Monday, February 8, 2016

"A Hero of Our Time" and "Brother" Wild, Wild West in Russia

I just finished the book "A Hero of Our Time" by Mikhail Lermontov.  If you like Western novels, or War novels, this book will make you smile.  I laughed out loud at some of the conversations among soldiers in this book.  So why does a novel with Russian soldiers as main characters make me think of "Western" novels and movies?  For the same reason the first Star Wars movie (1977) made me think Western: the setting an scenery is the frontier and civilization is somewhere else.  

"Hero" is set in the Caucuses mountains, near Georgia on the southern frontier of Imperial Russia about 200 years ago.  The soldiers in frontier outposts are there to protect the borders and and to stop the locals from rising in rebellion against their new masters.  The Russian soldiers trade with the locals and try to stay on peaceful terms, but they do not think the natives are fully human.  Just as the American soldiers in frontier outposts tried to keep the peace, but were ready to fight.

The novel is really several related stories revolving around the main character Pechorin and an old soldier named Maxim.  

The first time I read this book was in the summer of 1980 in a Russian Literature class at Penn State Harrisburg.  The professor loved this book.  He was a Serbian, a World War 2 veteran who fought the Germans and their allies the Croatians.  Professor Djordjevic was a 60-year-old chain smoker with not much longer to live when I met him.  He escaped to America through Hungary in 1956.  He fought the Nazis from the Serbian mountains and escaped the Russians who occupied Serbia through those same mountains.  Professor Djordjevic was a mountain soldier and clearly identified with "Hero."

"Brother" is related to "Hero" because for me it had that same feel of the lone hero/cowboy on the frontier.  In the case of Brother, all the action is in St. Petersburg, Russia, so the setting is not the frontier.  But it is in the 1990s in the midst of the economic collapse and lawlessness after the fall of the Soviet Union.  And the main character of Brother is a veteran of the nasty Chechen war of 1994.  The action at the end of the movie has many links to gunfights in traditional Western movies and watching Brother load his own shotgun shells will delight Western fans.

Russia, like America, started as a small country that grew by conquering and settling neighboring areas.  It had a "Louisiana Purchase"-like expansion in the 1600s when it bought Siberia for a price as cheap as the one America got.  Many of the problems Russia has had relate to rapid expansion and trying to hold on to conquered territory, just like the Wild, Wild West here in America.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Tanker's Final Exam, Part 5, .50 Cal. Machine Gun, 1200 meters

The commander's cupola with the M85 .50 Caliber Machine Gun is on top of the turret.  

As we rolled away from engagement 6, firing the main gun at a moving tank, next up was firing the .50 caliber machine gun a "truck" target.  Actually a plywood panel.  The target was almost 1,200 meters away.  My loader, Gene Pierce, spotted the target first on a rise to the left of the tank trail.  As we rolled from the last firing point, I made sure the commander's machine gun was in line with the main gun.

When we spotted the target, having the guns lined up meant I could swing the turret with the commander's override and be close to the target.  When the main gun was on target, my .50 cal. machine gun would be close to the target, so I could drop down into the turret and fire as soon as possible.

When I looked through the 1 to 1 sight, I saw the target, so I grabbed the cupola controls and got the gun on target.  I had spent a lot of time zeroing the machine gun on the static range.  And even when I could have shot "cowboy" not using the sights I made myself drop down in the turret and practice with the sights.  A 1,200-meter shot needs the sights.  The other reason I needed the sights was the limited ammo capacity of the cupola.  I had 100 rounds for two engagements.  That's enough if I am on target, but not enough to shoot with my head out.

I squeezed the trigger.  Pierce called hit on the second burst.  I put two more bursts in the panel and said, "Driver move out!"

Friday, February 5, 2016

Photos from My Father's 1st Command, Black Company World War 2

During the early months of World War 2, my father went to Officer Candidate School.  Since he was very old in Army year, 36, his first command was in Pennsylvania, a Black Company at Camp Shenango near Erie, Pa.

My son Jacari scanned one of the albums today.  Here are some of the photos from my Dad's scrapbook:

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Tanker's Final Exam, Part 4, Moving Tank

We are now at Part 4 of Table VIII of 1976 tank gunnery at Fort Carson, Colorado.
The previous post described Engagements 3, 4 and 5 which occur at the same firing point. Now I will describe Engagement 6, the moving tank.

We practiced for this shot more than any other.  In fact, I am sure we practiced more than any crew in the battalion.  Several times in the weeks leading up to gunnery, I took my crew out in early evening after everyone else left the motorpool and practiced sighting on moving targets.

Today, I am sure I would be busted to Private for the way we practiced.  We rolled out of the motorpool up on a ridge that looked down on Interstate 25—the North-South highway that passes the east side of Fort Carson. 

From that ridge, the highway was about two miles away, much farther that the distance to the range target.  But since the cars were going 60-70 mph, their speed relative to us was good for practice tracking a moving target. 

To get a good shot at a moving target, my gunner, Merc Morris, had to practice steadily tracking the target.  This took real skill and control.  While my gunner tracked the target, I would look through the range finder.  After a while he could keep the crosshair perfectly steady center of mass on a Chevy Impala or a Ford Pinto. 

Back to Table VIII.  As we moved along the trail on the tank gunnery range, I saw plywood panel target moving right to left.  I called, “Driver Stop!”  Then “Gunner, SABOT, Moving Tank.”  Pierce (Eugene Pierce, my Loader) yelled “Up!” confirming the gun was loaded. He was so fast, I barely finished the Fire Command before he had loaded the main gun.  The range was about 1000 meters so it was point and shoot with the solid-shot SABOT round.  I handed the binoculars to Pierce so he could track the shot from the top of the turret while I watched the round go down range through the range finder.  I was looking for the flash of the tracer disappearing through a hole in the target. 

If I had any doubt Merc would get a first-round hit, I would have been watching through the binoculars from the commander’s hatch, but I knew Merc would get a first-round hit.  When Merc yelled “On the Way” I pushed my helmet against the range finder and opened my eyes as wide as I could.  I didn’t see anything.  Too much dust.  Pierce yelled “Hit!” dropped into the turret, slammed another SABOT round into the breach of the main gun and yelled “Up!”  Merc fired again.  I said, “Driver Move Out” quite sure there were two new holes in the moving-tank target. 

Next engagement was the M85 .50 cal. machine gun at 1200 meters. 
This series started with seeing the movie "Fury" and wanting to be back in a tank turret.  Then the first main-gun shot of Table VIII.

Monday, February 1, 2016

The Cold War Versus the Iraq War: The Mission Shapes Reality

From 1972 to 1984 on active duty and in the Army Reserve, I was a Cold War soldier. My Mission, with a capital M, was to “Defend America against the Soviet Union and her Warsaw Pact allies.”

In the military and in every organization, there is a “Big M” Mission that the whole organization works toward and a “small m” mission for individuals and units.  During the Cold War my Big M mission was clear.  It began with a verb: Defend.  The enemy was defined: Soviet forces and their allies. 

Because the Big M was so well defined, the “Small m” mission was equally clear:  I trained my tank crew to fight the invading forces of the Soviet Union.  When I was stationed in Germany, we trained to fight at Fulda, our alert area.  When I was in a reserve unit in the U.S., we had pre-positioned tanks in Baumholder, Germany.

During all the time I served in the Cold War, I knew the mission of the entire U.S. military and the mission of my tank.  While on active duty, that tank was Bravo 13, Company B, 1st Battalion, 70th Armor.  Also, the rules of engagement were clear if and when the war started—Kill Soviets until we win. 

In 1984, I left the clearly defined world of the Cold War Army and became a civilian.  Twenty-three years later, in 2007, I re-enlisted.  I jumped into the murky water of our wars in the Middle East.  I could not tell you now, nor could I tell you in 2009 when I deployed to Iraq what the Big M mission of the U.S. Army was in that ill-fated war, or it is now in the War in Afghanistan. 

We defeated Saddam Hussein’s Army three weeks after the war started in 2003.  What were we doing after that?  “Winning hearts and minds” is the phrase I remember most clearly.  Judging by the looks I got from the Iraqis I met in the local market or working on our base, we did not win a lot of hearts and minds.

Even when the Big M mission is murky, the Small m mission can be clear.  I worked hard every day I was in Iraq, whether it was in the motor pool or on the flight line or in an office or flying across southern Iraq in a Blackhawk helicopter.  But I never had the clarity of purpose that I had as a Cold War tank commander.

And in retrospect, I see my Cold War service as being more clear, more real than my service during the IraqWar.  

When I finally leave the Army either in May of this year or next year, I will look back on my service in the Cold War as having an edge of reality that my service in Iraq never will.  It is also easy to make the case that we won the Cold War.  By making the Soviets spend hard currency on huge military, the regime went bankrupt.  We won the Cold War without actually firing a shot.  In Iraq, we fired a lot of shots, and a lot of people died, and everybody lost.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Sunset on Muir Field After the Big Snowstorm

I took pictures from several angles of the sun setting on Muir Field, Fort Indiantown Gap, Pa., after the big snowstorm.  The angles and blades of a Blackhawk helicopter do wonderful things to the light.  I hope I captured a little of that.

One Soldier's Trash is a Teenager's Treasure!

Yesterday I was walking through the Flight Facility--the big hangar for helicopters--at Fort Indiantown Gap and saw a box lunch sitting on the corner of a recycling bin.  Inside were the various packaged treasures below.

In our household, we do not buy snack food.  Really.  My wife blogs about frugality.  This post for instance. No bags of chips, no cookies, nothing processed and printed with pretty faces.  So while many soldiers simply toss these packaged meals, for my sons they are blessed manna from the Army Gods.

So I brought the box home.  My sons ate it almost instantly.

The Army gives soldiers many benefits--and gives a few to my teenage, snack-limited sons.


Smuckers Peanut Butter &Jelly Potato Skins – Sour Cream & Cheddar Chocolate Chip Cookies Peach Cup Bottled Water Cutlery Kit Moist Towelette

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Armor in the Snow: A Cold Day for Cold War Armor

A year ago, I took pictures of the static display Armor at Fort Indiantown Gap after a snowstorm.  Today I took pictures of the same tanks and howitzers after the big storm.

M203 8-inch howitzer

M42 Duster 40 mm Anti-Aircraft

M60A1 and M46 Patton tanks and M3 Sherman 76mm

M60A1 Patton

M3 Sherman 76mm

M60A1 Patton

M1A1 Abrams

M203 8-inch howitzer

Friday, January 22, 2016

Cold War Reheated: Resurgent Russia and Vladimir Putin

At the end of the Cold War, Russia fell into poverty and almost fell apart.  Whether you date the end of the Cold War as the Fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 or the crumbling of the Soviet Union in 1991, post-Soviet Russia was in a dismal state in the 1990s.  The collapse of government at nearly all levels made Russia a third-world economy with an enormous nuclear arsenal, as well as thousands and thousands of tons of nerve gas in rotting containers in rotting storage facilities.

I just finished reading Steven Lee Myers book "New Czar: Rise and Reign of Vladimir Putin." This excellent book brings together many of the details of the life of the most powerful autocrat on the planet today--and is especially good on how a mid-level KGB agent went from the shadows to the heights of power and to enduring popularity with the Russian people.

Before I say any more about the book itself, reading the book gave me a huge feeling of a lost opportunity.  The circumstances of Putin's rise made me think, "It did not have to turn out this way."

In 1945, Germany was ruin and squalor with every level of government operating on totalitarian principles.  Yet America rode to the rescue with the Marshall Plan and set Germany, at least West Germany, on the road to democracy.  After we spent billions and billions trying to defeat the Soviet totalitarian state, why did we leave it to be run by a drunk selling off the assets of the state to his cronies?

The grinding poverty of the vast majority of Russians coupled with Yeltsin's cronies becoming billionaires put Putin in the presidency and kept him there.  Putin was unknown in 1999 when Yeltsin put him in power.  Ironically one of the reasons for Putin's rise to power was his honesty.  He worked very hard in government and did not take bribes like so many others in government.  Yeltsin put him in the presidency because no one had bought him off.

Myers makes very clear that Putin has been in charge since 2000 and could well continue in power till 2024, or even beyond.  Putin is, as Myers makes clear, on the way to being a new Tsar.  And he is popular.  Even with sanctions and the current crash of oil prices, the average Russian is far better off under Putin than in the 1990s.

Which brings me to another irony I felt reading this book.  The US did not rush in to prop up and bring order to Russia in collapse as we did with post-war Germany and Japan.  Yet in 2003, we went into Iraq saying we could do "nation building" in a state seething with sectarian hatred.

We may have won the Cold War, but the current state of Russia and other former Soviet states says that we lost the peace.  In the depths of its 1990s collapse, Russia was fending off Islamic extremism inside Russia and along its borders.  In the same way Germany became an anchor in the NATO defense of Europe, we could have worked with Russia as a front-line state in the fight against Islamic terror.

Putin was born just seven months before I was.  I grew up in a suburban house near Boston: safe, warm, happy and well-fed.  Putin grew up in the wreckage of Leningrad, arguably the most ravaged city in World War 2, under Nazi siege for almost three years.  Putin grew up hearing stories of the Great Patriotic War and the sacrifices his family, city and nation made to defeat the Nazis.  Putin is a patriot.  Restoring Russia's place as a world leader is and has always been part of his program as president.

A strong Russia could have been, should have been, our ally in the War on Terror.  Myers book is a great read, but it ends on a somber note of repression, deception and the tragedy of an airliner shot down either by Russian soldiers or separatists armed by Russians with advanced missiles.  If Myers writes a sequel in another decade, I hope it is about a Democratic Russia and not a 21st Century Tsarist Russia.  But the trend lines all point to a New Tsar.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Tank Vs. Citroen 2CV: Polezei on German Roads


Versus This:

During the three years I was a tank commander in West Germany during the Cold War, we rolled through towns, down country roads and along the autobahn in miles-long columns.  Our battalion, the 1st-70th Armor, put 54 tanks and nearly 100 support vehicles on the often narrow roads for field training exercises.  

Most of the time, the local drivers fell in line behind our columns and waited for us to get out of the way.  Sometimes they got impatient.  

One night as Bravo Company rolled along a narrow country road near Fulda, a blue Citroen 2CV started passing tanks in the column, swerving back between the tanks to avoid head-on collisions with oncoming traffic.  

You would think it is easy to avoid hitting a tank, but in the dark, the edges of a tank are not clear--no marker lights like a semi.  And the drive sprockets are in the rear of a tank.  The 1750 cubic-inch engine propels the tank through those sprockets.  

Here is a view of the sprocket.  Smoke from the V-12 diesel engine pours through the center grill, obscuring the back of the tank more.

After passing a half-dozen tanks, the driver of the Citroen misjudged the seventh.  He drove into the track at the rear of the tank.  The sprocket tore the front of the car off and flipped the rest of the it into the adjoining farm field.  The column stopped.

Two medics following the column ran to check the driver and passenger of the car.  All columns also had a jeep following with a German and an American officer and a lot of cash ready to pay claims for damage on the spot.  That jeep drove to the crash site.  Within another minute, the Polezei, German police, were at the scene.  The driver of the tank was a mess thinking he was in trouble for the accident.

The Polezei looked at the driver, waved off the settlement officers and the medics and said, "Betrunken."  Drunk.  They marched the driver to their car and took him away and told us to move on.

The driver was drunk.  It was his fault.  We moved on.  No breathalyzers, no legal niceties.  Justice is swift on German roads.