Anyone who has lived in snow country, or is familiar with winter snowstorms will understand the following analogy. After large snowfalls I would try to make money as a teen by plowing out the neighbors' driveways with my dad's Ford tractor. It was a cold job and the timing of snowstorms never coincided with important events like eating, sleeping, girl-chasing, and other teen activities. Many mornings my mother would wake me up early to inform me of the previous night's snowfall and advise me to get dressed and start plowing driveways. How the hell she ever knew that at 5:30 or 6:00 in the morning there was snow to plow was beyond me but I would soon be leaving the warm comfort of my bed to get on that open-air tractor in sub-freezing weather to push snow into great piles. Years later, as a young adult trying to make a living in construction I found myself occasionally plowing snow in Oswego, NY. This is real snow country to those not in the know. I recall a sixty-inch snowfall in one afternoon. My snowplowing experiences in Oswego were much more comfortable than as a teen because I now used a truck to plow. Now I was able to ride in comfort, listen to the radio, drink coffee, and stay warm while capitalizing on living in an icebox. At any rate, I consider myself an accomplished plower of snow.
No matter how powerful the equipment, there will be a point where you can no longer push a pile of snow. You lose traction or the machine loses the power battle with the snow pile, or something breaks. Sometimes it is all three. As a plow gets buried in the snow it is pushing, the pressure of the resistant snow eventually exceeds the force that the truck or tractor or the equipment can put on the obstacle. When that happens, you have to back up, get some momentum going for you and ram into the resistant snow pile. If you aren't trying to push it too far, or the snow is not too deep, or if you are able to overcome the dead weight with inertia, the plow usually wins. Sometimes the snow pile wins and you have to just leave the pile and hope for warm weather so it will melt before the next snowstorm. Sometimes the testosterone we live with tells our brain to just hit the pile harder and harder with more determination until the roar of the engine gives way to the sound of metal breaking. A four-letter word says it all: snap! Snap is a wonderful little onomatopoeia. It is efficiently short, easy to recognize, and accurately describes the action. When you hear snap, you know you will soon be spending time and money rectifying the situation.
This morning, while eating my high-fiber, healthy breakfast I attempted to read the newspaper, as is my usual modus operandi. It is the first part of my steps to a successful day's routine before driving to the high school where I teach. I usually catch the front page, maybe finish one complete article, turn to the local section to catch what might interest me, and then turn to the obits to ensure I'm not listed there yet. But today was different. I started with the main story, the one about the wedding party in Iraq our warplanes shot to pieces killing about forty civilians including women and children. It is an undeniable story because they had photos of the dead bodies scattered about. The official response was we shot up a safe house used by insurgents who were attempting to upset the peace, love, and democracy process America is trying to impose on Iraq.
I would be more conclusive and specific on the story but like my experiences with plowing snow, I got stuck about half way through the article. Just like the snow putting pressure on the plow, the words in this article were putting pressure on my head preventing me from finishing it. Imagine that; I cannot even plow through a snowstorm in Miami! I shoved the paper to the side a bit and concentrated on my cereal. When my eyes caught the paper sitting so close, I gave it a couple of shoves as if I could shove the reality of this horror away from me. But it did not go away. And I know that the paper will be there this afternoon. And I know that it is in every paper in every city and on every breakfast table or recliner in America. And I know that this horrible thing happened. And I know what it feels like to witness this sort of event in person. And I guess I know I will be reliving that page of my history for the rest of my life.
Briefly, in the Spring of 1969 while on a mission in Vietnam, my five-man team of LRRPs, or Rangers (same thing), observed bad guys going into a group of hootches throughout the night. We had night vision scopes and were able to watch them in the dark. We devised a plan to call in artillery strikes in the morning at first light and try to take detainees if possible. It was not an unusual procedure for us. We often ruined the bad guys' day by attacking at that magical moment of first light. We called for helicopter support and once we knew it was en route we called for artillery. As soon as the first marker round burst we called for H.E., or high explosive on the ground. After we got one on the ground we adjusted fire and called "fire for effect," which means bring it on. Three rounds came in and we adjusted a bit more. The next rounds hit the buildings blowing them to hell. We were excited by the activity and were cheering as we called for a "repeat fire mission." That meant make no adjustments and keep firing. The artillery explosions are an awesome sight. It is rather freaky because once you call it in; you know it will be on its way and hitting soon. You wonder where the shell is until it safely hits your target. To the guys on the receiving end, there is no warning. One second it is quiet, the next moment your world is gone. The impact of the explosions almost knocks the wind out of you from 500 meters away.
The fire mission was gauged a huge success. We blew away some bad guys that day. Once the shelling stopped, we assaulted what was left of the hootches. On our way to the hootches we received automatic weapons fire from somewhere within the remains of the buildings. The whole team of five guys opened fire and we each pumped about five twenty-round clips of ammo into what was left of the enemy's residence. We then started our search for anything of interest, meaning weapons, explosives, papers, and survivors. All we found were dead bad guys, a few dead women, a dead old man, and one dead baby. The baby had been killed by one of our bullets. In the heat of the moment, our adrenaline was flowing so fast and furious we could feel nothing but elation at taking out some of the enemy. It did not seem to bother us that we each had a twenty per cent chance of being the one who had killed the baby. At the time, I had a baby boy at home who I had not even seen yet. My son was born about one week after I arrived in Vietnam. Getting myself out alive so I could see him was high on my list of priorities. My son was about the same age as the dead baby.
The feeling or thought that I recall striking me most was that possibly killing a baby did not bother me and I could not understand why it didn't. Killing adult enemy personnel was one thing, but killing a baby was not something we were prepared for. By an unspoken agreement the team never talked about the baby. I rationalized that either my training was so good that my soldiering was more important than caring, or I had changed into a non-caring monster. I rejected the latter at the time.
It was on my drive into work this morning that the snow pile of the news article won the battle with the plow. I felt the snap of the weight of this war. I have been following this war very closely and I thought that I was in control of my emotions. I nearly lost it thinking of what the photos had shown. The problem with being a combat veteran is you are condemned to relive every war your country gets into for the rest of your life. The average citizen reads an article describing a wedding being shot to hell by Americans and he or she gets sick, puts the paper down, or sighs. Maybe some simply ignore it for their own well-being but that is not an option for the war veteran. We get sucked into the experience so completely we can't tear ourselves away from it. Every war is our war because the continuation of wars confirms that ours was a useless waste. Had we really been successful, there would be no more wars. We don't just see photos; we smell (or re-smell) the burning flesh and hair and brain tissue. We feel the weight of human blood on our boots and we know we will never be clean again. Worse, we know that new generations of veterans will one day take our places at the breakfast table and they too will have to relive their experiences day and night. We know that their snap awaits them. There seems to be no end to this cycle of horror.
As I read of the tactics America is using in Iraq, I find that we now use something called depleted uranium in our cannon fire that the airplanes spew onto their targets. Very briefly, this type of shell provides two benefits to us. First, it is a material that is very heavy and effectively goes through metal and concrete, and then explodes and turns to dust. Second, since it is made from radioactive waste, it serves as a dumping ground for our nation's growing radioactive waste pile. You see, we are able to take our radioactive garbage and use it to blow up our enemies, getting rid of the garbage and the enemy in one fell swoop. There is a tiny side effect of being exposed to the dust from the shells. It is slightly radioactive. Not enough to set off a Geiger counter but enough to cause long-term illnesses including cancer to the unlucky folks who get the stuff on their skin or in their lungs. So combine the knowledge of depleted uranium with the sensory experience of killing innocents and I, along with thousands of other veterans have a fairly accurate conception of the wedding party we turned into ground zero.
Meanwhile, it keeps snowing and we keep plowing. And snap? Well, for the combat vets who have had these experiences, snap is just going to have to happen here and there, now and then.
May 24, 2004