Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Crossing the River

Lately, I've been drawn to a few good WWI poems about emotions before battle, such as Sassoon's "Before the Battle", Greenfield's "Into Battle", and Gurney's "To the Poet Before Battle". I thought I might do a short post on how I experienced the moments before one particular battle in Iraq, in the summer of 2007. At the time of this story I was platoon leader of 1st Platoon, Alpha Troop, 1-73 Cavalry of the 82nd Airborne Division. 1-73 Cavalry had been reorganized into a special task force, tasked solely with targeting terrorist-network related insurgent elements (Many insurgents groups were independent, but the most dangerous ones were supported by a particular international terror network).

I started this post months ago, but never finished it until now, finding it difficult to take myself back to this particular moment, for a reason that I think will become apparent. 

(Note: As before, I've left most soldiers' names out, only because I haven't talked to most of them before publishing this. If anyone recognises himself and wants his name added in properly then just let me know.)

I have no need to pray 
That fear may pass away; 
I scorn the growl and rumble of the fight 
That summons me from cool
Silence of marsh and pool 
And yellow lilies is landed in light 
O river of stars and shadows, lead me through the night. 

         -Siegfried Sassoon,"Before the Battle", 25 June 1916

The soothing notes of Pachabel's Canon in D flowed in and saturated my thoughts, as I cleared out all but the violins, soon joined by the violas, underscored by the basso continuo, building its famous crescendo. I was filled with an impression of calm and peace.
Rather unflattering candid picture of me on an earlier mission.

Peace having been simulated, I reached over and gave my assault rifle one last check. Bolt fee of debris, oiled, sliding smooth, ready for action. Close the dust cover. Grab my body armor, put it on. Kneepads on, map in left leg cargo pocket, intell papers and target lists in the right. Sling my rifle over my right shoulder, hanging in front of my body with the muzzle to the lower left, ready for reflexive firing. Helmet on. Night vision mounted and functioning. Rock and roll.

I looked down the "bay" of my tent. Corporal M. was "kitting up" too. Good soldier, Corporal M. His section leader, Staff Sergeant P., across the aisle from me doing the same. Contrary to doctrine, Staff Sergeant P. always put Corporal M. in the front of 'the stack' when we cleared rooms. As a corporal he should have been third man in, supervising two privates in front of him who would go in first. I once asked P. why he did this and he replied: "Because M's got balls, sir." Fair enough.

Pachabel did it for me, but now with my headphones removed, I could hear what others used. Mostly rap. The stuff with the driving beat. "That's good", I thought, "whatever gets you ready". We all had our rituals. As a platoon leader, I used baroque to clear my mind. I had to focus and make decisions, Canon in D calmed me down from any pre-mission trepidation. Fear of death or wounding, especially loss of a limb or more had to be forced down as much as possible, calming music did that for me. The men needed something to fire them up, before they set out to their perilous role of charging rifle first into the doors of enemy-held compounds. Some rap or heavy metal did that for them, usually accompanied by a Monster energy drink. The archetype of an officer, I preferred coffee most times, but I went for the Monster as well before missions.

Tonight we were infiltrating the most dangerous place in Iraq, the DRV. This was the Diyala River Valley, but the area held enough notoriety to earn its own abbreviation. For our task force, seeing DRV in the orders for an upcoming operation meant that you could expect at least one soldier to not return home alive, and others would certainly be wounded. Fed by the river, the valley had been a prime agricultural area since antiquity, shaped by its inhabitants into a labyrinth of thick palm and date groves, with canals that literally "canalized" troop movements - forcing us to use narrow roads perfect for enemy IEDs - and clustered villages that had become a safe haven for insurgents. 

I grabbed my assault pack which was bursting with a day's supply of water (eight liters minimum in the Iraqi heat), MREs, smoke and incendiary grenades, flares, batteries, and my primary weapon as a platoon leader: a SINCGARS radio. My scout platoon was too small for me to afford to assign a trooper to act as my radio operator. I stepped outside to have one last check-in with the Troop Commander (the "troop" is the US Cavalry equivalent of the infantry company, also commanded by a captain, but smaller due to its primary reconnaissance role). I took my helmet off and put it under my arm, too tall with the night vision attached to get through the door without ducking, and besides, I'd be wearing it for the better part of the next three days, might as well keep it off while I could.

Walking towards the Troop command tent, I found Captain Foster outside instead. He was in full-kit and had just returned from the Task Force command tent. 'Reppy-Rep!' he said while returning my salute. I hated the nickname 'Reppy-Rep', but 18 months earlier a previous commander who had a love for all things '80s had given it to me, and it stuck. I knew Captain Foster meant well when he used it: never in my Army career did I find another commander who was more proud of his junior officers, and all of his soldiers. 

"Hey sir. Just about to head to the HLZ [Helicopter Landing Zone]," I said.

Captain Foster, right, receiving a salute from his
 First Sergeant. The two were also close friends.

"Alright Reppy-Rep. Weather is a Go. I know you know what to do. I'll see you out there," he said as he placed his hand on my shoulder and gave me slight, but reassuring, smile. My platoon along with another were tasked to infiltrate far away from Troop HQ and the bulk of the rest of our troop. Our position would initially be outside of mutual support from any other elements in the entire task force. We would then begin "clearing" towards the rest of the troop, more exposed but also more independent. 

A slight smile in return, and a acknowledging nod. "Hooah sir. Thanks." I took my leave. That was the last conversation we ever had. Captain Erick Foster was killed by enemy rifle fire a few hours later.

By now my sergeants had pushed the men out onto the assembly area and arraigned them in their "chalks" for loading the helicopters. I saw my platoon sergeant, Sergeant First Class H. "Hey Sergeant, weather is a go, looks like this is happening."

"Alright sir. Everyone is here, might as well get this shit over with." Sergeant H. was never one too get excited about a mission. He had as much time in "the sandbox" as most of us had spent in high-school, and had a slightly fatalistic streak about him. 

The birds that would carry the Task Force into the enemy's backyard materialized from the night and set down on the landing zone, throwing up a choking cloud of Iraqi desert dust. We loaded up and the choppers took off. The rhythmic thundering rumble of the blades prevented talking inside, so the soldiers were left to their thoughts. Some leaders like myself had a headset to talk to the helicopter crew as we flew; these pilots seemed skittish about landing in the DRV given its reputation. This only increased my frustration with what us combat arms types called "leaf eaters" - they would only spend a few tense moments on the ground as we exited, and then fly away. Still, hearing the pilots talk kept my mind clear from everything but the mission and kept my thoughts from straying into un-productive "what-if" scenarios involving personal harm. Instead, I tried to rehearse in my mind what my plan was, and what I would do in worst-case tactical situations, such as an ambush on the landing zone. 

My platoon rode in two UH-60 Blackhawks with the doors open and most of us sitting on the edge of the floor, with our legs hanging outside. It was a comfort over being in the larger CH-47 Chinooks, as you had a better view of your surroundings as you came in. And more importantly to the average 18-25 year old soldier, it looked cool

About 40 minutes later, the pilots informed me that we were approaching the LZ (landing zone): "Lieutenant, we're ten minutes out." I yelled out "TEN MINUTES!" to the men. Then five. Then three. Then "THIRTY SECONDS!" I could see the Diyala forward and below.

With night vision devices projecting green circles onto the eyes of the troopers, everything now appeared as shades of the same color. The choppers carried us across the river and set us down in the valley. We exited, and the birds left to bring more. The same experience as usual on landing in the Iraqi countryside: roughly plowed fields making it difficult to walk, the fresh smell of the vegetation mixing with that unmistakable bittersweet smell of nearby villages, and the silence amplified due to the extreme contrast with the previous beating your eardrums had taken from the choppers. For the first few seconds you worked to get your bearings, identifying terrain that before you had only imagined after looking at a relief map and satellite imagery.

Something was wrong. We seemed to be on the south side of the Diyala, but should have been
Part of my platoon returning from a patrol in a later mission.
The vegetation was much thicker than this in the DRV.
dropped on the north. The pilots rarely approached straight into our objective from our point of take off, so I thought perhaps their maneuvering had disoriented me, but with a quick map and GPS check, I could see I was right. Damn pilots had messed up because they were so nervous. The other platoon had landed in the same field as mine, so I consulted with the other platoon leader and our platoon sergeants. Our troop XO (Executive Officer, second in command of the troop after Captain Foster, a position that I had inversely served in before being a platoon leader) was with the other platoon and also concurred. The river was wide and fast, and there was no way across for miles. The rest of our task force was on the north side of the river. The XO contacted Captain Foster - known as "Apache 6" on the radio - and requested the birds return and move us to the correct side of the river. Apache 6 called Squadron HQ, who called higher. Soon, to our dismay, only a solitary CH-47 returned to move us. It was a miracle that we were able to cram two platoons with attachments into that bird and get across, but we did. 

Landing on the correct side of the river, we could hear a firefight already in progress to our west, the first of many in that mission. My platoon would experience one the next morning in our sector. The current fight was too far away for us to move to assist. Once I got back on my radio I knew that was the case: Troop HQ along with two other platoons - several kilometers away - was in a serious fight. And soon a MEDEVAC was being called in for Captain Foster. 

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

FW Harvey, Cricket, and Nostalgia

picture a. FW Harvey,
circa 1915
Cricket in the United Kingdom, and in much of the Commonwealth for that matter, is a sport that is often linked with nostalgia for childhood and days gone by. The poet FW Harvey [picture a.] was an avid cricketer, playing in his youth at King's School, Rossal School, and later in life for Gloucester and Yorkley. He even played cricket during World War One while his battalion was on rest from the front lines. For Harvey too, cricket was inextricably linked with nostalgia and a seeking to relive the magic of days gone by. For him, one particular cricket match played while he was a Lance Corporal in 1/5th Battalion, Gloucestershire Regiment managed to represent two very different versions of an idealised past. 

b. 'Cricket: The Catch', as published in
A Gloucestershire Lad
In early June 1915 the battalion held front-line trenches near Messines in Belgium, before being relieved by a battalion of the Ox and Bucks on the 16th. Moved to a rest area in France, the men entertained themselves as best they could. Harvey worked on material for the 5th Gloucester Gazette, the battalion's now famous trench newspaper, but he also found time to participate in cricket matches, representing the other ranks versus the officers in June (Helm 18). Harvey memorialised this match twice with poetry, with his poem 'Cricket: The Catch' [picture b.] first published in 1915, and years after the war in an unpublished poem recently uncovered in his personal papers titled 'A Cricket Match' [picture c.]. 'A Cricket Match' states in text that it is about the officers versus men match of June 1915 which is chronicled in the Gazette, and also references Harvey having 'made a lovely catch', which implies that 'Cricket: The Catch' was also set during this same match (D12912/3/1/12/13).

The poems tell us that this cricket match represented an idealised past for Harvey in two different ways. In 'Cricket: The Catch', the act of catching the ball takes Harvey mentally from wartime France to 'Childhood that is fled: / Rossall on the shore', which he describes as 'Happy days long dead' (Harvey, 13). Though physically in wartime France, in his mind cricket has taken him back to his days of innocence as a boarder at Rossall School in Lancashire, from the crashing of the guns to the crashing of the waves at the seaside. 

picture c. 'A Cricket Match', GA, FWH, D12912/3/1/12/13
In 'A Cricket Match', Harvey reminisces about the same match, and more so about the adventures he and 'K' had trying to find a carpet to use as a matting to protect the pitch. 'K' is certainly RE Knight, as the poem states he was 'this long while dead'; Knight was killed in action in July 1916. Now in years after the war, the memories of this match and moments prior to it remind him of when 'live enough were you [Knight] that day of June'. The final lines of the poem make Harvey's feelings quite clear:
O God, how vividly it all comes back!
The laughing days of danger and of glee,
Those dear dear friends of mine then free to roam
Laughing at funny things they chanced to see
Who now in dark earth lie and wait for me.
These two poems combine to show us how much of a sentimentalist Harvey was, and that for him cricket was a channel to the past. Later in life he wishes himself back at a cricket match in France; however, during that very match he was wishing himself back to his youth at Rossall School. To some degree this shows that Harvey was never quite content with where he was; while the second poem also shows that later in life Harvey still placed much value on the comradery of wartime, and greatly missed it.

Photos of poems used with permission of the FW Harvey Estate.

1. George Francis Helm (ed.), The 5th Gloucester Gazette, June 1915,  Post-war bound reprint, (Gloucester: John Jennings, [1920])
2. FW Harvey, 'A Cricket Match', [1925], Gloucestershire Archives (GA), FW Harvey Collection (FWH), D12912/3/1/12/13
3. FW Harvey, A Gloucestershire Lad at Home and Abroad, (London: Sidgewick and Jackson Ltd, 1916)
originally published in: George Francis Helm (ed.), The 5th Gloucester Gazette, August 1915, GA, FWH, D12912/8/1/1

Friday, March 22, 2013

Rugby in Afghanistan, Part I

The mid-morning sun beat down on the sweat-soaked soldiers, as dust kicked up by the steady wind circled across an open field. Apache helicopters in the distance conducted search patterns, scanning the area of operations for threats, while F-15's with voices of thunder roared off of the runway at the nearby airfield. Having placed my men in the appropriate tactical formation I, Captain Repshire, prepared to give the orders that would send them into action:

"Crouch! - Touch! - Pause! - ENGAGE!"

The three forwards [linemen] [henceforth I'll translate Rugby terms into American Football terms for my American readers] in each side of the scrum slammed together as I rolled the ball between them and the contest began for possession, feet chopping at the ground to gain a hold on the powdery dust and rocks that were reluctant to cooperate. The ball came out on my side; I picked it up and pitched it with a twist of the wrist to Sergeant 'Doc' Lomelli, who charged for the tryline [endzone]. He passed the ball at the last second before he could be tackled by Captain Erb, an Air Force A-10 pilot whose physically descriptive call-sign was 'Tank' (and had once played college Football).

Me throwing the ball into a line-out.
The ball was caught by Specialist Neal, an unusually gifted athlete who had once been a Football kicker at a junior college. As Chief Warrant Officer Maher from the other team closed on him, he decided to play to his strengths, kicking the ball down-field to gain position. However, he was a bit too good of a kicker for our limited length "pitch", and the ball soared into touch [out of bounds], and struck one of the myriad imperfections in the ground and bounced at a seemingly impossible angle over a tall barbed wire barrier with boldly painted signs pronouncing "DANGER - MINES!"

"F***!" both sides seemed to chant in unison.

Twenty years after leaving the country, the USSR had struck another blow at western forces with its reckless mine-laying.

This was Rugby in Afghanistan.

Early members of the Parwan Rifles RFC,
 making our mean faces. Typical playing conditions.
From April 2009 to June 2010 I was deployed to Afghanistan with the headquarters of the 82nd Airborne Division. I hated it. No true combat arms serviceman (technically those in the cavalry, infantry, artillery, combat engineers, attack aviation and special forces, but we extend the term to those who deserve it, such as combat medics) wanted to be away from "the line" and instead in "the upper-echelons of unreality". I helped to run the Current Operations section, which was the best job a combat arms guy could ask for at that level of headquarters. Current Ops is the section of a headquarters responsible for tracking actions on the battlefield, receiving reports from lower commands, passing on orders from our commanding general, and coordinating all efforts in our area of operations. At least in this role you knew you were supporting those still in the fight, rather than contributing to military bureaucracy with the rest of the staff.

We had servicemen and women from every branch of service attached to Current Ops for the deployment with marines, sailors, and airmen in addition to our soldiers. Many were also from allied nations; Britain, France, New Zealand and Poland being most prominent. Most of the key personnel on my team in Current Ops were combat arms, intentionally placed in Current Ops as we best understood the needs of soldiers in the fight, having been there ourselves. However, we would rather be in the fight, and all had more aggressive, action-oriented personalities. It ate at us like heartburn to monitor our brothers in arms fighting and dying in the mountains of east Afghanistan, while we worked in the relative comfort and safety of the operations center.

We needed a way to get some of that aggressive energy out, and we found exactly what was needed one day when Major Miles of the US Marine Corps and I were talking about Rugby. I had never played but had always had an interest, and he had not played since college, but we realized that Rugby was the perfect way to get some of our guys out of the Joint Operations Center and into some form of action again. Sports have always had a strong place in warrior culture, often seen in popular depictions of British soldiers playing soccer and Rugby in rest areas during WWI, or "Yank" soldiers playing baseball in foreign fields during WWII. Rugby was physical enough to help burn that excess aggressive energy; it was true team sport that would develop cohesion and pride; and it required minimal equipment.

The Parwan Rifles RFC logo, with
the outline of Parwan province in the
background, and an Irish wolfhound,
a fearless dog that protects its people
from wolves.

We decided to form a Rugby club, using the same naming convention used by Britain for its colonial regiments in the 19th century. This used the Afghani province that we were based in, combined with the symbol of the infantry, the branch the majority of our initial players claimed.

On that day, the Parwan Rifles Rugby Football Club was born.

(To be continued.)

Monday, March 18, 2013

Friday, January 25, 2013

Dialect Poetry

In honour of this being 'Burns Night', the 254th anniversary of the birth of the Scottish poet Robert Burns, I've decided to write a short post on dialect poetry as it was used by my current research subject, FW Harvey.

Robert Burns, The Bard of Scotland
Burns was known for his poetry in the Scottish dialect, penning famous stanzas such as this from his 'Address to a Haggis:

'Fair fa' your honest, sonsie face,
Great chieftain o' the pudding-race!
Aboon them a' yet tak your place,
Painch, tripe, or thairm:
Weel are ye wordy o'a grace
As lang's my arm.'

For the full poem click here.

Burns cultivated an outstanding ability to express Scottish thoughts in Scottish dialects. FW Harvey, inspired by the dialect poems of Burns and Kipling, did the same thing with Gloucestershire dialects. Harvey was a scholar of the dialects of his native county, often giving lectures and talks on the subject, including BBC programmes to include: 'The Dialects of Gloucestershire and Particularly of the Forest of Dean' (1935), 'Yeoman's English' (1935), and 'The Forest of Dean' (1938). Radio serials written by Harvey such as 'Gunter's Farm' (1935-1936) and 'My Friends the Foresters' (1935) also dealt with and made use of local dialects.

However, perhaps his most remembered and endearing use of Gloucestershire dialect is his poem 'John Helps'. This poem not only demonstrates Harvey's love of Gloucestershire dialects, but also one of his favourite topics, pear cider or perry! The poem in full is below (For anyone entirely unfamiliar with English 'West Country' accents, it may be best for you to read this aloud to figure it out, and perhaps place some emphasis on the r's.):

FW Harvey, The Laureate of Gloucestershire

'John Helps a wer an honest mon;
   The perry that a made
Wer crunched vrom purs as honest
   As ever tree displayed.
John Helps a were an honest mon;
    The dumplings that a chewed
Wer made vrom honest apples
    As autumn ever grewed.
John Helps a were an honest mon,
   And I be sorry a's dead.
Perry and honest men be scarce
   These days, 'tiz zed.'
Perry is a drink which is often associated with the West Country and Gloucestershire, and therefore makes a fitting subject for a poem which also uses that dialect. Just as Burns used his haggis to demonstrate Scotch dialect, Harvey used his Perry for Gloucestershire.
Of course this peom includes another favourite topic of Harvey's, which was dry humour. As dry as a nice, crisp perry perhaps? I'll let the reader decide that for themselves.

-FW Harvey, 'The Dialects of Gloucestershire and Particularly of the Forest of Dean' (1935), The Gloucestershire Archives (henceforth GA), FW Harvey Collection (henceforth FWH), D12912/9/2/3
-FW Harvey, 'Yeoman's English' (1935), GA, FWH, D12912/9/2/25
-FW Harvey, 'The Forest of Dean' (1938), GA, FWH, D12912/9/2/11
-FW Harvey, 'Gunter's Farm: The Story of  Farming Family' (1935-1936), GA, FWH, D12912/9/2/5
-FW Harvey, 'My Friends the Foresters' (1935), GA, FWH, D12912/9/2/6
-Robert Burns, 'Address to a Haggis', accessed at http://www.robertburns.org/works/147.shtml on 25 January 2013
-FW Harvey, 'John Helps', Farewell (London:Sidgwick & Jackson, 1921), p. 32

(n.b.: All sources above from the FW Harvey collection are cited using the currently assigned reference number, which is subject to change as cataloging work continues.)

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

'An Afternoon Tea'

As stated in my introductory post, my current PhD project centres around the life, works, and documents of poet FW Harvey. One of the first Will Harvey (like me, he preferred his middle name) poems that I read which I was particularly drawn to was 'An Afternoon Tea', published in his second book of poetry, Gloucestershire Friends: poems from a German prison camp.

The poem as published reads:

An Afternooon Tea

We have taken a trench
   Near Combles, I see,
Along with the French.
We have taken a trench
(Oh, the bodies, the stench!)
Won't you have some more tea?
   We've taken a trench
Near Combles, I see.

As Harvey stated below the title, this poem is a triolet. For those who are not students of poetry, a triolet is in the rhyme scheme ABaAabAB, where the capital letters indicate a line repeated verbatim. In a triolet, the meaning of the repeated lines is meant to change throughout the poem, often with a clever or ironic twist. The initial observation of having taken a trench is made somewhat lightly, as indicated by the slightly flippant 'I see'.
Private FW Harvey, prior to commissioning.

However the parenthetical statement acknowledging the disturbing aftermath of such an event gives the final two lines a gravity not felt in their incarnation in the first two lines. In the final line, 'I see' now implies insight.

After my first reading of the poem, I thought Harvey was demonstrating the removal of general officers and their staff from the fighting which they would be monitoring and observing from a point of safety, which would allow the enjoyment of an afternoon tea. This is a theme often associated with the Great War. Reading the poem this way, the senior officers and their staff observe through reports that an objective has been taken (French and British forces achieved success in the area around Combles during the initial months of the Battle of the Somme), pausing for a moment to consider the havoc wrought, before returning to their tea. The poem ends with them reflecting again on the seized trench with a bit more gravity.

The poem could also be taken to reflect the removal of civilians in England from the dire realities of the trenches, perhaps reading the reports in the afternoon paper at tea time. As Anthony Boden points out in his biography of Harvey, articles published in the 5th Gloucester Gazette (the trench-newspaper which Harvey helped to publish) indicate that he felt some disillusion with civilians' lack of knowledge of the realities of war, which he observed while on leave from France (Boden, pp. 103-107). In this case, the parenthesis indicate that the civilian reader has no concept of the bodies and the stench resulting from taking the trench.

As with most poems, there are many ways it could be read. I am sure that Will Harvey intended that it have several meanings. Having access to his manuscript draft of this poem that was sent to the publishers gives insight into his intent. Notes in the margin of this manuscript show that he originally wrote the triolet almost as a script, with the speakers of the lines indicated in the margin. His handwritten copy reads:

Host Speaking: - We've taken a trench
                          near Combles, I see,
                          Along with the French.
                          We've taken a trench
myself thinking:- (Oh, the bodies! The stench!)  <-- Italics
H. Speaking:-    Would you have some more tea?
                         We've taken a trench
                         Near Combles I see.

Harvey later crossed out the notes in his margin, perhaps wishing to allow the poem more ambiguity. However, this gives us some insight into what he was thinking as he wrote (I am not yet sure if the slight wording and punctuation changes were Harvey's or the publishers). Placing Harvey in this conversation gives further possible readings. One is that he is imagining himself home from the front, as he was earlier in 1916 when he was removed from the line and sent to England to receive officer's training. In this situation, he opposes his non-combatant host's casual remarks about the capture of the trench with his personal knowledge, which he holds back, of the truth of what happens when a trench is taken.

If we place this poem and Harvey's notes in a strict historical timeline, then we have another, and I believe most likely scenario. The gains near Combles were taken shortly after Harvey's capture in August 1916. Harvey likely felt guilty about not being able to support his comrades who were still fighting, as indicated in some of his poetry (Boden, pp. 145-146). In view of this, the poem may well have been Harvey's lament that the fight continues, while he and other prisoners relax to afternoon tea. They receive news from the front (surely restricted to some degree by their captors) of Allied advances, initially glad of the victorious news, then internally reflecting on the true horror of the event, which they are now spared from, before continuing to drink their tea, speaking again of the trench's capture with the somberness brought by personal experience and guilt. The horrific facts need not be stated out loud, the tea-drinkers all know it, and so they continue their tea, trying not to think too deeply about it.

Will Harvey was a spokesman for the hardships experienced by allied POWs during the war, as seen in his poem 'Prisoners', also published in Gloucestershire Friends. The poem speaks of the humiliation 'that we have come to this', having once been fighting men who 'Adventure found in gallant company' but now are 'Safe in stagnation'. His feelings of guilt were no doubt compounded for him in 1918 when he received news that his brother, Captain Eric Harvey, was killed during the final offensive of the war. Understanding this guilt, I am beginning to believe, is a key component to understanding Will Harvey.

Regardless of which reading of this poem one chooses to accept, it is written to make one think more deeply about the news one receives, and what actions may have occurred in making that news. It serves as a good reminder to always think of the second and third order effects of any action.


Anthony Boden, FW Harvey: Soldier, Poet, revised edition (Gloucestershire: Alan Sutton Publishing Ltd, 1998)

FW Harvey, Gloucestershire Friends: poems from a German prison camp. (London: Sidgwick & Jackson Ltd, 1917)

Gloucestershire Archives D12912/2/3, notebook 2, FW Harvey, Gloucestershire Friends: poems from a German prison camp. author's manuscript, 1917. (This is a temporary catalogue number and subject to change.)

Monday, October 22, 2012

Engaged and Destroyed: One Enemy Cow

Some posts in this blog will deal with the history of recent conflicts, and often from my own perspective as a participant. This story takes place early in my Iraq deployment. I have tried to keep the language used by the soldiers as true to reality as possible, so please forgive the rather large amount of swearing. I am not known as one who swears much now, and certainly not in professional environments, but the Army and wartime causes one to act a bit differently than one might in civilized society. I have kept the names of soldiers involved anonymous (merely out of politeness due to not having asked their permission to use their names), other than my own and Chris Kimmet's, who also contributed to this story (if you were there and read this, and want your name added in, just message me).
In January 2007 the war in Iraq was at its height. Sectarian violence was tearing the country apart, one village, one tribe, one family at a time. That month the President of the United States had announced the new ‘Troop Surge’ strategy, one that would flood the country with American and allied soldiers, destined to bring the country to a fever pitch of bloodshed before ultimately leading to the ‘Sunni Awakening’ that would curb the violence and restabilize the country. But we did not know that then.
I was second-in-command of a 250-soldier cavalry headquarters troop that had been strengthened with additional infantry platoons in order to conduct ‘kill or capture’ operations, targeting key figures from al-Qaida in Iraq. We had just been inserted near a village that was a suspected safe-haven for insurgents, tasked to hunt down several key figures, or failing that, to stir-up the hornet’s nest and see what came out looking for a fight. Most conventional units in Iraq were out trying to win hearts and minds by conducting ‘stabilization operations’ while still fighting insurgents. We didn’t have the former obligation. We were sent out for enemy body-counts.
A twin-rotor CH-47 Chinook helicopter had inserted near our target house. Intell had told us that the enemy had occupied the area in large numbers, and that we could expect resistance at any turn, even on the landing-zone. As the Chinook evaporated into the darkness and the dust we started doing what we were trained to do. I had inserted with the infantry platoon led by my best-friend in the unit, Lieutenant Chris Kimmet. I was to move with them, while our troop commander moved with a different platoon for the first phases of the operation. That way, if either the commander or I was ‘schwacked’, the other would be far enough away from the fighting to still command the troop.
I had never been in combat before. Nor had Chris. Though we had been in Iraq since November and conducted several combat patrols, we had not yet been involved in any firefights. Most of Chris’s men were veterans, having spent time in Iraq, but mostly Afghanistan. They knew their business, but as young lieutenants, Chris and I still had to prove to the men and to ourselves that we knew ours.

Me talking on the radio sometime during early
2007 in Iraq, around the time of this story.

Like every uninitiated lieutenant, I wondered how I’d react when I was finally fired upon. Would I freeze-up? Cower with fear? Or lead the men like I was trained? One never knew until the time came. Chris and his Platoon Sergeant, Sergeant First-Class H, had ascertained with maps and GPS that we were at the right place. I checked my maps too, just for the sake of making myself feel better. Though I was the troop Executive Officer and technically senior to Chris, and his next level up in the chain-of-command, it was his platoon to lead. I and my radio operator were just extra-baggage for them, or at least that is how I felt. Until we could link up with the troop commander, when I would establish and run a ‘TOC’ (Tactical Operations Center) for the troop, I had little role other than to stay alive until any event in which the commander failed to do so. The best I could offer as the representative of the commander on-site was to relay radio reports up to him from what I observed, saving Chris the trouble so he could lead his men. So I did.

‘Havoc 6 this is Havoc 5’
‘Havoc 5 this is Havoc 6 Romeo.’ The word ‘romeo’ following a call-sign meant that a radio operator was speaking for the officer he was assigned to, rather than the officer himself speaking. ‘Well, I’ll do mine myself for now,’ I thought.
‘Havoc 6 Romeo this is Havoc 5, be advised that Havoc 2 and TOC 2 are assembled on HLZ (Helicopter Landing Zone) Budweiser and beginning movement to Objective Coors.’
‘Havoc 5, Havoc 6 Romeo, good copy. Out.’ ‘Outed’ by a mere radio operator, ‘Great,’ I thought. If Havoc 6 himself were on the line, he could ‘out’ me and end the conversation whenever he wanted, but not so much for his ‘romeo’. ‘I’ll have a word with that private when we link-up’, I thought.
‘F**k!’ a soldier near me whispered, as he pulled the charging-handle on his M4 carbine to cock it. He should have done that when we were still on the chopper, one minute out from landing. Had we not been trying to be so quiet, his sergeant would have given him a thrashing for that one.
We fell into a ‘wedge’ formation and began movement towards the target house. Night vision on, one viewed the world through a green hole the size of a beer bottle cap, which only covered the soldier’s non-shooting eye. Forget what you see in Hollywood movies, night vision is much less clear than is usually portrayed, and the flat image it creates causes you to lose depth perception. Top that off with having to walk through roughly-ploughed, hard-earth fields, with a forty-pound ballistic vest loaded down with ammunition and equipment, and a pack on your back with another fifty pounds of food, water, and radio batteries; I was lucky not to fall flat on my face every few steps. Of course, fifteen months of combat operations later I became an old hand at moving under such conditions. Though it was never ideal, and occasionally threw one off balance still, it became much easier to deal with.
The limited visibility certainly did little to help you with the nerves associated with awaiting your ‘baptism by fire’, whenever that might come. You at least knew that the enemy had it worse, having no night vision to speak of, but an advantage in familiarity with his home soil.
Even the ‘old’ veterans could still be affected by the drawbacks of heavy equipment and night-vision. Not far into our movement, Sergeant First Class H managed to fall over an unseen obstacle, severely spraining his ankle. There was no way he could patrol on that injury, so we called in a MEDEVAC chopper to come and take him out. He would only be a liability if we had to carry him everywhere for the next three days. We were not far from our original landing-zone, so we carried him back, put him on the incoming bird, and continued on our mission.
This was not a lucky start.
Having a truly professional and experienced senior non-commissioned officer (NCO) like Sergeant H with us was a comfort to younger, less experienced, yet higher-ranking officers like Chris and I. The next most senior NCO was Staff Sergeant L, who took over as platoon sergeant for the rest of the mission. L had a few tours under his belt, and we trusted him to step up to the plate.
As we approached the house, Chris signaled the platoon to form into a ‘file’ formation in order to move more quickly through the palm trees ahead, and to cross a small foot-bridge over an irrigation ditch that we had identified pre-mission through satellite imagery. I fell to the back of his platoon with my radio operator, to stay out of their way as we crossed. Crossing even a small obstacle like this caused trouble; if you met the enemy with half your men on one side and half one the other you could not immediately bring your full force to bear. At best it would slow your ability to react, at worse it gave the enemy the chance to defeat you piecemeal.
Staff-Sergeant C’s squad was at the front. C had been in combat before and had performed well, a comforting thought. He signaled his two point men to cross first, and clear the opposite side. Satisfied that it was safe to cross, he began moving the rest of his squad. At the rear, I could see none of this, but I knew what was happening.
Suddenly I heard shouting up front. Had the point-men identified enemy trying to escape? Were there civilians in our path, or a possible threat?
CRACK-CRACK-CRACK-CRACK! The unmistakable sound of M4 carbines firing! Everyone immediately dropped to the ground. This was it! My baptism by fire, the moment of truth. Would my training stick with me? What would I do?
My nerves held through, and my training kicked-in. I did what Chris would normally do as platoon leader had I not been present; I sent the ‘contact report’ to the commander.
‘Havoc6thisisHavoc5! Contact! East! Out!’ There, the first step in making enemy contact: send the contact report to your commander letting him know you were engaged in hostilities and the general direction of the enemy. Brevity was key in this report; as you needed to take control of the situation, you were to allowed to ‘out’ your commander immediately so you could get back to the fight. This was the only time you were allowed that indulgence.
‘Havoc 5 this is Havoc 6 (no ‘romeo’ here, now we had the real commander’s attention, and he was not even abiding by my judiciously-applied ‘out’), develop the situation and report when possible, out.’ Of course we knew to ‘develop the situation’, that was step two of the ‘actions on contact’ procedure. Though one did not actually think through the steps, training had drilled them into instinct.
The shooting had stopped, and no orders were being given to the rear squad to act. Normally they would be ordered forward to return fire and manoeuvre on the enemy. Something must be wrong. Perhaps the enemy had already run, perhaps they were already dead. Perhaps we had casualties, maybe even Chris and Sergeant L, in which case leadership was needed up front! I grabbed my radio operator and rushed ahead of the rest of the platoon to see what was awry. I weaved around the now kneeling soldiers, and crossed the foot bridge.
“Who’s the f**k’s that?’, a voice directed towards me.
‘F**kin’ XO’, I replied with some indignation.
‘Oh, sorry sir.’ It was Sergeant L. I was about to ask what was happening, when I spied the cause of our excitement. On the ground lay Private First Class S, one of Staff Sergeant C’s soldiers, grunting in pain while the medic examined his arm. ‘Damn, casualties,’ I thought to myself. Why weren’t Chris and Sergeant L moving the rest of the troops forward to fight whoever did this? Then I noticed a large mound next to Private S… a mound which I ascertained, not without a small amount of bewilderment, was a dead cow.
‘What the f**k’? I asked.
‘F**kin’ cow attacked S, so the guys shot it.’ Sergeant L replied in his country accent, clearly annoyed and yet somewhat amused with the situation.
‘Oh for f**k’s sake’, I exclaimed (That Britishism had always been a favorite of mine). 'Why did it attack him?'
'Don't know sir, he must have spooked it. He didn't do anything to try and piss it off.'
‘How the f**k am I going to call this one up?’
‘Hell if I know, have fun with that sir,’ L smirked, ‘Doc says his arm may be broken, I got to get this MEDEVAC prepared.’
Right. Well, might as well get it over with. I signaled my radio-operator over and grabbed the handset.
‘Havoc 6 this is Havoc 5.’
‘Havoc 5 this Havoc 6, send it. Over’
‘Havoc 6, Havoc 5. Havoc 2 has engaged and destroyed one cow. Over.’
A longer than normal pause.
‘Havoc 5, Havoc 6, say again. Over.’ I knew he wasn’t going to buy this one the first time around.
‘Havoc 6, Havoc 5, I say again: Havoc 2 has engaged and destroyed one cow, break… The cow attacked one soldier, and was then shot by elements of Havoc 2, break... Currently have one casualty with a potential broken-arm. Over.’
Another pause. The CO wasn’t going to have as much fun calling this up to the Squadron Commander as I was calling him. Our Squadron Commander was what most soldiers in the Army call ‘a hard man’.
‘Havoc 5, what the f**k?’ Well, might as well throw radio protocol out of the window on this one. ‘Assess the situation, and get Havoc 2-4 to send the MEDEVAC report. Over’.
‘Havoc 6, Havoc 5, roger. He’s already working on it. Over.’
‘5 this is 6. Good. Out.’
Due to having just MEDEVACed Sergeant First Class H, and the projected threat of enemy anti-aircraft capabilities, Command made the decision not to MEDEVAC Private S, as he was still able to walk. So Doc (the nickname for every combat medic in the Army) pumped him full of pain killers and we continued the mission with one rather-high rifleman in tow. The mission continued as planned from this point on, we raided several suspected safe-houses, detained several insurgents, and managed not to have to fire any more shots. We heard over the squadron radio network the next day that an angry Iraqi farmer had approached the commander of our Alpha Company, wanting to know why his cow had been shot by the Americans. He explained the situation, and compensated the farmer with a couple hundred US Dollars (all officers were issued a sizable amount of cash prior to missions to cover minor collateral damage), much more than the cow was actually worth, and more than enough to cover the trouble of having to buy a new one.

Chris Kimmet and I about three years later in Afghanistan.
Despinte our hijnks, we both managed promotion to Captain.

We all had a good laugh over it and at ourselves in the days that followed, even adding ‘one enemy cow’ to the EKIA (Enemy Killed in Action) column of Havoc Troop’s Battle Damage Assessment report that I submitted to the squadron headquarters following the mission. In the after-action debriefing the troop commander jokingly briefed that 'the cow had displayed hostile intent towards Private First Class S, and was therefore declared enemy and fired upon in accordance with the Rules of Engagement.’  It would be a couple more months before I would find myself under actual fire, and as things heated up in both a figurative and literal sense that following summer, I too became one of those guys who instinctively ducks when he hears a car backfire. But, what I had learned during my initial ignorance of this event was that I was able to do my job during the immediate moments after shots were fired, and was not afraid to move towards the sound of the guns. Too many times I’d have to use that skill over again in the next year.