Walking a battlefield after the battle is over is a sobering experience.
And the second day of the ground war introduced me to that idea. My platoon had the mission of helping to protect the Battle Central, a collection of units mounted on trucks that allowed us to move with the division. This gave the men and women charged with directing the battles the ability to do so. They were crammed with desks, radios, whatever was needed so that the 1st Armored Division could fight. We’d simply stop, the vans would be expanded out like some cross country RV, and the battle supported.
Our job was simply to set up a perimeter. Between us, a team of engineers, and of all things, the 1st Armored Division band, we would form a defensive circle of guns and metal to help keep the brain of the outfit secure.
The night before, we’d set up our perimeter. It was raining. You haven’t seen rain till you see it in the desert. The area gets very little water. It seemed that whatever it got on a yearly basis was delivered all in one night. I remember walking in the to another vehicle in the dark rain, think it was amazing that the ground was so hard backed that the water just wasn’t seeping in.
Just a few miles away, a massive tank battle was being fought. We’d seen the flashes of the battle and occasionally the roll of thunder of explosions as the tanks clashed, exploded, and died.
When the sun rose, the storm cleared out. Our tanks were moving forward. Having destroyed whoever they’d run into the night before, they were off seeking the next fight, and we were following. I knew we were getting close to where the battle had been fought the night before. I could see billowing columns of thick black smoke rising up into the sky, and we were driving right towards them.
Soon we reached a point where the ground sloped down into a small valley. There, the convoy stopped.
Scattered out in the small valley were the remains of several dozen tanks, armored personnel carriers, and trucks. Most of them were burning. Others were just so many busted parts. I’ve seen scenes in war movies that were supposed to represent something like this. But Hollywood just can’t capture the reality or a battlefield. Indeed, if this battlefield resembled anything from fiction at all, it looked like a scene from War of the Worlds.
And we’d been the Martians.
There’s just no way you can put that across on movie screen. The acrid smell of burning rubber and fuel flowed over the battlefield, burning the nostrils and making the eyes water. And mixed in with the smell of burning fuel was a sickly sweet odor. It reminded me of burning sugar. I’d smelled it before. As a sheriff’s deputy, I had to go into a burnt house, and we came across the remains of the occupant. He’d burned to death, and there was little left of him except bones and few pieces of flesh. The burnt sugar smell of a burnt body is overpowering and sickening. It’s a smell, you never forget.
I knew that in the wrecks of the tanks, the flames were slowly consuming the bodies of the men who had manned the vehicles.
The superior technology of the M1A1 tank had devastated the Iraqis. Thanks to computer-controlled gunnery, and a superior night fighting ability, the M1s had ripped the Russian built T-72s apart. All over the battlefield, were the bottom chassis of the tanks. Their turrets had been blown off because of the explosions. Others had simply caught fire, and the turrets themselves were now badly damaged from the ammunition inside cooking off from the heat.
This had been the proud Republican Guard. They called themselves the Lions of Babylon.
They’d been slaughtered like lambs by a pack of wolves.
I got out of my Humvee and looked down at the battlefield. I wasn’t the only one looking. I’d have expected jubilation at what we’d done to the enemy. Instead, everyone was quiet, trying to come to grips with something so far out of the norm.
“Hey!” someone shouted. “There’s someone down there!”
He was pointing, and I brought my binoculars up. Sure enough, walking through the maze of twisted metal and smoking debris, was a single man. He had his hands in his pockets, and the overall impression was of an old man walking through a park on a cold day.
“Ablan, Jonesy!” A shout came from our Lieutenant. “Go down with the medics. Bring that man back.”
“Yes, sir,” I responded. Several medics with a stretcher rushed over and got in our Humvees.
“I’ve got overwatch!” Jonesy yelled at me.
I held up a thumb. That meant we’d take the point, and he’d ride shotgun about twenty meters back. They’d provide cover for us if anything went wrong, and with luck, we’d be able to fall back..
We drove down the hill towards the battlefield. I had my rifle ready and glanced up at my gunner. He was scanning for anything else moving, his weapon moving back and forth. My driver was carefully weaving around pieces of metal, all of which could have given us a flat, or put a hole in an oil pan or gas tank. Slowly we were closing on the Iraqi.
He seemed oblivious to our presence as we closed. He just kept moving on.
“Stop right here,” I said. The vehicle stopped and I got out. I was maybe ten meters away from the slowly shuffling man. He acted like he didn’t even know we were there.
“Hey!” I shouted at the man. He stopped, slowly turned, saw me, and slowly began walking to me, his hands still in his pockets. His head was covered with blood. That he had a head wound and was severely confused was obvious. I don’t even think it registered with him that I was an American soldier. As he approached, his knees finally gave way, and he collapsed in front of me. I started to rush forward but was too late to keep him from falling face first into the dirt. He was out cold.
The two medics quickly rushed up and began accessing him. I got in front of them with my rifle, watching the perimeter. It wouldn’t do to have another Iraqi soldier out here that was slightly more online than this guy. Maybe one with a rifle. He could take out a couple of us out rather quickly.
But after looking about, and listening, it was obvious this poor guy was the only survivor of this incident. I wondered what he’d think of in the years to come. Would he consider himself lucky, or wish he’d perished with his friends and comrades?
As the Medics worked, I heard something.
I looked around, listening, and then heard it again. It was a faint musical sound, and at first, I thought that maybe there was a radio turned on that was pulling in some music. Or an alarm on a watch that hadn’t been busted in the battle. I listened carefully to the sound.
In the early dawn and in the middle of hell on earth, a small bird was singing.
I walked over to where the noise was coming from. In the burnt and blasted battlefield, a small bush was standing erect, and it, a single bird. There was a small nest with a couple of eggs that it was sitting on.
I looked at the small bird, listened to its cheerful song. I wondered what terrors it had gone through the night before. While tanks exploded, and hell rained from the skies, it had sat on its nest, doing it’s very best to protect its unborn chicks.
But now the fight was over and had moved on. All that remained was the carnage of the battle. And the little bird, its nest and chicks.
Now with the dawn, it was singing a song of sheer joy at being alive, and all was right with its world.
And all you need is for some vehicle to drive over you, I thought. But that’s something I can fix.
I took a length of yellow caution tape from my pocket and gently draped it around the bush. We used this to tape mark to the location of potential mine or obstacles. The idea was to prevent anyone from driving over it, or in this case, over the bush.
The bird eyed me carefully as I worked. It stopped singing, watching me as a potential predator. Finished, I stepped back.
By now, the Medics had the wounded Iraqi on the stretcher and were carrying him over to our Humvees. I moved back, keeping my eyes open, and we went back to the rest of the convoy. They ended up calling in a MASH evac to pick up the wounded.
I heard he made it.
And in a burning battlefield, I learned a lesson for life from a small bird.
When life starts getting rough, I always think about that little bird. When the storms of life threaten to overwhelm me, I remembered it had lived through a night of sheer hell and terror.
And it hadn’t forgotten to sing with joy at dawn.
And neither have I.