Forged in Combat
Excerpt from soon to be published book: “The Faceless Warriors”
Q: What is actual combat like?
A: I took this question because so many divergent thoughts rushed to mind at once so I’ll use the question as an opportunity to reflect on something that I have mostly repressed.
I need to first address the issue of what is ‘combat?’ It comes in so many different variants, some obvious, others not. Examples might include the very personal infantry combat versus the combat of a fighter plane or a B-52 strike. Combat for a medic or a chaplain is unique but they are clearly in combat. Special operations may be the most personal say, compared to being a drone pilot, but both feel their heart race. Covert operations (spies) are a special form of combat with possible consequences just as deadly as any other. Finding something to cling on to while rotting in an enemy prison is real combat.
What, if any, is the common denominator? For the military, it is being in a combat zone. In many of our 20th and 21st century conflicts or wars, U.S. troops were sent ‘overseas’ so, combat became the ‘combat theater’, meaning that the troops were in harm’s way 24 hours a day – every day. No one, regardless of whether they were in combat arms or not, were vulnerable to hostile fire. In Vietnam, one of the closest calls I had was being caught in a Katyusha rocket attack while driving my jeep to the commissary (PX) inside the 25th U.S. infantry’s base camp. Meeting covertly with agents who may or may not have used good tradecraft or were doubled was always stress loaded, it too, was combat.
What is combat like? For the generals and the upper echelons of government services, combat might not only be making the right decisions but also, the heavy burden of putting men and women in direct danger, then having to live with the consequences – They could do this, that is, be decisive, not because they didn’t care but because they had been tempered through their own years in harm’s way. There are two requirements in military leadership – “accomplish the mission” and “welfare of the troops” – in that order. That responsibility is what combat is like.
Picking up your weapon and ‘go’ in a hail of bullets when the platoon commander says ‘go’ is what combat is like. Putting in that air strike despite the ground fire and trust your technology when your men on the ground need you to get it right – combat is like that. Standing at the door of your hotel room at 3:00am in some foreign country after just leaving the agent you met with and not knowing what’s behind the door – combat is like that. The nurse holding the hand of the wounded during his last dying moments, that is what combat is like. Knowing that your job is critical to the mission or you wouldn’t be here, whether crew chief, cook, or admin - is combat.
Combat is action where life is at stake in any given moment, that is, the threat to my own life and being able to take a life; combat is like that. It’s a 24 hour a day job and you don’t get to read the script – the good guys don’t always win.
Now, I know that combat as a verb can describe many things – to combat disease, combat prejudice, combat poverty, combat my own demons…
Nevertheless, sometimes my mind drifts to all my brothers and sisters who risked and laid down their lives for causes that history sometimes blurs and always second guesses. Sitting home, putting this down, conjures up too many ghosts, statues on the mall, names on a wall, white crosses in a field of grass. The sounds, the smells, the visions, the nightmares, the headstones. Once in, there is never really leaving the field of combat. I suppose - it’s something like that….
- Shannon Kawika Phelps, 10th Dan