A Beautiful Hell… A Writer’s Perspective on Artillery

With artillery, War is made. – Napoleon Bonaparte

Giants stomping across the dale… shuddering trees… quivering leaves… thumping concussion… heart stopping punch to the center of your chest. Billowing smoke casting dirt, debris, and air moves across your vision… blurry visions of times before when men marched rank and file into the gates of Hell. The courage to face the very breath of demons as the fire, sound, and steel spits forth in a blinding flash. Actual paths… sweeping destructive paths are dug across the landscape. The roar and din of the very essence of life are screamed forth as if all souls… living and dead… have opened their mouths and uttered… expelled… regurgitated… their most dreaded fear and loathing.

… Mother like she belches shell;

Glorious it flies, and well,

As, with a hissing screaming squall,

A roaring furnace, giving all,

she sears a path for the infantry…

– Aleksandr Tvardovskiy, from “Vasily Tyorkin” (1943)

I have both targeted and commanded artillery fire… thankfully… blessedly… I have never had to fire artillery in war. My muted and limited experience with the artillery was one of peacekeeping and training. I have been fortunate enough to cast my eyes upon the King of Battle’s wrath through the eyes of the young… through the eyes of a novice… the eyes of one who respects the fire and smoke… the cold steel heart of artillery. A dark and bitter older man would have turned away in sadness… war is better fought by the inexperienced. My eyes and heart comprehended the magnitude of the magnificent deadliness of artillery… yet never had to see the bloody and bitter remains of the dead. Images of the dead… my images of the dead are more personal… yet not the remains of those rendered lifeless and torn by artillery that was directed by my hand. My soul, my inner-being is not stained with the dark smudge of using such a hellish weapon on my fellow-man.

The dank and damp soil of Bavaria, of the border between Germany and the Czech Republic, is home to the US Army’s European training area. Grafenwoehr is a name that over a million US Army veterans can utter with a wry smile. My dad has uttered with astonishment at Graf’s ability to be both sunny and wet, both dusty and muddy… it is a place where snow can greet your morning’s opening eyes… followed by a searing and sunny mid-day… and a torrential downpour by dusk. Too lazy to research the potential geographical or meteorological reasons… I too have fallen victim to the repeated utterances of Graf’s mythical ability to be the best and worst… a land of dark German forests, gravel tank trails, muddy firing positions, and a large… expansive impact area that allows the repeated abuse by modern heavy armament.

My first… my Graf cherry-busting… experience was March 1995. I had been in Germany two weeks… a brand new field artillery second lieutenant… a boy. My first official military assignment was to be a Fire Support Officer… I was in charge… I commanded exactly 3 other soldiers… a sergeant and two privates. We lived, slept, ate, drove, and “fought” from a tracked Fire Support Vehicle. This steel box… reeking of oil, fuel, and hydraulic fluid… was my mount, my steed, my noble chariot… the vehicle that could have potentially carried me to war… instead it carried me the muds of Bosnia and the task of enforcing a peace. This stinking metal box was both a home and office. Wires, hoses, knobs, nuts, bolts, worn thin pads bedecked the interior… it was not built for comfort. Nor was it built for ease of use… it was vehicle made both in an attempt to be spartan and functional… it ended up being a mish mash of technological upgrades with the old-style Vietnam-era chassis… I was proud to call this stinky beast home.

I felt as if I was a Napoleonic-era officer, plumed, weighted with medals and saber… a blazing red stripe running down my battlefield uniform… I was one of the King of Battle’s minions… my sole purpose in life was to call for the mighty guns… the 155mm howitzers… my purpose was to destroy the enemy with timely and effective fire. I was an artilleryman, a Redleg… a soldier… an officer… my purpose was to kill. It was during this initial feeling of a newly minted artillery officer… that I targeted and called for my first artillery fire… my voice beckoned steel to fall from the sky and strike the earth with utter disaster.

Describing the exhilaration… the joy… the awe… the shock of seeing artillery impact. The result of your voice, your calculations, your dirty finger’s travels across a map… the result of decision to target a specific piece of earth… is powerful. It seems as if you have been given the ability to slap the earth with a massive hand… damaging not only the ground… but damaging the air, the very being of life… you control not only your fate but the fate of the living that moves in front of you. You are large among the small. Many state that pistol provides illusionary power to the weak and cowardly… controlling artillery provides the false sense of god-like power… yet I was god-like… I could call and direct the fires from heaven.

I like to pretend that I understood this experience at the time… a comprehension in the cold, tactical, deadly way in which I had been empowered. I want to pretend that I understood the magnitude of the situation… the beauty and sadness… the ugliness of what artillery can do. I want to pretend that I was constantly aware of what I was doing… the seriousness of my profession… the seriousness of targeting artillery. Later, while commanding a platoon of howitzers… and later when I commanded a battery (company) of howitzers… I want to believe that I understood the deadly seriousness of life and death. I was not ignorant… I was not naive… but I was not capable of communicating the feelings that boiled, moved… sloshed… within my head. I have had to do the typical veteran’s remembering… to smell the smoke and damp earth as a former lover’s perfume. Oh, I have had mistresses I would tell the young… I have loved many a beautiful thing… dangerous things… I have been tempted. I have felt the lustful rush of being in the throes of ecstatic dances with the cannon.

Walking a gun line at dusk in a muddy foreign field as been as memorable as any moonlight beach stroll… lover on my arm. The sound of sergeants screaming crew drill to soldiers is as memorable as any sweet erotic whispering I have given a lover… the slam of howitzer breaches… this is the punctuation of my poems… the ode to love. These poems… these commands of modern artillery are not a far evolution from the elder Redlegs working their pieces at Gettysburg… “to your posts!”… “by detail – Load!”… “Tend Vent!”… “Clear!”… “Wet sponge!”… “Dry sponge!”… “Ram!”… “Ready!”… “Fire!”… yes the commands vary little… the results the same… the deadly lustful poem continues stanza by stanza… age by age… war by war.

Standing beneath a howitzer… a foolish ear-damaging act… dangerous if there is an in-bore explosion… an act that most young lieutenants have committed… standing beneath a tube the air is forced from your lungs… ears are pained… water bursts from the corner of your eyes. As the round leaves the tube… you feel as if you can spread your arms… open your self and feel your completeness travel forth… traveling across the sky. Black smoke envelops you… searing warmth burns down upon on you… the 100lbs projectile… the projo… sails through the sky… it ascends on a predetermined path… a path requested by another young soldier… it begins its descent… again on a predetermined path… a path that takes into account the rotation of the earth, distance to target, intervening crests, meteorological data at all levels of the round’s trajectory… the type and age of the propellent. The act of targeting, aiming, loading, and firing artillery is a science. A science that has lost its detail to me a decade later… a science that is mathematically based… a science that was perfected to be efficiently deadly. However… once the round reaches its target… a specific grid coordinate, a piece of earth, a vehicle… a man… the explosion… the event… the fire… the smoke… the flailing of earth, material, and man… becomes art… dark, dark art.

Ah, the young always smile in their ignorance and innocence…

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