“It’s not an…entirely unproductive conceit to consider weapons
as being something more than machines as having personalities,
perhaps, likenesses to the human…”
2rd Movement- Interlude
The soldiers emerge from western harbor to Asian province, on eastern land barely familiar to them from dreams and dreams of conquest. Their routine is guided by controlled gesture, driven by where they eat, where they sleep, who they fuck and when. Look at that one and how he marches, each step a contradiction, a submission to the backbeat of death. And because he knows nothing of chauvinism except that he, the private, is only a private, he marches to the beat dutifully, trying his best to keep in step. He follows the western ship hailed by green and black and tan ensigns through the ancient eastern fog. He enters his barracks, four stories tall in cold grey brick, long meters in length, fatter in width. A home of concrete on hardened earth. He passes through the main lobby, up the stairs, quickly up each flight, past the second, third floors, up to the fourth where the junior NCOs, Corporals and Buck E-5s keep quarters. He walks the linoleum halls carefully examining each door until he finds the corporal’s. He bangs enthusiastically on the door and when the corporal answers the private quickly peers inside the room. It is the same colorless, lifeless, odorless chamber as his own. Four bland walls, one window, two bunks and two metal wall lockers.
“What do you want?” says the corporal.
The private hands him a sheet of orders and the corporal rubs his eyes with his palms and nods. Then he shuts the door, and the private walks back toward the staircase.
The corporal looks over his one line order.
“Fuck,” he mutters before getting dressed and heading downstairs. He has been ordered to report in less than an hour to the desk in the lobby. His first day with the unit will be monitoring the building’s incoming and outgoing traffic. He will not see more than the inside of the lobby for the next 24 hours, he realizes. “Fuck,” he says again.
The private returns to his room and looks over one last time the 200-page Division Handbook he was given upon arrival. The Handbook outlines the history of his unit, a unit with extensions beyond the borders of South Korea and a history entrenched within some of the most profound battles of the century. A unit whose crest is red and gold and graded by five wavy lines, each representing a river the old timers of the Great War had crossed in France en route to Germany. The Aisne, Marne, Meuse, and Moselle and finally the Rhine.
Five wavy lines on a shield of gules red, gold and silver with the upper left hand corner reserved for the sinister crossing of the golden sash. The crest established in 1917 and still fights eighty years later.
Before the corporal’s shift begins he walks to the Battery HQ. On his way there, there on the battery drill pad, he meets Smoke, the grizzled Sergeant First Class, for the first time. Smoke speaks to him of his intentions for the unit. The corporal tries hard listen as the frigid air of winter enters and exits his lungs.
There the private marks them as he marches dutifully to the Motor Pool.
“I’ve already made up my mind, Corporal, so you can just listen and accept it. We are going to the field tomorrow for a few days to prep for Warsteed, and I want you to gun 3rd Section. I know it’s your day of rest. You can rest some tonight. But I want you to be with us when we roll out tomorrow. That section needs something new. Chief’s a good soldier but been letting that group of his slowly go down the shitter. You take a good hold of that section and there’s a chance it may be yours by the time you leave. You hear me, Corporal?”
“Perfection, Corporal, that’s what that means. That’s what I want. Most of the young soldiers don’t got any idea what that means. This is not some sort of sermon, Corporal. I’m not a preacher. I just believe in what we do because what we do is damn important. With one twist of the hip we can save an entire infantry platoon. We save them by killing more enemy soldiers than that same platoon can do with fifty trigger fingers twitching and singing. Truth about Artillery is we’re like the bolt of lightning from God. I said this wasn’t a sermon, and it ain’t. But we answer prayers, Corporal. We certainly do that. Think of those infantrymen out there on patrol. In the woods. In the dark. Alone. Then bullets start flying around them. From everywhere. Flank. Rear. Front. First man to go down is the point. Second one is the squad leader. And the bullets keep coming. They’re getting shot up to hell. Each of them thinking maybe if they had taken a route fifty meters to the left or fifty meters to the right they’d have avoided the whole thing. Maybe even got the jump on that ambush … Maybe not. But when the realization sinks in that that entire damn squad‘ll probably end up dead where it lies, well, that’s when the prayers start. Like bursting through the Hoover Dam, the prayers start, Corporal. They start thinking about all those things that only men who are about to die care about. Life and love and family and how they’re too young. Then the sky lights up above them like it is day. If you can see the man shooting at you it may work up enough animosity to carry on. ‘Hey, that raghead just killed Johnson, now I’m going to kill him.’ But that ain’t why the sky lit up. It’s so our boys, the Iron Fisters, can assess the battlefield. Most of the infantrymen don’t know that, but that’s the reason.
“The sky goes dark again and so do the men. Then in the air, like God Almighty’s answer, like lightning, is the whistle of six collective rounds, time on target. They press their faces in the dirt not to see, but if they didn’t, if they raised their chins and watched, Corporal, they would see the meaning of war. Even so, they understand the sublimity of Artillery. We get Fire Missions, and the quicker we get those rounds there, the faster we pulverize the enemy, the closer we get to being the Almighty himself. Most of these artillery soldiers we got don’t have that kind of vision. No ambition and no sense of urgency. Especially in this damn country. They’re slow because they’re too detached from the mission. The real mission. They think the machine does all the work but that’s the wrong damn answer. They need to be quick. And they need to be fierce. And they need to execute with the vision that they were on that same damn battlefield that their brothers are getting shot up to hell on. They need to be a part of that breech stock when it snaps the round shut in the chamber. They need to be perfect, Corporal. We got the greatest importance of priorities when it comes to the battlefield. That’s why they call us the kings of it. We got to be fast not for our own lazy lives, but for the men dying on the front. Because it could just as easily be us getting ambushed. And who the hell would we call then? The Perfect Battery, Corporal. That’s what I want. God on the battlefield. Soldiers so single minded in their purpose that when they’re not firing rounds they got their noses so deep inside that dash-ten they got paper cuts on their nostrils! Soldiers that practice setting fuses and loading them damn rounds two at a time. Sergeants that actually sit their sections down in the dirt and give them a class or two on their spare time. Guns that pull into position and keep their engines roaring until it’s time to get back home.
“That’s what I want. Execution. If they’re doing what they’re supposed to, doing the right thing, if they’re perfect, Corporal, then it shouldn’t matter who’s up their asses watching them. Understand? We all got a purpose, but don’t make no mistake. The body is that gun, and we all are just extensions of it. We ain’t even the brain, Corporal. But that’s fine with me and it should be goddamn fine with every soldier who calls himself an Artilleryman. That’s what I want. That’s all I want. Now get the hell on to your duty, Corporal. We’re rolling out tomorrow. Good prep for Warsteed.”
The private continued to march alongside his Chief.
“What’s Warsteed, Chief?”
“Extended field time, I mean.”
“When does it start?”
“When First Sergeant said it does.”
But the private could not remember those words from first formation.
“Soon enough, private,” said Chief with a long grin.
The private looked at the formations marching around him. They were six gun sections and four headquarters sections, three platoons and a total of sixty soldiers. The private looked to them, the artillerymen, realizing that though he had been trained as they, he was not yet ordained as they were.
Not yet, he wasn’t.
They marched the road north to the motor pool, north leading him past the other billets. Past Charlie Battery, Bravo, and Alpha, each one of them tempered by their own grouping of artillerymen. On either side of the road patches of brown grass covered a land that almost resembled a trimmed park. There were even a few wooden picnic tables. The land dipped revealing a manmade ravine. The private passed over a narrow concrete bridge that led to the motor pool and a bridge where soldiers took their smoke breaks. Mechanics drank coffee from the hodeshi snack trucks. Below the bridge was the water, a tributary from a much wider river that would die to a crawl in the deeper months of winter and flood in the spring and early summer with the monsoon rains. And there on the opposite side of the bridge was the main entrance of the motor pool, a land painted in concrete and forged by the hands of so many weary soldiers.
The mountains stood firmly beyond the motor pool. Same monstrous shapes as they have always been, yet on that morning not quite as threatening. Same jagged edged titans tearing into the sky, but with a soft outline of green fur slightly buffering the cut. The sky was a soft blue, nearer to light gray, and with only a few lingering clouds. Thin sheets of pale white stretched long across the horizon and graduated in successive latitudes, three or four separate levels I remember counting. The plains were as rocky as they had always been too, only barely populated with gray brown tree trunks that shot out from the ground and leaned as pitchforks in hay. The smaller hills in the foreground crashed into the earth as waves on a beach.
All the vehicles of the battalion were stayed in the motor pool. The HUMVEEs, the Breakers, the M109A6s, Paladins they were called. The Paladins were lined up with the tubes facingtoward the barracks.
Chief walked to the mechanic bay and emerged with a clipboard under his arm and a cup of steaming coffee in his hand. He walked over to another group of sergeants and began chatting and nodding his head. The private marked it all in the near distance.
“You ready for this?” a soldier said to the private, motioning to one of the Paladins.
The private approached it and touched his hand to its flank. M109A6. The most potent American beast to roam the earth since the buffalo. The Paladin, parked and immobile and obedient to this army, capable of belching 155 millimeter rounds, shells the size of a grown man’s thigh, one after the next, wreaking destruction on impact, wherever on the battlefield that may be. Its blows are the most powerful and unmerciful and it will kill a friendly as effectively as an enemy. The round it fires can travel over 30,000 meters. The turret can revolve 6400 mils with the turn of a handle. All this he had learned in his training. It is the most wretched, the epitome of all modern gunnery, the beast that the private had come to tame.
Then the engine roared, “Git yer hand offa that thing!” The turret ascended, and the private held firm his grip to its side and felt it hum, watched as the Paladin’s muzzle inched closer and closer to the sky, aiming to oblivion, grinding its metal teeth. A 32-ton metal beast with a singular cylindrical phallus, erected from the base of its hollow belly and reaching straightward to the heavens.
“Come on, let’s get up there and open this bitch up,” said the soldier as he climbed up and stood on the hood above the engine. Another followed him. Then the private hopped up. They wedged open the grate with a four foot handspike and propped it up exposing the engine in its cradle. They stood in eerie meditation, all three of them, all sixty in the battery, all men everywhere, as third section looked deeply inside to the heart of their beast.
“Got to make sure she’s good to go for tomorrow.”
And the men got to work.
The next day they pulled into position in the afternoon under gray clouds. Moist brown earth and an unforgiving wind. The vehicle stopped and the private didn’t know what to do. Neither did the corporal for that matter.
In Lewis the corporal had trained on an M119, a towed howitzer that fired 105 millimeter rounds smaller than its majestically larger cousin, the M198, and a dwarf to the self-propelled M109 series. On a One-One-Niner, when a section pulled into position, each member of the crew—driver, Chief, Gunner, Assistant Gunner, Ammo Team Chief, Number One man, Number Two man—all had something to do. The driver would inch the truck forward as each soldier waited in perfect restraint. Chief in the passenger seat eyes attentive and forward. Guided by the Advance Party man. Then when the vehicle reached its marker the soldier would yell,
and all the troops would spill from the rear of the truck, flooding to the ground in an aesthetic blur of organization and purpose. First the Gunner would exit, closest to the rear and carrying the sight which he would have already removed from the metal suitcase. The AG from the left side, unlocking and securing the saddle clamp, attaching the front firing stays to the quick release pins on the clamp assembly, would loosen the left wheel nut by banging on it with a rubber mallet, and then, placing a jack strut under the trail, would pull the wheel off slightly as the Gunner and Number One man swung the tube around from the travelling, folded position to the normal firing position. The Number One and Number Two men would slide the firing platform from the trails and lifting it from the groves and placing it on the ground, fastening the rear stays, then would give the signal for the driver to pull forward further tightening the slack.
Whoa, Whoa! Good!
One would say as the wheels rolled onto the heavy camouflaged disc. Another cannoneer, placing the handspike, a long black pole, into the handspike socket and, under the directive of the Ammo Team Chief lifting the gun off the truck, would walk it a few feet away, traversing until the tube was facing the correct azimuth. Sometimes when they lifted, the Gunner would remain seated on the trails, on the left side of the tube, verifying the boresight or clamping down the sight on its mount.
Little to the right, little to the left. Hold! Hold!
Adjusting the Deflection and Quadrant until the gun was ready to be verified by the Gunnery Sergeant, Gunny would stand in front of the battery reading back numbers over the radio or through a relay.
Safe, Gunny would call out.
Safe, the soldier would relay.
Gun 1 is laid, Gunny would say.
Gun 1 is laid, the section would echo.
This was all completed in under two and a half minutes.
Next the Ammunition Team Chief would set up his shelter and prepare some rounds. The Number One man would fix the firing pin into the breech block. First the collimator then the aiming polls would be set as primary and secondary reference points. After that, the section would not slow down until they had rearranged their trucks and raised the net. They did many drills like this, and usually when they got everything done, someone would call March Order over the radio, and they’d tear everything down, undoing it all, and get back in the truck to pull in to another position.
That was when the corporal worked on light artillery.
When they had pulled into this position, Chief pressed a few buttons and then everybody in the track took off their helmets and leaned back. The driver turned on the heater, and they all began to thaw.
Gun 1 is laid, a voice had said over the radio.
Gun 1 laid, echoed Chief.
That was it.
All sat waiting in the cabin.
The cabin shook and the engine roared. The private was filled with excitement, his heart a gran cassa in his chest. The entire cabin began to rotate. The private leapt from his seat and, overcome with emotion, smacked his head into the ceiling.
“Goddamn it, soldier,” said Chief. “Control yourself!”
The private loaded the round and stuffed the charge inside, then shut the breech and primed the firing mechanism.
“Did you ask for permission to prime, soldier?”
“Goddamn it! Ask me for permission to prime!”
“Permission to prime, Chief!”
“Permission granted. Prime!”
“Permission to attach the lanyard, Chief!”
“Not yet, Private.”
The private held the rope in his hands, his heart pounding, his eyes on his Chief who sat staring back at him. The numbers flashed on the screen, and chief read them to his gunner, who verified and called back the numbers to his Chief elevating and traversing the tube.
“We’re good, Chief,” said the gunner.
“Permission to attach the lanyard, Chief!”
“Shut the fuck up, Private!—Roger that, Gunner,” Chief looked over at the private and grinned. The private had only rehearsed this drill in Basic and executed each movement as such. Sloppily, as it was his first time, but with enough vigor and excitement to compensate for any inexperience and with enough pleasure to both rattle and remind his Chief of the varied joys of conquering such an exquisite beast on the first try. The private stood ready, pulsating with an even mixture of fear and excitement.
“Attach the lanyard, Private,” said Chief.
He felt the rope slip between his fingers falling softly to the ground. Every muscle in his arm tightened and in one movement he retrieved the lanyard and hooked it to the firing mechanism. He looked to his chief fearful that his clumsiness had been noticed.
“I am, Chief.”
“You are what?”
Chief stared at the screen, his arm raised and waiting for the command. The private held the lanyard in his hand and waited to pull. Everyone else was waiting for him to pull, too.
pulsating through every inch of the private’s body
something beeped and Chief’s hand dropped like a butcher’s knife.
The private twisted his body and pulled the chord and the tube flung back sounding a muffled boom before returning back to its starting position. The breech shot opened and a cloud of smoke emptied into the cabin.
“Wolf pussy!” someone said over the headset.
It was what they called the smoke.
The private, Davano, grinned then stifled it. With this one round, he was an Artilleryman.
“Get another round in there, Private!” Chief Wittington hollered.
“Check, Chief!” quickly turning around and grabbing another shell placing it on the tray then stuffing it in, then cutting the charge and stuffing that in, too.
“Hurry up, Private!”
Davano shut the breech.
“Permission to prime!”
“Prime the motherfucker!”
“Permission to attach the lanyard!”
“Attach the motherfucker!”
Davano did and waited.
The gunner centered himself behind the sight and made the adjustments.
“We good, gunner?”
“Good, Chief,” said Corporal Steebe.
Chief looked over, “What you waiting for?”
Chief grinned because he knew he had a good one.
Davano, now the Number One man, fired then reloaded, moving in an aesthetic blur of organization and purpose. He could have continued like that for the rest of his life, if ordered.