Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Being Schooled

I just spent four hours talking with my son. I won’t go into the details, much. But I kept identifying major life lessons in what he was saying. I've rarely gotten specific here with his military position. He was a sniper. One of the things he said was that he could always tell what error a shooter was making by the pattern the shots made on the target. If the shots missed the mark along a vertical plain, the shooter was making a trigger error -- jerking instead of squeezing. If the shots were too high or low, it was a breathing error -- a big sucking gasp up and then the shot. If it was diagonal, a combination of these two. If it was just a random scatter, it was a sighting error. Nobody told him this. He intuited it. I’m sure other people know it. I’m sure competent instructors know it, although none of them told my son. Now you know it.

Or his ghillie suit. That strawman outfit that snipers make, to become invisible. All his classmates would spend hours and hours on getting the jute just right -- strips of cloth. Instructors would spray gaps with orange paint: you have no jute here. No down-scoring -- just pointing out the gaps. My son had the crappiest-looking ghillie suit ever. He laughed about it. But he’d absolutely load it up with veg. The point is to break up the human silhouette. Veg does that. Jute does it less. Orange paint doesn’t matter. Prettiness doesn’t matter. Effectiveness matters. The most effective thing was veg, and it was easy and fast. He got it right, and he got a lot more sleep than the jute weavers. Enough sleep matters more than enough jute. Easy and fast is not always the best thing. Only sometimes. Knowing when is what intelligence is for.

Or target identification. He'd have to make a sketch of some large building, and with a scope from hundreds of meters away identify military objects placed randomly around the site. A bullet on a windowsill, say. Ten objects, and you aren't told what they are. Very hard test, but you could list as many objects as you wanted. No down-scoring. "A black cylindrical object aprox. 3 cm. long, 1 wide, on right side of third step of main entrance." Most guys would list only ten objects, and fail. My son would list every object he could see that was questionable. Lots of misses, and all the hits. Perfect score. See? Play the game by the rules. Which means exploit the rules to their full, fair value.

Or distance estimation. I’m forgetting the terminology. But he had to estimate the distance of a human target. Is he 600 meters out? 800? 400? They’re allowed a 15% error for naked-eye estimations. So he didn’t try to guess the distance. He estimated the range. If it’s about 1000 meters, he’d ask himself, Is that about 850 meters? Nah, looks more than that. 1000? Could be. 1100? Could be. Call it 1050. He scored a hundred percent -- sometimes spot on, sometimes on the margin, but in the range.

Or enemy mortar fire into the FOB. A blaring alarum would sound, a ceaseless blaaaaa blaaaaa blaaaaa. It was more frightening than the explosions. How like life. Our fear is more troublesome than real danger. Nothing you can do about the danger. It’s just there. Fear is how you feel, though. My son is just like me, in this understanding. He’d be eating in the DFAC and the alarms would sound and everyone would race outside, and he’d just stay and finish his meal. How does changing your location reduce the danger? They’re not running to some shelter -- just outside. See? It’s not fatalism. It’s an understanding of risks. And if someone was hit by mortar fire -- everyone would run to the victim. Understandable, but a crowd is not helpful, and now that the enemy has the range, isn’t that crowd a good target? Not quite how it worked, since mortar fire is just random, but the principle is there. Crowds are not necessary.

Just one after the other, he was annunciating these profound truths, these life-lessons, through simple specifics. I was sitting there thinking, there’s a book in this. Not for me to write, but there is one. I was wishing I could take notes, but that’s not what it was about. That’s one of those simple specifics that I’ve gotten right. Listen to your son’s stories. It’s one of the ways we show our love and our respect.

He has hundreds of fascinating stories. Tragic, horrific, fascinating, heroic. Like what life is about. You'll have to read the book though. Or write your own.


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