Monday, January 21, 2013

Holy Foxes

When you're told to dig a foxhole the first thing that comes to your mind is the simple joy that you won't be marching anymore that day. Then the realization that you have hours of a different kind of manual labor sinks in as small shovelfuls of dirt begin to pile up. That was my perspective because, thankfully, I never had to dig one under enemy fire.

In movies, you rarely see the actual process. In movies you may see a few shovel fulls of dirt representing what can be an hours long process. In some ways it feels like digging your own grave while at the same time trying to make a way to save your skin.

Foxholes are defensive positions where you use the ground itself as protection from enemy sight and weapons. There are lots of rules about digging them. Simple holes they are not. If you have time to consider the terrain you are in and where the potential enemy fire might be coming from, you think in terms of intersecting lines of fire, placing each hole in your unit at tactically important locations allowing you to see and protect each other.

Foxholes are not all dug at once. Depending upon the conditions, the hole may be just deep enough to cover your body while you are lying down. If you plan to stay awhile, you dig deeper until your whole body can be under the surface of the earth. Room for grenade sumps at the bottom, slopes to allow water to drain, stones and sticks placed to give you a firm footing and avoid wet feet are just a few of the features one can add. For longer stays, you may even dig trenches to connect holes together allowing movement. Sandbags can add some height. Local fauna can provide camouflage to hide from prying eyes.

In modern warfare you need to be aware of body heat from infrared signatures; both by line of site on the ground and from aircraft and satellites looking down on your position. You must attempt to break up patterns formed by heat and shape so that eyes can not sense your presence. Finding ways to comfortably locate weapons for stable, secure and accurate firing positions becomes a temporary obsession of the foxhole maker.

Often there are only two or three of you in any given hole. If you are lucky you only spend a few hours in the hole as you take turns sitting farther away from the front line. If you are unlucky you remain in the hole for days, with breaks only to relieve your bodily functions or fetch some chow. Never being able to lay down, sleep is rare treasure.

Spending hours in a hole in the ground with other men gives plenty of time to talk. Conversation passes the time. You get to know each other very well in such close quarters. Body odors, physical quirks, and breathing patterns are the least of the intimacies shared. Quiet whispers are the sweet relief that keep you alert to what is going on in the world outside your hole. You share things about yourself no lover or parent will ever know. This time of bonding can be crucial to building mutual trust.

From personal experience, I can say there are many myths about these inglorious holes. I've spent nights talking with atheists in foxholes. Anyone who tells you it doesn't happen hasn't been in one. Members of my platoon were gay, but that didn't matter to any of us. We all knew each other and the idea that sexual politics of any kind mattered seems silly. Questions of religion, race, creed, sexuality, were meaningless for those who must have trust. We had to trust each other. We had to have each other's back. And we did.

One thing I did notice in foxholes. There were no corporations. I knew no rich man's son there, only us middle class and poor. We were volunteers slammed together at random. Some of us hoped to get college degrees with money provided by the government after service. Others were making a career of the army and this was just part of the job. A few where running away from bad homes or lives. One man from a foreign land had volunteered so he could become a citizen and move his family to our fair land. I even know one private who had a choice of joining the army or going to jail. While I guess we were all patriotic, we didn't talk about that much.
Any soldier who has been in a foxhole, knows of dirt. He knows of “hurry up and wait”. Of filthy hands and sweaty feet. Of frozen cold fingers and sweat streaming down his back. Of hours upon endless hours of boredom. Foxholes are unpleasant.

Whenever I see a soldier now, so many years on, the first thing I see is who they might be in a hole next to me. A kind of special respect, of brotherly love fills my soul. For this, I always try to make sure I tell them “thank you”. Thank you for digging the holes where none of us want to go. Thank you for your service where no one can see. Thank you for making me be in the land of the free.

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