9 December 1992
Butch: Then you jump first.
Sundance: No, I said.
Butch: What's the matter with you?
Sundance: I can't swim.
Butch: Why you crazy...the fall will probably kill ya.
I am floating in a black rubber Zodiac on a black ocean at night, waiting to enter a country that is darker still. I strain to hear the clack of an AK-47 coming off Safe, or the abrupt, metallic snick of a machine-gun bolt, but the rapid breathing in my boat makes it impossible to pinpoint the faint noises coming from the beach. It is just past midnight and we can't wait to crash this party.
My left arm is dangling over the side of the boat but I'm leery of dipping it into the Indian after the intelligence brief on the dangers below. I take a quick, quiet swipe to test the ocean's temperature and it is so thick with phosphorescence that five bright green streaks follow my fingers through the length of their swim, glowing for a few seconds after my hand has retreated. My right hand remains gently draped over my M-16, my only girlfriend at this moment, a sleek beauty with whom I have snuggled for two years.
I have to fight the urge to stand and scream. I'm excited not so much because we may be able to shoot at some folks tonight -- that's just a bonus, really -- but because this landing might very well make us famous. For a generation raised by celebrities and those who report on them, fame -- however fleeting -- is the grunt's modern medal. In The Good War, the press were the cheerleaders, and medals -- real feats -- distinguished soldiers. In Vietnam, the press were the critics and medals were ignored. We learned from that. The press need us -- and we can freeze them out if we so desire, just like we did in Desert Storm.
We grunts will never make the "Star Tracks" section of People, or be featured on Entertainment Tonight walking our Christophe-coiffed dogs, but CNN has guaranteed an Oscar celebration for us tonight. And maybe this time the world will learn the names of grunts instead of generals and fancy weapons. We don't really care which of us, just as long as it's one of us -- a brother SEAL or a Ranger would be all right, but a Marine grunt would be better. Just not a general or an admiral or a pilot. If you go home to a full meal and a bed, you're not one of us.
Welcome to the world's greatest karaoke party. Just don't forget to bring your rifle!
"Sharkman, this is Photograph, over," says the tiny plastic speaker shoved into my ear. A thin, rubber-coated wire connects it to the black Motorola radio taped to my shoulder harness. It is the SEAL platoon. They entered the water twenty minutes ago and swam in to the beach, and now they must be feet-dry. Why they didn't wangle a better call sign for this operation I don't know. I mean, come on. Our platoon workout T-shirt has a drawing of a huge, bare-chested man -- with a grinning shark head for a face -- emerging from the sea, firing an M-16; underneath him the slogan reads, "Kill 'Em All, Let God Sort 'Em Out."
What do the SEALs wear? A picture of a camera? A Def Leppard Pyromania tour shirt?
"Photograph, this is Sharkman, over," I say, hand cupped over my mouth so the throat microphone catches most of the sound.
"Let me speak to your six, over." The number means he wants to speak with the unit commander. Don't ask me why the military doesn't use "one" instead. So our platoon's second-in-command, Gunnery Sergeant Jarius Ricketts -- who, like every Marine who holds the rank, is known simply as Gunny -- is "Sharkman Five," and the numerical references end there or everyone gets confused; by rank the platoon has several "fours," lots of "threes," and one troublesome Marine who was just reduced to a "two" for flattening the nose of a British MP in Hong Kong three months ago.
"This is Sharkman Six, over," I say.
By virtue of a college education and the completion of officer candidate school, I was deemed fit for USMC consumption, had my lieutenant's bars pinned on my dress blues by my chuckling, inebriated grandfather -- who slammed the pins deep into my shoulder muscles and shouted, "Them are your first blood stripes, butterbar! Now see if you can avoid screwing up the lives of your men like the rest of these zeros!" even as the other newly commissioned ROTC lieutenants were huddled in quiet conversations with their parents -- and was placed in charge of an infantry platoon, forty-five Marines recruited from across the socioeconomic spectrum, bound by a manic thirst for adventure and, ultimately, war.
Following a full two-year infantry tour complete with a 100-hour war, I applied to become a reconnaissance platoon leader. I endured a grueling day-long physical fitness test, passed the interview, and was selected. On the day I departed my infantry battalion for recon, my battalion commander said, "Most lieutenants would kill to get to recon, but don't be tempted to mistake a good physical fitness score for tactical superiority. It's not a reward. I didn't overrule your selection, because I think it can you do some good. If you don't learn sound decision making with those seasoned NCOs, well, then I'd say you never will."
Most officers never engaged the enemy in Desert Storm and most of them were decorated for their service. My platoon attacked a trench in a fierce firefight and conducted a forced coronation ceremony for thirty-two Iraqis, making them instant kings in the eyes of their god, like it or not, do not pass Go, do not collect $200. Of course, I also lost a good guy. When I faced my battalion commander hours later under a billowing black sky, his words were rapid-fire, all kill shots. "I thought my orders were to bypass all occupied trenches, Lieutenant. What was it about that you didn't understand?"
"I didn't have a choice, sir."
"You always have a goddamned choice, Lieutenant. You're an officer and an officer always has choices. You just chose wrong and a Marine's dead because of it. Dead!"
He turned suddenly and stormed off toward the burning well spit, twenty feet of fire lighting the rally point like some terrible death pyre, nowhere to hide from the circle of flickering faces staring at me, a ghostly jury just returned with the verdict. The dead Marine's name was Tommy "T-Bone" Bonneger.
The dead Marine's name is Tommy "T-Bone" Bonneger, and he may be Desert Storm's only grunt casualty.
When I arrived in recon nine months ago, I was determined to prove to my new platoon that I was a good officer who would listen to his men (as my grandfather had so often lectured), look out for them, and lead them -- though with just two years of experience it is a fair question to ask how a youngster like me could possibly lead men like them.
Recon Marines are in a little better shape and are a touch more maniacal than regular grunts, if that is possible, and most of them are older and far more seasoned than I. Enlisted men swarm the rigorous tryouts for reconnaissance platoons because of the promise of independence; recon Marines patrol in small teams devoid of officers and their concomitant micromanagement. So here I sit, the leader of a platoon of men who do not want to be led at all.
I am twenty-five years old.
"We are Disneyland. Repeat, we are Disneyland," the radio tells me. SEALs have the annoying radio habit of repeating phrases they consider to be important or particularly dramatic. As if simple code words require extraordinary digestion. Actually, for SEALs they might. "There's press people on the beach north of us. No signs of enemy. Repeat, beach is green. Beach is green, over."
"Roger. Did anyone see you land? Over," I ask. The military radio jargon sounds dorky and superfluous but it keeps things clear once we begin shooting.
"Negative. But there's lots of reporters...right on your Mickey Mouse site. Reporters! I mean right on it. Can you see 'em? Over."
"Wait one, over." I point at Sergeant Armstrong in the bow and give two hand signals. We communicate with hand and arm signals when the enemy is near and enforce a strict code of noise discipline. Draw your own conclusion as to the label we've applied to our beachgoers.
Armstrong picks up the laser illuminator and slips on his night-vision goggles. I point in the general direction of the beach and bring my hand, two fingers extended in a horizontal peace sign, back to my face as if I am going to poke out my eyes. The other five Marines in the boat put their NVGs on, too, having seen the hand signals. A powerful laser beam shoots across the water from Armstrong's hand and lights up the dark continent, in a fifty-meter diameter, like a spotlight. The infrared laser is invisible to the naked eye; unless they have NVGs, the forty-odd bodies on the beach have no way of knowing they're being watched. I adjust the focus of the magnifier on my goggles and can make out cameras and cords. Between fifty and a hundred people. No rifles.
The Pentagon must have given them an eight-digit grid coordinate; they are right on my landing site. Armstrong sees the same thing and signals "seventy-seven people," which I believe to be within ten; he's a terrific observer but cocksure. He then signs "No enemy in sight" somewhat dejectedly. Of my twenty Marines, I'll have to watch him most closely once we're ashore. Like most bullies, his self-esteem is linked to domination.
He's also the Marine I want most on my side if we exchange metal.
I give him the hand signal for "Prepare your team to swim." Armstrong nudges the Marine next to him, and when he has the boat's full attention he hand-signs "I love you, sir." He gives me an exaggerated wink, the white of his eyeball disappearing momentarily, replaced by a shit-eating grin that breaks through the dark, more teeth flashing in the night now that the others have seen this. Armstrong's trying to show just how cool he is under fire...or, potential fire.
I'm tempted to zing him right back, something like "Love you too, One Nut." Sergeant Jake "Stretch" Armstrong is happy to tell you all about how his extraordinary high school football career ("twice an All-State tight end, sir...and that's Texas football, not some pussy New England prep stuff") was ended when the family tractor rolled and crushed his pelvis. What he won't tell you, though, is that he lost a testicle in the accident. I know this because as his platoon commander I have access to his medical records, which is also the reason I can't engage in tit-for-tat grasps at attention. I smirk and turn back to the radio.
The whole action takes less than fifteen seconds.
"Roger, Photograph, we make out about seventy-five news bubbas on the beach. We'll see you at Goofy, then. Over." I'm happy they weren't made because I want my platoon to be the first ones to take advantage of the photo op. Talk about fifteen minutes of fame! I'm surprised the SEALs didn't take advantage and throw out a few bombastic quotes. It's not like them.
Don't get me wrong, Marines understand the lust for glory as well as anyone -- a jealous World War Two Army officer likened our propaganda machine to Joe Stalin's -- but ours is a much more stealthy approach. Put it this way: The professional wrestler Jesse "The Body" Ventura was a SEAL: "I ain't got time to bleed!" John Glenn, on the other hand, "is" a Marine. "I think we would be remiss in our duty if we didn't make fullest use of our talents in volunteering for something as important as this is to our country and the world in general right now." Enough said.
"Roger. We're heading to Goofy now. Out," whispers Photograph. The Disney code words are probably unnecessary given our encryption technology, but it's good practice and it sounds cool. It helps get the Marines into character. The SEAL mission is to "di-di" (a Vietnam slang holdover for "go fast") to the airport just a few hundred meters inland, link up with the Pakistanis on deck, and ensure that the runway is clear for the heli-borne force. My Zodiac is flanked on either side by the two other boats carrying six Marines each; our job is to secure the beach landing site for the tracked amphibious vehicles that will be carrying a few hundred infantry jarheads. We'll be the first Marines to land in Somalia as part of "Operation Restore Hope."
My recon platoon is going in first tonight because it's our job -- scouting ahead and putting eyes on the enemy before the big forces arrive; a toe in the water. Roughly the same theory applied when you handed your kid sister a glass of Coke and some Pop Rocks. The platoon is made up of three six-man teams of hard-core, patriotic whackballs, each of them led by a seasoned NCO like Sergeant Armstrong and used to operating on its own. Gunny -- my impressive platoon sergeant -- and I are riding in with the teams because the entire platoon has been tasked. And because, frankly, we didn't want to be watching this landing on the ship's televisions.
I call headquarters back on the Tripoli. "Vader, this is Sharkman. Seventy-five press personnel are right on the proposed Mickey Mouse site. Should we still keep it primary? Over."
A ten-second pause. "Sharkman, this is Vader. Affirmative, over."
The Pentagon wants to show us off.
Ted Koppel is waiting for us on the beach as we speak. I know this because we watched him on television yesterday announcing our forthcoming arrival. "The operation is expected to begin tomorrow at midnight with the arrival of elite Navy and Marine reconnaissance units that will pave the way for a larger follow-on force."
We're not exactly following Sun-tzu's advice on surprise here.
You won't hear any arguments out of us, however; we relish the opportunity. My generation hasn't seen a big war, but we've been assuaged with some quickies. When the other 1,500 Marines arrive at dawn, we'll teach some punk warlords what true domination is all about, open up the clogged food supply lines, and save a starving nation.
Armstrong's six-man recon team slips quietly over the side. I'm clumsy and the added caution I use in order to avoid a loud Splash! -- and the ensuing snickers of my Marines -- allows Armstrong a small head start. He's a decorated Marine who gnashed his teeth when he heard that his team wasn't going in alone, angry that his gunny and lieutenant decided to accompany him to meet and greet. Rank is a bitch.
The ocean is too warm and feels as thick as a milk shake. As I slip the heavy rubber fins over my desert combat boots, I think of the sharks circling below and my first instinct is to catch the other Marines to reduce the odds that Bruce will pick me out as the lame calf.
A defunct slaughterhouse sits just at the eastern tip of the entrance to Mogadishu Harbor, about two klicks (slang for "kilometers" for all you civilian types who don't watch movies) up the beach from our objective. Built on stilts and attached to a small jetty, blood and guts were ripped from cows, camels, and Lord knows what else and dumped directly into the ocean for all to see. It was an efficient Third World solution to waste that gave rise to another evil.
While children at Coney Island might dodge bandages in the surf, Somali children were snatched by sharks and devoured in the waist-deep waters. It became a minor epidemic for which there was no reasonable cure. The crumbling, prickly dirt found just inland made soccer too painful for the barefoot Somalis. Soccer is life in the Third World and sand is soft.
Though fishing nets were erected, an occasional ball sailed over the nets and into the water. The only ball. The sharks, creatures that can smell a thimble of blood in an Olympic swimming pool, were driven mad by the constant flow -- gallons of blood! -- in the water. With their senses on full alert and their appetites raging, the small splashes were investigated immediately and violently.
The blood stopped flowing from the slaughterhouse a few months ago; crops went untended and animals starved, so the slaughterhouse shut its doors. The clans began hoarding food and fighting over it. Which caused a famine. Which drew CNN's attention. Which is why I'm here.
By the time I link up with my swim buddy, Gunny, who is also my right-hand man, Armstrong is already forty meters closer to the beach. I can just make out heads and contrails in the strip of moonlight. No matter, both Gunny and I are strong swimmers and will reel them in quickly, much to Armstrong's chagrin. Armstrong is from rural Texas and though he's got the build of a big swimmer at six foot five, he's better in a barroom than he is in the water.
I swim up to Gunny and he winks at me. He has camouflaged his eyelid like an eyeball: all white except for a black dot, centered, perfectly proportioned, a trick that has freaked out many a foxhole buddy at night.
His black face is streaked with tiger stripes of light tan and green paint, which is ironic because my white face is covered in black and green. We were ordered to cammie up, unusual because it's never an explicit order, it's standard. But camouflage makeup makes for better TV.
And you thought supermodels were bad.
I'm not swimming so much as finning, my long legs propelling my torso forward with steady, rhythmic kicks of my swim fins below the surface. Legs straight and locked, hips swaying for most efficient power. Both of my arms are streamlined against my sides, like a squid, my left hand pressed flat against the seam of my utility trousers and my right hand wrapped around the barrel of my rifle. The sling of the weapon across my chest keeps it snug, and when I inhale I feel it tighten and pull the rifle slightly into my spine, the front sight post digging into my lower back sharply, very nearly drawing blood. It is a comfortable feeling.
My wake in the black ocean is green and sparkling. The Indian lips around my head and expands in a rippling V as I slice toward the beach. It takes ten minutes before Gunny and I catch the six Marines of team one and it will take another ten to touch the dark continent. I hear the men breathing because they are excited, the low, mechanical hiss skipping across the surface like a distant steam engine, but there is no other noise, no telltale splashes.
I look at Gunny's square head, framing the eyeball, two meters away. His warpaint scheme is totally sinister, especially given what lurks underneath the water. I want to giggle because this is just not going to be a fair fight. And because I'm a little nervous -- I'm not exactly the bravest guy in The Few and The Proud.
I swim headlong into the Marine swimming in front of me, who has stopped for some reason. He shudders, absolutely terrified, and spins around, reeling and snorting. He thinks I am a fish come to kill him. Then his eyes and brain connect and his mouth closes again, his face a mix of relief and embarrassment, and he points to an area in front of Armstrong, who has stopped as well. I swim forward and Gunny grabs my elbow.
"What's that?" he asks. "SEAL submarine?"
A mass of glowing green is moving rapidly toward the team like an underwater comet, moving just below the surface. Fear tingling in my stomach, shooting down my arms now the way it did just before I crashed my father's truck. I try to get my rifle out in front of me but the fish is too fast. It closes to within two meters and turns abruptly, gliding past me, streaking a bright contrail of phosphorescence behind it. A wave of pressure lifts me backward gently, right into Gunny's arms.
"Holy Shit," I say. It is hard to tell exactly with the tailing glow, but the bulk of it is easily ten feet long. It circles around behind the team, then turns again, carving out a dimming figure eight.
Armstrong is suddenly moving past me, whispering orders to the team. "Break up and get to the beach as fast as you can. That thing -- "
"Hey," I hiss. "Listen up. Everyone get in here tight and face outboard. Now."
"Sir! This is my team. We need to get to that beach...it's, what, maybe two hundred meters away? We keep fucking around out here and -- "
The fish closes in again, this time from behind, and streaks below us. I watch as the glowing particles from its wake flutter up past my fins, now tucked tightly against my hamstrings, my body in a cannonball as I watch it pass, my nose bubbling as I try to put my eyes as close to the slick as possible. The Marines are already moving by instinct, huddling together for protection like a school of bait fish, spinning with the shark.
"I am in charge of this platoon," I whisper, almost believing it.
"Sir! My team...we need to get to shore -- "
"This is now my unit, Sergeant, so you'll do exactly what I tell you." Sergeant Armstrong has six years, five inches, and forty pounds on me, but I have rank and that is all that matters right now. I turn to the team.
"Form a tight circle, shoulder to shoulder, and face outboard. When he makes his run again, jab your rifles underwater and keep your feet up. It's okay to break your waterproofing and noise discipline. If you have to fire...fire."
The comet turns and moves in again, steadily and slowly, deeper this time. The shark is directly under the circle of Marines, perhaps seven meters below -- a faint ball of green that my eyes strain to discern -- when it turns and streaks for the surface, the glow growing exponentially, my legs fleeing from the fish as if they are in competition with my torso, trying to push me up and out, my rifle moving forward. The shark shoots up and out of my view, behind me, and I cannot turn in time.
Then the deep pop an M-16 makes -- nearly muted -- when it discharges underwater, Gunny lifted halfway out of the water, his rifle jammed into his ribs, the slap of the tail on the surface, Gunny up higher now like a pole vaulter, me rolling back from the force of the water wave, the Marines turning in all directions like a herd straining to see the predator that has come to take a meal.
"Gunny!" I whisper, not expecting an answer.
His big head breaks the surface and he spins in a tight circle, treading water like a water-polo player, frantically looking down at the water, froth all around us."Oh my fuck! He...see that, sir?" he pants. "Big...He came at me. Got my rifle in front of him and he drove it into my ribs...on the...on the way up. Up to take me. Put the barrel right on his head and shot him. Shot that motherfucker! Pushed me out of the water and onto his back."
"You're lucky. Let's -- "
Armstrong swims out from behind one of the Marines and hisses, "Fuckin' A, he's lucky. Never should have been sitting here in the first place. We got to get the fuck out of here. That thing took off...get out while he's gone. This is stupid, sitting -- "
I turn to him and put my finger in his face. "You listen. If -- "
Gunny is between us, pushing Armstrong back.
"How about this? How about this, sir? We stay together, like you said, which probably saved one of our lives" -- he glares at Armstrong and then turns to me again -- "but we swim now. As a group. Together."
I look at Armstrong but he just stares back. "Make it happen, Gunny," I say. "You and I will take the tail-end Charlie positions and look backward the whole way."
"Gotcha, sir." He leans in to Armstrong's ear, whispering furiously, the Texan's equipment harness wrapped around his fist as he lectures, and seconds later we are on our way to the beach like a tight pod of dolphins, Gunny and I watching the six, hanging on to the harnesses of the Marines in front of us.
After five minutes I hear Gunny whisper, "Hey, sir. Why d'you think that shark picked me?"
"Just bad luck I guess," I whisper back.
"Nawww, sir. Once you taste black, you don't go back."
"I heard that, Gunny," whispers Lance Corporal Terrel Johnson, Armstrong's assistant team leader and most loyal henchman, a black Marine from the Los Angeles suburbs who was recently busted down a rank for that Hong Kong brawl. "And I don't like bein' on the clock. Can you two swim faster? You're slowing us down."
"Uh, hey, sir, you seeing what I'm seeing back here? Coming from five o'clock? I think it's another fish," Gunny whispers.
"Don't fuck with me, Gunny," whispers Johnson. "Seriously. My shit's freaked out right now and I don't wanna look like a puss in front of the cameras."
Fifty meters later the team has stopped again. I look over the bobbing row of heads, toward the beach, and can make out people and vehicles. They are talking quietly and occasionally I hear the group laugh. There are women present. Hubba-hubba. Hey, it's been three months.
I see Armstrong give a few hand signals and four Marines break off from the huddled group, two swimming right and two left. They fin away from us, parallel to the beach, to provide flank security. I wish them Godspeed because I really don't want to get eaten while I tread water. Armstrong remains in the center with Johnson and is doing his best to ignore us, but his excitement boils over and he swims up to me and smiles. The prodigal son. He signs that, if the shit hits the fan, Gunny and I are supposed to hit the water first while he provides covering fire from center beach. Right. Imagine Gunny and me returning to the Tripoli to explain why the two senior members ran from their platoon. But I placate Armstrong with a smile and a thumbs-up.
The wind picks up slightly and it's an offshore breeze because I can now make out a conversation. There is no smell to Somalia yet. I expect the entire country will reek of disease and death and corpses and blood and sand.
"Where the hell are they?" says a man on the beach. "I'm fucking bored."
"Maybe they're already here, Don," says a woman.
"Yeah, check your jeep, Donny. Maybe they're hiding in it," says another.
"Pshhh. These macho idiots don't sneak around. They bumble. You'll see," he says.
I want to swim around their flank and sneak up on Don, just me, perhaps grab his throat and cut off the airway with my left and put my Ka-Bar knife up next to his eyeball with my other hand, wearing a scary war face, fangs extended, then apologize and say that I wasn't sure if he was a friendly -- postal workers don't have the market cornered on screwy fantasies. But I also want to hear their excited gasps as we emerge from Loch Ness in full regalia.
Armstrong checks his watch -- it's 0030 -- and signals the Marines on the flanks. All six of them begin to fin slowly, in a line, toward the beach. Their rifles are no longer slung across their backs; mine is in my hands as well. I see Armstrong's shoulders pop up and know that he's in shallow enough to stand. Like all of my Marines, I am scanning the darkness behind the reporters for bad guys, moving my eyes quickly back and forth and looking out of the corners the way I was taught: The rods and cones in the eyeball work more efficiently at night this way. I'm looking for vehicles that look out of place, people moving a little too quickly, and torsos dug in. All Marine rifles come off Safe.
Our inherent paranoia -- that the media will somehow screw us over -- does not explain away all the jumpiness. Somalia is a dangerous place and Gangbanger bullets will kill you just as dead as Soviet ones will. Whoops, sorry, Russian ones.
Thirty meters from the beach the Marines are all moving forward in various crouches in waist-deep water, rifles being furiously unwrapped from their plastic shields like Christmas morning, Armstrong now on his belly, low-crawling on elbows and knees to keep his M-16 dry, when a woman spots him and shrieks, "Ohmygod! THEY'RE HERE!"
Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more.
Copyright © 2001 by Owen West