To the Editor:
The United States has now for years been embroiled in a war that we yet struggle to define and which has no borders.
The enemy does not respect nor abide by any rules of war. They do not wear uniforms and do not carry their weapons openly. Moreover, there is no clearly recognizable chain of command. To further complicate matters, Al-Qaeda’s leaders conceal their military objectives behind the religion of Islam. This war is often described as a war against terror, but terror is only a tactic which specifically targets innocent, non‑involved persons, but still is warfare by other means. There also is no front, as the frontlines can be anywhere an explosive device may be planted and detonated, so our current war presents new challenges, threats, and prices to be paid.
My family is quite conversant in the price of war, with my great Uncle John losing a lung in World War I due to exposure to poison gas, and my Uncle Charlie, while serving as a 19-year-old gunner’s mate aboard the USS Bunker Hill, saw 393 of his shipmates die after the Bunker Hill was struck by a Kamikaze aircraft on May 11, 1945.
My late father’s story, like so many others, is just another minute part of that which was World War II:
On January 2, 1945, the Battle of the Bulge was at its midpoint, and after more than two weeks of bitter fighting, the German forces had proved that they remained formidable. On that day, my father was riding in a convoy of trucks heading for the town of Bavigne, Luxembourg, when they came under attack with heavy artillery and mortar fire aimed at them with great precision. My father saw the truck immediately in front of his own receive a direct mortar hit, with the other drivers attempting to steer their vehicles off the road, so that everyone could take cover.
The G.I.s immediately began jumping out of their trucks where they sought the relative safety of a deep roadside ditch that contained icy water along with the revoltingly bloated and decomposing carcasses of dead farm animals. At this point, an MG-42 opened up and swept the roadway with showers of bullets. Since the MG-42 had a cyclic rate of fire of 1,200 rounds per minute, it was devastatingly effective. This scene was the living nightmare that greeted the men of B Company that morning on the outskirts of Bavigne.
Despite all of this, my father and several others crawled to the truck that had received the direct hit and helped those that they could, bringing to adequate cover some severely wounded men who were in a helpless condition. One of these wounded, was a youth of perhaps no more than 20. His face was horribly burned, and he clung to my father’s coat with the clutch of a drowning victim. “Don’t leave me,” he pleaded. “I’m blind.”
The next thing my father was aware of was the explosion of a mortar round, much nearer than the previous ones, and, at that moment, he went from being a rescuer, to being in need of rescue. Meanwhile, some brave man had located and used a radio to call for artillery cover that was forcing the German units to cease their attack and to begin a withdrawal from the area.
At the field hospital, the doctor who removed the mortar fragment from my father’s back whistled in astonishment as he told my father how lucky he had been. It seemed like a bad joke, but, in fact, that fragment had missed his spine by only a small margin, and were it any closer, he would have been confined to a wheelchair for life, and it was more than two months later before he was able to return to his unit. There is a photo of my father in the Legion Hall showing him sitting on the steps of the field hospital with some other men, and all of them obviously still convalescing.
Warfare is as old as the human race, and though times may change and the means of fighting wars may vary considerably, human nature does not change, and will remain so for countless millennia to come. The challenges we face today may be at odds with those of the past, but the past remains enduringly relevant, even though World War II was a very different war in a most different time.
As for our present situation, I had a distinct preview of what was to be the future more than 31 years ago, as an Air Force sergeant stationed at Fort Meade, Maryland and assigned as a technical analyst at the National Security Agency. As a member of a special focus team at N.S.A., I realized even then that the seizing of the United States Embassy in Tehran and the imprisonment of the hostages was only an opening gambit in what would be a protracted and extremely dangerous game.
Michael F. Fontes 3rd