Friday, August 24, 2012

Not just a river

Before I take up how realizing one's vulnerability in combat affects life back in the world, I want to say a bit more about my contention that men are pre-disposed to ignore/deny their vulnerability.  Maybe, if someone asks, I'll describe why I think it's so, but in this post I want to tell a story that will describe an extreme, hopefully convincing case that it is so.

In my division there was one sailor, an E-4, who had already done one tour as an ARMY sniper.  I capitalize that to indicate how extraordinary that was.  Even though in the Navy, he was apparently such a good shot that the Army "borrowed" him, sent him to sniper school, and then to Viet Nam for a one year tour.  In that tour, he would go out into the jungle, by himself, climb a tree and shoot the highest ranking person he could see coming down the Ho Chi Minh Trail.  Now, however, he was one of 10 forward gunners in the division.  On patrol, he would sit in a turret in the bow of the PBR and man the twin 50 caliber machine guns that were the main armament of the boat.

You might imagine he would have been admired, but he was widely disliked:  no doubt a result of his near open contempt for the fearfulness of the other sailors on the boat.  While in ambush they were all anxious, managing their fear, he was not.  He saw no reason for fear and was quite relaxed "in the bush."  Not cavalier:  he did his job, maintaining a watchful alertness, but he was not afraid.  They might start firing at a snapped twig in the night.  He expected more evidence before he would break the ambush.

Although unpopular in the division, he was very useful to me because he would volunteer for the occasional insane missions we would be directed to do by headquarters.  As an example, in order to "lower our profile," we were provided a Boston Whaler and told to send patrols out on it.  It's hard to convey how insane we thought this was.  Standard tactics had two PBR's going out on patrol together.  Each had twin 50 cal. machine guns forward, one 50 cal. in the rear, and an M-60 amidships.  The Boston Whaler was armed with one M-60 and the M-16's of the four man crew.  I had to go on the first missions since I was in charge of the division at that time.  Fortunately for me, this ex-sniper volunteered.  Fortunately for all of us, we were soon able to stop these patrols.

One night, back on the river in ambush tied to the bank, he was in the forward gun turret when a grenade struck him in the forehead and fell into his lap.

Had it not landed in his lap, it would have fallen into the boat and he wouldn't have been able to get out of his seat before it exploded.  But, though dazed by the blow, he managed to pick it up and  throw the grenade off the boat where it exploded.  A brief fire-fight ensued and the boats returned to the base with no one injured.

The next day he came to see me in private.  "It could've killed me!  I might've died!"  "No fucking shit." I said to myself.  It was shockingly clear that he had never realized that before.  It took a grenade off the head, into his lap for him to see, to feel.   But with that realization, he was now afraid and he did not want to go back out on the river.   "What's real courage?" I asked, "Going out when you're not afraid, or when you are?"  In spite of my efforts he all but refused.  This was a problem for me because no one wanted to go on the river and either he had to or I had to court martial him.  Since he was scheduled to go to Hawaii in two weeks for 5 days of R&R, I made a deal with him.  I'd keep him off until he went but when he returned it was back on the river or else.

Though I didn't know if he would, he returned from R&R, resumed his duties and he was much better warrior: more alert, more cautious and, yes, less arrogant.

Although his was an extreme case, I believe most who go to war share his capacity.   We have ways to diminish, manage the fear.  But when the uber-violence of modern warfare meets the powerful capacities of the human mind something's gonna happen.  In my next post I'll talk about the impact.

plato told
him:he couldn’t
believe it(jesus
told him;he
wouldn’t believe
certainly told
him,and general
and even
(believe it
told him:i told
him;we told him
(he didn’t believe it,no
sir)it took
a nipponized bit of
the old sixth
el;in the top of his head:to tell
e.e. cummings

Roy Clymer

For the background and context for these remarks, please read my article on PTSD published in the Psychotherapy Networker which can be found here or see a copy of it found on this blog titled "The Puzzle of PTSD." 

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