Big Bertha

Big Bertha
Circa 1940, on the streets of Rochester New York, Bertha does her work.
"I don't make hell for nobody. I'm only the instrument of a laughing providence. Sometimes I don't like it myself, but I couldn't help it if I was born smart."

1st Sgt. Milton Anthony Warden.
"From here to Eternity"

Paul Valery

"You are in love with intelligence, until it frightens you. For your ideas are terrifying and your hearts are faint. Your acts of pity and cruelty are absurd, committed with no calm, as if they were irresistible. Finally, you fear blood more and more. Blood and time."

The Wisdom of the Ages

"When a young man, I read somewhere the following: God the Almighty said, 'All that is too complex is unnecessary, and it is simple that is needed',"

Mikhail Kalashnikov
"Here lies the bravest soldier I've seen since my mirror got grease on it."

Zapp Brannigan

Monday, March 12, 2007

Reality Break


"I am sick and tired of war. Its glory is all moonshine.
It is only those who have neither fired a shot nor heard
the shrieks and groans of the wounded
who cry aloud for blood, for vengeance, for desolation.
War is hell."


Willaim Tecumseh Sherman


This was the cute clause, glibly rattled off to me and countless others by innumerable senior petty officers and other NCOs during my 4 years active Navy and 7 years national Guard: "War is Hell". It was usually spoken in response to complaints about being handed some shit job and, while it's a clever bit of repartee to toss off to someone as you head off to the Acey-Ducey Club for some hydraulic sandwiches (couple of 'canoe club' references for you squidleys), it has always suffered from a lack of context. Ah context. That great bugbear as the Brits say. Well the above quote seems to provide one. Especially if one recalls that the half-mad, depressive (Hey, that's me!) pictured invented the doctrine of "total war"; that is to say, the idea that war is conducted against a population and an economy - not just soldiers. This logic provided the rationale justifying the firebombing of Dresden, the nuking of Hiroshima, etc. Since Sherman's swath across the South is still bitterly remembered, he probably knew what he was talking about.
To the matter at hand: First of all, I don't want to piss anyone off. I've never heard a shot fired in anger, unless you count the times I run off to vent over my ex-wife by blowing up some beer cans. Cans innocent of any offense but being empty. Now that I think of it, that's offense enough. Beer cans. All I ask is that they be full, and yet they constantly disappoint me.
But I digress, anyone who puts on the suit and is willing to stand up for us has my undying admiration. In my own life there was a time (1973, Phillipines), that all the "lifers" had cool stories about 'Nam while all I had was high school, and not much to tell there at that. I'm embarressed to admit that I envied folks who'd been "in the shit". I had joined about six months too late and felt (idiotically) guilty and at the same time ripped off.
However, on becoming a grownup (I hope) and noticing my Dad's scars, missing finger and the fact that I could wake him up at night by just standing at his door and saying "Pappy". This, and that all the guys at school whose Dads told war stories were essentially recounting "in the rear with the gear" tales - and that my Dad never told me ANY anecdotes, led me to believe that there might just be more to this than "glory vs moonshine".
But, I've gone off on this tangent longer than I expected. What I wanted to point out, for all the "Kill 'em all and let God sort 'em out" morons, is that there's an unexpected, long-term price to be paid for war. This is a price we Americans, thankfully haven't had to pay in any large measure. We've got the USS Arizona memorial and the rest of Pearl Harbor and I'm not taking anything away from that. But that's it. Pearl Harbor. Also, I think there's a memorial up on the Oregon coast to the sunday school teacher who was killed by a Japanese balloon bomb. That and 9/11 has been is it for attacks on the home sod, and we think we've "seen the elephant". So, in the interest of checking out some of the holdovers from the world's first industrial war, we'll proceed.
First photo: This as well as the others, is from this most excellent thread, Today's harvest with the diggers in Boezinghe. This is located on the Great War Forum which I've listed above in my links. It concerns a group of lunatic Belgians trying to reclaim the ground in what used to be known as the Ypres Salient. Again, the top pic is of a shell, discovered inches from the surface - in a location near a soccer field.

The others consist of photos of a carriage and abandoned ammo from a British field gun.
I believe I've mentioned earlier that the Yres Salient (roughly 8 by 6 miles) contains 40,000 unrecovered bodies. That works out to just under 1.5 bodies per acre. That means my own 1/3 acre yard would run an even chance of being some forgotten someone's etenal resting place. And these are just the UNRECOVERED bodies, a tiny minority compared to the thousands policed up and accounted for as the shit happened. These gallant Belgians have reinterred roughly 250 so far. But what they find mostly is munitions. Dozens of Belgian farmers and animals die anually as they plow through this garbage. Some of it, the big stuff - they used to call them "coal boxes" or "Jack Johnson's" because their black smoke suggested the black boxer of the period - drove themselves so deep into the famous Flanders mud that they, if they were duds, will take decades to work their way to the surface. It's certainly something to look forward to.
Just for the record; in this war Belgium was neutral but no matter, this stuff is still there. Check out the thread. It's worth the trip if only to see the cigarette packs and such found beneath the floorboards of a building that billeted troops (page 62). Interesting to me is why whoever belonged to the box of matches put the burnt ones back in the box. The Belgian spelling can be somewhat disconcerting but these guys all do English better than I do Flemish so...
The area around Ypres however is agricultural, so it has been aggressively reclaimed. To the south, in France around Verdun, 6,000,000 acres have been cordoned off. That's over 9000 square miles - say 90 by 100 miles. From here (Eugene), up I 5 to Portland and then over to the coast and down. That much real estate has been off limits since 1918 because of unexploded munitions. Every day dedicated French demineurs walk the ground picking up this old, leftover shit, and several die every year. Tons are exploded under high tide in the North Sea, several times a month - every month.
This is what's it's like to have a war in your backyard. We don't have a clue - and we're very lucky in that regard.
A point of fact to leave you with: Three historic battles, Angincourt, Waterloo and the Somme all took place within an hour's drive of one other.
So anyway, that's the way it is now for France and Belgium - "chocolate producing coutries". Didn't Rumsfeld say that? What a guy with a phrase. He was full of shit though. What the city of Verdun was famous for was candied almonds.
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