Saturday, January 24, 2009

Left, Right, Kill

When I look back on the Marine Corps physical training (PT), I get the impression that, while it was cleverly designed with the purpose of keeping Marines in extremely good physical condition, in practice it manifested as little more than a couple people stroking their own egos.

The Marine Corps definition of fitness is high performance on the Marine Corps Physical Fitness Test (PFT), which tracks time on a three-mile run, 100 crunches (like situps, but with your hands crossed on your chest) in a two-minutes time frame, and a count on maximum pull-ups. Each of the three events is applied to a 100-point scale, with the best overall score being 300 (100 for each event).

The best time (for score) on the three-mile run is 18 minutes. I have only know about three people that could do this. I knew a few more that couldn’t run it in 28. The best score for pull-ups is reached if you do 20. For many, that’s extremely difficult. Even 100 crunches are, actually.

Oddly, however, the bulk of our near-daily PT was devoted to running. For some reason, if a guy could run quickly, every other limitation he had would be overlooked. It’s all the more odd considering that a Marine is taught to NEVER run from fire, but actually run into it. (We cleverly call this suicide attack, “assaulting through the objective.”)

For reasons that I never understood, our platoon sergeant was always among the fastest among us, and would lead the speed of the run as the rest of us would run behind him and sing cadences. I suppose, in theory, that singing cadences helps build lung strength – and gives us an opportunity to improve our thoracic muscles. Right. So we’d be running along gasping for oxygen, and the platoon sergeant would slow down every mile or so to pick up all the “turtles” that had fallen far behind the formation. We’d do little circles, stumbling over each other and trying not to fall, and wait for them to catch up. Then we’d take off again. One of the reasons that the platoon sergeant may have been more energetic than us is that he didn’t sing cadences, allowing him to devote all his oxygen to breathing – like normal people do.

What I found simultaneously humorous and exasperating is that we frequently had a few sergeants in the platoon that were overweight and hated to run. They would ALWAYS volunteer to fall back and run with the slow people while the rest of us just kept heaving and suffering. It was very noble of them. Sure, sure. It was an excuse to run slower. And they leaped at the opportunity. There were times when the platoon would be stretched out for well over a mile. It was ugly, and more than once we were accused of looking like, “a bag of smashed assholes.” I’m still trying to wrap my mind around a visual image of that.

As the Marine Corps has changed from gross and innately obscene to more socially acceptable, they have required an evolution in their cadences from awful to dull. In the days of yore (as few as five years ago), most cadences used to center on killing people, stabbing things, crushing skulls, and an elaborate recitation of coital experiences. The idea was to be as disgusting as possible – which took your mind off the fact you were starving for air, exhausted, and hating the fact it was thirty degrees and you were outside wearing nothing but a shirt and shorts – and miserable.

While a number of cadences dealt with women and doing awful things with them, to them, and on them, the more humorous ones pertained to killing things. One cadence celebrates the fun of mowing down kids on a playground with a machine gun. Another, the fun of luring birds to your window with bread, then crushing their heads (please note the eloquent rhyming scheme here). My personal favorite had the line, “Napalm sticks to kids.”

“Gather kids as you fly over town,
By throwing candy on the ground,
Then grease 'em when they gather 'round,
Napalm sticks to kids.”

It don’t get any funnier than seventy men all chanting that as they run. Well, besides when they get next to a non-infantry platoon and start singing something about “never let your dingle dangle dangle in the dirt. Take your dingle dangle and….” well, you get the picture. Or the one about killing your girlfriend and throwing her body in the river, then yelling at it until it slips below the surface and sinks.

Yeah; good times. Even in reading some of these cadences recently, I can’t decide if they’re funny or just horrible. Maybe it was situational.

By the time I’d been in the Corps a year or so, the commands were really trying to cut down on our public, swine-like behavior. Initially, we fought it tooth and nail. We would wait until we had run further away from high-ranking officers of staff NCOs, then start belting out the worst possible lines we could conjure – though admittedly half the fun is other people hearing them – and cringing.

Invariably, within a matter of seconds, some officer would appear from the woods, from down the road, parachute from the sky (it seemed they did), or just storm out of a building and start screaming at us. After a time, we just gave up altogether, which presented problems of its own.

The fact is, Marines aren’t the brightest guys in the world. Filth sticks with us – well, just like napalm. But boring cadences, the only ones we were now allowed to sing, were mundane, overly motivated (with a bunch of oorah crap interlaced in the lyrics), or nobody could remember the words. Tragically, the single cadence that we remembered without fail was the one that had zero practicality on our unit.

“Up from a sub 60 feet below,
Hit the surface and I’m ready to go.
Side-stroke, back stroke, swim to the shore;
Hit the beaches and we’re ready for more.”

And so on. Well, that’s just dumb. We are a ground-mounted anti-armor platoon, not a bunch of Navy SEALS launched from a submarine. Heck, even our own special forces guys don’t do that. It was stupid, and only had about two verses. Then the caller would switch to something even more pathetic:

“lo righty, lo right.
Lefty, righty lay-o
Lo righty lay-o
Lefty, righty-lo”

And we’d do that for great distances. Grown men (well, some of us) singing pieces of songs that would have definitely been cut from the Barney and Friends soundtrack if anybody had tried to sing them. We felt stupid, we looked stupid, and everybody probably THOUGHT we were stupid, too. And we probably were. But having been weaned off our filth, there wasn’t much left. Just some “left, right” nonsense that appealed to nobody.

And God forbid us run in silence. That’s sacrilege. If you’re running in a formation, dammit, you have to sing cadence. You have to strengthen that unit integrity, form stronger lasting bonds with the men to the right and left of you – as you try desperately not to trip over them, as the one in front of you lags back and you push him, as the one behind you pukes on your ankles, or one tries to blow his nose and ends up getting snot on the back of your neck. Or the one that trips halfway up the ranks and takes EVERYBODY behind him down, too. Or the guy that stops in the middle of a run to curse at a puddle. Or half the platoon that has booze seeping from their pores. Yeah, we were definitely investing in a lasting brotherhood. And we’d continue to foster it throughout the day by fighting with each other.

“Look to the right and what do I see;
A bunch of f***ing fags tryin’ to be like me.”

That went over really well. More screaming. One guy tries another;

“Staff Sgt, Staff Sgt, can’t you see;
This PT ain’t shit to me.”

But then the staff sergeant ran us even faster, so we all bitched at the guy for trying to be clever. Idiot. Thanks.

If I were to ever go back into the Corps, and I will not, I would make it my personal mission to bring back the disgusting cadences. They’re funny, and you learn just how easily people are offended. And that should change. If you have thin skin, if you gross out easily, if your ears hurt whenever you hear bad words, don’t join the Marines. Skip their office and keep on walking to the Air Force recruiter. They could probably find you a paper jam to fix – while wearing gloves, safety glasses, a reflective vest, and combat fatigues. The rest of us will be doing all the combat work – and probably something gross.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved

Friday, January 23, 2009

An Unwelcome Question

Written approximately one year ago (so some sentiments expressed may be now inaccurate):

Well, it’s 10:23 PM on a Friday night. For lack of something better to do, I will attempt to tackle one of the more difficult subjects to discuss about The Burning Question. My sister asked me a reasonable question today – asked why I was being so vague and evading an answer. Well, I will tell you.

“How many people have you killed.” Let me be more specific why it is a difficult question to answer, to give a simple number.

Because if I have killed a single person then I have been responsible for ending a mother’s years of investment, for canceling a father’s life-dream, for likely robbing a family of a father, a wife (or wives) of a husband. Am I suggesting that he did not deserve it? That is between him and God. I do my job, and this is all that has been asked of me.

It’s difficult because I don’t ever want to be proud of the number of human lives I may have taken. It’s also difficult because I don’t want people to respect me more (or less) for answering.

And the water is cloudy, folks. Never cut and dry. This isn’t the Revolutionary War. This isn’t Europe where there were clear machine gun nests in fortified positions. This is guerilla warfare. This is terrorism. Terrorism, by the way, is the use of force and violence against military and NON-military personnel (innocent civilians) to promote political changes, governmental changes, and the perpetuation of a cause (usually an extreme one). Guerilla warfare is similar, but these non-uniformed, unconventional combatants restrict their aggression to regular military forces. They do not target civilians. Well, Iraqi fighters target whomever they damn well please. It could very well be their neighbors, another tribe, another family, a man who has more than them and therefore must be the enemy and in cahoots with the Baathist party, a Sunni against a Shiite, or the other way around. Take your pick. They all, however, universally hate Americans. We, the Zionist pigs, we great evil Satans spreading our poison of free speech and universal suffrage. How dare us. We are always the targets. Men who have been targeting their neighbors for years will momentarily unite to shoot at us. And when we pass, they’re back at it. They’re stupid. But I digress.

Who is Charlie? Who is the enemy? Where did those shots come from? Which direction? What window? What floor? Did you hear anything?

“No,” they say. “This neighborhood is safe. We love Americans. We would never shoot at them.” We step outside and promptly get ambushed.

I have fired numbers of times. I have rarely seen Charlie.

I have maybe only once or twice caught a glimpse of him who is our decided enemy. I see him as he may have fired a couple shots (which I never saw) and fled. They never stick around, because it means death. They run. Where’s Charlie? Running away after pissing us off. My fire has been mostly suppressive, a show of force, supportive, rarely directed at a specific human target, enemy or otherwise.

I did not go through Fallujah. That would have been a different story. We weren’t fighting the dedicated freedom fighters, those that chose to make their final stand in that disgusting city. We were fighting cowards who ran all the time.

So have a killed the enemy? I don’t know. I’ve fired a lot of rounds into a lot of buildings, through a lot of windows, in the general direction of received fire, into a lot of cars…


Drivers in Iraq are, by far, the most foolish in the universe. And they frequently pay for it with their lives.

Here is where I have done the most shooting, and must now live with it.

The roads are dangerous places. We, the US Marines, own them. The Army did not, so we had to “reteach” the locals that they were ours. It took a month of ramming cars off the road, destroying humvee bumpers and hoods, smashing headlights, waving our guns, and firing warning shots. But they learned. We owned the roads because it was safer for everybody. If you pull over and get out of the way when we come, you’re not going to ram into us and blow up. It’s simple. Move out of the way, and we know you’re not a threat (at least until you try something stupid).

Part of being an occupying force is a mission tasking known as “presence patrols.” Just drive or walk around and get blown up. Look for trouble; stir it up. Travel in vulnerably small groups so as to attract fire. Look weak, prove them wrong. Just be out and about.

We got those missions all the time. They tried to hype them up and call them “counter mortar patrols,” but we all knew what they really were. Boring. Very long, uneventful, and boring. We hated them.

Inevitably, we would stop at some point and just begin random searches of oncoming traffic. Reinforce the front end, the rear end, search cars, and either turn them around or search and let them through after determining them non-threats. Very boring.

But there were a few times when this was not the case. Those were the times when the cars didn’t slow down, when we were holding a defensive perimeter around an area and traffic was not permitted through. They’d inch close. Or they’d never slow down. They just keep coming at you. There are just a couple of seconds that the machine gunners and the boys on the ground have to make a decision: how close before we shoot. Are they a threat or do they simply not see us….how are we to know?

We make what seems like the best decision at the time. There is a line at some spoken or unspoken distance from us when we know that they clearly see us, have ignored all our signals and commands to stop, so we shoot. And it’s ugly.

It’s typically a gun/tow team. This is two humvees. One usually has a .50 caliber machine gun mounted in it, the other has a TOW missile system (rarely used). Those TOW trucks also have a M249 SAW (a 5.56mm light machine gun). And all those on foot have rifles. When the decision to shoot is reached, we usually all open up. It is an absolute mess.

When the vehicles roll to a stop (as it always does, riddled with bullets and destroyed), we quickly perform a precursory search and check for obvious weapons, for survivors, and for possible reasons why they might be trying to run us down.

And herein lies the tragedy. I don’t think I’ve ever personally seen a single hostile vehicle approach my position. The humvees in front of me, yes. Those behind me, yes. Those a kilometer down the road, certainly. Me: no. My “aggressors” were all simply unobservant or didn’t think a humvee roadblock applied to them. Some will insist that they never saw us. Those few that survive.

Now what? We have a car full of civilians who don’t appear to have guns, bombs, or other questionable material. But they ran our checkpoint. We were met with an ugly choice: Us or Them. We choose Them and choose wrongly, we all die, blown into small, unrecognizable pieces. It’s certainly happened before.

We choose Us and we are wholly justified in doing so. But it may also mean that we have chosen to take innocent lives. But what are we to do? Take a risk and let them pull up to us and say hello? We cannot do that. I am charged with the protection of all the Marines, Sailors, and civilians around me. I cannot take make that gamble. We play US versus Them and we always win, at the expense of Them.

THIS is why I don’t to answer this question. I have no moral qualms with dispatching the enemy. It’s necessary, it is the result of their own aggression, not mine. But to wrestle constantly with the decision to shoot/don’t shoot is difficult and stressful; and those who are cut down as a result of their own foolishness haunt my memories.

I remember when an ambulance came speeding towards us late one night. There was a firefight going on, but we weren’t a part of it. It was taking place between Iraqi forces and Iraqi insurgents. All we did was shuttle up the Iraqi National Guardsmen (who were later referred to as Iraqi Civil Defense Corps, and now as the Iraqi Army). So we’d shuttle these guys to the fight. They were terrified. Scared. And we dropped them off and held back. Even then, having never fired a shot before in a combat zone, I felt that we were abandoning them in their hour of greatest need. If nothing else we could have set a good example and run towards the fire, assaulted through the objective. But we did not.

So we hung back, as ordered, and waited.

This was OIF II. During OIF I, the initial reinvasion of Iraq, the Iraqi Army Forward Observers (FOs) used to hitch rides in ambulances and travel around US positions to mark them for artillery and mortar fire. It was rotten, but highly effective. The end result is that veterans of that push to Baghdad lost complete confidence in the neutrality of the Red Crescent (Muslim symbol that adorns all ambulances)…

This ambulance refused to stop that night. We ran out, screamed for them to stop, and eventually they started to come to a halt and turned off their headlights. As we started to approach the vehicle to search it (and ensure that there were no insurgents, wounded or otherwise) in the vehicle, they turned on their headlights and began to accelerate again. I ducked. I knew what was coming.

Four Combined Anti-Armor Team vehicles opened up on them. That’s two .50 caliber machine guns, two M249 SAW light machine guns, and half a dozen rifles. The vehicle was quickly halted. There were two survivors, but they didn’t live long.

Before they were taken away (by other Iraqis, to an Iraqi medical facility, where they most likely died), I remember hearing them cry for help, beg for our assistance. Yet we had just shot them.

But what are we to do? It’s dark, there’s a firefight going on, there is shooting, flashing lights, and one of the most heavily-armed Marine infantry units standing by to intervene. And there is one unarmored, thin-skinned civilian vehicle not complying with our orders.

There’s your firefight. Those are your casualties.

Was this the experience at all checkpoints? Every car shot up a non-threat? Not at all. There were some cars and trucks that blew up. But most did not. Yet the occupants always died.

So don’t ask me how many people I’ve killed, because I don’t exactly know. What I DO know, however, is that a sizeable percentage were non-combatants.

I remember the car that kept creeping closer and closer to our front position of my guys. He wouldn’t stop. For some reason none of us chose to shoot. He stopped maybe 30 feet in front of us. Had he been hostile and detonated, we would have all died. For some reason we did not shoot him.

We quickly ran up to the vehicle and inspected it, ordered the driver out. We didn’t need an interpreter. He spoke English. He was also extremely upset.

“Do you realize that we almost killed you?”

He stuttered out that he understood – very shaken – and understandably so. He had two beautiful children in the back seat of his vehicle. His little daughter, maybe six or so, was among the cutest child I have ever seen. All little brown-eyed girls with sun-coppered hair are cute. She had almost died.

“Why didn’t you stop?”

He didn’t know. He didn’t think he needed to. He was a doctor. A dermatologist. He almost died. We told him to go away.

He, and his lovely children, were almost casualties.

These are the shootings that stick with you.

I am not haunted by all this, as surprising as it might sound. I am not wallowing deep in despair because of these tragedies or near-calamities. What I cognizant of, however, is how much events such as these prolong the whole conflict. Incidents such as these generate enemies at a rapid rate. The trouble is, however, I don’t know what can be done about it. Our benevolence, our patience, our hesitation at a checkpoint may cost us our lives. Yet our caution may reward us with more enemies. You go right ahead and take your pick.

I got out.

But there’s more…

I would have much preferred enemy everywhere. Because then it’s incredibly easy. It eliminates the moral dilemma, simplifies conflict, and would hasten everybody’s return home. There would be no protracted war, no dithering with attempts at humanitarian efforts, no infuriated civilian population. But, we had no such fortune.

I do prefer to live with some questions than with the knowledge that my hesitation at a checkpoint caused the death of my friends. I thank God that this is not the case, indeed. I did my job, for what it was worth, but I would have liked to do more.

Don’t ask me how many I’ve killed because I don’t like my answer. It’s ignoble. It’s complicated. It’s ugly. I’d love to say, simply, “lots.” But it isn’t that easy. I’m ashamed with my answer. I was an Infantry Marine; I want to say I did more, because then there would be fewer enemy. There are many who can say they definitely did their job. I was rarely afforded the opportunity. I wish I was more observant, more watchful, more alert, more savvy. I was always looking the wrong way, in the wrong place, or on the wrong side of town. And I am ashamed.

So every time those around me, with truly good intention, attempt to rank me among the great heroes, the proud-serving fighters of ages past, I grow frustrated. I feel I have not earned the title. I did and saw but little. They endured hell. And I am still humbled in their presence, though not entirely one of them. Yet nor am I entirely a civilian. I’m caught in the middle.

Why do you think I was insane enough to volunteer for a third tour? Because I love flying around the world on military chartered flights? Because I love the desert in the summer? Because I love getting shot at? Hardly. I was giving it one more go. One final effort to actually earn the title that I had been given upon my return in 2005. Veteran. I had hoped that maybe I would have the opportunity to kill enough to actually deserve that hallowed label, if nothing else but in my own mind.

Yet I did not. I was confined to a base, which turned out to be a great experience, but I didn’t see it as such at the time. All that effort to extend my contract, the volunteering, writing a 75 page research proposal that put me in the most dangerous places, the most dangerous vehicles in the most vulnerable units. A clever ruse to soften my self-dissatisfaction. Maybe there I would have an opportunity to kill the enemy.

But how many is enough? What’s the magic number? When would I have been satisfied that I earned my title? 10? 100? One confirmed kill?

Perhaps it is just as well I have been forbidden this opportunity.

What would have been enough? Selflessness, whatever that means. But I have little.

I do not feel any better having shared this. I have horrified my readers, distanced myself from them, and accomplished little more than frustrating myself. Don’t ask me this question, because I don’t like my answer, and neither will you.

But you may set down your phones now. There’s no need to call and have them take me away. I am not a deranged veteran, a deeply disturbed warrior returned to fit in but poorly in a society that reveres me and is simultaneously repulsed. I’m not going to run out and hurt others, nor will I hurt myself. I am simply frustrated. I had joined the Marines with high hopes of satisfying my OWN burning question – am I a warrior? a hero? a man? But I was unable to answer that to my satisfaction. That is why I’m frustrated. That question, MY question, is not so easily answered by participating in a war. It is only made more confusing.

How many did I kill? Not enough.

Copyright © 2008, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved

We Blew Up Things

While it’s certainly fun to write about the more exciting missions I ran in Iraq and the firefights, the chaos and the adventures, they only represent a small fraction of the actual missions we completed.

During my first tour alone we ran more than 250 mission. That’s only about six solid months in country. Needless to say, we were busy. And our missions, by the way, only represented less than a quarter of those in my company. All said and done, I think we ran well over 1,000. Most of them, I must admit, were pretty damn boring.

One of our main functions as a Combined Anti-Armor Team (CAAT) was escorting Explosives Ordnance Disposal (EOD) personnel safely around our Area of Operations (AO) and securing an area while they handled whatever ordnance had been found. These missions were either very interesting, or very dull.

Marine Corps EOD guys are, as a general rule, completely insane. I believe they are the only EOD team in the entire United States military that will ever approach a pile of unexploded ordnance and look at it. Everybody else sends a robot. They did sometimes, particularly when somebody had spotted an unexploded IED and had managed to get away from it in time, but occasionally they’d just walk up to the bombs and look at them.

I guess that their personalities combine criminal pyromania with an equally criminal fascination with things blowing up. They always use too much explosives. And most of the guys I knew were completely deaf. They are, without question, absolutely nuts. So we liked working with them – when they didn’t drag ass and take a long time to do something stupid and simple.

At any given time, day or night, a unit would come across an IED, cordon off the area, and call EOD to come disable it. If an IED had blown up already, they were still called out – not only to do a post-blast analysis, but also ensure that no unexploded ordnance remained in the area – either as a threat, or to be used for any additional bomb making. They would also come out to collect and blow up and weapons caches that a unit had found. With engineers combing the ground with metal detectors, and considering that Iraq had the fourth largest military in the world, weapons and ordnance are buried almost everywhere. All you have to do is look for it. We would just safely escort them out there, cordon off the area, and sit – like idiots, while they did their thing. At times, we cursed them for their patience and caution. Other times, they were a lot of fun.

Whenever we were called out to do a post-blast analysis, it meant that we’d be walking up on the aftermath of a unit getting hit by IEDs – which meant we frequently arrived on grisly scenes with carnage, demolished or damaged humvees, civilian casualties, and even our own dead and wounded. More than once we would help them evacuate the unit's wounded and reinforce their reduced numbers. Or our doc (Navy medical corpsman) would assist them with the wounded. I remember one time when he used a poncho to cover a dead Marine. A year later, the Marine Corps still refused to give him a new poncho. He ended up buying one with his own money. He also had nightmares for a long time.

Those missions were typically chaotic at best, and not fun at all. They took us to scenes of death. But those were less common than somebody simply finding an IED and calling EOD out to get rid of it.

Everybody would park at a safe distance, and EOD would deploy their robot (which had a bunch of stupid names, depending on who you asked. R2D2, Johnny #5, Car Ramrod, etc). Their robot had a camera, and they’d go up, look at the IED, try to figure out the best way to disable it, and then usually drop an entire stick of C4 on it. This packs more punch than a stick of dynamite. And it’s entire purpose was as a clearing charge. While it usually wouldn’t detonate the device at all, the force of the blast would knock away whatever wires or detonation cord (det cord) was hooked into the IED. And now, rendered little more than a heap of old artillery rounds, it was safe for the EOD guys to approach and start pulling out the rounds to remove them.

Sometimes things went wrong, however. The stupid robot broke down all the time, which was a pain in the ass, and they’d either have to fix it, use another, or try to “sneak” up on the IED and put a charge on it by hand. The latter was the least preferable of the three. There was one time when the EOD guy walked up, expecting to find that the clearing charge and disabled the IED, but discovered that it was fully intact and capable of killing him. But you know what; he didn’t run. He just jumped into the hole and started ripping wires out of the artillery rounds. So there he was, yanking maniacally, and then he suddenly stopped and knelt down – wiped out. He’d managed to get everything ripped out before anybody could detonate it on him. He knelt there for a second, regained his composure, and then started stacking up the rounds to get rid of them. I think this only happened once when we were around, but there were probably a lot of close calls that they’d consider all in a day’s work, and we’d consider purely insane.

Whenever an IED was recovered or they examined an already-detonated site, they’d usually find whatever electronics operated the thing and take them back to study them. Each IED-building, interestingly, has his own specific ways of doing things. One only uses a certain kind of detonator, or a certain color wire, or even a specific type or radio or cell phone. Using the materials they found, the EOD guys were able to figure out how many people were building IEDs in our area, and even who was training others to do the same thing. I was amazed they could figure all that out from looking at a jumble of wires, but they were extremely talented, and most of them had been doing it for awhile. They knew what to look for. Later on, they’d write up reports and send them up the chain so everybody knew what to look for. If they collaborated with neighboring units, they could figure out how large an area some of the bomb makers operated. One city, or maybe even one entire province. Most of them were local though.

After collecting the rounds, or showing up on a cache site (some of which were absolutely huge), they had to decide if they wanted to bring them back to a secure area on base, blow them up in place (if they were unstable to move), or make an enormous pile of ordnance and detonate it right there. The big piles were the most fun.

We had patrols find caches sometimes with hundreds of artillery rounds, cases of ammo, rifles, RPGs (rocket propelled grenades) and an assortment of things that blow up. A lot of it was unstable. You could handle it carefully (sometimes), but you certainly couldn’t throw it in a humvee and take it back to base. So, they’d stack it all up and blow it right were it stood.

There’s an art to laying explosive charges on heaps of ordnance. You can’t just put a charge down and then stack a bunch of things on top of it. That would just detonate the lowest things and then send the rest high in the sky – which would have to be picked up and detonated again, which was a real pain (we’ve done it). What they would do is stack the smallest things on the bottom – like ammunition. That way, the bullets wouldn’t go everywhere. They’d just blow up into the dirt. On top of that, they’d stack the artillery rounds like firewood until they had a large pile. Then they’d lay blocks of C4 all the way from one side to the other – overlapping the blocks so they’d be sure to have proper detonation. They took some other measures to ensure full detonation, but they’re pretty technical, and I probably shouldn’t be repeating them, anyway. When it was all done, though, there would be a continuous line of C4 from one side of the heap, all the way across the top to the other. And when it blew, it would direct the explosion down, which would cause the rounds to detonate directly below them – and those would in turn set off the layers below. This chain reaction continued all the way to the bottom of the pile where the smallest things lay. The idea was to direct the force of the explosion down – not up or out. It also reduced “splatter,” when the rounds break open, but don’t actually detonate.

Quite a few of these heaps were so large that we had to back off as much as a kilometer to detonate them safely. They always double primed them – meaning that there were two lengths of time fuse burning (equally long), and they would both reach the detonators at the same time. If one failed, we hoped the other one would not. The last thing we wanted was neither to go off, and then some poor bastard would have to go back and set another charge – which was potentially suicide.

Depending on what was being detonated, the explosions could be extremely loud, extremely colorful, or create an enormous fireball. I liked all three – and my hearing isn’t so hot because of it, actually.

Occasionally we ran into a white phosphorous artillery round, which created a fireworks-style explosion, with burning arcs pouring from the blast. Standard artillery rounds were just loud. Anti-aircraft ammo also looked like fireworks as the bullets burned and rained down in a beautiful show of color. Some things made fireballs – especially when they had fuel involved – mostly homemade stuff.

When they had started the primers, everybody backed off the appropriate distance, and we counted down to detonation, ducked (sometimes), and waited for the whole thing to go up. A lot of guy filmed it, which was pretty neat. Then, after a few minutes of safety, the EOD guys would go BACK to the site and make sure everything had blown up all the way. If it hadn’t, they’d wait for it to cool, then stack it again and blow it. There were multiple times when we had incomplete detonation – especially one particularly strange IED.

Some asshole had put an old refrigerator on the side of the road and literally filled it with artillery rounds. Because it wasn’t really safe to get close to, EOD just laid some charges around it and then blew it up. And it just scattered everything. We waited FOREVER for things to cool down. When they finally did, they reset the charge and took care of it. That one, by the way, we weren’t far enough way from. Crap landed all around our vehicles, on us, and all over the pavement. None of it had any velocity, since it was just raining down, but it was still extremely hot and burned – especially when I tried to pick up a piece, which was exceedingly stupid.

When the EOD guys were going through Fallujah during the fight for the city, they had to work fast, not only because of the number of caches that were being found, but because kids would run out and take the charge off the IED and throw it away – they were petulant little shits. It got so bad that the EOD guys would just throw a SHORT fuse on it and run like hell to get out of range. Nobody came up to those, and if they did, that was it. But they had other problems in Fallujah, too. They had to do most of this while under fire. Yet, crazy as they were, they’d just ignore it, smoke cigars, and stand there in the open like morons.

If they found weapons caches in people’s houses, it was pretty obvious that they were insurgents, so they’d just detonate the caches INSIDE the house, which I think is pretty smart. Serves them right for trying to hide ordnance and use it to blow up troops. Now they’ve lost their house.

I did feel badly though that sometimes we’d find caches out in palm groves. They’d detonate them where they found them, leave huge craters, and knock down dozens of palm trees. I felt badly for the trees – which is probably an indication that there’s something wrong with me. Whatever. I guess they shouldn’t have hidden weapons in their palm groves. But since trees are so scarce in Iraq, I felt sort of badly blowing them up. Something’s obviously wrong with me. I’m not worrying about peoples’ houses, but about the trees. In Iraq.

Anyway, the EOD personnel often needed an extra hand with all their stuff, so we’d help them stack weapons and rounds, and then lay out the charges. I still have a couple satchel charge bags I grabbed after I laid out the C4 inside of them. They’re pretty handy things, though I’m sure that I’d get arrested if I went through an airport with them. They’re probably still covered in explosives residue. I try not to bring them with me for that reason whenever I fly.

Blowing stuff up was an everyday thing for us, and something we certainly enjoyed. I considered getting into EOD, but there are a number of disadvantages. First, you have to be completely crazy. I think I’m only halfway there. Second, you spend a LONG time in EOD school learning about every single landmine, missile, and round made in every country on the planet. Fourth, you have to enlist for a LONG contract. And finally, they are the most deployed MOS (military occupational specialty) in the entire United States military. You will never have a normal life. They’re always gone, always in short supply, and get blown up on a fairly regular basis. They do a dangerous job – and accidents happen. But for many of them, exploding things is their life, and they’ll always love it. And struggle to understand people because they’re completely deaf. Well, and insane, too.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved

Thursday, January 22, 2009

An Indiscretion

When we returned stateside from one of earlier tours in Iraq, the first thing the command started planning was a large memorial service for the boys we’d lost back in Iraq. That time, we’d lost over thirty, so it was going to be the entire MEU [Marine Expeditionary Unit], as well as a lot of the families of the fallen.

I’ve never liked formations, ever. You just stand there while your knees start hurting more, the bugs bite you, and your feet go numb. A few guys always pass out, but I’ve never done it. But this ceremony was a little different. It was going to be big and long, yes, but also appropriate. Every guy there was grieving more than he was thinking about how much he didn’t want to be standing at the position of attention.

About that time we’d started getting newly graduated Marines from SOI [School of Infantry]. Because I guess the platoon commander knew that I wasn’t going to beat them up or haze them (others might), he made me handle all their checking in. Trouble is, it’s like handling a pack of refugees coming off the boat from a foreign country. They may speak the language, but only barely. They’re confused, young, stressed out, and dragging around at least two gigantic sea bags full of crap that the Marines made them buy but they’ll never use.

When we went out to do the memorial service for the guys we’d lost, the new Marines have to come, too. They may not have been there, but they’re still Marines, and they can still honor the guys from their unit that didn’t make it. Because they’re pretty young and stupid, they often get stuck doing dumb things, like setting up displays, arranging chairs, or sometimes as attendants to the bereaved.

Just why somebody would give a bereaved family a Marine escort that had been in the fleet for two weeks is beyond me. Not only do they have no idea where everything is on base, but their “comfort” is virtually useless. They’re just young guys, frequently bezitted teenagers, with no real understanding of the fleet Marine force, combat, or the tragedy of losing a comrade overseas. The reason I can think of that they would give the job to junior Marines is because they’re typically too terrified to screw it up, or use anything other than the best possible manners. Compared to a “senior” Marine, it’s much better. The junior will say yes ma’am and no sir, and the more experienced Marine will just grunt, drink, and probably bitch about something. Our capacity for sympathy is virtually destroyed. For grief, not so. We do grieve, but usually by destroying ourselves – hence the dysfunction of most infantry Marines. But sympathy – take it somewhere else. Maybe that’s why they choose the new Marines.

One of my guys, one of the new Marines, made an absolute fool of himself. During the memorial service, he had been specifically tasked with standing directly behind a bereaved girlfriend and adjusting her chair for her, escorting her to the displays on the field, escorting her back, and offering his assistance as she took a seat back in the chair – which was perched on uneven ground in the grass. Sounds easy enough, and he didn’t have to even speak.

This kid decides to hit on the woman.
But let me elaborate a little further. It’s one thing to be perhaps excessively nice to a girlfriend who’s just lost her boyfriend and supposedly future husband. It’s quite another to hit on her and ask her out when you see her in a bar with her friends. And even worse to do it again when you’re at the memorial ceremony for HER deceased loved one.

Yet there’s more. Though my junior Marine didn’t know it, she, too was a Marine, and unlikely to take any sort of crap from a kid four ranks her junior. And on top of this, the guy that was killed – her boyfriend – was a friend of mine with whom we’d done some special operations training. And there was my guy, by now a battalion-wide embarrassment, hitting on his girlfriend.

She did the right thing. She immediately told the people in charge of the memorial service. What that meant is that the fact my platoon had a retarded junior Marine hitting in the girlfriend of one of our battalion’s war dead went up the food chain a LONG way, and then eventually back over to my battalion command, and then all the way back down to us, and me.

And, of course, the entire battalion knew about it, too. They were going to lynch him, I think, and I really wouldn’t have said much about it. Heck, we’ve already had Marines airlifted from directly in front of our barracks for the beatings they’ve received, so I don’t think anybody would have been particularly surprised. What I did tell the kid, however, was that he should lock himself in his room, and not come out after dark. They’d kill him – especially the boys from the platoon that lost the guy. They already had a reputation for being pretty aggressive anyway.

So the command gets the bright idea that we should get rid of this guy before he causes any more trouble. In addition, he’s totally useless to the battalion now. Nobody would trust him, nobody would be nice to him, and if I had my say in it, I’d have him cleaning trash cans and picking up cigarette butts for his entire 4-year enlistment – as a career private.

They ended up making him pack all his stuff and moving over one regiment to some people that supposedly hadn’t heard of him. But, of course, they had. We made sure of it. That was the sort of thing they needed to know. They weren’t just getting somebody who had a propensity for gross indiscretion; they were getting a true ass of a man that had no place within our ranks. For all our dysfunction, it paled in comparison to this guy’s behavior.

I can’t remember his first name, so I can’t check to see of he’s still in the Corps, but I’m hoping that he’s not. There’s no place for people like him.

When they picked the regiment that they put this guy in, I don’t think they picked very well. The battalion they put him in had only recently returned from Fallujah, and they’d lost a lot of their own guys. In other words, they were pretty bitter about everything, and rightfully so, and then they got a kid that didn’t have any sort of common sense whatsoever. And I could see how deeply rooted it was. I watched him get screamed at up and down the line. And he’d just stand there with a blank look on his face. I don’t even think he understood what he did was wrong. He was just disappointed he didn’t get laid.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The Flag

Approximately six months ago, congress passed a bill (s. 1877) that probably bore no significance at all to the vast majority of the population, but thrilled a select few. Until July 25th, 2007, veterans of the United States military were encouraged to place their right hands over their chests for the national anthem or a raising of the nation’s flag. But now we are permitted to continue to demonstrate pride in military service and devotion to our country. We can salute, however out of shape, old, or retired we may be. We took an oath that extended well beyond the few short years of our service – an oath that, so long as we draw breath, we salute our flag, honor our country, and, summoning arthritic joints and bent backs into a rigid position of attention, offer continued allegiance to the United States.

For some strange reason I don’t quite know
The flag most always makes me cry.

Perhaps it’s men who tossed down arms
To battle-march with old glory high.
Or children perched on parents’ shoulders
Cheer draped fire trucks paraded by.

Or every athlete, every bleacher standing
No one moves or bats an eye.
As the anthem plays and the flag still waves
Against a summer’s twilight sky.

Those stars, those stripes I oft saluted,
As did many millions before I.
On the covered coffins of recent fallen
Carried slow to where they’ll lie.

Or strangers clapping, the welcome home
The tears come quick to my eye.
As I stand straighter and I walk prouder
I suppose I do know why.

Because every time they hoist my flag
And it most always make me cry.

In my mind, there is nothing more beautiful than an old man, hunched with age and years of living, standing straight, tall, and proud, tears coursing across his wrinkled cheeks, as he snaps a sharp, perfect salute. He is young again. He is a warrior again. He is a patriot again. And we’re free because of him.

The anthem ends and the salute drops. He picks up his cane and painfully sits back down – suddenly old again. He’s still here, you see, and he remembers his brothers who aren’t.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved

Concerning The Ladies

People have often asked me about the women in Iraq; what they were like, their general demeanor, and their treatment in an extremely lopsided, chauvinistic culture. Truthfully, my dealings with them were extremely limited, though I did hear Iraqi males’ opinions about them on a relatively regular basis.

To most men, they’re objects, either to induce great pity, or great respect at one’s accomplishments. I knew an arrogant little Iraqi NCO that would tell us every day that he had four wives. In part, I think he was bragging, and I think he was also trying to elicit some sympathy that he was burdened with caring for so many women.

But in reality, the women are the backbone of the country. While men do work, they don’t attack it with the same desperate fervor that most women do. Whenever we’d be out on patrols that kept us out until sunrise, the first people we’d routinely see were women. They’d wake at sunrise and begin mixing flour and cooking khubz – Arabic for bread. It was typically a flat bread much like a pita, but thinner, and they cooked it in tanoori ovens. At least that’s what they call them in India.

They’d be out there, kneeling over their small oven, tossing in bits of palm fronts, wood, charcoal, and whatever trash their children scrounged up, and slapping the dough into large, flat pieces. Then they’d toss it against the inside of the oven, cook it until it started to peel back naturally, then pull it out. Perhaps depending on their level of poverty or maybe cereal grain availability, some had better ground wheat flour and some had what tasted like cornmeal. I liked it all, and knew they’d labored hard to make it – well before anybody else had awakened.

While it was frequently children that tended to herds of sheep or goats, it was the girls that attended to the crops. I’d see them out early in the fields, hunched over at the waist, backs bent as they worked primitive hand tools on large plots of earth – and it was arid earth, beneath an oppressive sun. Yet they always wore their black garments from head to toe – with a few rare exceptions. Sometimes, on the hottest of days, they’d roll back their robes to expose extremely colorful layers beneath. Still, they were fully clothed, fully covered, would always cover their faces when they looked up at us.

For the longest time I thought it was fear of us, hatred of us, or maybe just social custom, but the conclusion I’ve recently reached is that, more than anything, it was a fear of what would happen to them if they didn’t cover their faces. Iraqi men are insanely jealous.

Though I don’t recall it happening to me personally, I know a number of women that, after being smiled at or spoken to by a soldier or Marine, would be promptly hit by the male traveling with them. This especially happened to the younger women, particularly when they dared smile back.

But in general, it was the younger women who were most mesmerized by us. Though I don’t claim to know the Islamic or social customs at all, I gather that once a woman married, she must spend the rest of her life covered from head to toe, hiding herself from public view. The only women who wore anything other than outer garments of black were unmarried, and young.

And honestly, they were gorgeous. Light, olive skin, dark eyes, and faces frequently smeared with too much makeup – like foundation and lipstick. I didn’t know they wore makeup at all, but I guess it’s okay when you’re looking for a husband. They’d wear tight skirts that would usually fall to their ankles, brightly-patterned blouses (also form-fitting), and a similarly colorful headscarf – probably more custom than functional. And they were quite pretty, though they did wear too much makeup, and often the patterns of their blouses looked more like drapery material than clothing material. I keep thinking of the VonTrap kids in the movie, “The Sound of Music,” when Julie Andrews sews them all clothes of the garish curtains hanging in the mansion. Awful, but decidedly colorful.

Yet chauvinism is pronounced, and total hypocrisy. For example, it was a well-known fact that brothels existed throughout the country. In fact, one of our fire bases lay directly across from one of them. They would frequently come to that base and attempt to market themselves. One price in the Marines came to their place, and another if the women came onto the base. I don’t know if any took the offers, and if I did I probably wouldn’t say, anyway. It’s not important – at least not for the sake of this particular story.

I got the impression that everybody knew about these brothels, and chose to do nothing about them. Everybody knows everybody else in these small towns, so it’s impossible that they NOT know about it. But every now and then, one would picked out and beaten for her prostitution, or maybe even stoned or killed. Same as in ancient times, the men suffered no punishment. Or if they did, we never found out about it.

A friend of mine was visiting a police station once for some mission or another, and a woman came in to plead for the release of her husband, who was jailed for reasons we never figured out. Well, rather than just send her away, they first threatened to lock her up too because she had a brother that was suspected to be involved in the insurgency. Then they surrounded her, started beating her, and ripping off her clothes. If I had to guess, they were going to rape her. We, by the way, were forbidden to do anything about it – though I think that’s a direct contradiction to the laws of war as laid out in the Geneva Convention. But, the officers were trying to suck up to the Iraqis, not piss them off, so nothing was done. If I was there, I probably would have threatened to shoot somebody – or just gone ahead and shot them.

It was almost a certainty that any girl or young woman that flirted with us would pay dearly for it – either with a beating from her father, her brothers, or any available man. It made no sense. I suppose it could have been because they hated us, but I imagine it’s more likely because they thought their daughters were acting like whores – by smiling at us.

Sometimes they’d get bold, however. We’d be checking cars at vehicle checkpoints and a taxi full of young women on the way to college would drive through, and we’d gawk at them. Usually they’d just smile shyly and look away, but sometimes they would laugh at us. I guess even they knew how pathetic we were.

I never saw a woman driving in Iraq – ever. I’d bet that nobody ever did – at least not anybody that I know.

Women age quickly, in part due to poor diet, childbearing, and the sun on what little of their faces are exposed, but I think it’s because they do most of the work. Men, it seemed, never really worked too hard. The running joke was that the women would do all the work and the men would sit around and dream up new ways to kill us.

Now obviously, a lot of the men worked, too, but never as hard as the women. It was the women doing the hardest manual labor, working the fields, and so on, and the men would be driving somewhere, hanging out, standing there with their hands clasped behind their backs doing nothing, or indeed plotting new ways to blow us up. Women work, men laze around. And the women die young because of it. They go from youthful and attractive to just bent, overweight, and halfway crippled.

The absurdity of it all was that they were treated as possessions, prizes, and slaves, and the men were quite content with it. Some clearly exhibited some care for their wives, but it wasn’t very often.

We had been briefed to never ever show an Iraqi porn, but I was surprised during my third tour, by which time the country was starting to rebuild its infrastructure, that innumerable Iraqi men came up to me and showed me the porn on their cell phones. They were proud of it – and wanted to know if we had any to show them. I did not, but others did.

I knew a couple people that somehow “allowed” porn to get out of their vehicles and get carried off by young kids, who where absolutely mesmerized with what the saw. We’re talking immobilized, rooted to one spot, and silenced. And then an older man would walk up, see what they were doing, and start throwing rocks at them, or beating them. One time I saw an old guy grab the magazine from them, rip it to shreds, and throw it back into the street – yelling at the boys the whole time.

We were doing a mission once where I ended up reinforcing a position on top of a police station, and from up there, I had a clear view into the courtyards of most of the surrounding homes. Out of curiosity, I suppose, a bunch of girls would constantly peek out from behind windows, curtains, trees and doors, and stare at us. If we waved, they’d giggle and run away. Sometimes they’d run in fear, though a few times they didn’t.

There was one girl I’d estimate to be in her early twenties that were absolutely fascinated with us (well, me since I was the only Marine she could see from where she was). She probably felt fairly secure inside her own courtyard looking up at me, and I guessed that her father wasn’t home. She’d come out, I’d wave, and them she’d go running back inside.

But before long, she always came back out. And at one point, she even took off the loose, outer garments she was wearing to reveal a brightly-colored toga-like dress. And she was gorgeous. Though she still wore a head covering, I could tell that her hair was long and wavy, and had the distinct color of burnished copper. It’s a natural hair color over there that I’ve only seen in Iraq and nowhere else. It was probably from hours in the fields with the sun on it – lightening it out. But honestly, since I never saw any women working in the fields with their hair uncovered, maybe it was just that away naturally. I’ve also seen it on a couple of little kids, since they don’t start wearing any sort of head covering until they’re at least eight or so.

Anyway, this girl kept coming out and staring up at me, and actually started to respond to the waves. Then she’d smile, which was pretty neat. I felt sort of predatory, but I wasn’t doing anything wrong. What she did next amazed me. She actually took off her head scarf altogether to reveal long, flowing, copper hair. Nowhere else in the world have I seen a natural color like that. I didn’t tell anybody what I saw, because I didn’t want anybody else to run around talking about it. I knew she’d get in trouble if she was caught. All her younger sisters were inside anyway, occasionally peeking out and then fleeing back inside again.

So I tried something. I took off my helmet, maybe as a gesture of good faith, courtesy, or perhaps to show that I would mimic her trust. I know it was stupid, pulling off my helmet somewhere in the middle of Iraq, but whatever. We’ve all done stupider things. Then I ran my fingers through my hair, mostly to eliminate the “helmet head” that you get from cramming yourself in a hard hat for hours on end. Much to my surprise, she mimicked the gesture – which looked far more alluring on her than it did on me. I really think she was showing off, so I gave her a huge smile and a thumbs up. As far as that culture is concerned, though, what she was doing was borderline pornographic. But, with a single Marine as an audience and the safety of the high walls around her home’s courtyard, I guess she felt secure.

They were curious about us. Maybe because we were the first males to overtly admire their beauty, rather than go find their fathers and offer some goats for their daughters’ hands in marriage. I’m not suggesting we had altogether pure motives, but when we see beauty, we usually acknowledge it – especially Marines – perhaps the boldest (and stupidest) people on the planet.

We kept up this little game for awhile, and she even removed her loose-fitting robe to reveal yet another full layer of clothing – but more form fitting. I simply watched with intent curiosity, interest, and probably ogled. If somebody had attacked right then, I would have missed it.

All of the sudden, a man I presumed to be her dad comes to the courtyard door, fumbles with the latch, and walks in. By the time he had the door open, she was already gone. I never saw her again, save for some furtive peeking from an upstairs window. More than anything else, I’m glad she didn’t get caught. He would have beat her right then and there for exposing herself to an infidel American swine. Maybe dragged her into the street and accused her of shaming her family and her father, and stoned her. In that culture, I wouldn’t have been surprised.

The Iraqi men typically fail to recognize the beauty of the women in their country, and fail to treat them as human beings, souls, and, quite simply, the crown jewels of creation. It’s a pity.

I’ve said before, jokingly, that the best thing we could have done for the country of Iraq is drop them porn leaflets from airplanes, and let nature run its course.

Copyright © 2008, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved

Monday, January 19, 2009

From Bended Knee We Cheer

When Martin Luther King had a dream in his 1963 speech, it was more a vision of racial equality than anything else – a nation where his children would, “not be judged by the color of their skin, but by their character.” And for his era, it was an immensely lofty dream.

Nearly 46 years later, most blacks stated in a recent poll that they felt Dr. King would be pleased with the current situation in this country – namely the election of a black man as President of the United States – arguably the most powerful position in the world. Yet this is not just a victory for blacks. It is a triumph for us as a nation.

In order for racism to properly die, color-based bias must necessarily be omitted from a child’s rearing. Indeed, it clearly has been. Visit nearly any playground in America for an illustration. Children are not innately racist; they are taught it.

Just as much as this is a victory for blacks struggling for racial equality, it is a victorious testament to the improved character of those who have set aside their prejudicial inclinations. It is a victory for whites because they have shunned once-common social norms and racial segregation. Collectively, they have proven for all the world to see that they are more concerned with the leadership and direction of their nation than with the ethnicity, name, or skin color of the man they freely elected to lead it. I, too, think Dr. King would be pleased.

In large part due to his efforts and with the assistance many others, an era of unfair treatment is dying a natural – though belated, death. Tragically short though his life may have been, his words have left an indelible and hard-earned mark in the history of this country. I am personally pleased to witness, years later, the triumphant culmination of his efforts.

Yet there are still innumerable victories unrealized within our borders, and some are perhaps worse than they were in Dr. King’s days.

Free speech is still very much in jeopardy, as one group or another, clamoring to prevent the offense to others, will muffle the speaker. Yet it is our right to offend others, and our right to be offended. As Americans, we take pride in our resolution of differences not through violence, but through compromise, collaboration, due process, the free election of our political representatives, and a healthy dose of thick skin.

Freedom of religion is also threatened in this country, as followers of various faiths are labeled zealots, terrorists, inherently violent, or perhaps simply ignorant. And, having been unfairly demonized, they struggle for justifiable advocacy. In many ways, a new kind of racism has risen from this discrimination. In short, the first amendment to the Constitution has yet to be fully applied.

Additionally, the second amendment is a source of continued, rabid debate, leaving the vast majority of citizens wishing the founding fathers had been more clear with the articulation of their intent, and members of both camps perpetually at each others’ throats.

Undue increases to the power of the executive branch of the federal government have resulted in the legalization of law enforcement agencies acting without warrants, and threatening the right to privacy and due process that every U.S citizen was intended to enjoy. Furthermore, continued, ambiguous interpretations of the eighth article of the Bill of Rights has permitted the construction of foreign prisons that practice questionable interrogation and confinement guidelines.

Similar directives have signaled the death of the Posse Comitatus Act, permitting various political leaders to deploy United States troops domestically without popular, judicial, or congressional consensus – another threat to the belief that the government is intended to advocate the People, not quell them.

Misinterpretations of eminent domain rights in the fifth amendment have paved the way for some localities to evict land owners in pursuit of tenants that provide greater tax revenue – shaking the very foundations of the universal right of land ownership.

Unclear writ in the eleventh and twelfth amendments has caused state governments to carelessly cede some sovereignty to the federal government, and the federal government to voluntarily erode the nation’s collective sovereignty to international organizations, giving rise to the concern that the country cows to pressure rather than stand firm in her convictions.

Lastly, the nation is still at war against various state and non-state aggressors who harbor unfounded hatred towards innocents worldwide. It is questionable if these matters will ever be resolved, yet ignoring them is all the more disastrous. Regardless, in consequence to these conflicts, the nation has lost many of her sons and daughters for the preservation of our safety, and struggled to accept more than one million surviving veterans with varying degrees of disability and discontent, burdening an already-overworked veterans administration. There are many battles still waging, and many more yet to be fought.

Tomorrow, this nation will bid farewell to one president and swear in another, ushering in a new administration, a new ideology, and a new era for this country. Yet even as the cheers for the death of racism still echo, we should fall to our knees and pray this:

That as our recognition of color fades further, our vision sharpens to what history has already revealed and what the future will undoubtedly soon present us. That we will have the wisdom and foresight to carry our country in whatever direction we uniformly deem appropriate, and that we will continually reference the Constitution as the profound and inarguable document it once was and still remains today. And that above all else, we act righteously, as citizens and patriots, and demonstrate love for our fellow man as we carry our nation forward.

God bless the efforts of Dr. King, the leadership of President-Elect Barack Obama, and may God bless this country, which, regardless of the direction it is taken, stands poised to write a critical chapter in global history.

Copyright © 2008, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Andy Gets Exposed

I knew some guys once that were occupying a small fire base at an intersection in the town north of us. They didn’t get attacked very often, but they did get IED’d all the time whenever they went out, so they were on edge.

In the middle of one night, some dumbass fires like two rounds at the base. They didn’t hit anything, but pissed everybody of so badly that they all just started firing back – and anything and nothing. Just unloading every rifle and machine gun they had – into the dark. They even started firing mortars. They had 60s [60mm mortars] on the base, so one guy gets on the gun and just starts throwing rounds down the tube. He’d drop one, it’d fire, he’d make a small adjustment to the sights, then fire another. He went through a LOT of rounds like this, just lobbing them into town, I guess. I know he wasn’t aiming.

His platoon sergeant comes out and scream, “What are you doing?!” at him, and he screams back, “I don’t know!” and keeps dropping rounds down the tube. “Stop doing that!” the platoon sergeant yells at him.

“Okay,” he says, and drops ONE more round, which blasts off to who knows where, and then he walks away. All that for two potshots…

He was good guy, though, and ended up getting hit badly later on in the tour. He was taking a nap in the tent on base, and a mortar round came through and blew up inside the tent. It killed the guy next to him, and peppered his legs and torso with shrapnel. Another guy got burned badly. The one that died was a friend of mine. Actually, all three of those guys were.

Being shot at makes you forget stuff, though. Basic stuff. I remember the first time I was in a firefight, I couldn’t see anybody shooting at me, so I just provided suppressive fire where I THOUGHT they might be. And I forgot to take cover. I just stood there in the open firings. I know we were taking hits, since a lot of the vehicles had ricochets on the turrets, but I never actually SAW any of the shooters.

And then we had to put a casualty in my truck, so I had clear off a seat in the back for him. But it was loaded with gear, food, water, and a HUGE stack of mail. I’d just collected a whole pile from the platoon and I was going to stop by the post office and mail it for them. So when I went to rip everything off the seat and throw it into the road, I ended up heaving mail all over the ground – like dozens of letters.

So there I was, in a firefight, walking around in the middle of the road, and picking up all the mail I’d just thrown onto the ground – like an idiot. Amazingly, I didn’t get shot. In fact, nobody did. They all missed. The only casualty we took was a guy hit by shrapnel from the IED that started off the ambush. He was hit pretty bad, too. Almost lost his arm. As is, he still can’t bend it. The fused it together where his elbow used to be. I think he spent more than two years in Walter Reed trying to get it healed up and rehabilitated enough that he could to home. I never saw him again, but I’ve run into a few guys that says he’s okay, got married and rides a snowmobile a lot. He actually told the doctors to fuse his arm in a position so he could still drive one of those things. He’s a raging alcoholic still, though. But that isn’t new. He was when I first met him. I don’t think I saw him completely sober for months. Maybe almost a year.

Another time, we had just finished interviewing the lady that lived in a house southwest of Ramadi. It was a really quiet community. We’d never actually been to it until that day. They said nothing ever happened down there. No attacks, nothing. “Nobody as ever shot at Americans here,” she said. Well, that’s nice.

So we get outside and start to drive away, and we get shot at, from right behind her house. The heavy guns open up, and I jump out and start maneuvering towards the source of the fire. Eventually we get over there and start pushing through the area on foot and with the trucks. We never found out who it was that shot at us, but we ended up spending the next several hours hunting for a shooter.

We’d drive down some back roads until the disappeared into the trees, then usually get stuck trying to turn around. My driver wasn’t driving too well, at least in my opinion, so I was yelling at him and he was yelling back, and we were always backing up and trying to find a way around to where we were trying to go.

We ended up going down this really narrow alley, which wasn’t too bad, until we got to a rock pile that somebody had dumped into the road. It was too narrow to drive around it, so we sort of just crawled through the rocks on one side, and scraped a long rock wall on the other. The wall hit my door so hard that I had to beat on it just to get it open. But, we got down there, and so did a couple other trucks. A couple miles later, I decide I’m lost, so we do a foot patrol, find nothing at all, and turn around to go back – there was no other way, since we weren’t even on a road that the map showed. My navigation skills completely failed that day.

So we get back to the rock pile, and we have to do the same thing again. My side of the truck is already scraped up from rubbing the wall, and this time, the other side gets scraped, too. Actually, it rips off the exhaust pipe. When we got back through, I had to zip-tie it back together just so it wouldn’t fall off. I think we broke a mirror, too. Strangely, all the other vehicles got through okay, too. Actually, my door was so bad, that I later I had to jack it up with the truck jack and beat on it with a sledge hammer. The Iraqis that watched us probably thought we were nuts. They were probably right.

Anyway, later that day, I started noticing that my driver, a good friend, wasn’t even talking to me. He was ignoring me like he was super pissed. I mean, we always yelled at each other, so I wasn’t sure what set him off. So I asked.

“Well,” he told me, “when you get out of the truck to fire back earlier today, you left the door wide open. If anybody had fired on the truck, it would have gone right inside and hit me. And then the door behind me got left open wide, so I couldn’t even get out if I’d wanted to. I was freakin’ stuck in the truck and you didn’t even bother to close the door behind you. THAT’s why I’m pissed.”

I felt really badly about it for a long time, and always made certain that I shut the door each time I got out. I didn’t want him to get hit an it be completely my fault. That wasn’t something I could live with.

Yeah, people forget their brains when they get shot at. But they give them back when you get out of the Marines.

Copyright © 2008, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved

Laid To Rest

From January, 2008:

I sat down last night to write out a few of the details of how a certain Marine was killed on my base in Al Iskhandariyah (first tour). He was killed as a consequence of what I considered to be gross negligence on the part of one person.

He wasn’t even stationed on our base, but a visitor. And, because somebody failed to give him some basic information, because somebody didn’t do a simple job, this boy died. And I do even not remember his name anymore, which bothers me.

I have long placed the full blame for this on the shoulders of a particular man (a Marine officer – Captain) who was tasked with base maintenance. He had been given a simple task, but failed at it abysmally. Specifically, there were rickety, plywood shower stalls scattered across the base, and they were our sole option for getting showered up. It was summer, miserably hot, and our flesh was sloughing off quickly, so we sought amenities wherever we could find them.

And usually these showers worked. But after at while, like all things wired by either Marines or local electricians, problems developed. In this case, the entire metal plumbing, including the fixtures themselves, became electrified, presumably due to a short in a pump somewhere. There were a few close calls, and I knew of at least one incident when a Marine had to use his towel to snag a friend that was caught, electrified, on the shower faucet. He made it, but it was an alarmingly close call.

I also know that a number of people put in repair requests with the captain in charge of base maintenance – the Camp Commandant. Nothing happened. The requests came from lower guys, Staff Non-Commissioned Officers, and at least one came from a Lieutenant. But not a thing was done.

We had a unit come in late one day. This wasn’t uncommon. They were the operators and crew of a bunch of AAV7-LVTP7s, the big amtracs: amphibious or land vehicles with treads instead of wheels.

They were given some space to park and unwind, and naturally a few wandered off for showers. One was electrocuted that night. Found, stiff with rigor mortis, the next morning.

NOW they rope off the showers. NOW they shut down the area.

After something has happened. They closed down all the outdoor showers on our base, indefinitely. Too late.

This happened in 2004. I have spent the past three and a half years blaming that one captain for his negligence. He was undeniably incompetent. I have been told that he had been relieved of two other commands before being given this third to ruin. And his irresponsibility finally got a man killed.

But last night, while writing all this out, two things happened. First, I cannot even remember this captain’s name. And while I had no intention of writing it down here, I did want to have it in mind, to restore the unbridled anger I directed towards him. I sat up until 4AM trying to remember it.

Second, as I wrote out the whole incident, how people had known about this whole thing and still used the showers, how nobody took any initiative to close things down themselves, it became more and more obvious that I could not blame just this one captain. And that frustrated me, too.

Textbooks say that when dealing with grief, the first stage is denial. Well, I’m far past that. But I have been stuck in the second stage: anger. I’ve always been there. And I blamed one man. It was easy; he was incompetent; and nobody liked him anyway.

But now, more than three years later, I cannot remember his name. I cannot concentrate my anger against him because, as useless as he might have been in his billet (and he was), there are a number of intellectual leaps I have to make to get from fact to farce and blame him entirely for the death of the Marine on our base.

I do know he was a horrible human being, which made blaming him easier, but it isn’t realistic. His negligence may have increased the likelihood of the incident, but he did not cause it.

But what did they tell the Marine’s family? He want away to fight in a war and died instead in a shower stall. Did they give them any details? Would those details have helped anybody anyway? Just make them more angry and slow down the progression of their grief? Is knowledge of the details what prevented me from getting on with things?

He is not the only man I know who was unjustly robbed of life. There are many others. And I am still blaming other people.

I have forgiven this captain of something he didn’t do, but I for which I held him personally responsible for almost four years. In my heart, that Marine, the boy visiting our base, cut down young, has been laid to rest. Directing anger at another will not help his recovery or return him to his family. That time has passed. And in reality, the captain’s name is unimportant. What is important, however, is that there are many more men awaiting burial.

Copyright © 2008, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved