Saturday, February 28, 2009

A Quarter Million We Never See

In October of 2007, I sat in a motorcycle class with a man who lamented that young vets had effectively terminated whatever VA disability and medical care he was receiving. I was somewhat bothered to hear that, since it was evident he still needed treatment, and it may very well have been MY appointment that scuttled his.

Mike wasn’t even a Vietnam veteran, as one might expect. He was a special forces vet of Desert Storm. While over a quarter million troops served during that brief conflict, it remains difficult to find them. I have only met a few, and far fewer still that suffered injury. But Mike was one of those. As he explained what happened, he commented casually that it really wasn’t being shot seven times that really screwed him up. That was caused by being knocked out the 2nd story window he was standing next to when he was gunned down. He now walks with a serious limp (crushed pelvis, I believe), sports a cane, and is forced to literally pick up his right leg with his hands to straddle a motorcycle. But he still rides – avidly. And he has for years. He just has to tuck his cane somewhere on the bike before leaving. Somehow he’s managed to pull it off.

With his level of disability, Mike had enjoyed full access to VA facilities, until a new generation of veterans came along that took his place in line. He also insisted he lost his benefits as a consequence of this, too. At the moment, he relies on his employer for health care. Never mind that his condition is a direct result of combat injuries.

Jake is another man that has to jostle for his place in line at a VA hospital – and his injuries are by no means marginal. Part of the Army’s 82nd Airborne, he was one of the few that arrived in Kuwait very early in the “telegraphed punch” that became the first invasion of Iraq. A full six months later, the remainder of his unit showed up, and they soon pushed north into Iraq towards Basra, which was ablaze with oil fires. They were among the first troops to successfully push back Saddam’s army, participating in what was later known as the “highway of death” – the central highway north from Kuwait through Iraq where Saddam’s army retreated under withering fire from US and allied aircraft. It was a shooting gallery – and 19 years later, rusted hulks of tanks and armored vehicles still remain along that road. I’ve seen them myself.

A short time later, his aircraft suffering mechanical problems, the pilot made an emergency landing in the desert, unintentionally setting her down in a minefield. Fortunately, the bird and the personnel remained unscathed, everything was carefully swapped to another plane, and Jake was left behind as a guard. For five days, under a steady drizzle of oil fire grease, soot, smoke, and unknown airborne chemical agents, he remained. He had been issued no gas mask or chemical warfare gear. He didn’t explain details following his five days in the oil fires very thoroughly, but I believe it’s probably because he can’t very well remember them.

“When I woke up from the coma, I couldn’t read, write, speak, or walk. I didn’t even know who I was or where I was.” Nine months later, he was permitted to leave the hospital in a wheelchair.

“I spent most of that time trying to learn to speak again.” Doctors were baffled as to what agents he was exposed, which did the vast majority of the damage, and how best to help him.

“I was actually shot in the head, too, but it was the gas that I think did the most damage,” he remarked. In looking at him, I would tend to agree. His head seemed fine – operable, and covered with a “Desert Storm Vet” hat. His right arm was an immobile prosthetic, so I shook his left vigorously with my own left. 18 years after his prolonged hospital stay and efforts to relearn to speak, he still has a noticeable slur in his words. I leaned in close to understand him.

“You know, they took my damn license away from me. They didn’t think I could drive – not knowing who I was and all.”

Did they give it back, I asked?

“Oh yeah. My wife still threatens take it away again, though. Or just take off the ball on the steering wheel that helps me drive with one hand.” His wife started laughing at this and nods her head in confirmation.

It’s strange to talk to somebody who, now almost 20 years ago, has invaded, secured, and explored the same desert that I did in 2004, 2005, 2006, and 2007. It is strange that the remnants of what they did is still very much evident much later. It is even stranger that we would have to return to fight an already-subdued enemy. I find myself hoping that this current conflict isn’t conducted and terminated as stupidly as the first. I don’t want to be the guy who one day long from now runs into men twenty years my junior that are back there yet again. The secret to killing cancer is to kill all of it – not just irradiate part of it. What will our withdrawal do to what remains of it? I’d really like to know…

Jake and I agreed that the doctor at the Charlottesville VA clinic is a really nice lady. Apparently he’s seen her, too. “Hell, I just came from an appointment in Richmond today, actually.” Unfortunately, however, most of his care cannot be handled at Charlottesville’s general practitioner, requiring a much longer drive to the full specialty facility in Richmond. I shake his left hand again, wish him luck, thank him for his service, and remark that I hope I run into him sometime in Richmond.

But in truth, I hope I do NOT run into him. I’m probably going to bow out of the health care line and let men like Jake and Mike move up. And in twenty years time, I will hope that the younger guys will do the same for us. I just pray they’re not coming from the same desert.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved

Thursday, February 26, 2009

And This

In the ongoing saga with James Madison University's "Breeze" article that painted Marines in such a poor light, the following developments are worth mentioning: The articles have been pulled - not so much because they were controversial, but because editorial staff placed a VERY high level of background research and quintuple redundancy on the next installment. The writer, being a full-time student with a real life to which he must attend, is severely lacking in the resources and free time required to sit down with DOD representatives to verify various claims.

While I have not yet determined its location, I have been told that a letter of apology has been issued by "Breeze" editors. When I have tracked it down, I will share it.

I have a number of thoughts on how this article's withdrawal was handled, and will attend to sharing them when I have the time. For the past two days, I have been extremely busy with work (yes, Ben still works sometimes), and writing has suffered as a consequence. Tomorrow's routine should be more forgiving.

I appreciate everybody's patience.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved

This Just In

For whatever reason, the article that was intended to run in JMU's student paper "The Breeze" is nowhere to be found. I have begun searching for an explanation, and apologize to those who may have been looking forward to some additional inflammatory information. Perhaps it will run next week...

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

A Good Question

I was asked a question today that, despite assuming I would be asked it frequently, have rarely encountered. And I believe it worthy of an answer, too. That question was, why did I join the Marine Corps.

Each person will provide a different reason – so radically different, in fact, that it is impossible to make generalizations. For example, I knew one guy that joined because he felt God was calling him to preach to the troops. A few others had “nothing else going on” in their lives. A very small number joined for an education (you don’t often see this in the Marine Corps infantry). In the song “Alice’s Restaurant,” a 15-minute story marginally put to music, Arlo Guthrie told the recruiter he just wanted to kill, kill, kill. They proceeded to announce he was a perfect candidate, much to his chagrin. None of my reasons are quite as alarming as that, however.

In short, I was scared of joining, so I joined. I will come back to this.

I grew up playing “army,” romping through the woods, wearing camouflage (much to the annoyance of my parents), hacking at things with machetes, shooting rifles, hiking, and camping. Most everything was undertaken with some sort of military surplus gear. I was marginally acquainted with the inner workings of the military from veteran family members, but really knew little about it. There was an air of mystery that made it appealing and an uber-masculine appearance that caused me to wonder if I had what it took to be counted among their ranks. Additionally, I had long found veterans to be interesting men with colored backgrounds and a nearly endless supply of stories. I always enjoyed hearing them.

My fascination with the military thus began at a young age, and it only heightened as I grew older. I remember when, at perhaps eleven years old, I followed the progress of Desert Storm closely. The guns were neat, the missiles were amazing (as were their price tags, too), and the uniforms and body armor also caught my eye. Over time, my interest in the armed forces increased all the more, perhaps approaching an unhealthy obsession.

For a number of years, I shied away from making such a lengthy commitment to the military. I might not like it, I thought, but then I’d be stuck with it. Furthermore, and perhaps more daunting than any other consideration, I doubted that I had whatever physical and mental fortitude was necessary to be a soldier.

I did some poking about and found myself training with the Naval ROTC program at the University of Virginia during the late 90s (as a Marine office candidate), but a combination of being totally physically overwhelmed and intimidated by the men who by all counts were extremely patient, intelligent and mature for their age, drove me to abandon the training (and the officer program to which I had applied) after only one semester. As monumentally challenging as it was, though, I remembered it fondly (except getting up before 5AM several days a week).

By the age of 22, the constant self-doubt had reached its peak. The final straw was going to an event and seeing a Marine in uniform who looked extremely self-confident, comfortable, and carried himself well. I was simultaneously impressed and envious. Soon thereafter I made my decision. The only way to know if I had what it took was to dive in. It had become a matter of faith. If I was terrified of failure without even trying something, then I was of little use as a leader, a mature adult, and especially as a Christian. I apparently had no confidence in God’s provision – or at least was so petrified of failure that I would never venture out and try something challenging.

Within a week or two, I walked into a Marine recruiter’s office and told him I wanted to enlist for Marine Corps infantry. They looked at me as if I were nuts, but agreed to it. I did this without informing my parents of the decision – at least until it was done. I needed to know. Needed to make the decision without anybody advising or influencing me, and learn what I was capable of doing.

What Marines? Because they were noted for being the toughest, most-respected, and fiercest. Why infantry? Because that field more than any other would drive out all self-doubt and excessive worry. People learn what they’re made of when they get shot at. I knew that much going in. I was diving into the pool not knowing if it contained any water. Turns it, it did.

The US invaded Iraq while was in boot camp, quickly changing our training tempo from insanely stressful to, “you’re going to war, recruit.” And we knew it, too. Every aspect of our training became preparation for that inevitable placement in harm’s way. It would only be a matter of time. I was in continuous training from February, 2003 to August, 2003, and once in the fleet we trained almost constantly from January, 2004 to June the same year. A few days after July 4th, we were landing in Kuwait and conducting more training before heading north into Iraq. I was in actual combat exactly 18 months after showing up Parris Island, SC for boot camp. That was the first tour of three.

Am I satisfied with what I found out about myself? For the most part, yes. But curiously, the lessons were learned AFTER my service. While I initially attempted to define my masculinity or success as a man based upon my service, several months beyond it I realize that it had nothing to do with the Marines. Frankly, it had nothing at all to do with “things” I did. My character lay not in my combat skill or physical prowess, but solely in my willingness to try. Facing bullets, thus, is not the bravest thing I have done. Doing something I was previously terrified of doing, however, WAS. And this is the greatest lesson I carry with me.

Success or failure may not be particularly relevant. What is of far greater merit is my willingness to even try. Defeat may indeed come, but I have to show up for the battle first. The battle I won in all of this is with myself. I took a chance, gained much, lost much, learned much, and walked away in one piece much wiser, bolder, and unconcerned with jumping into life. I found faith in my successes, and grace in my numerous failures. Rather than hide for fear of something happening, I am now going (see the blog title!). The destination is insignificant at the moment. What remains infinitely important is my willingness to commit to the journey.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved

Techincal Issues & Updates

Folks, I want apologize to all of you who have been reading, attempted to make a comment, but were prevented from doing so by problems with the "captcha" image. I do not know what the problem is, have tested it myself, and found it worked for me. I have been attempting to contact the Google people and report the error. For the time being, please pardon the inconvenience.

On a more serious note, I wished to update readers to the goings on with the James Madison University "Breeze" article that ran last week. As many know, I read these remarks with marked disappointment, responded to them as best I could, and made every effort to correct any misinformation this article printed about the USMC.

Apparently I made my point. So much so, in fact, that I was contacted today by the writer of this article for the purpose of an interview. While I cannot ensure that my remarks will be perfectly cited or contextual, I am appreciative that "The Breeze" staff have acknowledged that there are opinions other than those that this anonymous Marine has presented. Thus, tomorrow morning the article will run in print and online (, and I will submit additional remarks or negation as necessary. I have a hunch, by the way, that they will be necessary.

While I have not at all agreed with the material published in this three-part series of articles, I do find it admirable that the editorial staff at "The Breeze" are attempting to provide alternating viewpoints. I am flattered to be the Marine they consulted on this issue. I encourage you to follow this article closely, since it stands to sully the reputation of the United States Marine Corps before a student body who, being young and relatively inexperienced, will be inclined to believe the presented misinformation without question.

Lastly, I apologize for no post today. I have spent the better part of the sunlit hours scrambling atop a roof and trying not to fall off. A post may come later tonight, or it may simply have to wait. I appreciate your patience.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Kill Rates

During and directly following World War II, Army psychologists conducted extensive interviews with troops just returned from ground infantry combat operations. Their questions, however, did not pertain to the psychological welfare of the soldier or any difficulties with which he may have been suffering. The question they asked was simple. Did you shoot to kill? The answers they received confirmed years of inexplicable data, frustrating remarks from trainers and officers alike, and truly shook the foundations of military service.

In data that remained consistent through more than 400 interview battalions, merely 15 to 20% of the foot soldiers reported shooting with the express purpose of killing the enemy. The rest either did not fire at all, deliberately missed, or sought out a role that prevented them from facing such a decision (assistant gunner, loader, runner, etc). For whatever reason, they were unable to summon the fortitude to shoot to kill. This disinclination to killing did not even noticeably rise when failing to shoot meant placing oneself, comrades, or even the entire course of the battle in total jeopardy. They were simply unable to complete the act of killing. And those that DID shoot to kill, may have still done so with an habitual reluctance.

In the late 1700s, Prussian tacticians performed a test wherein they instructed a battalion to fire at a 6ft by 100ft piece of paper – representing the tight, rigid ranks of that era. At various ranges, despite their smooth bore muskets, the soldiers did quite well. They scored a 25% hit rate at 225 yards, 40% at 150 yards, and 60% at 75 yards. That figure, quite high given the soldiers’ primitive weaponry and range, was used as the kill rate for a single volley of fire from an infantry battalion. It was remarkably efficient. But battle statistics indicated a pronounced disparity between their kill rate estimates and their actual results. A few years later, two Imperial battalions held their fire as a similar-sized Turkish hoard closed in. At the short range of only thirty paces, the officers of the Imperial battalions ordered their troops fie, confident that the near perfect kill rates at that distance would immediately halt the Turks. In reality, only thirty-two Turks were hit, and both battalions were immediately overwhelmed. Despite showing superb gunnery skills in training, the soldiers had performed abysmally when their lives had actually depended on it. They, like the soldiers in World War II, could not manage the act of firing. It remained innately wrong.

These startling data are the only explanation that at horrific battles from Prussia through the Civil War, entire regiments could face each other at thirty yards and fire freely, yet only lose one to two men per minute. The soldiers, regardless of training and the risk they incurred directly under fire, did not shoot to kill. Thus, seemingly short engagements stretched to hours, or even days. They would face each other at close range and predominantly miss. What was once presumed to be fear, poor gunnery skills, or inferior weaponry was, in fact, human ability to knowingly take the life of another – regardless of his direct threat to the firer’s life (and those around him). The statistics gathered at the end of World War II simply explained what had been puzzled over for centuries. How were they missing? They weren’t aiming. It meant killing, and they largely lacked the desire or the ability to do so.

Since the invention and employment of artillery, the vast majority of combat casualties have fallen as a direct consequence of either artillery, or simply disease. Despite their enormous numbers, the foot soldiers were accomplishing more by looking intimidating than actually dispatching the enemy. This continued through World War II, when aerial bombardment added to the “distant,” highly destructive fire. The further the man firing from the enemy, the more likely he was to fire without hesitation. Years of research have determined the troops with the lowest incidence of nightmare and burning regrets are those from artillery batteries and airmen. In short, they did not see their enemy, quickly overpowering whatever inability they may have had with shooting to kill. They just dropped bombs or fired long range guns. THEY weren’t doing the killing, the rounds were – and at some location too distant for them to see. There was no immediate consequence graphic imagery, of profusion of gore. It was clean, safe, and distant.

Following these studies, the US military began making radical changes to the way in which they trained ground troops. Efforts were intended, primarily, to overcome whatever innate inability a soldier may have with killing the enemy. Their potentially superb hit rates in training in no way commuted to combat power. That, ultimately, would not be known until it was tested. But measures were made to increase the likelihood of combat success.

Israeli troops are trained to fire at close range on melons – which explode violently on being hit. It may seem simple, or perhaps even entertaining, but it serves a purpose: to familiarize the shooter with the graphic act of killing. In Marine Corps boot camp, every order received from the Drill Instructor is followed with the whole platoon screaming, “kill” in unison. On combat courses, loudspeakers loop the sounds of actual combat – heavy gunfire, screaming, and the pleas of the wounded. For hours, recruits crawl under barbed war to this din until they simply no longer hear it. In anti-armor school, Marine students are shown videos of Chechans beheading Russian soldiers. “This is your enemy. This is what they will do to you.” Troops are perpetually exposed to gore and violence for the purpose of providing good reason to hate the enemy. The secondary benefit is that the viewer is less sensitive to bloodshed. It happens on the battlefield, so be prepared for it.

Even terminology has been adjusted to "impersonalize" the enemy: a bad guy is an enemy, a target, a tango, or even a “crunchy.” Since World War II an unprintable list of racial slurs has been applied to Nazis, Japanese, Italians, Russians, Chinese, Vietnamese, Iraqis, and Afghans. While not officially sanctioned by the military, per se, they are permitted nevertheless.

These measures, in conjunction with a social evolution that once abhorred violence but now enthusiastically enjoys it in books, movies and video games, have greatly improved the shoot-to-kill rates of ground troops. From World War II to Vietnam, these numbers grew from a low 15-20% to a staggering 90-95%. For the first time in recorded history, a unit’s combat killing power was nearly equivalent to that of its range shooting skills. If they could hit a target on a rifle range, most would easily hit an enemy in combat. (While I have seen no data revealing it, I would hypothesize that shoot-to-kill rates in the Afghan and Iraqi conflicts are similar, if not higher than those of the Vietnam War.) Whatever natural inability to kill that once existed had been successfully turned off. Combat effectiveness increased monumentally. A much smaller unit was now capable of performing once-amazing feats in combat.

Curiously, the Vietnam War also marked the unexpected emergence of tremendous psychological dysfunction among combat troops. While such difficulties have always been present in documented conflicts, they were directly attributed to several factors. During World War I, for example, sweeping use of gas warfare panicked, blinded, and immobilized troops, propelling many towards psychological breakdown. Additionally, sustaining innumerable, withering artillery barrages created high incidence of “shell shock.” Between the deafening noise, gore, confusion, and terror, combat psychological problems were almost to be expected. After observation and repeated failures, commanders began cycling troops out of front line combat to reduce the likelihood of mental trauma. The fact is that an astounding 98% of modern ground troops, having operated in continuous combat for 60 days, will show severe signs of combat fatigue (or whatever other term one wishes to use for it). The minute 2% that do not show fatigue are those that exhibit pronounced aggressive, sociopathic tendencies. Better put, combat almost guarantees some degree of psychological strain. Yet throughout, artillerymen and airmen exhibit some of the lowest signs of combat trauma, despite the fact their weaponry accounted for the bulk of those killed on the battlefield. They were not seeing those they killed.

What I have not had answered to my satisfaction is the correlation of these increased shoot-to-kill rates to the increase of psychological dysfunction. In reality, it would be hard to quantify their connection. Too many variables exist, to include social changes, political and public popularity of the conflict itself, age of the combatant, cultural changes in the United States, racial similarity or dissimilarity of the enemy, and even the manner in which both enemies and friends were killed. Nevertheless, trends may be easily identified.

As it stands, a startlingly high number of Vietnam and Gulf veterans have at one time been homeless. They also have exponentially higher suicide rates (as per the VA). Even unemployment rates are above the national average. Though I have not seen statistics to prove it, it is quite likely their incidence of substance abuse is also elevated. What, if any of this, is related to shoot-to-kill rates? Thus far, I can find no answer.

In all fairness, the increased kill rates were an essential improvement to the combat power of the US Armed Forces. Failure to improve them leaves our military behind those of most nations of the world. Indeed, their shoot-to-kill rates are also on the rise. Yet since training in each country varies so tremendously, can perfected training schedules be given all the credit for the change in shoot-to-kill rates, or does this represent a worldwide culture shift towards a general contentment with directly inflicting bodily harm on others?

As for the US military, these improvements enable much smaller numbers to inflict once-unbelievable damage on the enemy. In terms of combat efficiency, it is an extremely productive betterment of the troops involved in ground combat, made all the more impressive by the fact that today’s military is strictly volunteer. But a streamlined fighting force may not have been achieved without dire social consequence. Today’s veterans, as a group, are prone to self-destructive behavior, elevated levels of crime, discontent, and psychological dysfunction. How much of this, we should ask, is the cause of teaching them to kill? And is this a price that we, as a nation, are willing to pay? Killing, at least in part, may be killing the veteran.

Predominant source: Dave Grossman, "On Killing." 1995. Back Bay Books. Boston.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved

Sunday, February 22, 2009

And They Danced

When the curtain raised, only two were on the stage, but the spotlight illuminated them brightly and you forgot how small they looked. She was wearing a golden dress, really a gown. It was strapless, exposing her delicate neck and shoulders, and a slender but magnificent figure, until the folds of the dress expanded at the waist and cascaded to the floor.

Her long, auburn hair was mostly tied atop her head, but a number of wavy ringlets had escaped and beautifully framed her face. Elbow-length white gloves perfected the ensemble. She was, without question, resplendent. In the spotlight her hair, her dress, and even her eyes sparkled. She was smiling at her dance partner, whose hand she held – a tall man in a military dress uniform.

His dress blouse was festooned in ribbons and badges, indicating he was neither new to the military, nor to deployments, stress, and combat. An expert rifle badge hanging beneath his ribbons caught the spotlight and glinted fiercely into darkened auditorium. His belt buckle and each polished brass button – and there were plenty of them – also caught the light. The black of the blouse magnified the color of his ribbons, and his blue trousers complemented his partner’s dress. He wore a half smile. Confident, but tempered. Dancing is serious business. By all standards, they were a beautiful couple.

And the music started – a lilting waltz with full orchestral accompaniment. He placed one gloved hand in hers, and perched the other on her waist, and they began to dance. Few displays are more elegant than a waltz, and few dancers can make it look easy. But they did.

They stepped back, then forward, then one way and the other, and he led her with ease across the floor. The spotlight caught their faces. He was smiling now, and she was grinning widely. The music played and they danced, their steps and their moves illustrating a perfectly choreographed romance. On stage, before an audience, they were falling in love. And the audience, watching silently and attentively, was falling in love with them. They harmonized each other’s movements, complemented each other’s youthful smiles, and continually moved about the stage. It was an exhibition of romance set to music and movement. And they were flawless.

The music began its crescendo and the couple lithely waltzed back to center stage, the last note coinciding with them stepping back and bowing to each other, still holding hands. Perfect. In seconds, the audience is roaring their approval. The dancers lift from their bows, still smiling but clearly flushed, and he leans close and gently kisses her cheek. Turning quickly, he walks off the stage, leaving her standing in the spotlight.

At the realization that the number is not yet complete, the applause dies sharply and returns to rapt silence. She still stands center stage, alone, smile fading, and slowly replaced with a look of profound sadness. She misses him.

Two more uniformed men walk to her in the light. They are not wearing dress blues, but service greens – less showy, more solemn, and they do not speak. Drawing up in front of her, one hands her a note and she opens it, reading silently. She begins to crumble, and the two men reach out to support her. Had they not, she would have fallen. From somewhere, and ever so faintly, Taps plays – a lone bugler playing his mournful dirge, and the two men escort her off the stage. Her partner will not be returning. There will be no other dance.

While it is often remembered, quite accurately, that well over 620,000 United States service men and women have paid the ultimate sacrifice for their country since the beginning of the 20th century, it is quickly forgotten that this news has always been delivered, in person, to their surviving loved ones. Truly millions lost family members. While they may have paid the ultimate sacrifice, their loved ones pay a similar one, only slightly less painful, on a daily basis – for the remainder of their lives. This is dedicated to their perpetual sacrifice… May we remember them well.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved

Who Needs Fiction...

As I drove to church this morning in a light drizzle, I kept thinking about the ABBA song where the singer says, “Early this morning, I drove in the rain. Out to the airport to get on a plane.” What particularly caught my attention was the refrain: “Hey Honolulu, we’re going to happy Hawaii.” It rains there, too, though. A lot. Almost daily in some seasons. Perhaps the desert would be a better place to escape the rain. And in all fairness, it rains there, too (except for areas of the Sahara, which is about as bleak as hell itself).

Despite the rain and the necessity to stop for gas, I still arrived early, and found my way inside to take a seat. The sanctuary was still in use, so I leaned on the wall by the door and waited. A man in an urban camouflage shirt bored holes in me with his eyes. I looked away and pretended not to notice. As the service inside concluded and a few people started filing past me, I grabbed the door and held it open. I could wait. Another man strode up, flipped the door stop down, and smiled at me. He rendered my assistance unnecessary.

I sat where I always sit – towards the back and on the right. It’s usually fairly empty, which allows me to fidget and squirm without fear of distracting anybody. Nobody else was nearby today. Soon, though, a very petite young woman and her friend sat in front of me. A moment thereafter they were joined by a third. They were all probably in their late teens or early twenties. The petite one was extremely pregnant, her girth accentuated all the more by her tight shirt. I don’t think she was anywhere close to five feet tall. She wore no ring on her small child-like fingers. I did not judge her. Things happen.

I observed that, after four weeks of repeatedly commenting on it to church staff, the church’s US flag was still on the wrong side of the auditorium. As of 1976, flags always go in a position of prominence, always towards the front of the auditorium, and always to the speaker’s right.

The service commenced with several lovely songs – none of which I had heard and with lyrics I did not know, but they were still very melodic. During one, a woman with an enchanting voice – presumably one of the singers on stage – added a beautiful harmony to the song – sung to a different beat tempo than the melody. Throughout the entire song I searched to see which singer it was, and never found her. Maybe it was a recording, or the lady was standing in the back with the sound booth. Either way, it sounded fantastic.

As most of the congregation sang and I listened, various late arrivals poured into the pews behind me and to my right – mostly young couples, I think, but I never turned around to confirm it, and they left before I had a chance to see. I scooted my stuff out of the way and made room for those that sat next to me. Some arrived a good twenty minutes into the service.

During a brief time of greeting, I met John and Randy. Remembering their names was simplified by the fact they both wore nametags. Randy did not remember that he’d met me twice before, so I reminded him.

When everybody had slumped back into their seats and the pastor began to speak, the petite pregnant girl reached forward and pulled out the pew-mounted scratch pad and the absurd “golf pencil” that accompanied it. She began scribbling notes to her friend. She’d write, hand it to her friend, and her friend would write something herself and pass it back. I was slouching, so I could not see what they had written. Occasionally, they would exchange knowing smiles and keep writing things. Interestingly, however, they were still listening. I gathered that their notes pertained to the sermon.

Behind me, somebody loudly and sloppily kissed somebody else and a guy uttered a thank you. Must be a young couple – caught in the throes of being able to get away with what they just did. Beside me, the other young couple sat close. Any closer, and she would have been sitting in his lap. They, too, exchanged kisses, but in a far more discrete exhibition of face-sucking than those behind me. Both couples did this throughout the service.

During one bout of fidgeting that left me sitting upright, the petite, pregnant girl’s friend wrote a note and passed it to her. This one I very clearly saw.

“Do you think he does porn?”

The pregnant girl wrote a response and more smiles were exchanged. I did not see the other writing. Still smiling, they passed the notes to their friend on the left – the first time she had been included in their written dialog. She, too, smiled. I wondered to whom they were referring, until it occurred to me that it probably wasn’t terribly important to be considering such things – certainly not when I was supposed to be concentrating on the sermon.

More slurping kisses behind me. More thankyou’s. The couple to the right of me look back to express solidarity with the love birds behind me and recommence with kissing of their own.

I smell booze - still reeking from somebody's pores nearby. I cannot place its source.

Several pews in front of me, a girl completely swivels around to stare back in our general direction. I am unsure who catches her attention. The grinning note-passers in front of me, the quiet-cuddling couple beside me, the loud-kissing couple behind me, or me. I don’t think it particularly mattered.

As the service ended, there was more singing, and I still didn’t know the words. The petite pregnant girl rips out several pages of notes from the church scratch pad, meticulously folds them, and tucks them into her purse – zipping it firmly as she finishes. I’m still curious what they all said. I walked to the car, turned on the Eagles, and drove home in a light snow that loudly hit the windshield and melted. I found myself wondering, somewhat rhetorically, who needs fiction when fact presents such a myriad of curiosities?

An hour later, the sun is shining.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved

Saturday, February 21, 2009

I Beg To Differ

On February 19th, James Madison University’s local student paper, “The Breeze,” ran an article entitled “War, Studied Abroad.” The article, written by Gabriel Henriquez, is based off of interviews with an anonymous Marine-turned-student at JMU. This student, who refuses to give his name, uses his anonymity to address matters about which he knows nothing. The result was a printed article full of of flagrant lies regarding the professional conduct of the United States Marines. To further worsen matters, this anonymous Marine also provided offensive photographs to accompany his misinformation.

This article, only the first of three in the series, may be found online at,

What I wish to point out to all readers is that his conduct, attitude, and willingness to speak from behind a cloak of anonymity IN NO WAY reflects the predominant attitude of current or veteran Marines. In fact, all of those I know who have read this article find it personally offensive, and we have fairly deduced the job of this young Marine, his age, where he was deployed, his unit, and that unit’s purpose. All combine to leave a disgruntled young man with a notable grudge against the Marine Corps. And, insecure as he is, he now takes great satisfaction in berating the organization he voluntarily joined – from the safety of anonymity.

In giving this anonymous Marine an audience, “The Breeze” staff has indicated that its journalist standards are not at professional par and that they are more concerned with capturing attention than a rigid adherence to fact. They reveal their age, levels of professionalism, and personal agendas. They further harm their credibility with the publication of an inappropriate photograph that the anonymous Marine submitted to further convince us of his immaturity.

While some would argue that it is best to simply ignore his flagrant misinformation, this fails to consider that thousands of readers, having been presented no rebuttal, may very well come away convinced that the United States Marine Corps is a band of war criminals and habitually disregard international law, the Geneva Conventions, and basic rules of war. None of these statements are true.

Perhaps the more preposterous remark this anonymous Marine made is that when his unit switched from a humanitarian aid posture in Pakistan and moved across the border into Afghanistan, that they were somehow violating the Geneva Conventions by “violating” the border of a sovereign nation. This is wrong on several counts.

First, the Geneva Conventions are concerned with the treatment of prisoners of war, enemy sick and wounded, innocent civilians, and humanitarian standards in a time of war. None of these pertain to border crossings. Additionally, how is crossing from Pakistan into Afghanistan a violation of international border law? The United States, as well as NATO, is formally permitted, welcome, and invited by the democratically-elected government of Afghanistan to assist them in the fight again the Taliban and al Qaeda non-state aggressors within their borders. They have asked us for help, and I don’t see how helping them is a violation of some mythical border law. We were visiting at their request and with their approval. Not trespassing. When the article’s writer repeated the anonymous Marine’s false claims, he directly indicated how much research he is willing to do for his writing: NONE. He discredits the entire “Breeze” staff in the process.

This anonymous Marine also made the comment that he was living a terribly miserable life in the desert, showering once a week, eating MREs (Meals-Ready-To-Eat), and using the cardboard box itself as toilet paper. Let me start at the top here.

Going back to the old Marine Corps recruiting poster that depicts a grizzled Drill Instructor screaming at a boot camp recruit, “Nobody Promised You a Rose Garden.” Showering once a week isn’t that big a deal. During the initial invasion of Iraq in 2003, infantry Marines went about 43 days. They will gladly tell you this. They remember. Years later, in 2006, I myself went a month without showering. These things happen. The most important thing to the Marine Corps is mission accomplishment. Troop welfare is second. This anonymous Marine should remember this.

While the writer of this article remarks that this poor Marine was forced to relieve himself in the desert, he overlooks that every time a person goes camping, he or she probably does the same thing. And people PAY to camp. This Marine is a paid employee of the United State. And furthermore, I have never in my life met a Marine who has been forced to use an MRE box as toilet paper. Frankly, I don’t think such things are even feasible. And for the record, each MRE box contains twelve meals, each of which has toilet paper included in it.

As for MRE’s being “notorious” for causing constipation, this is not the case. They are, in fact, DESIGNED to prevent loose stools. This improves field hygiene, reduces a Marine’s belief that he is filthy, and helps to ensure quick, simple cleaning. On a personal note, if this anonymous Marine was so grievously unprepared that he neglected to bring baby wipes, he has forgotten the logic and advice of truly thousands of his predecessors who have made deployment packing lists public information. I would refer to this using the Marine Corps “7 Ps.” Proper Prior Planning Prevents Piss Poor Performance. I would submit that this Marine lacks proper prior planning.

But what troubles me the most about this article is that it is written poorly in a manner that suggests the writer is so concerned with finding a story that he neglects to check his facts or in any way verify the information given him by the anonymous Marine. Rest assured, I will follow these articles carefully, respond to each as they are printed, and will do everything in my power to present JMU readers with truth, not sensationalism. Below are three pieces I have written in response to this article. The first and second are responses to the article as it appeared online at The second was a letter I sent to “The Breeze” Editor-In-Chief.

More scathing remarks will certainly appear as more untrue information is published.

Ben Shaw on February 21st, 2009 4:04 am

Both the writer of this article and the Anonymous Marine source should verify their information before spreading flagrant lies. The Geneva convention does not pertain to International border law. It is concerned with the fair and humane treatment/protection of unarmed civilians, prisoners of war, and the wounded and sick. There is no mention of border violations.

Additionally, how is a legitimate combat mission in Afghanistan an unlawful crossing of a border? The United States, and NATO, have been invited and welcomed by the democratically-elected government of Aghfanistan, Hamid Karzai, and his associates, to assist in the efforts to eradicate the Taliban and al Qaeda non-state aggressors (terrorists) from within their borders. We are welcomed guests and friends, not trespassers.

The Breeze should be more careful to avoid printing baseless information. It discredits the publication, moving it from unbiased campus news agency to sensationalists seeking an audience (with a pronounced agenda of their own).

This Anonymous Marine should be more mindful of his service, since it was HE that volunteered to serve. Troops are only required to obey LAWFUL orders, and they are welcome to contest any perceived non-lawful orders through the “Request Mast” process, wherein a Marine of any rank is given legal right to directly speak with any superior from directly above him/her all the way to the Commandant of the Marine Corps. If what he was doing was such a violation, he should have brought it up using this legal right. Failure to do so indicates some level of guilt by negligence. Herein he reveals his youth and immaturity.

As a whole, this article, just the first of three, greatly diminishes the status of “The Breeze,” and does potentially irreparable harm to its credibility.

As a pre-military-educated college graduate, three-time Marine combat veteran of the Global War on Terror, infantryman, tactics and foreign weapons instructor, senior non-commissioned officer, and former student of James Madison University, I strongly advise readers to approach these three articles with skepticism. Do your own research, and form your own conclusions. Please disregard the muddled rantings of a young man who is dissatisfied with his service experience. He is not deserving of a “thank you” for his service, but a sharp rebuke for turning his back on a unit he volunteered to join and resorting to lies to gain attention.

Ben Y. Shaw

Ben Shaw on February 21st, 2009 1:46 pm

Readers, please be aware of several other incorrect statements contained in this article. First, I have never met a Marine who felt it necessary to resort to using an MRE box as toilet paper. Each box, in fact, contains twelve meals - each with its own toilet paper (and some have wet wipes). Most combat Marines also know the importance of bringing baby wipes with them wherever they go. Failure to do so indicates poor planning

Second, MREs are not “notorious for causing constipation.” They are, in fact, intended to harden the stools. This makes cleanliness in field conditions a more readily attainable goal, improves morale, and helps make up for lack of regular shower facilities. That, also, is another common occurrence.

While this anonymous Marine is lamenting his one shower a week, Marines during the invasion of Iraq in 2003 frequently went more than 40 days between showers. I, on my second tour in 2005-2006, went a solid month without showering, too. The fact is, you make do, and when you get a chance, you clean up. Daily showers are nice, but in no way a guarantee in combat arms.

In a more serious note, the remarks that this anonymous Marine makes regarding post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are not rooted in medical and psychological fact, and he indirectly suggests that every Marine who has suffered with PTSD does so because he (or she) is of reduced character. I submit that this is a blatantly inaccurate statement, and would encourage him to consult any one of a number of professional psychological sources on the topic of PTSD. Furthermore, shell-shock is an ambiguous term used to describe psychological and physiological responses to direct encounters with catastrophic explosions, but also applied (in previous wars) to describe combat stress, battle fatigue, and other related terms. It is also considered an archaic term, since not even a universal definition can be reached.

I know plenty of young men and women who have had a very firm “basis of reality,” yet still struggled with readjustment to civilian life. Statistically, after 60 days of continuous combat, a staggering 98% of troops will show signs of pronounced combat stress and other psychological problems. The 2% that do not are enjoying themselves, and are exhibiting the behavior patterns of aggressive sociopaths. This anonymous Marine paints with a broad brush. MOST combat troops will have some psychological matters to address and they will be necessarily challenging to overcome. It is when they do NOT struggle that we must be most concerned. It indicates a contentment with killing, which is contrary to innate human instinct.

I can personally relate to the matter of readjusting to civilian life, just as did this anonymous Marine, but his apparent overcoming of his struggles should in no way suggest that others who continue to struggle are somehow defective or weak. According to the Veterans Affairs, 5,000 veterans will take their own lives this year. Are we to simply write them off as weak, or lacking a “firm basis in reality?” Such a contention would be odious to their memories, their surviving loved ones, and does nothing at all to assist them in rehabilitation.

Rather than speak from judgment, this anonymous Marine should speak from grave concern for his brothers and sisters in arms. For the moment, however, he seems content to begrudge every aspect of his service, discredit himself, and indicate that “The Breeze” is not holding itself to high journalistic standards in the material they gather and publish. I strongly recommend they consider dropping this series of articles from print. It would do wonders to redeem their reputation as a professional news agency. Shame on Mr. Henriquez for not investigating the claims of his source. And shame on the source for offering them without any guarantee of truth.

Ben Y. Shaw

*The document below was submitted to the editor:


I wished to bring to your attention the quality of the February 19th article, "War, Studied Abroad." The article is not at all in keeping with the journalist standards of "The Breeze," and speaks volumes about its writer (and also the editorial staff that allowed it to "sneak" past their thorough examination). The material contained within the piece is such a far cry from the fact and it serves to weaken the character of the entire "Breeze" staff that permitted it run.

Consider, for example, the statement that the Geneva Convention(s) somehow pertain to international border law. They do not. They are concerned with the humane and universally agreed treatment of prisoners of war, innocent civilians, uniformed and non-uniformed combatants, and care of enemy sick/wounded. There is nothing about border crossing. When the writer repeated such a baseless remark, he proved just how little research he is willing to invest into his presentation.

Given the unprofessional nature of this initial article, and unprofessional (anonymous and "safe") manner in which the writer is gleaning his information, and given the fact that the writer's and source's credibility are already severely damaged, no further redemption can be found in running the next two articles. I strongly advise you consider withdrawing them from the schedule. This is not for the sake of the dignity of the article's writer and his source, but for the sake of the credibility of your publication. It would also behoove "The Breeze" to issue a letter of apology for stooping to unfounded sensationalism for the sake of headlining perceived controversy.

These series of articles will damage your reputation severely - and speak volumes to indicate the bias (or perhaps editorial apathy) of your staff. Articles of this low quality have the potential to effect a future job-seeker. Those hiring will not see a professional writer; they will see one who has permitted or even sanctioned poor journalistic standards. This article disrespects your personally.

If you would like a formal rebuttal or more information regarding the conduct of individuals and units in the United States Marine Corps, I gladly, with name attached, volunteer to provide you as much information as I am able. Since I have only done and seen so much, I have only limited information to provide. Nevertheless, what I do provide, I will gladly attach my name to it. What I have seen and done are actions of which I am proud. Feel free to contact me personally.

At the very least, I strongly suggest that you make an effort to hold "The Breeze" to the high standard that I, you, and thousands of other readers have come to expect. If it no longer provides us news, we will no longer read it. You may be certain that my remarks to this article will not be the last. There are many veterans at JMU, and they are inclined to keep in touch with their fellow vets. None of us are pleased with this article. In fact, everybody to whom I have spoken about it is offended that the USMC would be falsely portrayed as a band of war criminals. As for the thousands of combat missions we represent, we conducted ourselves in a manner that preserved our personal honor, the honor of the Marine Corps, and the high expectations of our nation. This standard, now passed on to our juniors and the next waves of troops, is still rigorously upheld. Ask any Marine but the anonymous one to whom your writer is speaking. He represents a very small, misinformed minority.

Feel free to quote me if you wish, to use my name, to browse my website, and contact me personally with questions.


Ben Y. Shaw
Freelance Writer | Photojournalist

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved

Friday, February 20, 2009

Never the Twain Shall Meet

Not long ago, I called the Veterans Affairs hospital nearby and followed their automatic system through a series of lengthy prompts until I was finally placed in touch with their mental health department. I was not “suffering a mental health crisis,” so I did not push the button that indicated I was. I would wait in line like everybody else. If somebody actually needed help, I wanted that line open, at any rate.

After the line rang unanswered for a few minutes, the system automatically spit me back to the main operator switchboard, where I told them that I was trying to reach their mental health department. Very apologetic and friendly, the lady transferred me over yet again. More ringing.

Ten minutes and a few more “spit backs” later, somebody finally picked up the phone and informed me that I needed to speak with the chief secretary of the department for my question. They would transfer me to that number. Nobody answered, so I left a message. I’m glad my matter wasn’t urgent.

The reason for my call was this: I am attempting to gain access to the VA mental health staff for a series of interviews wherein I inquire what they have found to be the greatest challenges (mentally and emotionally) facing readjusting to civilian life, and what are their treatment solutions to best help them with the transition. Not only am I curious, but more importantly, I am concerned. I have friends who are struggling, and the facts show many more that I do not know do as well. Were this not the case, the VA itself wouldn’t estimate that 5,000 veterans will take their own lives this year.

In addition to learning what the VA is doing to best help these men and women, I am also interested to determine what we, as family members, loved ones, friends, fellow veterans and Americans alike may do to best assist the VA in their treatments and also best support our veteran friends. Certainly there is something more that we can do – and what better way than to hear the suggestions from the professionals devoted to assisting them? It seems like a good use of my time, potentially productive, and also potentially helpful to the numbers of men and women that need it most.

The next day, having received no call-back, I tried again and spoke with the chief secretary. She told me that I needed to speak with the department head, and forwarded me to that number. No answer. I left a message, grew impatient soon thereafter, and tried again. At last, I spoke with the right person. Well, not really. She directed me to their Public Affairs office, and I was connected with an agent who quickly informed me that I needed to submit the entire proposal to them via e-mail. Oh dear, now I needed to write things down, which I had not yet done.

Nevertheless, I got my act together, wrote something up, had a friend edit it and offer some good suggestions, and then submitted the entire package to the hospital’s public affairs office. A day later, she e-mailed back that the proposal had been sent to regional headquarters for further examination and approval/denial. Now we’re getting somewhere.

Readers may recall that I wrote a post a few weeks ago about my positive experience at my local VA clinic, wherein I dealt with a very competent, friendly, and concerned doctor with an outstanding memory. Towards the end of that piece, I also indicated that I was considering sending them a thank-you letter for their professional and caring service to veterans. And I did just that about a week ago.

Yesterday, I received a phone call from the doctor herself, thanking me for my letter, which they found encouraging, and also thanking me for the humorous post (which I boldly included) regarding VA facilities and my good experiences at her particular clinic.

“We all really enjoyed it, and you write well, so I went ahead and forwarded it to the Richmond. I hope that’s okay.”

It was not, but I didn’t tell her that. It was VERY not okay.

This is the same place to which I just submitted a serious research proposal, and now another document, also replete with my name, as arrived on their doorstep, this one making comparisons of their facilities to Russian sanitariums. The two documents – one written seriously with an eye towards professional research, and the other geared towards poking fun at a massive government entity – are almost completely contradictory.

I have no idea if the same people will see these documents. Nor do I know if it will make any appreciable difference. It’s rather disturbing that a mere eight months after beginning regular writing, some of my material is already potentially biting me in the butt. For the moment, all I can do is hope that one group reads on piece and finds it humorous, another group reads the other piece and finds it inspiring, and that never the twain shall meet. Ever. And in the future, be more careful about what I write.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Forget It

When my friend neared the end of his first term as a Marine, after several meetings with the career planner, much discussion with his wife, and careful consideration of all his options, he elected that, given his circumstances, reenlisting would be the best course of action.

A good friend was aiming to go to a unit that didn’t deploy in bustling area of the Northeast, and it would be fun to reenlist with him, train other Marines, enjoy the uniform far from a large base, and remain a part of the brotherhood. Besides all this, reenlistment bonuses were fantastic at that time. You get a huge sum just for showing up, plus even more for staying in a specific field. The opportunities for a large nest egg were tangible. It would be a down payment on a house. With dreams someday of a family, it seemed like a great idea. All he had to do was some brief paperwork and go get a signature.

This signature, however, was that of the company first sergeant. While he was usually fairly welcoming to his subordinates, he was a busy man, so my friend scheduled a time when he could meet with him, get the signature he needed, and prepare to raise his hand again for the oath for his country. He was excited. Nearly four years in the Corps had taken him twice to Iraq as an infantryman, seen him shot at and mortared repeatedly, taught him many things, and transformed a teenager into an instructor, skilled tactician, and leader of Marines – whose purpose was mission accomplishment, advocacy of his troops, and perpetual concern for their well being, safety, and combat preparedness. He had chosen his career well, conducted himself professionally, and had high accolades and decorations to prove it. The Marines would benefit from him remaining. He, too, would enjoy the continued relationship.

At the agreed-upon time, he appeared in the company office to get the 1st Sgt’s signature for the go ahead. It would be brief. “You’re reenlisting? That’s excellent news, devil dog. God speed! Let me sign that paper, and you have yourself a find career as an infantry NCO.” They never said no to a reenlistment. He was delayed in his meeting on account of the 1st Sgt being busy counseling (yelling at) somebody. No worries. Ass chewings never take long.

Four hours later, he was finally called into the office. My friend, though extremely patient was annoyed. This was a decision that was carefully-considered, and it would influence the next four years of his life, and perhaps even more of it. Marines were always eager to retain their own. He was a good Marine on all levels, a multi-time combat veteran, and carried with him the survival skills that his juniors desperately needed to know. The war in Iraq wasn’t going anywhere for the immediate future.

After he reported in, he explained his intentions to the first sergeant and handed him the paper. The first sergeant glared back up at him, took the paper, and frowned as he read it. Setting it down, he looked squarely at my friend and asked, “Why on earth are you reenlisting?”

It was the final nail in the coffin. Reenlisting was a decision he had made boldly, but with the hopes that the next four years would be smoother than the first. Having somebody question his character and inquire why on earth he wanted to reenlist was insulting.

“You know what, first sergeant, I think I’ve changed my mind.”

He walked out, tore up the papers, and a few months later got out of the Marine Corps like almost all of us. The Marines lost a good man that day. After years of being treated like a useless underling, it appeared the next four would be simply more of the same. Forget it. Not long after this, his friend, who DID end up reenlisting and going to the non-deployable unit, found himself once again in Iraq, feeling like he’d been completely screwed.

My veteran buddy, longtime friend, fellow fighter, driver, companion, and coverer of my six, has since joined an outfit that was downright eager to accept him. He’s now a cadet in the Army ROTC, providing them with essential training in counterinsurgency operations, and preparing his fellow cadets for inevitable deployment to the middle east. At heart, he’s still a Marine, and he’s still annoyed that a single first sergeant would do so little to retain the nation’s finest We both know for a fact that this man singlehandedly discouraged several others from reenlisting, myself being one of them. For his sake, I hope the Army does him better.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The Event

After years of considering myself the hero, the highly trained and brave guy that always solves problems and saves the day, my current lot is all the more an insult. I am in fear – for my life, and with selfish and total disregard to all those around me. I am hiding. And I am scared. What further worsens this is that it’s entirely my own fault that this even took place. I pick up my phone and beg for help again. I’ve already hung up on them twice already, but I was afraid somebody would hear me. Maybe I can talk this time and give them more information…

When I saw Jordan, I thought she was attractive, but I didn’t think much more of it. She was a subordinate, a coworker, and I didn’t want to jeopardize that personal relationship. Besides, I saw the ring on her finger so I just assumed she was off-limits. I’m not trying to mess with anybody’s marriage. She had a great smile, though.

But after months of being on my best behavior, of avoiding awkward situations with just the two of us in the lounge or the break room, our conversations inevitably extended beyond mere professional discourse. Come to find out, she was in a bad marriage. Her husband, Rick, was a walking disaster. Not long back from the war, he was irritable, jumpy, drank entirely too much, and was perpetually drifting further from her, and from most everybody else for that matter. And then he lost his job, which was probably the only thing holding him loosely to reality.

She’d be at work all day, actually earning money, and Rick, having lost his single purpose, gave up altogether, sat at home on the couch, drank from about noon onwards, and yelled at her when she came home. Why she told me this is still beyond me, but maybe I seemed trustworthy, as a supervisor and professional associate. What I did next began a series of missteps that, six months later, has me hiding in a small bathroom and cowardly begging for help.

Her honesty was alluring, as was even more so were her looks, and I began looking forward to her coming in and chatting with me again. I wasn’t particularly interested in what she had to say, but with spending time with her. And with being trusted, which I found flattering. But when she started talking about being lonely, I took it to heart and leapt at the perceived opportunity with impropriety. I betrayed her, for my own entertainment.

Rather than offer as much encouragement as I could and perhaps point her to somebody better suited as a confidant, I took the opportunity to paint myself as the concerned, caring, true friend that will listen and understand. And console. And the power of my consolation, the lie I fabricated that I actually gave a damn about her situation, endeared her to me all the more. Before long, we were seeing each other outside of the office. We had dinner a few times under the guise of a professional meeting or subject, but I soon cut to the chase and simply invited her to my house. I lived alone, while she obviously did not, and my home served as a peaceful escape from a verbally abusive, distant, and deadbeat husband.

What followed was a descent into gratification, the abuse of another’s vulnerability, and the enjoyment of futile trysts that could have no good ending. Everybody knew about it at work, but nobody talked about it. I guess they didn’t want to throw any more fuel on the fire. We, and mostly I, had already set that ablaze completely.

I have called 911 three times and tried to explain where I am here. I have told them that he’s here to kill me, and he may kill her too. He may have shot her already, but I think he’s only shot the guy outside in the hall He’s a coworker, and as I huddle here in the bathroom, I’m listening to him bleed out. He’s been screaming for what seems like forever. “He shot me in my legs,” he keeps screaming. He’s begging for help, but I’m afraid to go out there and help him. He wails that there’s blood everywhere and I imagine the hallways looks like a butcher shop. I’m paralyzed and can’t move. If her husband sees me, I will die. Every time my friend in the hall grow quiet, I’m terrified he’s finally died from his wounds. I told the 911 people about it, but they didn’t seem very concerned about it. “As long as he keeps making noise, he’s okay, sir.” This is all my fault. Somehow he found out, and he’s going to kill us both.

Soon after I heard them drag my injured coworker out to safety. They’d yelled at him to pull himself along the floor to where they were, but he didn’t have any strength left. I think he was crying. He has a wife and kids. He wanted to see them, he was saying.

When the SWAT team came storming into the room, I heard the through the door, so I started telling them, “don’t shoot, don’t shoot!” I didn’t want them to think I was armed. I was not. I was too scared to even move. I just wanted to be out of there. I feel like a coward, and I probably am one.

They threw me on the floor and searched me, then handcuffed me. I heard them talking into their radios as they half dragged, half guide me outside. I asked where Jordan was. Had they seen her? Was she safely outside? They wanted to ask ME questions, though.

Rick, they said, was inside with several hostages, to include my coworker, lover, and HIS wife. He was threatening to kill all of them if they didn’t send me in. “Are you really going to do that? He’ll kill me for sure!” They told me they would not, and I was thankful. But then I hated myself for being a coward. This entire situation is all my own doing. They’re going to get killed. One man almost died already, and now Rick was probably going to shoot the rest because they wouldn’t send me in. I started feeling so badly that I asked if they would. At least they wouldn’t hurt the other people. They were all my friends, too. I would probably die, but at least I wouldn’t face my maker responsible for the death of half my coworkers. As it was, I still had a lot to explain to God. I doubted He would understand. This was unconscionably wrong.

For some reason, they kept us close to the hostage negotiation van, and we saw and heard everything. I saw the spy camera in the room where Rick was, screaming at people, banging on things. And I heard the officers yelling at him and asking him what his demands were. He wanted water. He wanted safe passage out. But he mostly just wanted me. I begged them to go. This would eat me alive if I lived and they didn’t. But, the negotiators still wouldn’t let me. Jordan was going to die – mostly because I wasn’t a friend, I was instead a predator.

I asked a hostage negotiator for a cigarette. I hadn't really ever smoked, but I needed one now. I think I wanted it to somehow make my feeling of guilt and total responsibility go away. Of course, it didn't help. I just felt sick and coughed a lot.

After awhile he stopped yelling and started lining people up. When he sent out one hostage to get the water he asked for, she ran instead and he started screaming again. And then he put poor Jordan on her knees. “He’s going to kill her!” I started yelling at the negotiators. He’s going to execute her. And they knew it, too. Almost every one of them started yelling into their radios. “Go, get in there now. Take him down. GO!” I heard gunfire. I couldn’t look at the TV screen anymore. One of the officers led me off.

Jordan is dead now, and Rick shot himself before the SWAT guys could push through the door. They caught it all on camera – forever recording the consequences of my predacious behavior. Her best friend is yelling at me and crying. “It’s your fault. This is because you’re a pervert and evil.” She was the hostage that escaped. The cops are going to have to handcuff her just to keep her from attacking me. I can’t believe this is happening. What started as fun and simple attraction became immoral. What was immoral became evil. And there are now two people dead. I did this. And I cannot live with myself.

*Yup… I spent the day training with the local SWAT team as a role-player, alternating between hostage, coward, armed aggressor, and helpless victim. The one scenario I have recounted was scripted and planned. These situations were all purely fabricated, but such things do happen, and SWAT, highly trained, stressed out, and concerned for everybody’s safety, are called in to undo the selfish behavior of a character like mine. It’s certainly pause for thought.

At any rate, I preferred being the shooter. I’m good at it. Not so good at being a wimp. But then again, I haven’t been in such situations. And I hope never to be. Good training, indeed…

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Spring Come She Will

There are evenings when you can actually smell Spring approaching. A damp chill cut with the aroma of vegetation returning to life, fattening buds, and a promise of warmer weather. The light’s longer, too, and I’m getting antsy.

For reasons I can still not explain, I am still fascinated with the idea of finding an old 1950s pickup, red paint faded from half a century in the sun, rust spots here and there, a heat-cracked dashboard and a hard, plastic steering wheel. I don’t care if the seats are ripped; in fact, it’s better if they are. Luxury isn’t savory, at any rate.

With pickup truck acquired, I will don my straw hat, blue jeans, and white t-shirt, and continue seeing the country I only began to explore on a motorcycle last year. I will tune the old-fashioned radio to some tinny station in the middle of a Kansas cornfield and hope that Roy Rogers, Johnny Cash and Patsy Cline are the only music they play. Maybe Glen Miller in the evenings.

There’s much more yet to see, really. There are people that need knowing. I want to meet the older lady that’s won the county fair pie-baking contest for the last ten years. I want to taste her baked goods. I want to talk to the farmer, dip spit running dribbled from his deep-creased chin. The man who knows a hell of a lot about roping cattle and doesn’t give a damn about much else. It’s his, huge, arthritic hand that I want to shake, too.

Rodeo season starts in the spring, bringing with it huge crowds of talented, enthusiastic young men and women who have found sport even in the most mundane of agricultural activities. The kids that paid for their saddles by working long, summer hours getting laid less than their worth. Kids who know what a western saddle is actually for.

There are deep south churches to see, where every Sunday the richest singing pushes through their sanctuary walls and courses enticingly down the street in both directions. Where, in unconditioned buildings, they suffer the oppressive heat in their Sunday best and fan themselves with bulletins and shush whomever’s kid is making a ruckus beside them. I’d like to share their joy with them.

And then, having met but a few here and there, had a hundred “Betties” serve me a hundred burgers in a hundred different small towns, I will get back in the old truck, throw my bag in the truck bed, and take off at sunset, underneath clouds threatening a brief spring rain. I will ride with the window down and feel the tinge of cold still in the air and listen to old music, and roll my own cigarettes and beat out the rhythm on the wheel as night falls and I find a place to sleep.

There on those roads, in small dales between huge ridges, nestled in hills, at arbitrary points in the middle of miles of corn, I will see the small town parade with the fire trucks and the Shriners, the local mayor and the local beauty queen. I will photograph the kids playing in the open fire hydrant and streets lined with US flags, and happy faces regaled with July 4th fireworks displays. I will pause in respectful silence at the memorials each town has – honoring the oft-disproportionate number of men their community has sacrificed in the protection of liberty. I will remember how thankful I am that I’m here to enjoy it, and live life to the fullest on their behalf and in their honor.

I will get lost a lot and not care where I wind up. I will find an old filling station where an old man with a rag in his back pocket emerges from under an equally old car and pumps my gas for me while talking about the weather. I want to meet Americans – the true salt of the earth. Who never had an interest in the busy life of cities, and are content to have smaller lives with richer relationships. Who grow old with their spouses and watch their children have a few of their own. I will see a real rotary phone, and meet a lady with horn rimmed glasses, and talk with a man who castrates his hogs by hand, and help the local guys who’ve tossed hay bales in the sun for days, and get a sunburn on my neck in payment. I will drink Coke from a glass bottle, and somehow it will taste better.

There was a pretty girl in a dream the other night - with smooth skin, dark eyes and long hair. She wasn't happy, she told me, as she leaned against the fence railing. She didn't much like it where she was. I invited her to travel with me and we left soon thereafter. I haven't met her yet, but I'd like to...

Spring is coming soon, and I can’t wait. The adventuring bug is afflicting me, and it needs satisfaction. I want to travel the back roads in an old pickup. I want to see America. I want to MEET America, too, and I want you to come with me.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved

Monday, February 16, 2009

The Neurotic

A full twenty years since our days of dodging peas scattered about the floor by our Saint Bernard, we still find ourselves with an unimproved collection of needy, eclectic, and perhaps downright retarded pets. Some things have changed, certainly. After years of squishing used food between my toes, I, like my mother, have taken to wearing slippers – regardless of how silly they may be. There are also fewer numbers of pets as whole. But those we do have are not without their share of problems, phobias, and irritating habits.

The present cat, eleven years ago replacing the one that uniformly hated every last one of us, is entirely the opposite. She needs us – desperately so. At eleven, she is the fittest “senior” cat the veterinarian has seen in years. But she still hates him.

She, like a normal cat, will hunt around for little animals to kill, disembowel them, and leave various unrecognizable organs on the doormats as a gift. I suppose we are to thank her for the contributions – now small pools of gore glued to the porch paint. A few she’ll bring back alive, somehow sneak in the door, and proceed to release these injured, cute little furry things inside the house for our viewing pleasure. They, and she, are recaptured and thrown back outside. From what I understand of cats, though, this is relatively normal behavior. They spend 99% of their time pleasing themselves, and the other 1% trying to please the master, yet succeed in only being irritating and gross.

What is NOT normal behavior, however, is her lack of cleanliness. I have always presumed cats to be tidy creatures that divide their days equally between grooming and sleeping. This one focuses her energy on competing with the dog for bringing in as much dirt as possible.

If the weather is nice, she’ll be outside. She will find dirt, roll in it, and immediately be stricken with the urge to come back in. She will alert us to this by hanging by her claws on door. The screen, suffering from years of her pull-ups, is beginning to sag at the top corner. And then she’ll come in, leaving a visible trail of dirt from the door, all the way to her food bowl, or wherever else she elects shakes off. Consequently, there are always two, dark heaps of dirt lying about the house. The gap between them is where she stood. Every couch, chair, and bed has been littered with her filth – even more frequently as the weather warms. She just likes dirt, I guess, and keeps us all terribly interested in vacuuming the house on a near-daily basis. She is an utter slob.

At her age, one would expect that she would invest most of her time sleeping and seeking laps, but her time inside is instead on being as much of an irritant as possible. When she’s not leaving dirt, she’s fussing for somebody to open a closed door for her – usually into a closet. Or she’s scratching random patches of the wall. Or generally being as loud and obnoxious as she is able. She’ll make a racket to go out, then do pull-ups on the door until she is promptly let back in. When in, she’ll follow people around the house demanding attention and dropping dirt, and hop onto whomever occupies any couch or bed – and leave an obligatory ring of debris where she landed. During the several months when she sheds, the filth is mixed with large clumps of hair that always end up on pillows.

“Normal” cats chew on garbage bags. This one chews up groceries – but only bread bags. Nor does she much like tuna, but chicken will send her into a frenzy that has her clawing at the legs of anybody in the kitchen for a taste. She is, to say the least, a total nuisance.

The dog, now a shaggy husky/Newfoundland mix, weighs in at just under 100lbs, and carries in not only a profusion of dirt clinging to his coat, but an assortment of sticks, briars, leaves, mud and sand. Everything sticks to him and his behavior does little to prevent it.

He is, for lack of a better way to put it, intellectually challenged. Newfoundlands, by their nature, love water. So does ours, but he’s afraid of swimming. He will never go into the “deep end” of any body of water, and usually won’t even get his head wet. If his feet (complete with webbed toes for superior swimming) can’t touch the bottom, he won’t go in. This is despite multiple efforts to lure him into deeper water, including people holding treats. His terror of swimming leads me to believe that a far shore littered with disabled, ground-restricted squirrels would be completely safe, so long is the water is deeper than his chest. His lack of swimming is an embarrassment.

And he has other odd habits, too. He never jumps or even licks people – ever. He just leans on them and knocks them over. He’s unaware that he’s not a lap dog.
His desperation for attention sends him chasing cars whenever they leave, which resulted in an expensive invisible fence being installed around the perimeter of the house and yards. All good and well, save for the fact he largely ignores it. While otherwise an incredibly sweet (albeit stupid) animal, he will jump said fence in pursuit of other dogs. Perhaps it is territorial instinct, but he would eat other dogs given the opportunity. This aggression and the apparent ineffectiveness of the invisible fence necessitated the construction of an elaborate real fence to keep him from giving chase to hunting dogs (and cars). While this is fine, but I’m the one that usually ends up assigned these projects, and I have spent more time preparing dog confines over the recent years than any other chores around the property. In the absence of real grandchildren, I suppose he and the cat have become the adopted ones – just as spoiled and useless as real ones.

And this doting means that whenever he goes on a walk, there is an aversion to leashing him – in part because he’s almost 100lbs and barely controllable, but also because it’s just nice to let him run free to wade up to his chest in streams (never swim), and dutifully pee on everything he can find. But to avoid him eating other dogs, he now wears a muzzle.

He doesn’t much like it, naturally, and it looks particularly stupid on him, but it’s effective. He can’t bite anything, so he just nudges them to death. Otherwise, his activities remain unfettered. He still chases things, still goes carefully wading, still rams his nose into the dirt and continually crashes through the woods in search of more things to ferociously nudge. His “magic face,” as well as his fur, come back stuck with full branches, briers, and a bits of nature that would otherwise be left to decompose in peace.

That applies also to carcasses and bones he finds throughout the area. Despite being muzzled, he will furiously punch at something until a large enough piece sticks through that he can bite – and he will come wandering home with something gross hanging from his mouth – through his magic face. When he drops them, he is put inside, and the decaying flesh is thrown on top of the woodshed roof. Following a particularly robust hunting season, there will be a heap up there that will one day corrode through the roof itself and fall onto the wood pile. Better that, however, than having these things strewn far and wide across the yard. It would look like a horrible crime scene.

The poor dog also appears to have troubles with stress. Maybe he needs doggie meds. Whenever he is fenced in his real fence with nearby goats to keep him company, he seems perfectly content. But when he is left free to roam his invisible fence domain, the pressure of defending it may be too much for him. He routinely gets diarrhea, a tasteless addition to the sticks and other debris clinging to his fur. I become all the more conscious of how gross he truly is when he then tries to lean on me and sit on my feet. I usually flee in disgust.

Despite his penchant for aggression against other dogs and a burning desire to collect dead things, it seems he’s learning about the invisible fence – at least better than he did in the past. While he may have been shocked a time or two on his own, I think what really drove the message home was when my mom forgot to remove his “magic collar” and lead him right through the fence. He was, of course, zapped.
For the moment, he will go nowhere without her directly leading him and the muzzle firmly on his maw. Remarkably, he still trusts her – and his magic face – to lead him safely through the DMZ.

There are other pets, yes, but the dog and cat both seem to be engaged in serious competition for the greatest collection of neuroses. Some days, it’s a tossup. Between their dirt, their dead animals, and their constant need for attention, these two adopted grandchildren receive far more doting than any real grandchildren ever will. Why get real ones when the ones you have already keep you thoroughly exasperated, entertained, and busily cleaning your house after each visit? And you know what’s best? I’m allergic to them both…

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved

Sunday, February 15, 2009


I apologize for the lack of a post today. My time was primarily invested in my web page.

As of about ten minutes ago, the following two sections are nearing completion:



Each page now links to some of my favorite writings on these subjects. I am still editing out all the kinks and typos on the writing itself, so thank you for your patience. This is definitely a work in progress. Please report any glaring errors or browsing problems to my via email.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Honoring the Purchase

When I presented today my conviction that a nation who knows her troops will be thus more inclined to labor for their safe, expedient and victorious return, the gentleman listening fired back a response almost immediately.

“I don’t think I WANT to know them that well.”

This not something I have ever heard before, or even considered for a moment. I have found the general public to be particularly curious, if not concerned already about the welfare of troops overseas. Yet here this man was suggesting that he didn’t wish to know them well at all. He continued:

“It’s so hard to know them. Because then it’s like losing your own child. It’s SO hard. And their moms…I have no idea how they do it. I can’t even imagine what they go through.”

While I initially thought his remarks were cold or even rooted in apathy, it became quickly clear that it was intended as an avoidance of profound grief. He, also a veteran of another war, had probably already experienced more than his fair share. But is avoidance necessarily the answer?

I’ve attended only one military funeral – and that for a friend that was killed when an IED went off under his vehicle. He was about 28. I will never forget this service, it’s solemnity, nor the wails of this man’s mother for her son. They haunt me, actually, and I think they always will. Nevertheless, I am glad I went, and glad that I was able to demonstrate, for what little it may be worth, that I cared about her son, and wished to honor him and his family one final time.

Perhaps it is easier for the nation to send troops into harm’s way if they remain faceless, unknown, and to some degree therefore unreal. Perhaps the anonymity is necessary for leaders and citizens alike to make or support decisions that will undoubtedly place many thousands in great peril. Perhaps the fact they volunteered their service releases us from some level of concern for them. Maybe knowing and loving them personally would prevent anybody being willing to send them anywhere at all.

Knowing and caring about the troops is, without a doubt, a voluntary shouldering of overwhelming grief. But to ignore them is a refusal to accept reality. Though it may be extremely painful; though we may feel like we are losing our own children, we must know them. Not doing so is fleeing difficulty for the safety of ignorance. This nation was not won by apathy, however. It was purchased with the blood of our country’s willing, concerned, and indignant young men and women. It was far from free.

One of the most odious aspects of leadership is knowing that your decisions, however right and necessary they may be, will send some men to their deaths. It is a mantle few wish to carry, and fewer still sleep well having accepted. But for a commander to distance himself from his charges, knowing full well that some will not come home, is not full acceptance of the yoke of leadership. It is circumventing the greatest honor of the position. A leader does not act in the best interest of the troops or himself. He acts in the best interest of the mission, and therefore the nation. He sets aside personal objection to an order, acknowledges that some of his men will not survive, accepts the agonizing self-questioning that accompanies it, and then, disavowing self, delivers his orders with country in the deepest chambers of his heart. For his nation, he has sacrificed a clear conscience. Ask any officer who has lost men.

To some degree, this applies to the citizens of this nation. It is our responsibility to commit the troops to war with the utmost reluctance. It is our duty to care about them and know them – for they are our own. And it is our honor and simultaneous burden to grieve in their loss. An American should know full well the cost of freedom. Those who take it for granted lack appreciation for those that provided and defended it. Citizenship is a responsibility – and not an easy one. We, too, will sacrifice our clear conscience for the sake of our own.

“We’ll be landing under fire, gentlemen. Men will die.” So said Colonel Moore to his troops as they readied to ship out to la Drang Valley, Vietnam. Such is the nature of war. Yet though nobody may wish to openly admit it, war still serves its purpose. With war comes death, grief, and misery. Most of us are fortunate to have never experienced it. But while war takes the life of the warrior far from home, it kills the spirit and destroys the families of the surviving right here. We should know their loved ones, and stand with them in their grief. It could just as easily have been our son or daughter. Or it could have been us, had not so many millions gone before us to preserve what we now so casually enjoy.

Entering into a condition of caring for the troops means walking squarely into a wound, but I must go there all the same. I cannot accept the alternative. I have much to be thankful for, and somebody paid for it. Scripturally, to love is to suffer. Indeed this is the case. Preserving freedom comes at high cost; and I want to know the men and women who volunteer to pay it, regardless of the cost to me.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved

Friday, February 13, 2009

The Other V-Day

There is something about being stuck in a war zone that causes a man to fabricate in his mind a fantastic image of the return home. While the scene may have banners and ticker tape, marching bands, his family, cheering crowds and a triumphal parade, there is one element present that he most dearly misses: his sweetheart. However young or old, there is no other face he so dearly wishes to spot in the crowd, no other figure he wants to wrap in his arms, and no other lips he wishes to kiss. Above all others, it was she he missed.

Absence does, indeed, make the heart grow fonder. During a long tour, a fighter’s helmet, flak vest and pockets are frequently crammed with photographs, letters, or odd mementos of his lover. In the greatest moments of peril, it is her he longs to see – and tell one final time that he loves her. In the loneliest hours of solitude, it is her company he misses, and he pulls out a photo or a note and simply misses her all the more. When the time comes to go home, she occupies his every thought and even dream.

No single person so occupies his mind and heart. And in a sea of faces, it is only her that he seeks, and having fixated upon her, he will not rest until they have been united. This woman, though thousands of miles away, saw him off to war, saw him through it, and somehow saw him home. It is love; and virtually indescribable.No single photograph so beautifully captures the exuberance of returning home safely, victoriously, and to a beautiful woman than Alfred Eisenstaedt’s world-famous capture of a sailor kissing a woman in Times Square on VJ day, 1945. It is unknown if the two even knew each other. It is also totally irrelevant. No better exhibition of emotion and glee has ever been committed to film.

In the absence of a true sweetheart, a soldier will “create” one. He will date, romance and make out with a girl in a relationship which exists solely in his mind and heart. He will even dream of her waiting when he returns. Perhaps she is a friend, or a pretty face he picked out of a crowd years ago. Maybe a model from a magazine. He may hardly know her, but he loves her. And he fights primarily for her. Many a girl stateside remains totally unaware that she was involved in a long-distance relationship with a man she never dated. Perhaps it is better this way. He retains the unreal, but gorgeous lady in his heart, and she is freed from having to put up with him. It is not ideology and patriotism that sees men through wars; it is their girls back home – whether they know it, or even exist at all.

Millions of men have returned with tattered photos and worn out letters. Stiff from sweat, abraded by dirt and sand, they were more valuable to him than his rifle, and may have done more to protect him. This woman gives him something to come home to, something to kiss, and while far way, somebody to sigh over and miss. She is a saint in his eyes.

Only a modest number of troops return home to sweethearts. Most – young, socially awkward and single, come back to families or even nobody at all. It is, to say the least, a total disappointment. The truth sets in, and the months of preparing for a hero’s return to a lass back home is recognized as a farce and a self-created, but a highly successful crutch. There is no girl at all.

Tomorrow, countless numbers girls will miss their boys overseas, stuck in Iraq, Afghanistan, Djibuti, Kenya, Germany, Italy, or any one of a number of bases throughout the world. And those boys will miss their girls, no doubt, and dig out a picture to gently cradle with a faraway stare. The thousands more that have no such girl, and there are many, will feel the deep sting of being alone. Deployments are even harder when you have no lover to miss. They are dreary affairs indeed.

Right now, somewhere around 100,000 love relationships are being taxed by distance, poor communication and agonizing worry. Some will not survive the ordeal, but many more will be deepened. Encourage them if you can. Remind them of the kiss that awaits their lover’s return. And be there if you can to witness it. It is love, and it is beautiful.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved

Thursday, February 12, 2009


Due perhaps to our lack of direct involvement in the whole affair, the “Deliverance of Dunkirk” is poorly understood and infrequently remembered here in the United States. Despite our detachment from the event, it is well worth the effort of remembering it – as a fantastic time in world history, a superb exhibition of a nation’s total unity to a cause, and as a reminder of the perils this nation has been fortunate to not endure.

May of 1940 found British Expeditionary Force commander General Gort conceding that their “counterstroke” against the advancing Nazi army was unsuccessful, and the collapse of the nearby Belgian Army was eminent. Reluctantly, he chose to withdraw his dwindling forces to the coast for evacuation to England. With them moved also more than half of the deteriorating First French Army. Their retreat concentrated hundreds of thousands of French and British soldiers on the beaches of Dunkirk (or Dunkerque), a relatively small city at the northernmost tip of France – a mere 10 kilometers from Belgium.

As the waves troops poured into the town, and their desperate confusion mounted, even the interior of their own perimeter was a total disaster. Vehicles, bumper-to-bumper, clogged the main street so completely eventually a one-way track was created, “by bulldozers hurling them into the ditches on either side,” as Churchill put it. Soon after the British and French began staggering into this provisional position, word came that the Belgian Army had surrendered, exposing the Allies’ entire left flank thus permitting the Nazi army to focus their entire attention on thwarting this hasty retreat.

Oddly, though, and for reasons that are still debated, Hitler forbade the German Army sweep through Dunkirk. There are three main assumptions, however. First Hitler may have believed that such a bold (but certainly feasible) act would eliminate any hope of England retreating to her own shores and suing for peace. Second, he may have been hesitant to commit the terrifying Panzer units nearby in the hopes of saving them (and the remainder of his army) for future operations in Europe. Thirdly, and by far the most plausible, he was overconfident of the German Luftwaffe’s ability to totally destroy the stranded armies. This may also have been a personal gift to Herman Goering for his previous successes. Regardless of his reasons, they provided the British and French armies sufficient time to erect a vast, well-defended perimeter, and shuttle over a quarter million soldiers across the channel to England.

While the Germans did launch small ground attacks against the elements at Dunkirk, they met with bloody (perhaps desperate) resistance, and made little headway. The British artillery and medium guns had been ordered to fire off every round they possessed, which they did with great pleasure, and deadly result. All the while, extensive fortifications were thrown into place around the perimeter, and word was sent to England about the severity of the situation.

Winston Churchill recalled his appearance before the members of Parliament with the poor news:

The House should prepare itself for hard and heavy tidings. I have only to add that nothing which may happen in this battle can in any relieve us of our duty to defend the world cause to which we have vowed ourselves; nor should it destroy our confidence in our power to make our way, as on former occasions in our history, through disaster and through grief to the ultimate defeat of our enemies.

His remarks are best summarized as, “expect the worst.” Nevertheless, a national call was issued that nearly any craft that floated in the water at all was to head for Dunkirk and begin troop evacuation under the guard of British, Dutch, French, and Belgian Naval vessels.

Despite relentless pounding by the Luftwaffe, and the constant, real threat of U-boat attack, the flotilla, which Churchill referred to as the “Mosquito Fleet,” began appearing on the coast of Dunkirk to ferry troops to larger troop transports, or back under their own steam. Boats that were not at all designed to cross the channel now found themselves under enemy bombardment on the coast of France, packed beyond capacity with wearied, distraught troops, and limping back to England. The smallest craft involved in this Operation Dynamo, the 15-foot fishing boat Tamzine, now sits in the Imperial War Museum as a testament to the solidarity and resolve of the British citizenry. Another vessel, the Sundowner, commanded by former Titanic second officer Charles Lightoller, shuttled more than 130 men across the channel, nearly capsizing from overload upon arrival in England.

In addition to vessels from the French, British, Dutch, and Belgian Navies, more than 700 civilian craft participated in the evacuation, mostly manned by fishermen and boating enthusiasts, but with magnificent results. They were not, however, without their losses. Over 200 Allied craft were sunk over the course of five days, and just as many were damaged. These numbers include several British and French Naval vessels, sunk by torpedoes, air attack, and U-boats. In truth, these losses alone were staggering.

What started as a total national disaster to both France and England, was rapidly transformed into a rallying event that led ultimately to the safe evacuation of 338,226 French and British soldiers, all while under relentless Luftwaffe attack. Where it not for the committal of every single available Royal Air Force plane to this mission, it would have been a rout. Small fighter units ferociously attacked any Luftwaffe craft that they spotted, shooting over 134 Luftwaffe aircraft from the sky. The cost: 145 of their own. An intense fog blanketing the region forbade any soldier on the ground from seeing this, and many of them blamed the RAF for abandoning them to repeated Luftwaffe bombings. Yet even the German bombings were largely ineffective. With what short time they had been given, these masses of troops have constructed elaborate, and highly effective fortifications that left few of them harmed from bombings. Additionally, the soft sand on the beaches were more forgiving to the bombs than anticipated, greatly reducing their destructive power. The soldiers, huddled in the water shivering, on some occasions for hours, come in time to view the bombings with little more than contempt. They were little more than annoyances. The sea craft, however, suffered tremendously.

When Churchill met with members of the House of commons through this ordeal, he was unprepared for the response.

We were perhaps twenty-five round the table. I described the course of events and I showed them plainly where we were, and that all was in the balance. Then I said quite casually, and not treating it as a point of special significance: “Of course, whatever happens in Dunkerque, we shall fight on.”

There occurred a demonstration which, considering the character of the gathering – twenty-five experienced politicians and Parliament men, who represented all the different points of view, quite right or wrong, before the war – surprised me. Quite a number seemed to jump up from the table and come running to my chair, shouting and patting me on the back. There is no doubt that had I at this juncture faltered at all in the leading of the nation that I should have been hurled out of office. I was sure that every Minister was ready to be killed quite soon, and have all his family and possessions destroyed, rather than give in. In this they represented the House of Commons and almost all the people. It fell to me that in these coming days and months to express their sentiments on suitable occasions. This I was able to do because they were mine also. There was a white glow, overpowering, sublime, which ran through our Island from end to end.

Dunkirk was “typical of a British strategy that specializes in losing battles and winning wars.” Yet without a doubt, it was a total military disaster. While well over a third of a million British and French soldiers were saved, elements from both armies remained behind as rearguard, and 68,111 British were killed, wounded, or captured, while at similarly large numbers of Frenchmen remained as well to suffer an uncertain fate. In fact, towards the end of the evacuation, ships were turned away empty. Many of the French refused to leave. They, in company with the remaining British, fought valiantly to cover the evacuation of to others, facing certain death or capture.

For the many thousands that eventually surrendered to the advancing Nazis, their struggle had only just begun. Following a grueling, 20-day forced march back to German POW camps, many died of exhaustion, starvation, execution, or succumbed to their wounds. The Germans, marching ahead of the prisoners, kicked over any bucket the French civilians had placed by the road for the prisoner train. Many of those that survived the march spent the remainder of the war working farms in Germany. Yet many, however, did not survive.

The consequences of the “Dunkirk Deliverance” were impressive. On one hand, the staggering loss of military supplies so damaged British supplies that it solidified their dependency on the American financial support to continue the war effort. The British press so underscored the incident as a “Disaster Turned to Triumph,” that Churchill felt it necessary to remind them that, “we must be very careful not to assign to this deliverance the attributes of a victory. Wars are not won by evacuations.” Despite that of the total numbers evacuated, 139,977 were Frenchmen, many in France felt that Great Britain had showed undue favoritism towards her own troops by evacuating them first, leaving behind thousands of French as rearguard – and to certain defeat. The retreat also firmly signaled the total, inevitable collapse of France. On June 22nd, 1940, the French formally surrendered in the same clearing of Compiegne Forest “where Marshal Ferdinand Foch had dictated terms to Germany in November, 1918. The war was far from over. In fact, it was only just beginning.

Eighteen months later, the United States, following an unanticipated attack on Pearl Harbor, would throw the entire weight of her armies into Europe and the Pacific theaters, adding exponentially to Nazi woes. Millions more would die still, on front lines, in gas chambers, and in cataclysmic bombings. Yet “Dunkirk Spirit” emboldened a small island nation. Tiny and isolated though she was, she would see the war to its end. Winston Churchill stated as much in his June 4th speech before Parliament:

Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous States have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, we shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight in the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air; we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender; and even it, which I do not for one moment believe, this Island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the Old.

We joined them eighteen months later, repulsed by the horror of our enemy, encouraged by the tenacity of our Island friends, and comforted to know that, should we, too, find ourselves outnumbered and surrounded on the beaches of France, a fleet of little boats would see us safely away.

Swung by tides, stranded in the shallows beside the burning beach, harried by airplanes that hunted them by night with parachute flares and riddled them by day with tracers, this extraordinary flotilla headed across the cluttered Channel waters for a shore that was black with men – and took them off.
-C. L. Sulzberger, “World War II”

British & French Wounded Help Each Other During Evacuation

British Troops In Lifeboats

British Troops Loaded for Evacuation

French Troops Celebrate Their Rescue


Sulzsberger. C.L, "World War II." Houghton Mifflin. Boston. 1985.

Churchill, W.S. et al. "The Second World War." Golden Press. 1960.

Wheal. E., Pope. S., Taylor. "Encyclopedia of the Second World War." Penguin. 1992.

Wikipedia. "Dunkirk."

Wikipedia. "Dunkirk Evacuation."

*All photos contained herein are in the public domain through either the United States War Department, or the United States Archives.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved
All materials contained herein are copyrighted.
Do not reproduce in any form without the express,
written permission of the author.
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