There was thirty dead and wounded on the ground we
No, there wasn't more than twenty when the front begun
But, Christ! along the line o' flight they cut us up like sheep,
An' that was all we gained by doin' so!
We was rotten 'fore we started—we was never disciplined;
We made it out a favour if an order was obeyed.
Yes, every little drummer 'ad 'is rights an' wrongs to mind,
So we had to pay for teachin'—an' we paid!
An' there ain't no chorus 'ere to give,
Nor there ain't no band to play;
But I wish I was dead 'fore I done what I did,
Or seen what I seed that day!
—from "That Day"
Dale City, VA, United States of America, Sol III
0728 EDT October 10th, 2004 ad
"Does anyone know what the fuck is going on?" asked Specialist Keren, rhetorically.
"You heard the Pres, so shut up and dig," said Sergeant Herd, but it was without heat. Everyone was confused and uncertain.
The Fiftieth Infantry Division was a new unit. Its unit colors had been in storage since World War II when it had performed undistinguished service in the Pacific theater. It had nearly participated in the battle of Leyte Gulf. It had performed heroic rear area service during the battle of Tarawa. It had nearly invaded the Japanese mainland and gone down in Army history. Unfortunately, it was only a blip in Army history and an unnoticed blip until the present emergency. And Ground Force personnel had responded appropriately.
The current service personnel transferred to the unit were, by and large, the soldiers and officers that relieving units were just as happy to see the backs of, and the new recruits had only those personnel and a smattering of rejuvs to use as guidance. A few officers and NCOs stood out, but in many cases only because of average performance rising out of an abyssal morass of incompetence.
Mortar platoon, Alpha Company First Battalion Four Hundred Fifty-Second Infantry, Third Brigade, Fiftieth Infantry Division, was, if anything a cut above the rest. Specialist Keren had, admittedly, been a sergeant before and would probably be a private again but that had very little to do with his competence as a mortarman. He had a bit of a drinking problem, and with it came a coincidental habit of telling officers what he thought their mothers did for pocket money, but that was no problem in the field. And he was the high point of the "trained" privates. A couple of the newbie privates were on the mental level of Oscar the Zoo Gorilla. And the platoon sergeant had spent the last fifteen years improving his knowledge of metalworking in a machine shop. And the platoon leader, despite the overabundance of first lieutenants, was a recent graduate of the Pennsylvania Army National Guard Officers Training School and would soon, almost certainly, require a razor.
But, for all of that, they had established a unit camaraderie that was sorely lacking throughout most of the division and they had managed to hold together during the occasional riots that had broken out and they had trained, even when the rest of the battalion had screwed off or gone AWOL half the time. What magic element infected them, whether it was Keren's sarcastic outlook on their chances in the event of real combat, or the platoon sergeant's careful attention to every last detail of personal and equipment needs or the platoon leader's puppy-dog eagerness that was too infectious to ignore and too ingenuous to kick, the unit had come together. True, they were far below the pre-emergency norm for the American Army, and they had a lot of training to catch up on, but they were as good as it got in the Fuckin' Fiftieth.
Unfortunately the current situation would have strained a veteran unit.
First there had been the mad dash to saddle up, with nearly half the battalion officers gone and over fifteen AWOLs in Alpha company alone. Then going into the defense when it became apparent that they might be in the interdiction circle. Then the orders to move out to positions north of the Potomac, which was just fine with most of them. Last came the sudden about-face.
Up until then operations had progressed with remarkable smoothness. The occasional unit got lost or at least off on the wrong road and stuck in civilian traffic, and a couple of units had run out of fuel because their bowsers could not find them. And there were not enough lowboys—the tractor-trailer rigs that were normally used for any movement that would not involve conflict—in the entire world to move all the armored fighting vehicles being shuffled on the eastern seaboard. So the division had to move in its APCs, Bradleys and tanks and plenty of them broke down; some of the units in the division had not done maintenance in months. But, basically, all things considered, up until the turnaround everything was going as smooth as silk.
Moving a corps is something like moving a large family. Telling such-and-such a unit to go to this location and repeating that ad nauseum will not work. The units invariably do not have enough fuel to complete the movement, even as simple a drive as from Alexandria to Quantico: a forty-five-minute drive by car on a good day. And telling the units to go here or there, centering hundreds of fighting units with their support on a small area, means that thousands of vehicles are all trying to use the same roads at the same time. While that works just fine for commuters, military units rarely recover well when they lack cohesion. Individual vehicles simply follow the vehicles in front and rarely does every vehicle commander follow a map. Mixing units leads to one unit with extra vehicles and one unit with virtually none. Just having mom and dad go out to the car and sit after telling the kids to pack and load the car is a recipe for disaster.
In a normal movement or even a "planned" emergency every unit is given a destination, a route to use and an estimated time of arrival. In addition there are specified points to refuel, rearm and be served hot chow. Good commanders send that information down the line and the subordinate units brief their individual drivers and vehicle commanders. At a minimum almost every driver and vehicle commander knows where they are going, the route to follow and any planned stops along the way. (There are always exactly ten percent that do not "get the word.") Then the unit moves out and invariably everyone except the drivers, the officers, senior NCOs and overeager junior NCOs goes to sleep. On arrival it is the overeager junior NCO's job to wake everyone up. That is how they become senior NCOs.
When the President gave the corps its marching orders every officer from the High Commander down to the company commanders knew in their bones that the result would be utter chaos. And they were right. With no time for the staff to prepare any of the units and with the units effectively backwards to the way they should have been arranged, the night had been an unending madhouse.
The platoon had just heard a valid report that the Fiftieth Infantry Division had less than seventy percent of its vehicles in the correct location. This after what would have been a simple five-mile road march if they had driven directly from their laagers in Quantico.
Unable to determine precise points for every unit to move to and through, the Corps had been forced to give general orders to the subordinate divisions along with a general axis of movement. These were the orders that the divisions then transmitted to their subordinate units. They had had varying success.
Some divisions, notably the Thirty-Third, had tried to give every subordinate battalion its precise destinations and axes of defense using the correct and proper codes for such vital information. The result had been utter confusion on the part of the battalions. Through simple errors inherent in any complex unpracticed endeavor—especially when undertrained communications personnel were attempting to use necessarily complex encoders and decoders—battalion commanders found themselves with orders scattering them all over the map. In some cases the orders had them outside of the continental United States. Several commanders referred the obviously incorrect dispositions to the brigade commanders, who should have been detailing their tactics in the first place. The brigade commanders tried to contact the division for clarification.
In the midst of all of this the corps's communications protocols changed, not all the correct protocols were transmitted to all the units and suddenly half the corps was out of communication with each other.
The mortar platoon had three of its five fighting vehicles in what the platoon leader was fairly sure was the right place. After switching back and forth on their PRC-2000 radio they finally established contact with the platoon sergeant and the first squad track. The same method finally got them in contact with the company net; the company commander's RTO was flipping around to the old and new frequencies trying to find its units.
The information from the company was mildly encouraging. They were in more or less the right place. Some of the company's line platoons were in more or less the right place. And the company commander was fairly sure that he would be able to contact battalion "soon." A request for refueling and chow, however, was answered with an unsettling "we'll have to get back to you on that."
Now fairly sure that there were some gun-bunnies—riflemen that is—between them and the Posleen and fairly sure that they knew where they were and where the gun-bunnies were, they were preparing for their first taste of war. All they had to do was set up to fire, an exercise that should take a maximum of twelve minutes according to Ground Forces Standard. Keren had been digging for over a half-hour, waiting for word that the platoon leader was ready to lay the guns "in-parallel." Until that was done, control orders from the Fire Direction Center would be meaningless; the guns needed a starting point to work from.
"You know, I like Lieutenant Leper. I mean . . ." Keren tossed another shovel of dirt out of the fighting position he was digging next to the mortar track. He might not need the hole, but if he did he knew he was going to need it bad and in a hurry. Most of the platoon thought he was an idiot.
"Can it, Keren." Sergeant Herd knew he had the best gunner in the battalion, maybe in the division, but he also knew he had to keep him firmly in check.
"No, really, he's a nice guy and he tries hard. . . ." continued the specialist. He tossed another shovelful of dirt out of the hole, and looked around to see if he'd hit anyone with it. No. Damn.
"What," snorted Sheila Reed, the ammo bearer and track driver, "you think you could do better?"
"Shit, I know I could do better," Keren responded, tossing the next shovelful higher. A drift of the wind caught it and threw dust onto the rest of the crew lounging on the track. His chocolate face creased as they cursed him.
"Go out there and do it, then," said Tom Riley, the assistant gunner.
"Fuck no, Sergeant Ford is out there. You know what a bastard he is."
"Fuck Ford," said Herd, suddenly interested. "He can do Fire Direction, but anybody that can punch numbers can do that. Do you really think you can lay in the guns?"
"I can tell what their problem is from here," Keren said, throwing the D-handle shovel out of the hole and dusting off his hands. "They can't get the deflection head leveled up. It's not like a one-twenty, where you only have to level side to side. A deflection head you gotta level all the way around." He hoisted himself out of the hole and looked at his squad leader.
"Go on. Tell Ford if he has a problem to take it up with me." Sergeant Herd knew the specialist was probably right. Having volunteered before the invasion was ever heard of, the gunner had been in the service six years already and knew his way around a mortar platoon far better than anyone but the platoon sergeant. If he said he could get the platoon laid in he could get them laid in.
Keren pulled his sleeves down and settled his cap on his head. Regulations called for wearing the Kevlar helmet at all times in the field, but his Kevlar was in the track—where it did some good keeping you from banging your head—and that was where it was gonna stay. Since most of the men and women in the platoon were wearing BDU caps he fit right in. Those who were not wearing BDU caps were wearing either floppy brim "boonie" caps or were coverless. The only people in sight with Kevlars on were Lieutenant Leper and Sergeant Ford. On the other hand Keren's LCE with his pistol, ANCD and food and water did not leave his body.
"Okay Zippy," he said, referring to Riley by his nickname, "get ready to lay that bastard in."
As he neared the pair Sergeant Ford turned and glared at him. "We don't need your help, Keren, so get lost."
"Already am Sergeant, happens any time I leave the barracks. Sergeant Herd told me to come over and see if I could be of assistance."
"Sergeant Ford," said Lieutenant Leper, "maybe you could go and see if you can reestablish communication with battalion TOC."
Ford glared at the specialist and stalked off towards the FDC track.
"Specialist, I seem to be having a little trouble with leveling this up. I've watched Staff Sergeant Simmons any number of times and I thought I knew how but . . ."
"Yes, sir, I understand," Keren said, tactfully. "These things are a real bugger to level." He grabbed the leveling knobs and centered them, then looked at the bubble and stomped one leg of the tripod down. Using both hands he manipulated all three knobs, two at a time for a few seconds and spun the sight around.
"Direction of fire is twenty-eight hundred, right, sir?" he asked.
"Twenty-eight hundred mils, right," said the confused lieutenant, looking over his shoulder to ensure that the recalcitrant bubble was in fact centered. To his amazement it was. "How the hell did you do that so fast?"
"The same way you get to Carnegie hall, sir." The specialist manipulated the head to twenty-eight hundred mils and spun it towards his track. "Two gun aiming point this instrument!" he shouted.
"Two gun, aiming point identified!" Riley answered. The gunner on the other track scrambled off the ground where he had been dozing and dove into the track. A moment later his head popped through the top.
"Deflection, one-seven one seven five! Close enough."
"Deflection, one-seven one seven five!"
keren spun the sight towards the other track and read off the numbers. "Three gun!"
"Aiming point this instrument!"
"Aiming point identified!"
"Deflection one-nine one one eight!"
"Deflection one-nine one one eight!"
He waited until the guns called up, secretly pleased that the assistant gunner on his track got up faster than the gunner on Third Track and repeated the process twice more for each gun until they were laid in parallel and he pronounced himself satisfied. "They're in. Only way to know if they're actually aligned is to fire them in series, sir. But they're as laid as I can get them."
"That was amazing. How did you get the bubble to level so fast?" the officer asked, still surprised at the casual display of skill.
"My first platoon sergeant taught me that trick, sir. If the bubble seems like it should go one way, you have to grab two knobs. Twist one to push the bubble and twist the other in the opposite direction. Also you should be looking at the bubble from your normal sighting angle, rather than trying to crane down from on top. That keeps you from chasing the bubble."
"I'll remember that. Thanks."
"De nada, sir. No offense but we really needed to get laid in."
"I know. I think the company is really going to need us this time." The young lieutenant was obviously trying very hard not to look scared. For an officer to look frightened was bad form and also he had been told it was guaranteed to push the troops over into panic in a situation just like this one. Unfortunately he was trying so hard not to look scared that he was looking terrified instead.
"Sir," said Keren, taking pity on the poor kid. "We're three klicks behind the line and we've got a battalion of line dogs in front of us. What do we have to worry about?"
"Is it that obvious?"
"Hell, yes. Want some unsolicited advice, sir?"
"No, but you're going to give it to me anyway, aren't you?"
Keren grinned. "Wouldn't be a specialist if I didn't. Walk back to the FDC track. Tell Sergeant Ford, who is an asshole and everyone knows is an asshole so they won't take offense at you, to go to the tracks and make sure that all the .50 calibers have been cleaned, oiled, check head space and timing and get some of the ammo bearers cutting fire lanes for them. Get some mines out, that sort of thing. Pull it out of a book. Then sit there and look regal while you pore over a map you already have memorized. Don't pace. Sip water from time to time. Make like you're asleep. Maybe read the manual a few times."
"And that is supposed to inspire the troops?" The lieutenant gave a tired smile.
"No, but it's better than watching you run to the latrine every fifteen minutes, sir," the specialist quipped. "Yeah, the newbies and, hell, even the sergeants are looking kind of light around the gills and they could use the example and some work to take their minds off what's coming up the road. Act like it's just another exercise, a nice, cold day in the country."
"Good suggestions, Specialist. So, why in the hell are you just a specialist?"
"You didn't hear that, sir?"
"I told my last platoon leader his mother was a whore with AIDS who squirted him out in a public toilet and forgot to flush, sir." He looked momentarily chagrined. "I was kinda drunk at the time. But he really was an asshole," he finished, as if that completely explained the incident.
* * *
Captain Robert Brantley carefully hung the microphone back on its clip, settled his Kevlar on his head, adjusted the chinstrap just so, picked up the squad automatic weapon he had appropriated, checked the chamber to ensure it was clear and climbed over the cases of ammunition in the Bradley fighting vehicle and out the troop door. Descending to the loam of the forest floor he caught the eye of his first sergeant and made a circular motion with his arm signaling "rally on me."
As the sergeant ambled over, the commander took the time to observe the company digging in. At least he watched the few members of the Second platoon who were in view. The order had been clear and, for once, unquestioned. Two-man fighting positions, interlocking fields of fire, M-60E machine gun positions with extra cover, sand-bagged front parapets, everything rikky-tik. Except for a few small points that it was no one's job but the company commander's to consider.
"How's it going?" he asked the first sergeant when he arrived. The first sergeant was a transfer, a large NCO with a beer gut that a few years before would have had him out of the Army. The company commander could have accepted that without qualm—armies had functioned for ages without professional runners being the norm—were he a competent NCO. Unfortunately he was not.
The first sergeant was a nice, quiet simpleton who had apparently risen to his present rank through a series of superiors who were okay with having a nice, quiet simpleton as an NCO. How that had happened in the pre-Posleen Army, Captain Brantley was unsure. The Army he'd left ten years before generally shuffled material like this out by around staff sergeant rank.
"Uh, okay, sir," the first sergeant said and saluted sloppily. He pulled his BDU blouse down to straighten out the wrinkles and tried to buckle his equipment belt. The maneuver only served to heighten the effect of the beer gut. "Umm, First platoon has most of their people now, but we still ain't heard from Third. An' we still ain't seen any sign of Bravo, so Second doesn't have anybody out there on their left."
"How very good. Well, the mortars are finally up and ready to support but they only have two guns. How are the positions coming? And do we have any word on hot chow?"
"Well, we're not as far along over in First platoon as we are here. And I can't get the XO on the horn, so I don't know about chow."
Captain Brantley refrained from sighing. He remembered his first sergeant in the company he commanded during his last hitch. An NCO who was one of the last with service in Vietnam, he could track a mess section down no matter how "lost" they got and if he did not find the mess section he would get pizza delivered. By helicopter if necessary. Since the time of Wellington, at least, if not Gustavus Adolphus, the importance of a prepared meal before a battle had been highly emphasized. Brantley was not particularly happy going into battle with two-thirds of his company, nobody on his left flank and soldiers who were subsisting on MREs and junk food they had packed along.
"Okay, take the command Hummer. There's a McDonald's up at the interstate. Get a hundred and twenty hamburgers and thirty cheeseburgers." He pulled out his wallet and handed the first sergeant enough cash to cover the purchase. "If they'll take it, try to give them a chit for the food. If they're closed, get the makings out of the building. Take Specialist Forrier with you." He gestured with his chin at the RTO lounging on the troop ramp of the command Bradley. The kid got into enough trouble that he would probably jump at the chance to do a little authorized scrounging.
"If you can't find any hot food there, keep looking, find a deli, a restaurant, anything. Got it?"
"Yes, sir." The first sergeant looked hangdog. "I don't want to leave you, Captain. We don't know when they'll get here."
"Just make sure you're back with some real chow before they do. And make sure you have communications in place; I want to be able to get ahold of you if I need you back here."
"Yes, sir. Maybe the XO will turn up with some chow."
"Maybe. Get going, First Sergeant."
The NCO saluted again and headed for the command Humvee. Give him his due; if you gave him clear instructions he carried them out to the best of his ability. As that headache was placed under control, Captain Brantley saw the Hummer of the battalion commander rolling in through the pine forest.
A tall heavy-bodied officer hopped out of the Humvee before it came to a full stop and strode rapidly towards the waiting company commander. Although he looked about twenty-two, Lieutenant Colonel Hartman was nearly sixty, having retired as a battalion commander in the First Infantry Division in the early '80s. A solid professional officer, he had taken command of the battalion only four months before and had worked steadily to bring it up to a highly trained level he could be proud of. Unfortunately, the Posleen did not seem to be in favor of giving him the time to correct the unit's multitude of deficiencies.
As he approached his Alpha Company commander—the only commander he had he considered worth the spit to insult them with—he was rehearsing how to break all the bad news.
"Colonel," the officer said with a nod. "I would offer you a hot cup of coffee, but we seem to have misplaced the mess section."
"That's not all we've misplaced," the battalion commander alleged with a patently false grin. "Let's take a walk."
When the officers were far enough away from the unit that they could not be overheard, the colonel maneuvered to place Brantley's back to the soldiers in view. That way they would not be able to see his face when he heard the news.
"Okay," the colonel said without preamble, "there is no good news. None. The bad news is as follows. I know you don't have Bravo on your left. That's because there is, effectively, no Bravo Company. There are enough tracks to make up a platoon in Bravo Company's area of operation. All the others are either lost or hiding. We may be able to find a few more that are simply lost, but most of them are on the run to avoid the battle. They ran, it's as simple as that. Before the damn battle was even joined."
He shook his head but did not let the overwhelming sense of shame and anger cloud his features. Even from here he could see the occasional glance from the soldiers digging in and he was not about to let them know how badly they had been screwed.
"Your First platoon has turned up intact intermingled with the Twenty-First Cav and since they're already there they have been 'detached' for the duration as infantry support to the Cav."
"Oh, shit." The company commander shook his head and tried not to let the hysterical laughter that was bubbling to the surface overcome him. "Jesus, we are fucked."
"The battalion trains—including all the spare food, mess section, ammunition, repair units and general logistics—somehow got on the Prince William Parkway and are halfway to Manassas. That's where breakfast is."
"I'd be happy to load up and go after it. I mean the whole company."
"I'm sure you would," the battalion commander said dryly. "I have seen some consummately fucked-up exercises, but this is arguably the worst."
"This isn't an exercise, sir," said the Alpha commander, all the humor evaporated. A cold wash of chills came over him and his mouth went dry. "Charlie Company?"
"About where you are, effectiveness-wise, with the exception of Captain Lanceman being among the missing." Something about the commander's lack of expression seemed to denote a lack of regret at the captain's absence.
"I put the XO, Lieutenant Sinestre, in charge and he has most of the company, but he is missing his mortars. I sent them Bravo's mortars and I'm detaching Bravo's personnel to you as your 'Third Platoon.' However, there are two more problems."
"And they are, sir?"
"The battalion has no reserve, this way, but worse we have no one on our right flank."
"Where's Second batt?" the company commander asked, shocked.
"Somewhere around our mess section, thirty miles away near Manassas. That was the location they received to dig in. Brigade is running around like a chicken with its head cut off, so I'm arbitrarily going to extend the battalion. Third batt is on our left, but there's a divisional boundary on the right. I've got the scouts out looking for the Thirty-Third, which is supposed to be out there somewhere, or even the Forty-First. IVIS says there's no one between here and the Potomac, but I just can't fathom that. There has to at least be someone around the interstate!"
* * *
"Run that by me again." Arkady Simosin felt like a half-dead corpse. As many times as he had participated in exercises—from a junior officer leading a tank platoon up through exercises with multiple corps—he had never seen such a tremendous mishmash as had happened during the night. His corps had utterly jumbled units and, apparently, directions and intentions. Now he was finding out just how badly. His staff had assembled to tell him the bad news with the Chief of Staff as official sacrificial lamb.
"As you know, sir, the corps battle plan called for the Forty-First to establish strong positions between the Potomac and the I-95/U.S. 1 area, the Thirty-Third to mass in the area of the roads and the Fiftieth to establish strong positions to the west of the roads, with a cavalry screen to the west and Nineteenth Armor in reserve. This plan was developed on the presumption that the Posleen would drive up the 95/1 axis towards Alexandria."
"Tell me something I don't know," snarled the general. His accent went briefly Brooklyn Slavic, always a bad sign. "You said something about the Forty-First being out of position."
"Badly, sir. The Twenty-First and Fiftieth divisions are the only ones on the correct east-west axis. The Forty-First is set up seven miles to the rear and the Thirty-Third is set up four miles to the rear of where they are supposed to be. We have logistics trains forward of our combat teams and combat units. Currently we have three divisions echeloned instead of massed which is going to invite . . ."
"Defeat in detail." Arkady grimaced and glanced at the screen of his PC. "That's not what this says. It just notes that they are not at full strength."
"It perceives that a percentage of each unit is in the right location and, given the current chaos, that is their actual axis, General. Unfortunately, most of each division is in the area I just gave you. Those are the locations that they received to set up in or, in some cases, chose to set up in."
"Okay." Simosin flogged his tired brain for a solution. "Call the Twenty-First. Tell them to hold in place. If the Posleen make contact they are not to decisively engage but they should try to slow them down. Pull the Fiftieth back to where the Thirty-Third is actually axised. Pull the Forty-First forward to that axis. Get as many units properly joined up as possible in the time allotted along that axis."
"That will put us almost on the Prince William, General," noted the G-3. "Well north of the President's stated intent."
"North or south of the Prince William?"
"South of it, sir."
"Good, the President will have to suck it up; having that road at our backs will give us a way to move reinforcements back and forth and to retreat if necessary. Move the corps artillery north of the Occoquan; they'll be able to range for close support. And move all the logistic elements except ammunition and food north of it too. Tell the division commanders to make their own judgement on where their artillery should be placed. They should know that if it's north, if those bridges go down their artillery will be out of contact.
"What is the status on the bridges?"
"They're cored, mined and ready to drop, General," said the Ninety-Fifth ID Assistant Division Engineer, a major-promotable. As the most senior noncommanding engineer left in the corps, he had been seconded to act as engineering liaison to replace the absent corps engineer. "They will drop them when the last of the units are south and the refugees are north or when the Posleen come into close-contact range."
"Well, we'll just have to try and make sure that doesn't happen. Okay, get to shuffling units. We still have time to straighten this out, people; we just have to keep our heads on straight."