Monday, January 25, 2010

"If that IED had worked like it was supposed to? Bye-bye, sweetheart."

If you haven't read this story from the front page of yesterday's New York Times, do it now. It combines two awesome things: C.J. Chivers and Marines escaping death.

If luck is the battlefield’s final arbiter — the wild card that can trump fitness, training, teamwork, equipment, character and skill — then Lance Cpl. Ryan T. Mathison experienced its purest and most welcome form.

On a Marine foot patrol here through the predawn chill of Friday morning, he stepped on a pressure-plate rigged to roughly 25 pounds of explosives. The device, enough to destroy a pickup truck or tear apart several men, was buried beneath him in the dusty soil.

It did not explode.

Lance Corporal Mathison’s weight triggered the detonation of one of the booby trap’s two blasting caps. But upon giving an audible pop and tossing small stones into the air, the device failed to ignite its fuller charge — a powerful mix of Eastern Bloc mortar rounds and homemade explosives spiked with motorcycle parts, rusty spark plugs and jagged chunks of steel.

Lance Corporal Mathison and several Marines near him were spared. So began a brief journey through the Taliban’s shifting tactics and the vagaries of war, where an experience at the edge of death became instead an affirmation of friendship, and in which a veteran Marine reluctantly assumed for a morning one of the infantry’s most coveted roles: that of the charmed man.

Great stuff.


  1. Wow. Great stuff, indeed.

    (Finished The Good Soldiers this weekend. Bawled - seriously bawled - through about half of it. The Amazon reviews get it right, I think: it's amazing and beautifully written, but the few critical reviews have a point, too. Sometimes the book seems like nothing more than a list of incidents. Perhaps that is a stylistic choice, too; a sort of exploration of an emotional terrain, so to speak. I started Baghdad at Sunrise immediately after finishing the other book because I couldn't read the first one without trying to know more about the "big picture" stuff. Well, to be honest, I read about two pages of Baghdad at Sunrise and then turned to Hemingway's Moveable Feast. It got to be too much....also a bunch of medical stuff that you all would find dry, dry, dry. "Diagnosis and Management of Nail Pigmentation." Seriously.

    Okay, I'm done now.

  2. Madhu -- If we're being honest, my underlining and marginal notes in Baghdad at Sunrise currently stop somewhere around page 200-some-odd. It's a dry book, and more of an operational history than a combat narrative (and to be quite fair, the former is exactly what it's meant to be). I'm sure I'll finish at some point, but I just ran out of steam.

    And Hemingway, by the way, is the bomb. (That's my gf's expression. She's rubbing off. She also insists that Hemingway is a "boy author," but I'll use you in my riposte.) If you haven't read Islands in the Stream or Across the River and Into the Trees, I can't recommend them highly enough.

  3. I experienced something similar in 2005. IEDs were frequently made out of 155mm rounds, but it was difficult to discern illumination rounds from HE. The IED emplacers usually could not tell either. The difference is life and death. A loud bang versus a catastrophic detonation. One went off about 20 feet in front of me (that's a guess - it was night time). It was targeting one of my Soldiers who was ahead of me and much closer to it. All I got was some temporary ringing ears. He, unfortunately, dove in the opposite direction and landed in a pile of trash and (we think) excrement. But nothing that would merit a purple heart. Similar fortunate mixups between illum vs HE occurred at least three other times within our unit over the course of the deployment.

    Ditto Gulliver re: Baghdad at Sunrise. I only read it to see how it jibes with my experience in the same locale during the time overlap. I don't think I got as far as you did - and I recently traded it in for store credit at a local bookstore.

  4. Gulliver, I believe it's 'da bomb,' but I entirely concur: if I could read only one author for the rest of my life, it'd be Hemingway. I'm currently re-reading A Farewell to Arms - I've never like it as much some of his other stuff, so I'm giving it another try.

    Schmedlap - amazing story. Glad you and your guys profited from their mistakes. And thanks for posting about it.

  5. Those are always the good days when the bombs don't go boom.

    I only had two experiences that were a bit better.

    1. I had a platoon conducting a final clearance of a temporary patrol base when a SSG found that the house was rigged to blow. The motorola radio was flashing from the triggerman's attempted detonation, but fortunately for us, the detonation cord was faulty. I had 20 men in that house.

    2. After we neutralized our local bomb-maker, some less experienced bad guys decided to attempt to make IEDs. The bomb went boom, but the victims were the less than capable insurgents.

  6. Schmedlap, Mike F: Geez! What MK said!

    Gulliver: your girlfriend is absolutely correct. Hemingway IS a "boy author". He was married, like, four times, you know? His descriptions of women - and their purported motivations - are not meant to be taken seriously by any sane person. I don't know if that's what your girlfriend meant. Dude had issues, but what good artist doesn't?

    MK: Yeah, he's "da bomb". I never could pick just one author, though, I don't even believe in favorites. There is too much that is good out there. I'd have to pick an anthology of short stories, or something! I read around a lot, but I also don't feel the need to finish everything I start.

    I actually kind of like Baghdad at Sunrise. After reading The Good Soldiers, which made me cry, I needed to read something else. That's what got too heavy, not Baghdad at Sunrise.

    I may also like the book more than some of you because I'm not reading at the same level of intensity, and also, I don't know a lot of the stuff in it (which many of you already do), so it's all new to me. Not dry, just interesting. Plus, he put maps in that book. I love maps.

    Anyway, Moveable Feast is all rain and Paris and cafes and a writer writing about, er, writing, so it's not quite like his other stuff. LG at the group blog where I sometimes blog - Chicago Boyz - suggested it on my site ages ago. It's just beautiful.