always be improved, and that's probably true for conventional warfare, but it didn't apply to the constabulary patrolling mandated as the doctrinaire methodology to counter the enemy's irregular strategy ... and every grunt knew it, even if the brass couldn't figure it out. The enemy knew where our unit was, knew our strength, and would hit us when they were ready. We were under no illusion that we were invisible, even though some of our tactics could be stealthy. The poncho shading a fighting-pit offered no overhead protection against indirect fire, and the occupants would remove it as a marker as soon as contact was made, or as soon as we departed. Trying not to be distracted by irrelevancies, by personalities, or by routine was sometimes too much to expect. The trash-burning fire, located near the center of our perimeter, usually attracted a crowd ... there's something hypnotically alluring about dancing flames that beckons the primordial spirit in most of us. One quiet evening, as many of us took silent communion around the fire, with our thoughts wandering in eternity, one of the endemic grab-ass pranksters included an unvented can of C-ration jelly in the disposal, and when ruptured by the heat, the sealed container exploded its contents into the assemblage. I glared around the arena until the grumbled complaints and moronic titters died ... the spell was broken. Knowing it was wrong to inflate mischief into a contretemps, to force an indiscriminate challenge, and to needlessly risk alienation or injury, I angrily told them that they'd forgotten why they were there, and I alleged that they did not have enough peril to restrain their buffoonish antics. These indictment were unfair, and the declarations were untrue, but I was angry about our violated solidarity ... so I would compound the error. Scanning their countenances, I withdrew a magazine from my pouch, and began to deliberately strip rounds off into the fire. They tumbled and fell every-which-way, so I was as liable to be shot as anyone else. Astonishment and anger ranged their faces, and a couple of them left the arena. I'd escalated a practical joke into a deadly duel, not unlike so-called Russian Roulette, except they had not been consulted. Without their consent, I'd made them players in a deadly game of chance that we all might lose. When the first bullet popped, the rest of them left, some more hastily than others, and I stayed for two more cook-off discharges before ruefully turning, and slowly walking away. The gossip was that I'd gone bush crazy, and they avoided me whenever possible. I would later read of a similar incident involving a hand bomb tossed into a fire by a prankster in the Spanish Civil War, but there's nowhere to hide from each other at the front. Like the time I awakened my replacement guard, and he'd stuck his muzzle in my throat ... things were awkward for awhile before adjustments were made, before everyone accommodated to the new stress. But after such an encounter, nothing is ever the same again. It's very easy, in fact, too damned easy to focus on the wrong things in combat.

by Pan Perdu
... who is a former soldier and VA counselor; this work has been excerpted from Fragmentations, a book in progress.

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