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What unexpected gifts could we celebrate on the Ides of March? The day is best known for the assassination of Julius Caesar in the Roman Senate by other Roman leaders. One of the leaders, Brutus, commemorated the assassination two years later with a coin remembering the Ides of March with two daggers and a common cap, a pileus.
The cap had become associated with the emancipation of slaves. It is still featured in some images of Lady Liberty. So, we could celebrate the unexpected gift of liberty, liberty won by literally striking down the tyrant. However, none of the conspirators covered themselves in glory as republican heroes, let along Heroes of the Roman Republic.
We cannot blame them, really. After all, the Roman Republic had bled out long before the blood of Caesar flowed over its ground. The Republic had committed slow suicide by a thousand self-cuts. Its institutions had become so corrupt and dysfunctional that they invited Julius Caesar to be dictator for life. In the years following his assassination, there was no uprising to restore the Republic. The Senate was contemptuous and contemptible in its corruption. The Roman people ended up being best served by the first emperor, Caesar Augustus, the adopted son and legal heir of Julius Caesar.
Do you remember Julius? No, not Orange Julius—Julius Caesar, the conquering general and would-be the political leader of the Roman world. Julius Caesar is associated with the Ides of March because he was not only assassinated on that date but died despite a multitude of non-specific warnings of peril around that day. He was warned by a seer to “beware the Ides of March.” He reportedly told that seer, on his way into the Senate forum, that he had survived the peril, only to have the seer respond that the day was not done.
It may seem odd that a dictator would enter the turf of potential rivals without bodyguards. But, consider that every president enters the House to present the State of the Union without a phalanx of Secret Service officers pushing aside Senators and Representatives. It would be a gross violation of the separations of powers. Likewise, entering the Roman Senate forum with a bodyguard would violate their formal rights.
Now imagine that Caesar, having been forewarned of the danger of the day, had taken the precaution of wearing leather or bronze armor under his clothes. Would that have bought him the time to escape and evade the assassins? No. He was stabbed first in the neck. He was finally slain, likely by Brutus stabbing him low, in the groin.
Whoa! That is getting awfully grim! What about unexpected gifts? Surely we are not going to end on talk of knife thrusts and a play on British politics around “knife crime?” Nope, we certainly are not. Speaking of low blows…
This brings us to our tale of unexpected gifts. You see, a decision by a commander to withhold supposedly superior body armor, for a time, in the first year of Operation Iraqi Freedom, turned out to be an unexpected gift. Indeed, it was literally a gift of life.
As liquid logistics soldiers, my troops raced across the desert with 7,500-gallon tanker trailers full of JP-8, a very stable military petroleum product that performs in both jet turbines and diesel engines. Because it behaved more like diesel than gasoline, there was almost no chance that a tanker—even if directly hit by a hot shell fragment from a roadside bomb or machine gun tracer round—would erupt in an explosion or spectacular flames for the “independent” media that would just happen to be in a position to observe the jihadists (oh, I mean “Iraqi patriots”) handiwork. However, because we brought equipment designed to save the active duty generals money for their Cold War active duty “front line” shiny objects—despite the carefully buried lessons of Vietnam and the lip service paid to Soviet elite forces ravaging our “rear area”—our truck-driving troops were driving nothing more than green (because Europe) painted Freightliner trucks.
So, we avoided death and dismemberment by God’s grace, superior tactical intelligence analysis, amazing company-level leadership, and a ferocious group of sergeants and soldiers, divided between the fuel trucks and jury-rigged “gun trucks” with “hillbilly armor.” Our fuel convoys ran alone, usually. We always ran with our own rules, beyond the basic theater restrictions. That is, we used the full civilian speed potential of American over-the-road tractor-trailers, combined with every machine-gun and machine grenade-launcher (not something you would want to be on the receiving end of) we could mount on light trucks (cargo variants of the “Humvees”).
We only lost one tanker trailer on one convoy, despite the fedayeen’s, or former Saddam regime irregular force, best efforts. Not one soldier died on one of our battalion’s fuel convoys that first year. The old Iraqi regime supporters, assorted Shiite bully boys, and jihadists certainly tried. Indeed, by about December 2003, one long open stretch of desert road we had to traverse was pockmarked every few yards with craters from Iraqi artillery shells converted to roadside bombs.
This road roughly traced the base of the Sunni Triangle, over-watched by people who had been used to lording it over the Kurds and the Shias. Naturally, they wanted to get back to running the show, or at least running a smaller circus in their own Sunni Arab (not Kurdish) ring. They had at their disposal every pound of military-grade explosive they were able to carry away from ammunition bunkers before we rolled in and EOD set about disposing of the old ordinance by a long series of controlled detonations.
So, how do you blow up a fuel tanker truck, when it is running in a convoy at speeds far in excess of “military” speeds? If your target is moving 150% to 200% “normal” speed, what do you do? Go for the shotgun blast approach. String groups of explosives together or lay two shells together to explode outward in a V-pattern across the road.
It was the latter idea that ripped one of our aluminum skinned fuel trailers open like a tin can. And it was the latter that would have gutted a bright young American, but for the unexpected gift of a senior commander refusing to give him the “best” body armor! Yes, the unexpected gift was one of life and health. I know, because I saw the almost immediate aftermath.
To make sense of the situation, you must understand that supply units have always been accused of grabbing the best supplies for themselves first. Senior infantry and armor commanders score easy points by attacking the organizationally more junior logistics unit commanders on behalf of the “real” soldiers who are “out in the field” and “kicking down doors.” As a defensive response, wise senior logistics commanders ruthlessly track and enforce the onward movement of socks, underwear … and new, supposedly improved, body armor. Every infantry squad, every tank crew, had better have the latest and greatest before the first support trooper gets hers.
My battalion was about two days out from finally getting our “new and improved” body armor. This supposed vulnerability was ballyhooed in the national press, a great stick with which to beat “W,” Darth Cheney, and “snowflakes memos” Rumsfeld. Remember that these were presented as the agents of what we were told was an illegitimate regime, imposed on the American people when the Republican Supreme Court stole the 2000 election from Al Gore.
So, geopolitics, poisonous national politics, and Army institutional politics came together one clear sunny day, colliding with the best designs of an enterprising “IED” roadside bomb technician. “IED!” “IED!” The internal radio network lit up with focused, professional bursts of information. When we pulled into the base to which the convoy had been headed with fuel, we got the rest of the story.
One Freightliner tractor was missing its trailer. There was an angry gash in the lower right rear of the cab, angled up towards the co-driver’s seat. And there was the co-driver, uninjured, walking and talking a mile a minute. Before “smartphones,” another soldier had a compact video camera and was playing the part of war correspondent, conducting a mock interview with his buddy.
There were two key visuals for the mock interview. The first was a wickedly curved two-inch fragment of an artillery shell, the one pointed towards the direction of travel in the V-shaped explosive charge. This was what had slashed upward through the rear of the truck cab, headed for the guts of the occupant of the passenger or co-driver seat.
The soldier was carrying the deadly fragment in his hand, and not lying with it in his abdomen in the field morgue. This is because of the second key visual, his old-style, supposedly “inferior” Kevlar protective vest. On the back of this vest, one inch up from the bottom was a tear in the old woodland camouflage fabric cover. The old armor was more than adequate to stop a shell fragment.
And the much-heralded new armor, the stuff that the opponents of President Bush and the war effort were using to posture as “pro-soldier” while attacking the war effort, would have left my soldier naked before the slashing hot metal death intended for him. You see, the new body armor was supposed to be easier, more flexible, for infantry soldiers pointed forward. By shortening up the bottom back, an infantry soldier was less restricted, less corseted from flexing his back, as you can see to the right.
It was just that difference of one or two inches on the old-style body armor, whose wear was ruthlessly enforced through the worst desert heat, without air conditioning in the cabs. The troops were a highly disciplined lot, belying all stereotypes of “reservists.” No one was taking their body armor off, in fact, without armored cabs, they cast about for extra sets to place between themselves and the most likely direction of hot death. Look at the protective vest above. See the low curving back panel? That was the unexpected gift that saved a soldier’s life one day on an Iraqi desert road.
To my best memory, the results were as follows. As the crew recovered from the shock of the explosion, the soldier who should have been bleeding out dashed out of the cab. He disengaged the tractor from the trailer before the flames from the initial blast point could catch the stream of fuel flowing out of the ruptured tanker. Jumping back into the cab, the crew took off, dropping the trailer on the side of the road and joining the rest of the speeding convoy in its dash to relative safety.
Cheers to a tough, enlightened senior commander, great staffs doing their jobs, and company leaders and soldiers being U.S. ARMY, as our name tapes read, not “U.S. Army [fill in a qualifier here].” Thanks be to God for unexpected gifts.Published in