The Burden of Command

The Big Push — Near-Death Experience, Part I

My first military near-death experience occurred during my Section Commander's course when someone decided that we should get in some practice at attacking hostile rocks and trees with live ammunition.

We were performing a platoon assault up a narrow valley towards a low wooded knoll, starting with a fire-and-movement advance and supposedly ending in a frontal charge over the objective. Fire and Movement is the term used to describe the situation in which one half of a unit advances to cover while the other half provides covering fire, in theory, keeping the enemy's heads down so that none of the Good Guys (that's us) get shot. When the first mob have found cover, the two groups swap over, and the advance continues this leap-frogging until everyone is close enough to the Bad Guys to charge in a highly courageous and military fashion.

We sent the gun (the machine-gun crew, that is) up on to the ridge line on the left of the line of advance, to fire down on to the objective while we started our movement up the valley floor. A great time was had by all, shooting at various threatening rocks and dead trees and what-not, until the Official Spoilsport told us in highly coloured military language to keep our fucking muzzles down the fucking range and shoot at what we were fucking supposed to be fucking shooting at. Fuck.

Eventually, the gun got into position and began firing as we began the last phase of our advance. Then something very interesting started happening: great big lumps of dirt and rock started jumping into the air all around us, which puzzled us slightly until we figured out that the dirt-jumping was being caused by machine-gun bullets striking said bits of dirt at very high velocity, transferring their kinetic energy to the soil around the entry point and creating a shockwave which forced the ground out and away from the projectile.... whereupon we all leaped for the nearest piece of cover and tried to pull it over our collective heads.

My particular piece of cover was a bloody great big log (which seemed to be excessively fragile and didn't seem to be slowing down any bullets in the slightest). Unfortunately, a cow had chosen that spot to die a week or so earlier. Dead cows become highly bloated and fragrant after a week. I lay there, trying to burrow into the ground, alternately hoping that I wouldn't get hit by a bullet, and that the cow wouldn't get hit by a bullet.

The sergeant in charge came storming up the valley wanting to know what the fucking fuck we fucking thought we were fucking thinking we were fucking doing and to fucking get on our fucking legs and..... about then he too noticed the Leaping Dirt and, as it is known in military circles, "took cover". Some very highly coloured and non-standard language ensued over the radio as he told the gunners to stop fucking firing.

Apparently, what had happened (we learned later) was that the valley floor was covered by a thin mist, which was virtually invisible from below, but which concealed us quite well from the gunners. Like good soldiers, they elected to ignore any niggling feelings of doubt or initiative, and to carry on with their orders, which was to fire down into the valley. Which they did.

Once we had the whole friendly fire situation in hand, the sergeant got us back into some sort of order and we carried on the assault, though in a substantially more subdued fashion. Fortunately (and incomprehensibly) no-one had actually been shot, and our only casualties were two guys, one of whom got a mouthful of dirt and the other who got some dirt in his eye.

Near-Death Experience, Part II

My second near-death experience occurred later that same day, during what was supposed to be a spectacular, but harmless, demonstration of tracer firing.

Tracer is a type of bullet which is filled with an incendiary compound. This compound is ignited when the round is fired, and it flies through the air burning and looking very much like a firefly, leaving a faint trail of smoke behind it. It's an ammunition type which is mostly used for targeting automatic weapons fire — the gunner can observe the fall of his shot and adjust it directly rather than having to use sights which are probably jumping around all over the place under the recoil of the weapon. The tracer ammunition is loaded amongst regular ball ammunition in a standard ratio. I think (though I was never actually told) that the ratio depends on the rate of fire of the weapon; in any case, at that time the standard ratio for the 7.62mm GPMG was one in ten (i.e. one tracer round and nine ball, for a total of ten rounds).

We'd already seen an example of what tracer looked like in daylight, while the demo was being set up during the afternoon. We were encamped in a valley with sheer cliffs rising along one side, and late in the afternoon a small civilian helicopter came whokkita-whokkita along the cliffs, probably looking for goats. They weren't meant to be there. Now, we had been engaged in a concealed entrenchment exercise, and so were relatively invisible to your average goat poachers, so it must have come as some surprise when half a belt of one-in-two tracer went streaking across their bows. Their flying suddenly became somewhat erratic, and they took off down the valley just as fast as their little whirlybird could carry them. Oh, how we laughed in our rough tough soldierly fashion.

Anyway, back to the story: As evening fell and it got dark, we were all assembled along the face of the low ridge where we were entrenched, and the gunners prepared to put on a bit of a fireworks show for us. Once we were settled down, and one of the officers had been through an inaudible spiel about what was going to happen, the machinegun opened up into the dirt along our frontage. And lo, there was a mighty panic.

You see, when a bullet hits the ground, sometimes it doesn't stay in the ground. Sometimes it ricochets. And when a bullet ricochets, very often it goes in a different direction than it had been travelling when it first hit the ground. So, we were getting tracer zipping around our ears while we all hugged the ground for all we were worth. I remember looking around and seeing guys clearly in two minds about which way to be facing — head-first to the bouncing bullets, or groin-first..... personally I just adopted my favourite foetal position and waited for something very nasty to happen.

Again, miraculously, nobody was actually hurt, though I suspect that a certain amount of underwear-washing had to be undertaken. One thing about the situation which I remember noticing was that the sound of bullets whizzing past my head sounded just like the blaster sound-effects from Star Wars.

More to come when I can be bothered

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