Here’s something we don’t talk about often enough when we talk about combat: trial and error. Prosecuting a war often means setting aside carefully laid plans in the face of the enemy who actually appears. This post is about starting over, trying whatever off-the-cuff fix one can conjure. When we put them in harm’s way, we ask our troops to dedicate the most creative and sensitive parts of themselves to this deadly serious trial and error, which takes place both in the heat of emergency and during the days between bouts of violence.
This story comes from our recently retired Marine Major, Nick Hurndon, who spent dozens of hours hanging upside-down on gymnastics rings while sculptor Christopher Wagner and I worked on his portrait. Nick served two tours in Iraq as a junior officer, the first tour described in a previous post, and the second focused on one of the most troubling tactical problems of the war.
In my generation, as with previous generations, a particular war’s most disruptive and most feared weapons caused plans to crumble because they had just the right combination of destructive power and logistical elegance in their design. By “elegance” here I mean an easy-to-handle reliability, and ubiquity. Something not too difficult to deploy, and something easy for a military to replicate. Often the simple weapon works best, though that’s not always the case. One could argue the United States’ most disruptive, signature weapon today is the unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV). The screaming dive bombers of the Nazi blitzkrieg also come to mind; but if you talk to an American Vietnam vet, the relatively unsophisticated rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) often gets top billing. Author Philip K. Beidler, a former armored cavalry platoon leader, recalls the RPG this way: “Sturdy, simple, easy to carry, assemble and operate, it is reasonably accurate and incredibly destructive. … It is absolutely the worst; and a six-year-old can operate it.”
In Iraq that weapon turned out to be the IED, the improvised explosive device: an old artillery round (or a pack of something else explosive) wired for detonation, often to a receiver ready to take a call from the cell phone of a bystander hiding around the corner or looking innocuously at a newspaper, phone in hand, ready to hit send at just the moment an American humvee rolled by.
Nick said he was part of a number of ad-hoc ways the Marine Corps tried to counter this new threat. Here are the ones I found most noteworthy:
1) The Vietnam-era “thump gun,” or the M-79, is a sort of shotgun/blunderbuss looking thing used in the 1960s to fling a grenade downrange. During Nick’s second tour to Iraq, as the insurgency dug in its heels, boxes of thump guns were shipped to Marines in Iraq to try to blow up any IEDs from a safe distance. However, Nick said Marines had not been trained on how to use them in more than 30 years, and there were no gun ranges or areas to practice using them. So they did it on the fly. They waited for opportunities, live, in the midst of civilian buildings and animals, to blow up suspected IEDs with big unfamiliar grenade launchers. After a few trials and explosive errors they went with other attempts to find a solution.
2) For a while, Nick said, the Marines equipped their vehicles with high-tech jammers meant to keep anyone with a cell phone from using it while the Humvee or other vehicle was near. This experiment worked, but by jamming the frequencies cell phones use, the Americans ended up jamming their ability to use their own radios to communicate with each other. In gaining safety from cell phones, they lost ability to call in air strikes during firefights and coordinate with other ground units, a bad trade.
3) Snipers. It’s hard to get more stealthy and on the insurgent level than snipers. The Marine Corps used their trained marksmen for a time to shoot suspected IEDs. The thought was that by hitting the bomb with a high-velocity bullet, they could possibly disable it. Snipers proved somewhat more effective than the two methods above, especially when the Marine Corps started setting up sniper crews at locations where they thought IEDs would be planted in the future, staking out the scene at night. If a sniper saw someone show up to an intersection with a shovel and a package and start digging, he had authority to “index the target”—that is, use his index finger to pull his rifle’s trigger and kill the shovel-wielding fellow. Of course there are plenty of problems with this strategy. For one, holding a shovel while walking down a road in the predawn hours does not make one an insurgent terrorist. It may instead indicate premeditated ditch digging or underground pipe repair. If you kill the plumber, his family may take it personally.
4) Then came Pedro. If you’ve seen the opening of the movie The Hurt Locker, you have some idea how valuable robots became in the struggle to find and defuse IEDs. Here the Americans hit on their best method, a remote-controled robot with a mechanical arm and a camera to help them dissect at a distance any suspect piles of garbage or new holes in the road. Affectionately nicknamed “Pedro” by Nick and his crew, the bot became invaluable to their work defusing roadside munitions… until the bot blew up. Then a new Pedro would take its place, fresh from the box. As Nick put it, “Pedro died many times.”
Between Here and There is a two-media portrait project that I and Christopher Wagner will be brushing and carving into until we show the series in November at Good Gallery in Portland, Oregon. The series is funded through a generous grant from the Regional Arts and Culture Council.