We've got a new “Think Again” column here called “The End of Network News?”
Today's Altercation is authored by Lt. Col. Bob Bateman:
Before the politics, the analysis, the emotion, and counter-emotion about what he said, or what Gen. Petraeus did not say, or what anyone thinks he should have said, come bubbling up, I think perhaps it's time to break my silence.
You all, perhaps, have noticed that I have been absent of late. That has been intentional. It's politics time, and around politics time I feel less comfortable about everyone who is political. Uh, except my wife. But since she is serving in Sri Lanka right now, I don't even deal with that much.
I do not think it is a soldier's position to get into the middle of things, and I generally avoid it myself. Believe it or not, to my eyes it is clear that while he is good at it, General P doesn't much like being there either. But that is now his job. But with all of the sentiment, real and postured, seen on Capitol Hill these past 24 hours, I thought it might be useful to introduce some real emotion.
This essay is dated, though perhaps you might not find it so. I wrote it, and it was published in a small venue, Vietnam Magazine, six years ago. I hope that perhaps, on a host of issues, it reminds you about some of the things we all believe in. Beyond the debates of this day, or this war. Beyond the ideas of policy and strategy versus tactics and structure. I enjoin you for a moment, as one senator pleaded not long ago, to look past, to look beyond. In this small way, by a mild act of distraction, and sentiment, and perhaps hope, I enjoin you all to take a few moments to reflect. That is all. I do not care upon what you reflect. But it is something that others beyond our shores have suggested that we might do better as a nation, and I agree. In listening to them, it occurred to me I might help in this way. By giving you something from the heart upon which to reflect, and contemplate, so that you might have a moment to yourself to delve into complexity.
You should know also that with this tale I am not advocating. I am relating. The subject, my friend, had come to hate war as only those who have been in war can hate war. This, therefore, is not jingoism. This is the story of one man. That is all. There is no one “message in this essay.” You may each take from it what you will. And in the process, be complex.
All within it has been given freely, by the author, and the subject, I assure you.
7th United States Cavalry
I heard his voice long before I ever met him: “Gaaaa-rry Owen, Garry Owen, Garry Owen / In the Valley of Montana all alone / There'll be better days to be for the 7th Cavalry / When we charge again for dear old Garry Owen ...”
It was the summer of 1995. I was a company commander in the 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry, George Armstrong Custer's old outfit -- and an audiotape made at An Khe, Vietnam, in the spring of 1966 had found its way into my hands. “Garry Owen,” or more properly, Garryowen," is the motto of the 7th Cavalry. The voice pounding through on the scratchy tape was a voice out of the pages of history for me -- the voice of Rick Rescorla.
As a 7th Cavalryman I had heard of Rescorla. He was made famous by the account of his actions during the Battle of the Ia Drang Valley in November 1965, America's first major battle of the Vietnam War. He became a legend in the unit for his unflappable behavior in combat, and his face became an American icon when a young reporter named Peter Arnett snapped his photo. That photo became the cover of the book We Were Soldiers Once ... and Young, by Hal Moore and Joe Galloway, two who were there. The book, and now the movie, We Were Soldiers, tell the story of the fight. Rescorla was a second lieutenant then, but was already experienced in combat.
Born in Cornwall, on the English coast, Rescorla had seen man's darker side already, first from service with the British army on Cyprus, and later in a “security force” in Rhodesia. The epitome of the young warrior, he was the sort that England seems to have bred in abundance for centuries: the type of young man who in times past went forth from Britain and created an empire upon which the sun never set. England happened to be fresh out of wars in the 1960s, so Rescorla became an American and fought in ours. He thought there was something to America.
In 1965 Rescorla knew war. His men did not, yet. To steady them, to break their concentration away from the fear that may grip a man when he realizes there are hundreds of men very close by who want to kill him, Rescorla sang when the shooting was hottest. Mostly he sang dirty songs that would make a sailor blush. Interspersed with the lyrics was the voice of command: “Fix bayonets ... on liiiiine ... reaaaa-dy ... forward.” It was a voice straight from Waterloo, from the Somme, implacable, impeccable, impossible to disobey. His men forgot their fear to some degree, concentrated on his orders and marched forward as he led them straight into the pages of history: 1st Platoon, Bravo Company, 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry ... “Hard Corps.”
When I started interviewing these veterans of my regiment decades later, I was struck by the emotions Rescorla's men still felt for him. His old radio telephone operator (RTO), Sam Fantino, 30 years later still seemed to maintain that constant “where-the-hell-is-the-lieutenant-now” look out of the corner of his eye. When a lieutenant and his RTO click, the radioman takes on a host of new roles -- part radioman, part scrounge, part mother hen looking over “his” lieutenant. With Fantino and Rescorla it was something special to watch, three decades later. Many other survivors of the platoon acted the same way. Over time, I came to believe that they would have followed Rescorla in an assault upon the gates of Hell, even then, for he did not order, he led. Literally.
After his time as a rifle platoon leader, Rescorla technically became what we call a “liaison officer.” But in reality he was running a sort of miniature, brigade-level long range reconnaissance patrol team for the commander, Colonel (later Lieutenant General) Hal Moore. They called it a Ground Reconnaissance Infiltration Team, though Rescorla told me he preferred to call his group a GRIT patrol. One hundred fifty men tried out, from whom Rescorla chose 15 for a trial patrol. From those 15, three men were selected to accompany Rick on the ground, one of them a former British commando. Walking deep into areas such as the “Crow's Foot,” well ahead of the rest of the brigade, Rescorla and his team bridged the gap between division reconnaissance elements (higher) and battalion scouts (lower). It was a no-man's land that defies description. That was his idea of a “cushy staff job.”
Twenty-nine years later, the tape made in 1966, in a claptrap officers' club, made its way into my hands, and for the first time I heard the voice that at that time I had only read of in history books. It was a strong voice, booming out the solos and leading the chorus of young American officers trying to forget, or perhaps to remember with honor, their soldiers who now lay still. I doubt there was a sober voice in the pack. In the background there is the recurrent booming of 105mm howitzers firing. This was the 1st Cavalry Division, in war. It was eerie to know that nobody had heard this tape in almost 30 years. I made seven copies so the tape would not disappear into history, and sent one to Rescorla himself.
I am really lucky. Over the course of my life I have met men who, to my eyes, have walked into the room off the pages of a history book. Sometimes I get to meet my heroes.
A few months after receiving the tape from An Khe, I had the chance to attend the annual reunion dinner of the veterans of the fighting in the Ia Drang. That weekend I also had the honor of meeting Rick in person. He was bigger now, rounder and downright jolly in some ways, but in his eye I caught the glint of mischief that so many of his former soldiers talked about. He was now a civilian. After returning to the States in 1966 he had spent a year teaching at Fort Benning, Georgia, and then got out -- sort of. He stayed in the Army Reserve, advancing to colonel before he retired in 1990. Along the way he had picked up a master's degree in literature and a law degree. He wrote poems and screenplays and was conversant in philosophy. But something in his makeup would not allow him to entirely abandon the idea behind our profession. Rick Rescorla eventually became the director of security for Morgan Stanley in their offices at the World Trade Center.
He had not, however, forgotten his origins as a warrior poet. That first reunion I attended, approaching him almost as a religious supplicant, I asked him to sign my copy of We Were Soldiers Once ... and Young. We would talk much more later, and I would listen as he and others told their stories, but that was our first contact. He apparently knew something of me though. He asked me to wait a moment, got himself a drink, and sat staring into the middle distance for a moment. When he handed my copy back, the inscription read: “To: Captain Bob Bateman / Old Dogs and Wild Geese are Fighting / Head for the Storm / As you faced it before / For where there is the 7th / There's bound to be fighting / And where there's no fighting / It's the 7th no more. / Best, / Rick Rescorla, Hard Corps One-Six [his radio call sign in Vietnam]”
We met again, several times in fact, after that, historian/soldier and warrior/poet. I even managed to coax him up to West Point in the Spring of 2001. It was a grand day.
When Islamic fundamentalists bombed the World Trade Center in 1993, Rick was there. Apparently songs don't work as well on civilians as they do with us soldiers, and so Rick had some difficulty in getting people's attention and calming them down while trying to get them to evacuate. To stop the panic and get them the hell out of there he had to do something. And so, he jumped up onto a desk and bellowed out to the flower of American capitalism and propriety that he would moon the whole lot of them unless they @%^$ listened.
Nobody I ever met said Rick could not make a statement. People stopped, that's for sure, and Rick proceeded to do his job, saving lives by moving people out of the tower. And that's what he was doing again on September 11, 2001. Various employees of Morgan Stanley report his presence across all 20 floors occupied by the company. Just as in combat, he was everywhere -- calm, jocular in the face of panic, reassuring in his personal presence. There is no way to exaggerate the number of human lives he saved that day. Not just the Morgan Stanley employees, but every single person on a floor above theirs owes a nod in his direction. Thanks to him, just about every one of the employees of his company made it out of the building, all 20 floors of them. Of all their thousands, all but seven got out. Think about that. One man saved at least 2,000, and probably 3,400 lives. His legend in the company helped (people remember when somebody on an executive salary threatens to moon the staff), and that, and his voice, was enough to keep those people moving, which allowed others to follow, to leave -- and to live.
My friend Rick Rescorla would no more have left that tower before every single person was outside than I would start standing on a piano and singing show tunes from Broadway. When he called his wife not long after the first plane hit the other tower, he told her not to worry, he was getting everyone out. Despite the fact that an announcement was made over the building speakers telling everyone to stay put after that first strike, Rescorla apparently said, “Bugger that!” and started the evacuation immediately. When it appeared that everyone was out ... Rick went back in, heading up those stairs with the rescue workers. That is where he was last seen by a survivor, somewhere around the tenth floor. He was heading up. He was inside, being himself, when the tower came down on him.
My hero, my friend, died that day. But heroes never really die. Rick will live on. So long as my pen has ink, and my voice bellows out to those manning the ramparts with me today, he will live on. Rick was a volunteer in a draftee army. In some ways that made it hard for him. It's easy today. Today we are all volunteers, and the young men and women I serve with will hear Rick's story because I will tell them, and they will remember. It is our professional strength: We remember.
Peace for the majority has always exacted a cost from a few. Rick knew that. He lived that. I suspect that he's waiting now, down in Fiddler's Green -- the mythical bar located “halfway down the trail to hell,” where all cavalrymen pull off the road for a drink. (We never, thereby, ever make it all the way.) He is there and composing his next bawdy ballad and telling those men from his platoon whom he last saw in the Ia Drang Valley of Vietnam, what they missed over the past 30-plus years. He'll be telling them lies, of course, but they will be huge magnificent glowing and poetic lies, and every one of them will have a punch line to bring tears to your eyes. Shoot, he's probably tending the bar by now.
"... So after you read this, get your canteen cup, / And fill it with mead, or scotch, or rotgut, / Then pour it right out, on the ground, on the floor, / For the heart of the Seventh, Rescorla's no more. " ~Bateman
Rick Rescorla, an American from Cornwall. Please remember.
You can write to LTC Bob at R_Bateman_LTC@hotmail.com
Name: Barbara C.
Hometown: Fort Lauderdale, FL
Everyday at lunch, I argue with a McCain supporter on Iraq. Since I have what they call .... “skin in the game,” a stepson who is being shipped over there this coming November, the argument gets more and more heated. I cannot tell you enough how dumb most Americans are regarding the reasons we are there. Keep the word going out ... because for me, until every American who supports this war, has “skin in the game,” I really don't want to hear their sad excuses why we are over there.
On the topic of “opportunities for liberalism lost in Afghanistan” :
At the time we first went into Afghanistan, I read a “scenes from the front” piece about a female Army NCO or officer whose squad had captured some taliban soldiers.
The description I really liked was of some Afghan girls and their mothers (in burkhas) witnessing an american woman not only leading a squad of men, but also slapping the wrist restraints on some misogynist/fundamentalist sunni taliban f**ks.
To misquote Randy Newman "... that may not be [liberal] but it's alright ..."
At the risk of making an obvious point -- 6 years later, we're bribing their Iraqi sunni fundamentalist brothers to kindly refrain from shooting our troops and each other while they keep their women down.
Eric, you're absolutely right about Mike Kinsley's essay, and it was a brilliant article. Still, given everything that's wrong with our politics, our society, our disturbingly disturbed moral compass, and the questionable fate of our planet, all I can say -- without actively seeking the Grim Reaper's intervention -- is, “the sooner the better.” As a 50-something Boomer, old age is looking worse every day.
Eric -- Your correspondent who claims that the Met is on the West Side because it's on the west side of 5th Avenue has a conceptual problem. Fifth Avenue is the dividing line -- except that, above 59th Street, anything east of Central Park is called the East Side.
Eric replies: Well actually, much of the museum stretches back into the park, making it the West Side, so ...