Thursday, March 8, 2018

A War Story: Symphony of Destruction

“I see ‘em! I fucking see those mother fuckers!” My assistant gunner (AG) could not contain his glee as he spotted our enemy. “Bradley, 300 meters to our front. They are in a waddie (also known as a trench or irrigation ditch). Fuck, I don’t know what the fuck it is! Just scan out 300 meters to the cut in the ground and light those motherfuckers the fuck up!

     Specialist Bradley peered through his M145 and apparently spotted haj because he let loose a twenty-five-round burst from his M240B machine gun. He shouted back to me, “They are about 300 meters away, Sergeant! Geez they are standing up and everything. How did we miss them before? I can even see the dust coming up every time they take a shot! I’m gonna light them the fuck up, Sergeant!”

     “FUCKING GET SOME!” The AG, Private First-Class Glen Kinney shouted.

     Gun One let go another long twenty-five-round burst. He was getting ahead of himself. The last thing we wanted right now was to run out of rounds.

     “You’re a bit right. Come to the left a little!” shouted Kinney.

     I rolled my eyes. It didn’t matter how many times I told them to make corrections in simple commands of right and left, up or down in feet and yards. “A little bit over” and “a cunt hair right” always found its way back into the lexicon.  

     “GUN ONE, SIMPLE COMMANDS AND TEN ROUND BURSTS!! GUN TWO, HOLD YOUR FIRE! LET YOUR AG SCAN AND ENGAGE WITH HIS M4!” I had to yell to be heard over the crack of the bullets coming in and machine gun fire going out. “If you can achieve enfilade fires on groups of people, then engage on bipod! Otherwise, conserve ammo; let the pea shooters have the individuals!” I yelled. I don’t know why I yelled about the bipod. Habit I guess. Carrying around a heavy-ass tripod just slowed you down. We were fighting dudes on dirt bikes in man dresses who only carried a few mags. They could disappear into the sea of people around them in a second. Speed was security and extra weight was deadly.

     These guys always got buck fever. Most young soldiers did. I didn’t care about killing those motherfuckers. Whether it was me, my guys, or someone else, it made no difference. The best Taliban were good and dead; hopefully ripped apart enough they couldn’t reach for that last grenade. They always had three or four swinging from their vests, though they rarely used them. I wondered sometimes if they were symbols to signify status. Anyway, it was my job as weapons squad leader to make sure we had the ammunition available for the possible assault on the enemy’s position. We had to find the enemy first; this part always proved hardest.  Real fighters never showed their fighting positions. The sound waves from their gunshots just bounced off everything in the area, including the shithole mud huts they lived in. By the time it reached your ears, it seemed to be coming from every direction, which meant it came from no direction. Imagine fighting an enemy who was nowhere and everywhere at the same time.

     I reached into a pouch on my vest and pulled out a small pair of my M24 binoculars. I wanted to see the enemy. I was excited because you rarely could find them fuckers. Once I could see the enemy positions, I would designate the objective to give out interlocking sectors of fire to my teams. Then the symphony would begin.

     War is a symphony. There is a beauty to combat that is just as potent as it is ugly. It is no different than the symphony Four Seasons by Vivaldi. The orchestra is our squad/platoon and our weapons are the instruments in which we conduct our masterpieces. As you listen to Four Seasons, you can hear the musicians manipulate their instruments to mimic the various seasons.  Just like a trained musician, an experienced warfighter can hear the difference between a disciplined firefight and a chaotic one. And just like an orchestra, a warfighting unit needs a leader to control the various weapons/instruments that it is using. To the experienced soldier, a disciplined firefight sounds like a beautiful symphony. Let us see, the SAW’s should be placed here…perfect…and let us get them talking back and forth…. yes that sounds great. Now to add some percussion to this, get me the grenade launcher; I want a 40mm round on my tracer every twenty seconds. Absolutely beautiful. It is missing something…. I think we need the big guns. I need weapons squad and a mortar team, then I can begin my assault. That is how a good squad leader thinks; he thinks like a conductor organizing the Boston Pops. The only difference in my world is the enemy has his own orchestra and death is in the air while they compete.

     I peered through my binos to where my soldiers had directed me and nearly shit my pants. What the fuck, I thought, this never happens. I SAW THEM! What the fuck? There, in all their glory, my enemy was shooting at me. I was literally watching a Haj, who wasn’t even looking through his sights, shoot a fifteen-round burst through his AK. For a second, I didn’t know what to do. I just wanted to keep watching them. FUCK THAT, let’s kill these little bitches. My eyes widened. My enemy did not know it yet, but I was about to unleash hellish rain upon them in the form of seven point six two-millimeter bullets. My blue eyes turned black. I was now death; whomever I wanted to destroy would be destroyed. Wherever I pointed, destruction would follow.

     CRACK, SNAP, CRACK, CRACK. FUCK! A burst of machine fire almost found home as the dust exploded around my position. SHIT, I thought. Am I dead? I checks my pants, no shit so I wasn’t death yet. I fought the urge to push against a wall. How could I lead my guys if they saw me cowering against a wall? Fuck that. If I was going to die, I’d do it staring down my enemy. For whatever reason, I looked at my watch, a titanium Casio G-shock. It read 1124 hours. I pulled out my tin of Copenhagen Long Cut out of my back pocket. For whatever reason, the familiar thumping noise when I packed the tobacco made me feel better. I opened the can and took a huge pinch, packing it into my bottom lip with my tongue. Hell, we could kill these guys and still make chow, I thought. Let’s waste these motherfuckers, then go eat. The symphony began…

     “GUN ONE AND TWO, OBJECTIVE TO OUR FRONT! NEW SECTORS OF FIRE!!” I had to yell to be heard above the rounds cracking past. “GUN ONE, LEFT LIMIT. FROM THE EDGE OF THE LARGE QUALOTTE OUT THERE…NO, NOT THAT MUD HUT, THE OTHER ONE…THE BIG ONE AT YOUR ELEVEN O’CLOCK. FUCK, WATCH MY TRACER ROUND…” I carefully aimed at a corner of the mud wall about 300 meters away and fired a single shot. A bright red bullet shot out of my rifle, flying down range until it hit where I aimed. I didn’t like to shoot tracer rounds- sure it showed your guys where to aim, but it also showed the enemy where to shoot….  

     “GOT IT!” Gun One AG called out.

     “RIGHT LIMIT….” My voice wandered as I scanned down the irrigation canal until I found a reference point. I decided upon an intersection between two canals. I thought I saw a puff of dust come up that could have been a fighter tossing salad, or in this case, tossing sand “RIGHT LIMIT, WATCH FOR MY TRACER…” I fired a tracer round right into the intersection.

     “ROGER, SERGEANT!” the AG yelled. He turned to the machine gunner and talked him onto his sector of fire.

     “GUN TWO, GUN TWO! LEFT LIMIT IS THE LONE PALM TREE TO YOUR TEN O’ CLOCK!” I had seen the tree when I was scanning for the right limit for gun one.

     “ROGER, SERGEANT! LEFT LIMIT, PALM TREE, TEN O’ CLOCK!” Came the reply from Gun Two, loud and in unison. I smiled. Gun Two was always better than Gun One. Maybe my training was paying off, or maybe they were just naturally better. Who knows.

     “RIGHT LIMIT, WATCH FOR MY TRACER…!” I fired the tracer round into the corner of a building. The reality of urban warfare is that non-combatant’s homes will become objectives. It is what it is. Americans, take note.

     “RIGHT LIMIT! CORNER OF BUILDING TWO O” CLOCK!” Came the response in unison. I smiled again, despite my situation. A few single shots snapped by my position from my right flank. Fuck, I hoped they weren’t maneuvering on us. One more came by from the front. Ok, so there were at least two elements now. One to my front and one to my right flank. I had to call out TRP’s (target reference points) quickly now and let my PSG know what was going on.   

     SERGANT MARTIN!” I called out. I was calling him to tell him the objective I had just created. No response. I tried again over the radio, no response. Oh, well. Got to keep moving forward.

     “GUNS ONE AND TWO! FOUR TRPs. WATCH FOR MY TRACER ROUNDS. TRP ONE…” Judging by the terrain and the irrigation canals, I figured that the assaulting element would maneuver to the right. Thus, the TRP’s would be numbered one through four, from right to left, allowing me to “lead” the maneuvering element with a wall of lead. I could always reverse them once my guys knew where they were. Assaulting these irrigation canals were like assaulting a trench line. The TRPs would act as guides for the machine gun fire, or obvious points of concentrated enemy positions. In World War II, this might have meant a bunker. Now it means a civilian house (or even a Mosque). Not that I cared. I called out my reference points, and the gun teams echoed my commands. My machine guns would keep the enemy’s heads down so our guys could get closer to destroy them. It was all part of the symphony of destruction. Music to the infantrymen’s ears.


     There was a flurry of activity as the AGs opened their spare barrel bags and began to frantically link their belts together. The gun teams were excited, we rarely got this far before the enemy disappeared. A burst from an AK came in from our right flank. Fuck, I hoped they weren’t maneuvering further down that canal. The guys were ready to go on cyclic. Cyclic was to gain fire superiority and rapid was to maintain it. I could always go back to cyclic if needed. I reminded them one last time the importance of lead on target.


     I didn’t need them slaughtering families by the dozen here. The goal was to keep the enemy in that trench as we maneuvered on them. With the objective set, and my guys ready to slaughter, I really needed some leadership. Where the fuck were the PL and PSG? I hoped they weren’t shot or dead. All of this was for naught if we weren’t planning some sort of assault. I couldn’t wait any longer though. I was sick of getting shot at and doing nothing. I was sick of being frustrated. I just wanted some dead enemy bodies stacked up from my machine gun teams.


     In that moment, hell was unleashed. The noise of mechanical thunder filled the small bullet riddled half house we were seeking cover in. We became a thundercloud and the cones of fire acted like lightning rods striking back and forth, punishing those foolish to stand up to us. The cyclic felt like it lasted for an eternity. I loved every second of it.


     “RAPID RATE OF FIRE!” Both gun teams echoed my command.

     Gun one fired a ten-round burst, and when it ended, I could hear gun two begin their three second count.

     “ONE THOUSAND, ONE, ONE THOUSAND, TWO, ONE THOUSAND, THREE! SHOOT!” yelled the AG. He was struggling to feed the gun while looking through his binos at the same time. The struggle is real. Three seconds later Gun Two "talked back" firing their ten-round burst. Gun Two didn’t have to count out loud, they went off a series of pats so they didn’t have to yell. It worked for them, and that is what is important. I learned a long time ago to not meddle with something that works. A leader’s job is really to train and then let the squad run itself. You only interfere when there is a breakdown in the machine. Then you fix it and move out. I let the guns talk back and forth for a few more bursts and then dropped them down a rate.

     “SUSTAINED, I yelled, SUSTAINED RATE OF FIRE” I screamed.

     “SUSTAINED!” gun teams echoed.

     A barrel change was needed or else it would begin to melt. That wouldn’t be too good.  I liked to go off feels for this, and I felt the need now. “GUN ONE, BARREL CHANGE. GUN TWO, RAPID! TRAVERSE BETWEEN TRP ONE AND TWO” Gun Two had to work alone to maintain the rounds down range. I liked to raise the rate of fire whenever I did anything that might remotely cause the element to lose fire superiority.

     “GUN DOWN…. GUN UP!” My guys got the barrel change down to about three seconds. They waited for Gun Two to fire before jumping into the fight.

      “GUN TWO, BARREL CHANGE! GUN ONE, RAPID.” It was Gun Two’s turn for a fresh barrel. They finished a bit quicker than Gun One.

     “GUN UP!” They waited for a burst and then rejoined the fight. My blood was raising with every burst. I was risking getting caught up in the excitement. Luckily, my platoon sergeant showed up right then to calm things down.

     “HEY, CALM THE FUCK DOWN! What the fuck is going on in here?” Sergeant First Class Martin came sauntering in like he owned the place. He didn’t even flinch as a bullet cracked past and hit the mud wall behind him right. Right in front of the medic’s face.  Sergeant Martin was our platoon sergeant, aka platoon daddy. “CEASE FIRE!” he yelled.

     “CEASE FIRE!” I called out.

     “CEASE FIRE” my gun teams echoed. The guns went silent. The enemies had as well. An eerie calm settled over the field. I noticed my hands were shaking. That was the adrenalin working through me. I spit out my old dip and grabbed my can from my back pocket. I needed a new dip to keep my hands busy.

     I rattled off some orders. “Round count AGs. Disperse remaining ammo to even the load. Gunners, look for people getting out of the canal. Watch the doors on those buildings behind the canal.”

     I looked over at the PSG. “Where the hell have you been?” I asked with a smile. I was glad he wasn’t dead.  “My guys spotted Haj out to our front so we decided to light ‘em the fuck up and lighten our loads a bit.”

     He shook his head no. “We are pulling back. Our support platoon flipped a vehicle coming out to join the fight. We gotta go provide security for them while they recover it.”

     “400 rounds per gun, Sergeant!” Gun two’s AG called out. I didn’t respond.

     I stared at SFC Martin from my position, kneeling between my two gun teams. It didn’t register. A single round snapped through our position. It had come from our right flank. They had changed their position. They were probably responding to the rolled vehicle. News traveled faster on their side because they didn’t worry about a chain of command or have frequencies that went down all the time. They just called each other on their cell phones and told each other what was up. We had better get over there quick.

     “The rest of the platoon has already started their withdrawal. Get your gun teams back with them.” He said.

      I stared at him for a second longer before coming back to reality. It wasn’t his fault, he was just following orders. The other platoon needed us, and it was important to be adaptive. But still what a kick in the dick. I tried making myself feel better by thinking, Hey, maybe we would slaughter them on the way over. I doubted it, they tend to disappear in situations like this because they knew air support would be arriving shortly. Too many troops on the ground and a roll over means Apache overwatch. They weren’t stupid.

     "Gun teams, break it down.” The AG’s snapped the belts at about 75 rounds and packed up their gear. “Gun One, overwatch Gun Two as they withdraw. Gun two, follow Sergeant Martin.” As soon as they left, I told Gun One to move out.
                  As they ran by me, I saw the gunner had a dark burn on the side of one cheek. Either a bullet had grazed him, or he had burned himself on the barrel. I would make sure to get him over to the medics when we got back to the FOB.

      With both gun teams gone, I turned to look at my position one last time. Two piles of brass and links glinted in the sunlight, the only evidence that there was a fight there. That would be gone as soon as we pulled out of this village. Did all this mean anything? In Shakespeare’s play, Macbeth, Macbeth states that “life is a tale told by an idiot. Full of sound and fury. Signifying nothing.” I couldn’t help but think of that line right in that moment. I don’t know about life, but the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were full of sound and fury. A beautiful symphony of destruction which played out daily across multiple countries in the Mideast. In the end though, after the firefights and bombs, bullets and explosions playing like percussions, strings, and brass, what did it really signify?

     I turned to catch up with my guys. Living to fight another day, I guess.

     Beauty and terror. Life’s extremes in a thirty-minute firefight. I loved and hated it. Or something like that….