Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Further Myths

Recently, I spoke with somebody in the states who believed that troops in Iraq, from the moment they set foot in-country until the very moment they departed, are constantly engaged in epic, house-to-house combat on the eminently dangerous streets of Iraq. When I got over my initial shock at this misassumption, I explained that this was not the case. Troops here, as always, spend most of their time waiting.

In the Mojave desert in California, I once waited fifteen hours for a flight to arrive. Elsewhere, I waited three for flight mechanics to replace a battery for our plane. Most formations, when a commander announces the time, will be “15 minutes priored” through every leader in the chain of command. The company commander said be there at noon, so the first sergeant says 1145, the platoon sergeant says 1130, the section leaders pass down 1115, and the squad leaders say 1100. The end result is that small clusters of troops will appear at random intervals outside a barracks, wander over to join other small clusters of troops, then walk a dozen yards to a third location to stand for another half hour. Eventually, usually some time well after noon, the commander will come out for the formation. Some people don’t mind it, but the vast majority of veterans I know are absolutely intolerant of waiting in lines. They’ve already done more than their fair share of it.

Iraq is similar to this. There are hours of briefings, hours of preparation for a mission, and then eventually the mission itself. If the mission is a planned one, troops will normally be gathered on the vehicles at least an hour prior to actually departing. There is gear and equipment to prepare, and then there is more waiting.

Even the missions themselves aren’t terribly action-packed. With notable exceptions, they are mostly driving or walking, a little bit of talking with locals, a lot of water-drinking, some more driving or walking, some more talking, and long, dull hours manning weapons in vehicle turrets. Firefights and IEDs, should they even happen, are usually short-lived. Thus, my most memorable time of four years and five months in the Marine Corps can be distilled down to about two hours of interesting or harried missions, firefights, and attacks. Everything else was just waiting.

During one EOD mission (for which unit provided the outer cordon), my vehicle was parked for several hours directly outside a mosque. Under normal circumstances, mosques loudly broadcast prayers perhaps five times a day. We should have heard them twice. But, as is often the case of religious leaders in Iraq, they will deliberately broadcast prayers (and anti-American messages) at other times just to annoy us. In this particular case, the local leader had a young child belt them out. Needless to say, it made the waiting all the more unpleasant.

Other wars have been different from this one (what such protracted engagements as the Battle of the Bulge, Okinawa, etc), but even still, waiting is what dominates most of a mission, most of a war, and most of military service. Junior servicemembers occasionally gloat that they’re overpaid to wait, but then quickly lament that they’re underpaid to get in firefights or hit by IEDs. I can’t say I disagree. My “war” is about two hours over almost four and a half years. For others, it’s a few days, or perhaps a week, or the month of combat during Operation Phantom Fury to finally subdue and secure Fallujah. It all depends on the individual servicemember’s experiences.

If troops were to be shot at constantly for the entire length of their tour, few would have good odds of coming home, despite the notoriously (and laughably) poor marksmanship skills of insurgents. Eventually, according to statistics, they would be hit. War is hurry up, wait, and then move quickly for a few minutes. In truth, troops spend months, years, or perhaps the vast majority of their careers training and waiting for something they may only occur for a matter of minutes. Is it ludicrous? Not at all. It’s proper planning.

The advent of IEDs certainly increases one’s danger outside the wire, but even still it has never been a sure thing. It’s a crap shoot. Whenever somebody announces that they’re going to Iraq, the first thing that flashes through peoples’ minds (however briefly), is that this person is going to get killed. The media has done little to help this. Frankly, nor have veterans. Quite simply, we don’t mention the waiting because it was terribly boring.

If my most memorable experiences from the military take place over perhaps two hours of action, those will somehow blossom into innumerable stories and a self-declaration of combat expertise, all at the expense of fact: we trained some, waited a lot, and fought a little.

I waited in formations until I felt like fainting (some did), as one outgoing commander yakked about how nice the command was and the new commander (invariably after assuring us that his remarks would be brief), spoke at length about his new command and how honored he is. I’ve waited at the position of attention until I fell asleep, tipped forward, and hitting the guy in front of me awakened me.

I’ve waited on the trucks for hours while mission start times changed, intelligence reports were verified, or various personnel were tracked down from wherever they decided to wander off and hide. I’ve waited countless hours outside the wire as EOD blows up an IED, or as an officer inside a local home, police station or compound has a meeting with a local leader. I’ve waited in the turret while the sun rose around me and the heat came back, or as the sun went down and the sand flies came out and ate all of us alive. I’ve waited for the rain to stop so I could finally get some sleep, or waited in my sleeping bag until my boots thawed enough to put them on. I’ve waited for the trucks to warm up, or for the truck to get fixed, or for the wrecker to come and tow my truck, or Motor T to loan me a new one, or for my commander to get a brief about what we’re doing next.

I’ve waited to get chewed out, to have my uniform or room inspected, or for the battalion sergeant major (who didn’t have a license because of repeated DUIs) to remind us all, once again, to not drink and drive. I’ve waited for my platoon sergeant and the chaplain to say the same thing. I distinctly remember waiting for whatever we were doing to end: the mission, the convoy, the PT session, the brief, the powerpoint presentation with photographs of various STDs, the search for a missing weapon, the “health and comfort inspection, the air flight status to return to green, the awards ceremony, the promotion, repeated speeches about why we leave our curtains open during work hours, how we should watch out for our buddies in liberty ports, etc. And of course, I remember waiting to get out of the military.

This is not intended to downplay the salaries that troops receive, or suggest that they serve no other purpose than standing by. The nature of standing army is that there will be waiting. Out here, they wait to go on missions, wait for the missions to end, and always wait to go home. That, more than anything else, is the thing most eagerly anticipated: going home. Barring the few minutes or hours where troops are engaged in combat, calling in medical evacuations, dropping rounds, sending rounds downrange, or closing with the enemy, chances are they are waiting for something else. Are they waiting to kill something or even to die? Not in the least; they’re waiting to go home. Their loved ones back home are waiting for them, too. And in reality, the whole nation should be.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

1 comment:

  1. Two hours of fierce combat can be several lifetimes.

    I heard air combat once described by a seasoned pilot as, "hours of boredom and seconds of stark terror."