Hint: There is no such thing.
The above image contains some of my decorations. I’ll tell you a dirty secret about combat awards- what you get depends on who saw what and then what they wrote down for Higher. The process is not objective, although the army tries.
A lot of what happened was never recorded or memorialized in any form. The ambiguity that lies behind the medals is thick. Depending on who perceived what was frequently the difference between who was the “hero” and who was not.
In extreme cases, command perception decided who went to jail and who got a shiny medal.
It all comes down to killing, and the manner in which it is done.
I will never be able to describe the feeling you have when you are unleashed upon a lawless wasteland with the power of life or death, held in a black package with a magazine containing thirty rounds of M855 ball.
What it is like to hunt men as if they were deer.
What it is like to catch them and shoot them down.
As a civilian you’d go to jail for decades. In the service it is different.
The business is squalid. I’ve described it in my books, most specifically in the first one. This was directly based on my service in Afghanistan.
My final tour ended. I got back to the ‘States a mess.
Physically and mentally I was shot.
Blast exposure. Blunt force trauma injuries. Hearing loss. Loss of consciousness episodes. Uncontrollable shaking of my extremities.
Then there was the psychological stuff. Bad. The worst were the “intrusive thoughts” that would come at wildly inappropriate times, along with emotional extremes.
Of course the Army threw me to the medical board and retired me. I was “old” and “broken” at the age of thirty-seven.
So I read about what happened amongst the ranks of the Aussie SF guys and I wasn’t surprised. Saddened, but not surprised.
I suspect that this was a command failure, period.
A commander worth his salt would recognize what was developing amongst his troops, and he would halt it with prejudice before “it” could happen.
“It” being shooting prisoners, etc. These acts are curses upon the consciousness, deeds that follow the perpetrators all of their days.
Ghosts are real! They haunt, they follow. You never forget the dead, the screams of the wounded, the resigned look of men who know they will die. These are tormentations that stay, planted front and center upon your soul, your consciousness.
There is no helping the dead. They are gone.
Help must be extended to the living.
I don’t know much about what happened with the soldiers in the Australian SF’s Area of Operations. I was not with them, I don’t know their situation. What I do know is that most of them probably served with honor in tough, horrible situations and now all of them will be subject to an Army investigation and some will be punished.
BTW- if the Australian Army is anything like the US Army, being the subject of an investigation is a terrible thing. And then the courts-martial, the sentences for the guilty.
And all of this could have been prevented by a sharp commander in the field.
Maybe, that is. Because of the ambiguity.
This makes me want to scream.
OK, so I have a few gongs. Whatever. They have never done me any good. And in any case they do not represent what I perceive to have been my finest hour, followed by the low point of my military service.
You see, I could have let my prisoners die.
It would have been so easy. Simple inaction would have doomed them.
My commander made US Army guidance very, very clear, and I had his stern advice to fall back on. Command policy made all the difference!
OK, so we were in a predawn firefight, according to our air cover the first one in all of Afghanistan on that fateful day.
We took casualties.
No one was charitably inclined to the enemy dead and wounded who lay upon the field.
I directed my medic to work upon the captured and wounded enemy after our guys got fixed up. They were a sorry sight. One man was shot seven times, I watched as my medic stuck his entire fist into the hole in his thigh in an attempt to staunch the bleeding.
They screamed. Like rabbits. They flopped. Like fish.
My Afghans decided they needed to finish the job. As the wounded keened, my co-commander spoke.
“We will kill these men.”
I felt the need to piss. I looked him in the eye. This. This was a moment of truth. These were my prisoners. They were under my control, custody and care.
My duty was clear.
“No, you won’t.”
What followed was harrowing. An argument between two heavily armed men who were coming down off of a battle high. The standoff ended with Captain Massood storming away and his men dispersing. The Afghan Police showed up, I handed the bandaged-up and drugged prisoners over to them.
As I watched them being transported away, I felt like a cat losing one of its lives. That was close. Too close.
And then I faced the family of one of the dead insurgents.
Especially because I had pulled the trigger.
You fucking monster, was what I thought.
I was within my rights. Those men were my enemy, and they had tried to kill me. I was right!
It didn’t matter. A ghost floated out of one of the leaking bodies and landed in my head.
Within an hour my finest hour mixed in with the worst.
Some would call the fight that morning a meaningless skirmish in a broader campaign. Insignificant. A clash of less than a hundred men. Light casualties.
I would say you should have been there.
It is too easy for heroism to become mayhem.
The line is fine and razor-sharp.