Civil War IEDs

I came across this in the memoirs of William T. Sherman. He was describing a scene on his famous (or infamous, if you’re from the South) march to the sea in November and December 1864.

“On the 8th, as I rode along, I found the column turned out of the main road, marching through the fields. Close by, in the corner of a fence, was a group of men standing around a handsome young officer, whose foot had been blown to pieces by a torpedo planted in the road. He was waiting for a surgeon to amputate his leg, and he told me that he was riding along with the rest of his brigade-staff of the Seventeenth Corps, when a torpedo trodden on by his horse had exploded, killing the horse and literally blowing off all the flesh from one of his legs. I saw the terrible wound, and made full inquiry into the facts. There had been no resistance at that point, nothing to give warning of danger, and the rebels had planted eight-inch shells in the road, with friction-matches to explode them by being trodden on. This was not war, but murder, and it made me very angry.”

I was struck by how this scene has repeated itself over and over in the past decade, with a HMMWV or MRAP in place of the horse. When faced with a superior enemy force, an insurgency is of course forced to adopt irregular tactics.

Sherman continued with his solution to the problem, and the route-clearance procedures he implemented:

“I immediately ordered a lot of rebel prisoners to be brought from the provost-guard armed with picks and spades, and made them march in close order along the road, so as to explode their own torpedoes, or to discover and dig them up. They begged hard, but I reiterated the order, and could hardly help laughing at their stepping so gingerly along the road, where it was supposed sunken torpedoes might explode, but they found no other torpedoes till near Fort McAllister.”

I’m really beginning to like Sherman.



The Army: Then and Now

I was very entertained this week by Ferling’s description of life for soldiers in the Continental army.[1] Though life in today’s United States Army is not nearly as dreadful as it was for those soldiers, the parallels are striking in many ways, particularly in regard to the reactions of soldiers to army life. As Ferling noted, “For most, perhaps, the great discovery about the army was the dark reality that a soldier never controlled his own life.”[2] Though times and the army have changed, there are still many aspects of my life over which I have no control, and it can be frustrating.

I laughed out loud at the black humor displayed by soldiers about the crude medical care they received. I often joke about the recruiters’ promises of the free health care we receive, instead referring to the “free sub-standard health care” available to us. Ferling mentioned a list of strange treatments for various maladies; soldiers today joke about the Army doctor’s drug-of-choice, vitamin M—Motrin, which is prescribed for seemingly everything.[3] Joseph Martin believed he survived yellow fever only because his regiment’s doctor was on furlough.[4] While I cannot relate to the seriousness of his illness, I do scratch my head at the contradictory diagnoses I get from various doctors concerning my own health concerns.

Martin wondered at “his ‘imbecility in staying’ in the army,” and compared army service to a sentence in a state prison, both of which I have also done. [5] Ultimately, though, Martin understood what so many other soldiers have realized: a bond of brotherhood develops among comrades in the military, unlike anything civilians will ever experience.[6]

[1] John Ferling, Almost a Miracle: The American Victory in the War of Independence (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 331-38.

[2] Ibid., 336.

[3] Ibid., 332.

[4] Ibid., 333.

[5] Ibid., 338.

[6] Ibid.

The “Mona Lisa” As a Stick Figure: Narrative, Truth, and Revisionist History

Today at the Flag Day and Army Birthday ceremony at Fort Sill, the narrator regaled the audience with the history of our nation’s founding, replete with the standard lore about the establishment of the Continental Army and its role in fighting for and defending our nation’s founding principles. I listened with more interest than usual because I am currently taking a course on the American Revolution, and I am intellectually immersed in the period between the end of the Seven Years War and the inauguration of Thomas Jefferson as our nation’s third president. In the past five weeks, I have read thousands of pages about the players and events of that time, and have in many cases read several different accounts of the same events, written by several different historians. My knowledge of the period before I began this course was little more than the mandated mythology presented in public school classrooms, much of it sounding like the narration for an Army Birthday ceremony. As I listened today, it occurred to me how limited–and limiting–this standard mythology is, and how the American Revolution, like all historical events, is entirely to complex to fit into a neat and compact narrative. This revelation fits neatly with other thoughts I have been having lately about the study of history, and I will attempt to elaborate.

First, I need to define a couple of things in an attempt to clear up some common misconceptions. The word “history” is too often used to describe what should be referred to simply as “the past.” “The Declaration of Independence was written in Philadelphia in 1776 by Thomas Jefferson,” is not “history” in any real sense. Instead, that statement merely refers to an event that happened in the past. In this statement, we are merely informed about what happened, when it happened, where it happened, and who did it.  The true study of history goes far beyond these four Ws into the much more fascinating and instructive realms of why it happened and what the short- and long-term effects and implications were. Unfortunately, this expanded view of history is where controversy enters the equation. For most events of the relatively recent past, it is often fairly simple to establish what, who, when, and where; it is when historians attempt to answer the questions of “why?” and “so what?” that demagogues are scandalized. So, forget the past; let’s talk about history.

As I said, I have read a variety of histories about the American Revolution over the past few weeks, and oddly enough, I have not gotten bored with the subject. One would think that reading about the same people and events over and over would lead to a great deal of boredom, but the opposite has happened. I find myself more interested than ever, and this morning I realized why: rather than the dry, linear, “just the facts” narrative of the ceremony narration, I am being exposed to an ever-expanding number of perspectives about this event. Each new perspective reveals something I had not noticed before, or had not thought of before. It’s as if I am walking around and around an intricate statue or carving, looking now at the detail on the left side, and now at the full effect from the front, then on to the base in the back, and now the tiny scratches on the right side. I am able to begin to see all the individual details while simultaneously appreciating the form and scope of the statue as a whole. But forget sculptures for a moment; let’s discuss paintings.

Imagine for a moment that you have to describe the “Mona Lisa” to someone who has never seen it. You are not allowed to Google it and simply show it to them; you must use all the powers of prose and poetry in your possession to convey the most realistic image of the painting you can to your student. If you’re not very imaginative, you could draw a stick figure of a woman and call it a day. Yes, Mona Lisa was a woman, but does a stick figure do justice to da Vinci’s genius? We really should dig a little deeper. We could call in an expert on color and shading, discuss the items and scenery da Vinci chose to paint in the background, and ruminate about the mysterious smile. Of course, when we do these things, we open the door to differences of opinion, and probably even some controversy. But are we going to allow that risk of controversy to keep us from fully explaining and describing this work of art to our student? Is that fair to the student? To da Vinci?

Much of the “history” taught in undergraduate survey courses and in elementary, middle school, and high school classes (and at Army ceremonies) is like a stick figure of the “Mona Lisa”–it is a very rough approximation of historical truths. The nuance and shading that makes history so fascinating–and makes it come alive for students–is glossed over for a variety of reasons: there is not time to discuss all of the intricacies; students do not have the proper background to fully understand the intricacies; perhaps the intricacies have been deemed politically unpalatable to the state or local board of education. I am currently reading Joseph J. Ellis’s brief biographical study, His Excellency: George Washington. I skimmed over some of the reviews of the book on Goodreads before I began reading it, and most were very positive. I came across one, though, that was very bitter and angry; the reviewer said that the book was so bad that if he hadn’t been on an airplane when he read it, he would have thrown it out the window. His charge was that Ellis had taken too many liberties with history, and had presumed to know too often what Washington’s motivations or thoughts were. I am nearly finished with the book, and I have not found that to be the case at all. Instead, I have found that Ellis–a very distinguished and knowledgeable historian–has written a fascinating psychological study that is very well documented and fully footnoted, and which paints Washington as a great man who, like all people, had personal and professional failings. Ellis does not shrink from discussing those failings, and I suppose that is what upset the Goodreads reviewer so much; perhaps he would prefer that his George Washington remain an American demi-god, immune to and above the human condition that we all struggle with. Though the reviewer did not use the phrase “revisionist history,” the words he did use described the pejorative sense of that phrase that gets kicked around by demagogues. Here’s the key, though: all good history is revisionist history. If it isn’t revisionist history, then it isn’t history at all. History that isn’t revisionist is simply another prosaic retelling of the past, another crude stick-figure drawing of the “Mona Lisa.” The only way to begin to fully understand and appreciate the history of the American Revolution or any other historical event is to study and embrace the multiple revisions that historians have offered over the years. You may disagree with their conclusions, but do so without insisting on a crude stick-figure portrait of the Father of our Country.

It is sweet and right to die for your country?

Over the past couple of years, I’ve shared with my fellow soldiers my opinion that our job used to be fun, and that it simply isn’t anymore. Some of these soldiers are my peers, seasoned veterans with twenty years in, give or take, and some are new to the Army, having entered the world as I was entering the Army. I’ve been unable to give anybody, myself included, a precise reason why this is the case; I simply know that I used to enjoy what I do, and now I don’t. And it isn’t just that I don’t enjoy what I do, it’s as if the entire atmosphere in which I work has changed; where there were once lighthearted but purpose-filled days and missions, life in the Army today seems monotonous, tedious, and somehow ultimately pointless. I know the change took place after September 11, 2001, and I know the ensuing wars somehow helped cause the change, but I’ve never been able to pinpoint the exact reason. Tonight, I may have stumbled upon a semblance of an answer, at least for me.

As I was lying in bed trying to fall asleep, a memory from 1998 surfaced. I was assigned to the United States Continental Army Band (TUSCAB) at Fort Monroe, Virginia, and we were hosting a military tattoo in honor of the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC). At the time, TRADOC was headquartered at Fort Monroe, and TUSCAB was (and still is) often referred to as the “TRADOC Band.” It was a very big event, with the four-star commander of TRADOC hosting the Chief of Staff and Sergeant Major of the Army. During our portion of the show, TUSCAB performed an arrangement of a song entitled “We Were There,” a patriotic song about the Army’s storied history and exploits in defending our nation. Our commander, Major Thomas Palmatier, had extended the song to include some narration extrapolating on the feats of derring-do being sung about, and I was the narrator. Soldiers in period costumes came on to the field in front of the band, and I moved down the line as I delivered my spiel about each one. The narration began with, “The soldiers of the Continental Army endured the hardships of Valley Forge for the cause of liberty,” which I spoke as I gestured to the Revolutionary War soldier. I don’t remember all of the rest of the narration, except for the very end, which was something along the lines of: “Remember, it was the American soldier who fought for freedom in Korea and Vietnam, and who provided the thunder and lightning of Desert Storm!” Major Palmatier wanted me to deliver that last phrase in as booming and triumphant a voice as I could muster, and the line drew wild applause from the audience. It is in that phrase, and in the reaction to it, that I may have found my answer to my original question.

I joined the Army in October 1993, and the memory of the victory in Desert Storm was still fresh. There had been a few bands who deployed to Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, and there were still some musicians in the ranks who wore combat patches. I remember being in awe of those soldiers; they had been to a combat zone after all, something most Americans assumed (and still do) that Army musicians didn’t do. The stories they told, however, didn’t sound very glorious or heroic; rather, they centered primarily around sand, burning feces, and boredom. Still, they were combat veterans, and that combat patch looked like a Medal of Honor to me.

Fast forward to February 2006. I deployed for the first time, and was going to earn that coveted combat patch. I spent several months in Afghanistan, and a couple in Pakistan, doing a few dangerous things, I suppose, and playing my trumpet a little bit. But mostly it was sand and boredom, with no burning feces, thankfully. Somewhere along the way I began to feel that the only thing I was doing over there was wasting a year of my life, a year separated from family and missing out on the life that the rest of America was enjoying while ignoring what was happening in Afghanistan and Iraq. When I returned to the States, I found myself angry and bitter over things like “Support the Troops” magnets on cars, and the chest-thumping, flag-waving songs of Toby Keith. I had viewed those magnets and listened (and sung) those songs with pride before I left. Now, though, they looked like empty gestures from people largely unaffected by the wars overseas. I’ve gotten over that feeling, mostly, though I still cringe a little inside when I hear the live version of Toby Keith’s “The Angry American (Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue);” when the crowd roars their approval at the line “we’ll put a boot in your ass, it’s the American way,” I think to myself, “Of course you’re cheering. It’s not your boot, and you’re not the one doing the putting.” I deployed to Iraq in April 2008, but this time there was little excitement on my part. I already had my combat patch, it was not the Medal of Honor I thought it was going to be, and I knew I was looking at another year of my life wasted. Once again, sand, boredom, a little trumpet playing, and no feces burning.

I did not kick in doors while I was downrange, I did not have to shoot anybody, and nobody shot at me. I did absolutely nothing heroic while I was deployed, and I do not have PTSD from my experiences over there. My demons are home-grown and predate my military service. I have, however, played Taps at a whole bunch of funerals for soldiers who died doing those heroic things. I have stood on the tarmac at Bagram Airfield as a dozen flag-draped caskets were loaded on to a C-17 for their final trip home. I once saw a soldier at a redeployment ceremony at Fort Drum who had come home early and was at the ceremony to welcome his brothers-in-arms home; his entire body was in bandages except for his head, which was covered in scars from the fire that had burned off his nose and ears. These things contribute somehow to that nagging and vague question about why my job isn’t fun anymore. I am a little proud of my deployments; after all, in simply going over there I did more than most Americans did. But that pride is mixed with a lot of bitterness that I did something that most Americans didn’t. And I am increasingly uncomfortable with strangers shaking my hand and thanking me for my service. I’m not sure exactly why, although I think somehow it has something to do with that “empty gesture” thing I mentioned earlier. I know they mean well, but still…

In 1998, war seemed glorious and heroic, and not just to me, but to an entire nation still  heady about a quick and relatively painless victory in Iraq. We had watched CNN as Wolf Blitzer and Colin Powell and Norman Schwarzkopf spoke of smart bombs and “cutting off the head” and “killing it.” War was sanitary and fun, like a video game. By 2006, though, “shock and awe” had given way to talk of “quagmires” and “another Vietnam.” The wars dragged on and on, and the body counts got higher and higher. Today, ten years after the invasion of Iraq, we have withdrawn all our troops and declared the mission a success. I’m not so sure the Iraqis agree with that assessment, as they struggle to put their country back together and sectarian violence increases. Next year, thirteen years after we arrived in Afghanistan, we are supposed to leave and let the Afghan people chart their own course. Are we leaving it any better than we found it? I am not interested in debating whether or not we should have invaded those countries; someone else can make that determination. But I do wonder if it was worth it, for me, for the Army, for our country and theirs. Was it all truly worth the blood and treasure, the broken bodies and hearts, the shattered dreams and psyches?

And so my answer: perhaps what I thought was “fun” in 1998 was merely a naive patriotism bolstered by false notions about the true nature of war. Perhaps the ennui that I sense today in both myself and the Army is in fact the realization that war is not glorious or heroic or fun. It is brutal and boring, tedious and chaotic. My job was never supposed to be fun in the first place, and perhaps we all would be well-served to keep that in mind.

“If in some smothering dreams you too could pace behind the wagon what we flung him in, and watch the white eyes writhing in his face, his hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin…you would not tell with such high zest to children ardent for some desperate glory, the old lie: Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.”–Willfred Owen