Saturday, August 06, 2005


Days on the Range

I just got back from two days at the range. Ten straight hours in the IBA, in and out of vehicles, big desert empty, no shade. Open gun turrets, already weak air conditioning totally overpowered by the heat of sun and running engines and pounding rounds downrange. Each of us an all purpose liquid recycling machine, 1.5 liter ice bottles, a 5 minute melt and just enough to start draining it, then sweat and more sweat, a good wick means uniforms soaked beneath the IBA.

It was great!

For many of our gunners -- and for the drivers and Truck Commanders -- this is the first time since our mobilization training that we did live fire from our vehicles. I'm filling in for my Command Sergeant Major (CSM) while he's on leave. While this has meant quite a few trips off the FOB the past week, it also meant I had the use of his gun truck and his regular driver and gunner (incidentally two of our best).

We set up multiple iterations for individual gun trucks and even a convoy scenario for both the M2 (.50 Caliber machine gun) and the M240B (7.62mm machine gun). Half the gunners hit their stride immediately, getting down pat the neat trick of aiming a roaring lion while riding a bucking bronco. (Okay, so the metaphor's a bit strained, but there's two big animals to the problem, and both of them have teeth that bite.)

Within one or two target sets, all the gunners were right on target. The M2 ("Ma Duece") is an excellent sector weapon that can quite literally tear things apart. The CSM (and Little Manly) can converse on the gun's specs (they're the experts). What I know is God help the terrorist vehicle born improvised explosive device (VBIED) bomber who tries to get close to one. The rate of fire is extraordinary, and the explosive force of the .50 caliber round can act almost as if tipped with a high explosive.

Prior to this deployment, and being an MI weenie after all, I've had no experience with weapons any larger than an M16 or an AK-47. Now we are conversant with, and some are expert at, weapons with tremendous power and lethality. I've been meaning to write a commentary on modern weapons systems, to try to convey the sheer potency of modern armaments, guns like the Ma Duece are a prime example. (Perhaps more on that later.)

My CO -- I wrote about him in this piece -- even had a little "job well done" thank you present: an AT4 to test fire for each gunner. You can get a small sense of what this weapon can do, viewing this picture of the high explosive (HE) round as it explodes against a rusted hulk out on the range. But there is no way I can capture for you the experience of standing near one of these rockets when it goes off. One of our instructors was an ex-Tanker; he covered his ears in addition to the earplugs we all had. ("I can't afford to lose anymore than I have already," said he.) In addition to the very loud boom, there is a percussive blast wave that shakes the ground and can actually knock things over. And that's just the ambient blast wave, the backblast can be lethal within any close proximity.

The range offered another interesting highlight, this one entirely divorced from the activities of men and women at war. Iraq is home to summer-borne "dust devils." These quite strange phenomenon are like little tornadoes that whip up in the desert, springing seemingly out of nothing. They appear to be 5-20 meters across, and retain a tight funnel cloud shape up to hundreds of feet in the air. They whirl around, sweeping up small and loose debris, and amble through the Iraqi desert like lonely nomads. I believe the meteorologic explanation is super heated air causing tornado like effects. Just another way in which dirt and silt gets spread around in Iraq; this method at least generates curiosity rather than irritation. There is no other weather pattern, event or anomaly when they appear; no sudden gusts of wind, no clouds, no sound. They show up, they swirl, they go off wherever they go, and they can just puff away.

One came close to us on the range. It retained a very pronounced appearance, moving slowly but steadily across the range area behind us. For 5 or 10 minutes we watched it wander quite close to our security element. We laughed and predicted that they ought to batten down their hatches, close their windows and doors or they'd be chewing on grit the rest of the day. (Of course, it's all fun and games until the dust devil is headed straight for you.)

It is all very curious. Comparable in latitude to Savannah, Iraq in this region gets a very small fraction of the precipitation, and sees average high temperatures at least 20 degrees hotter. Super dry. I keep remarking, it is amazing to me that native peoples ever settled in such places, or once settled, didn't wander off down the road to somewhere more, well, temperate. This is ancient country. After we are gone, will we leave anything of value behind, something we created, something that lasts?

Or will it all be swept up in one of the many dust devils, swirled around for a time, and buried in the shifting sands of history?

The answer to that question will probably depend on whether we have the fortitude to stay the course long enough to carve the future in the rock of democratic -- and Iraqi -- institutions, rather than leave our legacy to the mercy of the desert. And, as any Bedouin will tell you, the desert, she doesn't have any (mercy).

(Linked at Mudville Gazette. Also linked at Smash's Liberty Call Lots of MILBLOGGING at its finest at both these sites.)

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