Sleep the sleep that knows not breaking

FROM Blackhawk Down by Mark Bowden

IN ORDINARY CIRCUMSTANCES, as close to the first crash as they were, the convoy would have just barreled over to it, running over and shooting through anything in its path. But with all the help overhead, Task Force Ranger was about to demonstrate how too much information can hurt soldiers on a battlefield.

High in the C2 Black Hawk, Harrell and Matthews could see one group of about fifteen gunmen racing along streets that paralleled the eight-vehicle convoy. The running Somalis could keep pace with the vehicles because the trucks and Humvees stacked up at every intersection. Each driver waited until the vehicle in front completely cleared the cross fire before sprinting through it himself. To get stuck in the open was suicidal. Every time the convoy stalled, it gave the bands of shooters time to reach the next street and set up an ambush for each vehicle as it gunned through. The convoy was getting riddled. From above, Harrell and Matthews could see roadblocks and places where Somalis had massed to ambush. So they steered the convoy away from those places.

There was an added complication. Flying about a thousand feet over the C2 helicopter was the navy Orion spy plane, which had surveillance cameras that gave them a clear picture of the convoy’s predicament. But the Orion pilots were handicapped. They were not allowed to communicate directly with the convoy. Their directions were relayed to the commander at the JOC, who would then radio Harrell in the command bird. Only then was the plane’s advice relayed down to the convoy. This built in a maddening delay. The Orion pilots would see a direct line to the crash site. They’d say, “Turn left!” But by the time that instruction reached McKnight in the lead Humvee, he had passed the turn. Heeding the belated direction, they’d then turn down the wrong street. High above the fight, commanders watching out their windows or on screens couldn’t hear the gunfire and screaming of wounded men, or feel the impact of the explosions. From above, the convoy’s progress seemed orderly. The visual image didn’t always convey how desperate the situation really was.

Eversmann, still lying helplessly on his back toward the rear of the column, had felt the vehicle turn right after leaving his blocking position, which he expected, He knew the crash site was just a few blocks that way. But when the Humvee made the second right-hand turn, it surprised him. Why were they headed south? It was easy to get lost in Mog. The streets weren’t laid out like some urban planner’s neat grid. Roads you thought were taking you one place would suddenly slant off in a different direction. There were more turns. Soon, the crash site that had been close enough for Eversmann to see from his spot on Hawlwadig Road was lost somewhere back in the hornets’ nest.

The convoy was bearing south when Durant’s helicopter crashed. Up in the lead Humvee, McKnight got the word on the radio from Lieutenant Colonel Harrell.

–Danny, we just had another Hawk go down to RPG fire south of the Olympic Hotel. We need you to get everybody in that first crash site. Need QRF to give us some help, over.

–This is Uniform. Understand. Aircraft down south of Olympic Hotel. Recon and see what we can do after that.

–We are going to try to get the QRF to give us some help. Try to get everyone off that crash site (Super Six One] and let’s get out of here down to the other Hawk and secure it, over.

It wasn’t going to be easy. McKnight was supposed to take this convoy, with the prisoners and the wounded, move to the first crash site, and link up with the bulk of the force there. There was not enough room on the packed Humvees and trucks for the men he already had. Yet the immediate plan called for the convoy to load everyone and proceed south to the second crash site, covering the same treacherous ground they were rolling through now. They pushed on.

Heavy fire and mounting casualties took their toll on the men in the vehicles. Some of the slightly wounded men in Eversmann’s vehicle seemed to be in varying degrees of paralysis, as if their role in the mission had ended. Others were moaning and crying with pain. They were still a long way from the base.

The state of things infuriated Sergeant Matt Rierson, leader of the Delta team that had taken the prisoners. Rierson’s team was with the prisoners on the second truck. Rierson didn’t know where the convoy was going. It was standard operating procedure for every vehicle in a convoy to know its destination. That way, if the lead vehicle got hit, or took a wrong turn, the whole convoy could continue. But McKnight, a lieutenant colonel more used to commending a battalion than a line of vehicles, hadn’t told anyone! Rierson watched as inexperienced Ranger Humvee drivers would stop after crossing an intersection, trapping the vehicles behind them in the cross fire. Whenever the convoy stopped, Rierson would hop down and move from vehicle to vehicle, trying to square things away.

As they passed back behind the target house, an RPG scored a direct hit on the third Humvee in the column, the one McLaughlin had squeezed into. Private Carlson, who had moved over to make room for the sergeant, heard the pop of a grenade being launched nearby. Then came a blinding flash and ear-shattering BOOM! The inside of the Humvee filled with black smoke. The goggles Carlson had pinned to the top of his helmet were blown off.

The grenade had cut straight through the steel skin of the vehicle in front of the gas cap and gone off inside, blowing the three men in back right out to the street. It tore the hand guards off McLaughlin’s weapon and pierced his left forearm with a chunk of shrapnel. He felt no pain, just some numbness in his hand. He told himself to wait until the smoke cleared to check it out. The shrapnel had fractured a bone in his forearm, severed a tendon, and broken a bone in his hand. It wasn’t bleeding much and he could still shoot.

Holding his breath in the dark cloud, his ears ringing, Carlson felt himself for wet spots. His left arm was bloody. Shrapnel had pierced it in several places. His boots were on fire. A drum of .50-cal ammo had been hit, and he heard people screaming for him to kick it out, kick it out!, which he did, then stooped to pat out the flames on his feet.

Two of the three men blown out the back were severely injured. One, Delta Master Sergeant Tim “Griz” Martin, had absorbed the brunt of the blast. The grenade had poked a football-sized hole right through the skin of the Humvee, blew on through the sandbags, through Martin, and penetrated the ammo can. It had blown off the lower half of Martin’s body. The explosion also tore off the back end of one of Private Adalberto Rodriguez’s thighs. Rodriguez had tumbled about ten yards before coming to rest. His legs were a mass of blood and gore. He began struggling to his feet, only to see one of the five-ton trucks bearing straight for him. Its driver, Private Maddox, momentarily disoriented by another grenade blast, rolled the truck right over him.

The convoy stopped and soldiers scrambled to pick up the wounded. Medics did what they could for Rodriguez and Martin, who both looked mortally wounded. The wounded were lifted back into the vehicles, while Rangers spilled out to cover the surrounding streets and alleys. At one, Specialist Aaron Hand and Sergeant Casey Joyce became engaged in a furious firefight. They were positioned at opposite sides of an alley. From just outside his truck, Spalding watched rounds shatter the wall over Hand’s head.

Hand was shooting down the alley, too preoccupied to notice that shots were now coming at him from a different angle. Spalding screamed for Hand to get back to the vehicles but there was too much noise for him to be heard. From where Spalding stood, it looked like Hand was going to be shot for sure. He was doing everything wrong. He was fighting bravely, but he had not sought cover and he was changing magazines with his back exposed. Spalding knew he should go help cover him and pull him back, but it meant crossing the alley where all the load was flying. He hesitated. Hell no, I’m not going to cross that alley. As he debated with himself, SEAL John Gay ran out to help; Gay was still limping from where his knife had deflected an AK-47 round at his hip. He put several rounds up the alley and herded Hand back to the convoy.

Across the alley, Joyce was on one knee facing north, doing things right. He had found cover and was returning disciplined fire, just the way he’d been taught, when a gun barrel poked from a window above and behind him and let off a quick burst. Carlson saw it happen. There wasn’t even time to shout a warning, even if Joyce had been able to hear him. There was just a blaaaap! and a spurt of fire from the barrel and the sergeant went straight down in the dirt on his face.

One of the .50 cals promptly blasted gaping holes in the wall around the window where the gun had appeared, and Sergeant Jim Telscher, ignoring the heavy fire, sprinted out

to Joyce, grabbed him by the shirt and vest, and without even slowing down, dragged him back to the column.

Joyce’s skin was already gray and his eyes were open wide and rolled back so you could only see the whites. He had been hit in the upper back where the Rangers’ new Kevlar flak vests had no protective plate. The round had pierced his heart and passed through his torso, exiting and lodging in the vest’s frontispiece, which did have an armored plate. They loaded him in on the back of Gay’s Humvee, where Delta medic went to work on him frantically, holding an IV bag up high with one hand, despairing, “We’ve got to get him back in a hurry! We’ve got to get him back in a hurry or he’s gonna die!”

The convoy lurched forward again, turning left (bearing east) and then left again, so they were now heading back toward the north. They were moving up a road one block west of the crash site. To get there, all they had to do was drive two blocks north and turn right. But the gunfire was relentless. Up in the lead Humvee, Lieutenant Colonel McKnight was hit. Shrapnel cut into his right arm and the left side of his neck.

At the rear of the convoy, Sergeant Lorenzo Ruiz, the tough little boxer from El Paso who had taken over Private Clay Othic’s .50-caliber machine gun after Othic had been hit in the arm, slumped and slid down limp, into the laps of the men inside the Humvee.

“He got shot! He got shot!” shouted the driver, who raced the Humvee frantically up the column with the .50 cal just spinning in the empty turret.

“Get the fifty up!” screamed one of the sergeants. “Get the fifty up ASAP!”

Packed in the way they were, with Ruiz now slumped in on top of them, no one could climb into the turret from inside, so Specialist Dave Ritchie got out and jumped up on the turret from the outside. He couldn’t lower himself into it because Ruiz’s limp body was blocking it, so he leaned in from the outside as they began moving again, swiveling and shooting the big gun, hanging on to avoid being thrown to the street.

Inside, they pulled Ruiz down to let Ritchie get behind the gun. Staff Sergeant John Burns tore off the wounded man’s vest and shirt.

“I’m hit! I’m hit!” Ruiz gasped and then began to cough up blood.

Burns found an entrance wound under Ruiz’s right arm, but couldn’t locate an exit wound. They propped him against a radio and a Delta medic went to work. Ruiz was in shock. Like many of the men in the vehicles, he had taken the ceramic plate out of his flak vest.

Up in a Humvee turret behind a Mark-19, a machine gun-like grenade launcher, Corporal Jim Cavaco was pumping one 40-mm round after another into the windows of a building from which they were taking fire. Cavaco was dropping grenades neatly into the second-story windows One after another–Bang! … Bang! … Bang!

From his seat in the second truck, Spalding shouted, “Yeah! Get ’em, Vaco!” and then saw his friend slump forward. Cavaco had been hit by a round in the back of his head and killed instantly. The convoy stopped again, and Spalding leapt out to help pull Cavaco out of the turret. They carried him to the back of Spalding’s truck and swung his body in. It landed on the legs of an injured Ranger who shrieked with pain.

The volume of fire was terrifying. Yet Somalis seemed to be darting across streets everywhere. Up in the lead Humvee, Schilling watched the runners with bewilderment. Why would anybody be running around on the streets with all this lead flying? He found that by rolling grenades down the alley it kept the shooters from sticking their weapons out. He tried to conserve ammo by shooting only at the Somalis who were closest. When he ran out of ammo, a wounded Ranger in back fed Schilling magazines from his own pouches.

Over the radio came a hopeful inquiry from the command helicopter, which didn’t seem to understand how desperate the convoy’s plight had become.

–Uniform Six Four, you got everybody out of the crash site, over?

–We have no positive contact with them yet. McKnight answered. We took a lot of rounds as we were clearing out of the areas. Quite a few wounded, including me, over.

–Roger, want you to try to go to the first crash site and consolidate on that. Once we get everybody out of there we’ll go to the second crash site and try to do an exfil, over.

This was, of course, out of the question, but McKnight wasn’t giving up.

–Roger, understand. Can you give me some … we just need directions and distance from where I’m at, over.

There was no answer at first. The radio net was filled with calls related to Durant’s crash. When he did hear from his commanders again, McKnight was asked to report the number of Rangers he had picked up from Eversmann’s Chalk Four. He ignored that request.

–Romeo Six Four [Harrell], this is Uniform Six Four. From the crash site, where am I now? How far over?

–Stand by. Have good visual on you now … Danny, are you still on that main hardball [paved road]?

–I’m on the exfil road. Down toward National.

Harrell apparently misunderstood. He gave McKnight directions as if he were still on Hawlwadig Road, out in front of the target house.

–Turn east. Go about three blocks east and two blocks north. They’re popping smoke, over.

–Understand. From my location I have to go east farther about three blocks and then head north, over.

–Roger, that’s from the hardball road the Olympic Hotel is on, over.

But McKnight was already three blocks east of that road.

–I’m at the hardball road east of the Olympic Hotel. Do I just need to turn around on it and head north?

-Negative. They are about three blocks east, one block north of building one [the target building], over.

In the convoy’s second-to-last Humvee, where Ruiz was fighting for his life, Sergeant Burns couldn’t get through to McKnight on the radio so he took off on foot. He feared if they didn’t get Ruiz back to base immediately the young Texan was going to die. Burns noticed that the gunfire that had hurt his ears initially now sounded muffled, distant. His ears had adjusted to it. As he neared the front of the line he saw Joyce stretched out bloody and pale, with a medic working over him furiously on the back of a crowded Humvee. He was about to reach the front when a D-boy grabbed him.

“You’ve been hit,” the Delta operator said.

“No I haven’t.”

Burns hadn’t felt a thing. The D-boy slid his hand inside Burns’s vest at his right shoulder and the sergeant felt a vicious stab of pain.

“Having trouble breathing?” the D-boy asked.

“No.”

“Any tightness in your chest?”

“I feel all right,” Burns said, “I didn’t even know I was hit.”

“You keep an eye on it,” the D-boy said.

Burns made it up to McKnight, who was also bloody, and busy on the radio. So Burns told Sergeant Bob Gallagher about Ruiz. Burns thought they should allow a Humvee or two to speed right back to the base with Ruiz, as they had done earlier with Blackburn. But Gallagher knew the convoy could not afford to lose any more vehicles and firepower now. They still had roughly a hundred men waiting for them around the first crash site, then there was the second crash site . . . Gallagher was already kicking himself for sending those three vehicles back with Blackburn. While he knew this might be a death sentence for Ruiz, he told Burns there was no way anybody was leaving.

“We have to move to the crash site and consolidate forces,” he said.

Disgusted, Burns began to make his way back down the column to his vehicle. He had gone only a few steps when the convoy started rolling again. He jumped on the back of a Humvee. It was already jammed. The rear of the vehicle was slick and sticky with blood. Moaning rose from the pile of Rangers. Beside him, Joyce looked dead, even though a medic was still working on him. Sergeant Galentine was screaming, “My thumb’s shot off!” Burns did not want to be on that Humvee.

They were still pointed north. Some of the men were at the breaking point. In the same Humvee with Burns, Private Jason Moore saw some of his Ranger buddies just burying their heads behind the sandbags. Some of the unit’s most boisterous chest-beaters were among them. A burly kid from Princeton, New Jersey, Moore had a dip of snuff stuffed under his lower lip and brown spittle on his unshaved chin. He was sweating and terrified. One RPG had passed over the vehicle and exploded with an ear-smarting crack against a wall alongside. Bullets were snapping around him. He fought the urge to lie down. Either way I’m going to get shot.

Moore figured if he stayed up and kept on shooting, at least he’d get shot trying to save himself and the guys. It was a defining moment for him, a point of clarity in the midst of chaos. He would go down fighting. He would not consider lying down again.

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Published in: on May 3, 2010 at 1:43 PM  Leave a Comment  
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The Straggler

FROM The Luftwaffe War Diaries by Cajus Bekker

Still over Holland the Americans changed course to the south, and crossed Belgium at 20,000 feet. Then, shortly before reaching the German frontier the escort had to turn back. It was the moment the Focke-Wulfs had been waiting for. Setting on the bombers from head-on and slightly above, they let fly. Then, sweeping close beneath the formation, they climbed up and turned to repeat the attack.

The first Boeings caught fire. Four dived with black smoke-plumes down into the Eifel country, the next three into the Hunsrück. And now the sky was alive with Focke-Wulfs and Messerschmitts. As soon as one Gruppe exhausted its ammunition, it was replaced by another.

The battle went on for a full ninety minutes without let-up. The Americans lost fourteen aircraft, leaving 132 to bomb the target—the Messerschmitt works at Regensburg-Prüfening. Meanwhile German fighter control got ready to deal out similar punishment on the return flight. Usually this was the same course in reciprocal, but this time the Americans turned south, and demonstrated their enormous radius of action by crossing Italy and the Mediterranean to land in North Africa. Even so, another ten bombers were shot down by Luftflotte 1 in that area, so that this formation altogether lost twenty-four B-17s, with many more damaged.

But the zenith of the August 17th battle was still to come. In the early afternoon a still larger formation, numbering 229 aircraft, crossed the mouth of the Scheldt on its way to bomb the ball-bearing works at Schweinfurt. It was given a still warmer reception than the first. This time the German fighters did not wait till the escort had turned back. While one Gruppe engaged the Thunderbolts, a second went for the bombers.

Amongst the first assailants was again JG 11’s 5 Squadron, which had previously carried out experiments with bombs. Today its Messerschmitts had two 21-cm rockets slung under their wings. Creeping up behind, they sent these sizzling off from a range of 800 yards. The enemy formation was well staggered, and most of the rockets fell short. But two hit their targets, and these bombers literally burst asunder in the air. After this introduction the Americans did not enjoy a moment of peace during the whole remainder of their flight to Schweinfurt, or on their return. Over 300 German fighters were airborne.

From this mission thirty-six Fortresses failed to return, representing a total loss for the day of sixty, plus over a hundred damaged. Once again it had been demonstrated that relatively slow bombers in daylight were vulnerable to resolute fighter attack. It applied even to Flying Fortresses—so called because of their massive defensive armament. After this reverse they failed to appear again over the Reich for over five weeks. They avenged themselves by attacking Luftwaffe airfields in the western occupied countries under strong fighter escort.

Thus it was not until October that the U.S. 8th Air Force risked further ventures beyond the range of their own fighters, and then the lesson was rammed home even more firmly than it was in August. During one week, “from October 8th to 14th in which Bremen, Marienburg, Danzig, Münster, and once again Schweinfurt, were attacked, the Americans lost 148 machines. It meant the loss, within only a few days, of nearly 1,500 airmen. Even the Americans could not replace so many. About the second Schweinfurt raid the official American historian records that the German reaction was “unprecedented in its magnitude, in the cleverness with which it was planned, and in the severity with which it was executed.”

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Published in: on May 2, 2010 at 12:55 PM  Comments (4)  
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Caligula, God

Derek Jacobi as Caligula

FROM I, Claudius by Robert Graves

Caligula fell ill and for a whole month his life was despaired of. The doctors called it brain-fever. The popular consternation at Rome was so great that a crowd of not less than ten thousand people stood day and night around the Palace, waiting for a favourable bulletin. They kept up a quiet muttering and whispering together; the noise, as it reached my window, was like that of a distant stream running over pebbles. There were a number of most remarkable manifestations ‘ of anxiety. Some men even pasted up placards on their house-doors, to say that if Death held his hand and spared the Emperor, they vowed to give him their own lives in compensation. By universal consent all traffic noises and street cries and music ceased within half a mile or more of the Palace. That had never happened before, even during Augustus’s illness, the one of which Musa was supposed to have cured him. The bulletins always read: “No change.”

One evening Drusilla knocked at my door and said, “Uncle Claudius! The Emperor wants to see you urgently. Come at once. Don’t stop for anything.”

“What does he want me for?”

“I don’t know. But for Heaven’s sake humour him. He’s got a sword there. He’ll kill you if you don’t say what he wants you to say. He had the point at my throat this morning. He told me that I didn’t love him. I had to swear and swear that I did love him. ‘Kill me, if you like, my darling,’ I said. O Uncle Claudius, why was I ever born? He’s mad. He always was. But he’s worse than mad now.

He’s possessed.“

I went along to Caligula’s bedroom, which was heavily curtained and thickly carpeted. One feeble oil-lamp was burning by the bedside. The air smelt stale. His querulous voice greeted me. “Late again? I told you to hurry,” He didn’t look ill, only unhealthy. Two powerful deaf-mutes with axes stood as guards, one on each side of his bed.

I said, saluting him, “Oh, how I hurried! If I hadn’t had a lame leg I’d have been here almost before I started. What joy to see you alive and to hear your voice again, Caesar! Can I dare to hope that you’re better?”

“I have never really been ill. Only resting. And undergoing a metamorphosis. It’s the most important religious event in history. No wonder the City keeps so quiet.”

I felt that he expected me to be sympathetic, nevertheless. “Has the metamorphosis been painful, Emperor? I trust not.”

“As painful as if I were my own mother. I had a very difficult delivery. Mercifully, I have forgotten all about it. Or nearly all. For I was a very precocious child and distinctly remember the midwives’ faces of admiration as they washed me after my emergence into this world, and the taste of the wine they put between my lips to refresh me after my struggles.”

“An astounding memory. Emperor. But may I humbly enquire precisely what is the character of this glorious change that has come over you?”

“Isn’t it immediately apparent?” he asked angrily.

Drusilla’s word “possessed” and the conversation I had had with my grandmother Livia as she lay dying gave me the clue. I fell on my face and adored him as a God.

After a minute or two I asked from the floor whether I was the first man privileged to worship him. He said that I was and I burst out into gratitude. He was thoughtfully prodding me with the point of his sword in the back of my neck. I thought I was done for.

He said: “I admit I am still in mortal disguise, so it is not remarkable that you did not notice my Divinity at once.”

“I don’t know how I could have been so blind. Your face shines in this dim light like a lamp.”

“Does it?” he asked with interest. “Get up and give me that mirror.” I handed him a polished steel mirror and he agreed that it shone very brightly. In this fit of good humour he began to tell me a good deal about himself.

“I always knew that it would happen,” he said. *T never felt anything but Divine. Think of it. At two years old I put down a mutiny of my father’s army and so saved Rome. That was prodigious, like the stories told about the God Mercury when a child, or about Hercules who strangled the snakes in his cradle.“

“And Mercury only stole a few oxen,” I said, “and twanged a note or two on the lyre. That was nothing by comparison.”

“And what’s more, by the age of eight I had killed, my father. Jove himself never did that. He merely banished the old fellow.”

I took this as raving on the same level, but I asked in a matter-of-fact voice, “Why did you do that?”‘

“He stood in my way. He tried to discipline me-me, a young God, imagine it. So I frightened him to death. I smuggled dead things into our house at Antioch and hid them under loose tiles; and I scrawled charms, on the walls; and I got a cock in my bedroom to give him his marching orders. And I robbed him of his Hecate. Look, here she is! I always keep her under my pillow*” He held up the green jasper charm. My heart went as cold as ice when I recognized it. I said in a horrified voice: “You were the one then? And it was you who climbed into the bolted room by that tiny window and drew your devices there too?”

He nodded proudly and went rattling on: “Not only did I kill my natural father but I killed my father by adoption too-Tiberius, you know. And whereas Jupiter only lay with one sister of his, Juno, I have lain with all three of mine. Martina told me it was the right thing to do if I wanted to be like Jove.”

“You knew Martina well then?”

“Indeed I did. When my parents were in Egypt I used to visit her every night. She was a very wise woman, I’ll tell you another thing, Drusilla’s Divine too. I’m going to announce it at the same time as I make the announcement about myself. How I love Drusilla! Almost as much as she loves me.”

“May I ask what are your sacred intentions? This metamorphosis will surely affect Rome profoundly.”

“Certainly. First, I’m going to put the whole world in awe of me. I won’t allow myself to be governed by a lot of fussy old men any longer. I’m going to show… but you remember your old grandmother, Livia? That was a joke. Somehow she had got the notion that it was she who was to be the everlasting God about whom everyone has been prophesying in the East for the last thousand years. I think it was Thrasyllus who tricked her into believing that she was meant. Thrasyllus never told lies but he loved misleading people. You see, Livia didn’t know the precise terms of the prophecy. The God is to be a man not a woman, and not born in Rome, though he is to reign at Rome (I was born at Antium), and born at a time of profound peace (as I was), but destined to be the cause of innumerable wars after his death. He is to die young and to be at first loved by his people and then hated, and finally to die miserably, forsaken of all. ”His servants shall drink his blood.“ Then after his death he is to rule over all the other Gods of the world, in lands not yet known to us. That can only be myself. Maitina told me that many prodigies had been seen lately in the near East which proved conclusively that the God had been born at last. The Jews were the most excited. They somehow felt themselves peculiarly concerned. I suppose that this was because I once visited their city Jerusalem with my father and gave my first divine manifestation there.” He paused.

“It would greatly interest me to know about that,” I said.

“Oh, it was nothing much. Just for a joke I went into a house where some of their priests and doctors were talking theology together and suddenly shouted out: ‘You’re a lot of ignorant old frauds. You know nothing at all about it.’ That caused a great sensation and one old white-bearded man said: ‘Oh? And who are you. Child? Are you the prophesied one?* *Yes,’ I answered boldly. He said, weeping for rapture: ‘Then teach us,” I answered: ’Certainly not! It’s beneath my dignity,‘ and ran out again. You should have seen their faces! No, Livia was a clever and capable woman in her way-a female Ulysses, as I called her once to her face-and one day perhaps I shall deify her as I promised, but there’s no hurry about that. She will never make an important deity. Perhaps we’ll make her the patron goddess of clerks and accountants, because she had a good head for figures. Yes, and we’ll add poisoners, as Mercury has thieves under his protection as well as merchants and travellers.“

“That’s only justice,” I said. “But what I am anxious to know at once is this: in what name am I to adore you? Is it incorrect, for instance, to call you Jove? Aren’t you someone greater than Jove?”

He said: “Oh” greater than Jove, certainly, but anonymous as yet. For the moment, I think though, I’ll call myself Jove-the Latin Jove to distinguish myself from that Greek fellow. I’ll have to settle with him one of these days. He’s had his own way too long.“

I asked: “How does it happen that your father wasn’t a God too? I never heard of a God without a divine father.”

“That’s simple. The God Augustus was my father.”

“But he never adopted you, did he? He only adopted your elder brothers and left you to carry on your father’s line.”

“I don’t mean that he was my father by adoption, I mean that I am his son by his incest with Julia. I must be. That’s the only possible solution. I’m certainly no son of Agrippina: her father was a nobody. It’s ridiculous.”

I was not such a fool as to point out that in this case Germanicus wasn’t his father and therefore his sisters were only his nieces. I humoured him as Drusilla advised and said: “This is the most glorious hour of my life. Allow me to retire and sacrifice to you at once, with my remaining strength. The divine air you exhale is too strong for my mortal nostrils. I am nearly fainting,” The room was dreadfully stuffy. Caligula hadn’t allowed the windows to be opened ever since he took to his bed.

He said: “Go in peace. I thought of killing you, but I won’t now. Tell the Scouts about my being a God and about my face shining, but don’t tell them any more. I impose holy silence on you for the rest.”

I grovelled on the floor again and retired, backwards. Ganymede stopped me in the corridor and asked for the news. I said: “He’s just become a God and a very important one, he says. His face shines.”

“That’s bad news for us mortals,” said Ganymede. “But I saw it coming. Thanks for the tip, I’ll pass it on to the other fellows. Does Drusilla know? No? Then I’ll tell her.”

“Tell her that she’s a Goddess too,” I said, “in case she hasn’t noticed it.”

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Published in: on March 23, 2010 at 10:52 PM  Leave a Comment  
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The Folks on the Hill

FROM The End Of The Line: The Siege of Khe Sanh by Robert L Pisor

The FIRST HOURS of Tet brought a thick, wet fog to Khe Sanh—but no rockets, no dac cong, no screaming waves of North Vietnamese infantrymen. The sun burned away the mists in the afternoon, but the grey veils began to rise again from the creek beds an hour before the dark.

Colonel Lownds tucked an extra M-16 clip into his shirt pocket, and every Marine settled a little deeper in the firing pits and sandbagged trenchlines. Grenades, their pins straightened for quick pulling, were stacked in small piles near at hand. Still, no attack came.

Cries of grief rose from the forward lines held by the 37th ARVN Rangers. Word had arrived that the Rangers’ wives and children were caught in heavy fighting in the town of Phu Loc; until three days ago, the Rangers had been stationed at Phu Loc.

On February 2, an enemy rocket hurtled in from Hill 881 North and plunged through the door of the U.S. Army Signal Corps bunker. The explosion killed four soldiers instantly— and cut the communication link to the outside world. Contact was quickly reestablished, but not before palms went moist in Da Nang and Saigon.

Blinded by the fog, the Marines struggled to make better use of the new sensor devices. The secret sound / tremor detectors had been sown so hurriedly January 18 that their precise location was unknown. Sensor #23, for example, might pick up strange sounds and broadcast them to a circling aircraft for relay to the computers in Thailand, but when the analysis came back—with solid information that the sounds were truck engines, or troop movements, or heavy digging noises—the Air Force intelligence people could not say exactly where to fire for maximum effect.

The Marines resorted to area fire. Fire coordinators at the combat base would arrange for the Marine and Army artillery to fire on a timed schedule so that every shell arrived on target at the same instant. By assigning each gun a slightly different map coordinate, it was possible to rain shrapnel on a wide area. With practice, the artillerymen could produce a “micro-Arc light”—for a target five hundred meters square—in just ten or fifteen minutes; it took closer to an hour to ready the guns for a “mini-Arc Light,” which concentrated explosive airbursts on a target a half mile long by five hundred meters wide.

Even with the sensors, much of the targeting was guesswork. So much time elapsed between the sensor report and the big guns’ readiness that fire control officers had to estimate the speed and direction of enemy marches—or risk shooting shells into the past.

In the early hours of February 4, several sensors northwest of the combat base started broadcasting urgent signals. A large body of men—soldiers, or perhaps porters—was moving toward Hill 881 South.

That night the sensors came alive again. Marine Captain Mirza M. Baig, sitting in the bunker that housed the Fire Support Control Center at the combat base, decided to believe what the sensors appeared to be saying: that hundreds of enemy soldiers were moving into positions to attack India Company. Baig pictured several NVA assault battalions crossing the border from Laos under cover of dark, then moving in a two-stage march to jumpoff points west and south of Hill 881 South. Officers in the Fire Support Control Center figured out how fast a North Vietnamese soldier might be able to move in the dark in this terrain, how the attackers were most likely to line up for the assault, and where the reserves were most likely to wait. Poring over their maps, the FSCC planners picked a five hundred meter by three hundred meter target box and, on signal, fired five hundred high explosive shells into it.

Nothing happened. No terrified shouts were heard on the sidebands of the radio. No secondary explosions marked a hit on ammunition supplies. Still, Baig thought the preemptive artillery strike had disrupted enemy plans.

When the hands on the bunker clock moved past 3 a.m., Baig and other officers in the Fire Support Control Center cheered, then applauded themselves. The prime hour for enemy attack had come and gone; the artillery strike must have scattered the assault forces.

Five minutes later, enemy artillery, rockets, and mortars pounded the combat base and hilltop outposts. More than 6,000 Marines squinted into the thick mists for the first thickenings that would herald the enemy attack.

At five minutes after four, dac cong slipped bangalore torpédos into the barbed wire barricades on Hill 861 Alpha—and blasted pathways into the interior of the Marines’ newest hilltop position. The hill was covered with tall, coarse grass but bald of trees, and the 201 men of E Company had been forced to improvise overhead cover. Seven Marines died in the opening mortar barrage.

North Vietnamese soldiers crept through gaps in the wire. Rocket-propelled grenades—fired in volley at single targets— knocked out the Marines’ machine guns and recoilless rifles. When the platoon that received the brunt of the assault began to fall back, Captain Earle G. Breeding ordered his men to don gas masks. Seconds later, the hilltop was shrouded in choking clouds of CS gas—but still the North Vietnamese pressed the attack. All of the heavy weapons at the combat base were now firing shells in a tight ring around Breeding’s embattled company, but by 5:08 a.m. the enemy had taken one-fourth of the hilltop.

Captain Breeding was now coordinating supporting fires from the 175mm guns at Camp Carroll, the artillery and heavy mortars at the combat base, “radar-guided jet bombers, and mortars and recoilless rifles from Hill 558, Hill 861, and Hill 881 South—which alone fired eleven hundred rounds from just three heavy mortars. When the tubes began to glow in the dark, Dabney’s mortarmen poured precious drinking water on them, then cans of fruit juice; finally, they stood in tight little circles urinating on the metal to keep it cool.

Breeding fed three-man fire teams into the flanks of the enemy penetration, then launched a counterattack. Shouting Marines followed a shower of grenades into the captured trenches—and discovered the North Vietnamese had stopped to look at magazines and paperback books. One Marine nearly tore the head off a slightly built NVA soldier with a roundhouse right, then leaped in to finish him off with a knife. Another Marine saw his buddy grabbed from behind; he jammed his M-I6 rifle between the combatants and fired a whole magazine on full automatic—ripping chunks from his friend’s flak jacket but cutting the enemy soldier in half. Using knives, rifle butts, and fists, and fighting short-range grenade duels in the swirling fog and lingering clouds of tear gas, the Marines threw the North Vietnamese off the hill.

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Published in: on March 16, 2010 at 3:15 PM  Leave a Comment  
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Bengal the Eternal

FROM Glimpses of Bengal by Rabindranath Tagore

SHELIDAH

24th June 1894

I have been only four days here, but, having lost count of the hours, it seems such a long while, I feel that if I were to return to Calcutta to-day I should find much of it changed—as if I alone had been standing still outside the current of time, unconscious of the gradually changing position of the rest of the world.

The fact is that here, away from Calcutta, I live in my own inner world, where the clocks do not keep ordinary time; where duration is measured only by the intensity of the feelings; where, as the outside world does not count the minutes, moments change into hours and hours into moments. So it seems to me that the subdivisions of time and space are only mental illusions. Every atom is immeasurable and every moment infinite.

There is a Persian story which I was greatly taken with when I read it as a boy—I think I understood, even then, something of the underlying idea, though I was a mere child. To show the illusory character of time, a faquir put some magic water into a tub and asked the King to take a dip. The King no sooner dipped his head in than he found himself in a strange country by the sea, where he spent a good long time going through a variety of happenings and doings. He married, had children, his wife and children died, he lost all his wealth, and as he writhed under his sufferings he suddenly found himself back in the room, surrounded by his courtiers. On his proceeding to revile the faquir for his misfortunes, they said: “But, Sire, you have only just dipped your head in, and raised it out of the water!”

The whole of our life with its pleasures and pains is in the same way enclosed in one moment of time. However long or intense we may feel it to be while it lasts, as soon as we have finished our dip in the tub of the world, we shall find how like a slight, momentary dream the whole thing has been….

SHELIDAH,

9th August 1894.

I saw a dead bird floating down the current to-day. The history of its death may easily be divined. It had a nest in some mango tree at the edge of a village. It returned home in the evening, nestling there against soft-feathered companions, and resting a wearied little body in sleep. All of a sudden, in the night, the mighty Padma tossed slightly in her bed, and the earth was swept away from the roots of the mango tree. The little creature bereft of its nest awoke just for a moment before it went to sleep again for ever.

When I am in the presence of the awful mystery of all-destructive Nature, the difference between myself and the other living things seems trivial. In town, human society is to the fore and looms large; it is cruelly callous to the happiness and misery of other creatures as compared with its own.

In Europe, also, man is so complex and so dominant, that the animal is too merely an animal to him. To Indians the idea of the transmigration of the soul from animal to man, and man to animal, does not seem strange, and so from our scriptures pity for all sentient creatures has not been banished as a sentimental exaggeration.

When I am in close touch with Nature in the country, the Indian in me asserts itself and I cannot remain coldly indifferent to the abounding joy of life throbbing within the soft down-covered breast of a single tiny bird.

SHELIDAH,

10th August 1894.

Last night a rushing sound in the water awoke me—a sudden boisterous disturbance of the river current—probably the onslaught of a freshet: a thing that often happens at this season. One’s feet on the planking of the boat become aware of a variety of forces at work beneath it. Slight tremors, little rockings, gentle heaves, and sudden jerks, all keep me in touch with the pulse of the flowing stream.

There must have been some sudden excitement in the night, which sent the current racing away. I rose and sat by the window. A hazy kind of light made the turbulent river look madder than ever. The sky was spotted with clouds. The reflection of a great big star quivered on the waters in a long streak, like a burning gash of pain. Both banks were vague with the dimness of slumber, and between them was this wild, sleepless unrest, running and running regardless of consequences.

To watch a scene like this in the middle of the night makes one feel altogether a different person, and the daylight life an illusion. Then again, this morning, that midnight world faded away into some dreamland, and vanished into thin air. The two are so different, yet both are true for man.

The day-world seems to me like European Music—its concords and discords resolving into each other in a great progression of harmony; the night-world like Indian Music—pure, unfettered melody, grave and poignant. What if their contrast be so striking—both move us. This principle of opposites is at the very root of creation, which is divided between the rule of the King and the Queen; Night and Day; the One and the Varied; the Eternal and the Evolving.

We Indians are under the rule of Night. We are immersed in the Eternal, the One. Our melodies are to be sung alone, to oneself; they take us out of the everyday world into a solitude aloof. European Music is for the multitude and takes them along, dancing, through the ups and downs of the joys and sorrows of men.

Image: West Bengal, India

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The Shelidah Years of Rabindranath Tagore

The cultural heritage of Bengal goes back thousands of years but it was Tagore who opened the gateway of Bengali literature to the rest of the world. He travelled all over the world, bringing back fame and honour for his country

Out of eighty years of his entire life, Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) spent only ten years in Shelidah, Kushtia. But that period played a significant role in his writings as well as in his life. Tagore wrote about this stage of his life in his wonderful letters to his niece Indira which were later published in 1912 as Chhinnapatra (Torn Leaves) and in English as Glimpses of Bengal. These letters are excellent images of Bengal and the Bengali life. Tagore told WB Yeats in 1918, that those very years were most productive for him, and made a new chapter in his life. He felt that the letters would present to Yeats, pictures and ideas of his surroundings more vividly and accurately than anything he had ever written.

Both the boat and the river became an integral part of his time in Shelidah and played a significant role in the letters. He wrote about the people of his estate and about their life. His time was spent writing copiously and reading avidly.

From the boats, he watched life on the banks. He looked on at ferries endlessly carrying villagers to and from the market; groups of boys raucously rolling logs along the bank; or a young village bride sailing away to another village, leaving behind her tearful family behind; or a feisty gypsy woman rebuking a high-handed police constable.

During his days in Shelidah he visited the Maharaja of Tripura several times and a friendship developed between him and the Maharaja. Tagore was instrumental in getting financial assistance from the Maharaja of Tripura for scientist Satyen Bose for completing his research works in Europe.

He was a restless and could not stay in one place for too long. He was sent to England several times but couldn’t stay there long enough to complete any formal education. He used to be homesick and longed to return to his country.

The family was quite surprised when Tagore agreed at his father’s persuasion to go to Shelidah in 1891 to look after the family estates. He was not known for this kind of a commitment. He however moved and stayed there for ten crucial years of his life. In Shelaidah and Shazadpur on the bank of the Padma he came in close contact with the common village people and learnt about their life and realized their pathos and misery. The revelation had an immense reflection on his work which is particularly evident in the post 1891 writings. Most of his finest short stories were written during this period.

The serene rural surrounding inspired him to write, and it was at this time, ‘The Postmaster’ was written. Written in 1891 ‘The Postmaster’ was among Tagore’s earliest stories; it was made into a film by Satyajit Ray in 1960-61. He published several poetry collections, notably Sonar Tari (The Golden Boat, 1894), and plays, notably Chitrangada (Chitra 1892;) during these years. Tagore wrote in the common language of the people. He achieved this quality during his stay in Sheliadah.

In time the boat became his life. To quote from Tagore: ‘They tied the boat in a stuffy place last night and drew down the curtains. The closeness woke me up and on top of it some people started to sing at about 1 or 2 in the morning. ‘How much longer will you sleep? Awake, awake beloved’ … The boatman stopped their singing but the words went on ringing in my ears ‘awake, awake, beloved!’ till I felt ill. Finally I raised the curtains and fell asleep towards dawn… I may be able to leave here after a fortnight but I am not yet certain.’

Most of his subjects here were Muslims. He introduced his own court. Every village had its own headman from among the villagers. Five heads made a court in Tagore’s estate. Final authority rested with Tagore. Thus he had established a welfare-based society in his estate. But he had no fascination for politics or power. During his time in Shelidah none of his subjects needed to go to the local police or the court. They led a safe and peaceful life under his protection
Most of his time, on the estate, Tagore was alone, except for his subjects. His family came to live with him in Shelidah in 1898 for a few years. Between 1891 and 1901 he wrote fifty nine short stories, set in both villages and towns of Bengal and in Calcutta. These deal with characters at every level of society.

Tagore came to love the Bengali countryside, most of all the Padma river. Tagore’s poems are virtually untranslatable, as are his more than 2,000 songs, which remain extremely popular among all classes of Bengalis.

In conclusion a few lines from one of Tagore’s poems written in Shelidah:

‘Whoever wishes to,
May sit in meditation
 with eyes closed
To know if the world be true or false.
I, meanwhile,
Shall sit with hungry eyes,
To see the world

While the light lasts.

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Published in: on February 4, 2010 at 6:17 PM  Leave a Comment  
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