Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Chapter 29: Boiling a Frog

Waiting is hard, but it is the soldier’s lot. We all knew how to do it. I decided to follow my earlier thoughts and allowed Cpl Maseka to run the ambush. I knew I would have to work hard to suppress my instinct to interfere though so I decided to find a place that would allow me to watch what was happening without interfering too much. Once I had settled myself into a dark shadow at the corner of the building, I took another look around.

The parking lot had a lot less cars than it would have had during the day; a quick count told me there were sixteen. I guessed that the nine or so parked under shade-cloth were Doctors and other staff. From what I had seen of the people waiting in the Emergency Room, I guessed that most of the patients at this time of night had arrived either by foot or by taxi. That reminded me of one of the vulnerabilities that we had, The last thing we needed was more civilians getting caught up in this. Cpl Maseka had positioned some of his soldiers so that they should be able to warn off anyone who got in the way, but it nagged at me as a blind spot. I didn’t like having any variables that I couldn’t control.

I glanced across at the Land Rover, which was parked just around the corner from where I was standing. It was positioned so that it would be out of any potential line of fire. Alina was sitting in the driver’s seat where she could watch me. She wouldn’t be able to see what was happening out in front of the hospital; her job was simply to start the Land Rover on my signal and then scoot out of the seat to allow me to jump in. I peered over and saw a vague blob through the window, so I gave her a reassuring wave.

I had long since learnt how to keep awake and alert at night, and my particular trick was to make sure that I was on my feet. For some reason, when the pre-combat nervousness hit me, I would fall asleep. Just drop off with no warning or nodding, and it happened irrespective of any of the normal tricks. Being cold or uncomfortable was no help. The only thing that worked was being on my feet and making my brain work on all the angles. Thinking about all the possible variations of what could happen so that when something did happen, and the plan went awry, I would have already thought through a whole slew of variations from which I could pick and choose in the middle of the chaos.

This was something that it was extremely difficult to teach young leaders; NO plan survives contact with the enemy. Not even close. My own theory about the ‘Fog of War’ was that it was a mental fog. The battlefield smoke and noise did contribute of course, but an agile brain could deal with that simply enough by knowing where all the elements were and constantly updating that mental map as the battle progressed, both from radio reports and from knowing the terrain and the expected actions of the unit. This presupposed that the unit had drilled sufficiently in training that they would follow the standard operating procedures by instinct. The radio reports, in a good unit, should be simply to update the commander on variations on those drills.

The real fog was the natural reaction of most people to being confronted with combat, especially in a leadership role. Their brains would refuse to process the information in coherent way. I had seen it too often to doubt it. It was something that we could only guess at by making training as realistic as possible, but the reality often overwhelmed even those who did well in training. There were some who operated well in those situations. I had discovered I was one of them and I expended extraordinary effort to identify others that were the same. These were people who didn’t block out the sensory over-load, but who thrived in the input; who were able to take it all in and process it in split seconds to form a coherent picture of what was going on, and then were able make decisions based on that information and convey those decisions as orders to their subordinates in a clear and concise manner so that they were understood. The few exceptional ones were the ones that got obeyed, instantly and without question, in the middle of the battle. There was something in the voice or attitude of those that conveyed itself almost magically to the soldiers around them and under their command.

Sgt Major Dhlamini was not such a leader. He was a very, very good senior NCO, but not what I looked for in this context. Cpl Maseka was. I had y eye on him for a commission. The rule was that he had to be promoted to full Sergeant though before he could be sent on Officer’s Formative training, but that was, as far as I was concerned, a formality. I was just waiting for the signal from Army HQ confirming his promotion so that I could send him to start the process of gaining a commission.

All these thoughts and more swirled through my mind as I weighed the possible actions of each of the soldiers waiting in the dark, and postulated those of the enemy that we expected. In some ways, I thought it might be considered over-kill to plan and think through everything so obsessively, but it takes more time to describe than to do. The process of tactical evaluation was both a skill and an art, and it needed to be practised constantly to hone it. I had taught myself to evaluate things around me constantly in these terms, and it was a process that ran as a sub-routine of my brain during almost every waking moment, so while my surface thoughts were considering whether Cpl Maseka and his men would react as I expected them to, and if Cpl Maseka himself would lead them in the way that I hoped he would, my brain had been busy watching and evaluating the scene constantly.

I suddenly came on full alert as I saw a car turn into the parking lot. I was pretty sure that this was the car we were expecting, and a quick glance at Cpl Maseka confirmed that he thought the same, but what had caught my attention was a car that had been second in the queue behind the one turning in which had coasted to a stop next to the road before the entrance.

My adrenalin suddenly kicked me into high gear. I turned and signalled to Alina as I ran towards the Land Rover. I hadn’t consciously processed all the information yet, I just knew that something was very wrong.

I grabbed onto the Land Rover door and barely touched the driver’s door step on my way into the seat. Alina had barely cleared the seat before I was stomping on the accelerator and hitting the switch that turned on the row of spot-lights on the roof-rack. In the sudden glare of light, it became obvious that the second car was filled with ‘muscle types’ as I was staring into the barrels of at least three rifles. By the time the deep sounding chatter of weapons on automatic informed me that we were being shot at with AK’s, the Land Rover was three-quarters of the way across the parking lot. I spared a micro-second to glance at Cpl Maseka and his helper, and saw that they had taken cover behind a row of cars, before the Land Rover ramped right over the curb dividing the parking lot from the street. The next second, the bull-bar in the front of the Land Rover had caught the sedan car right in the centre of mass, across the driver and rear passenger doors, and was shoving it bodily across the road. I shifted down a gear and floored the accelerator again, but in my haste I had selected the wrong gear and the Landy stalled.

The car I had hit was tilted up at about fourty-five degrees on two wheels and the gun-men who had been shooting at us had been thrown back into the interior of the car. I grabbed the hand-brake and pulled it up to hold the Landy in place, then pulled my hand-gun and jumped out of my door.

As I advanced cautiously around the front of the mortally wounded car, with my weapon held out in front of me in the approved two-handed grip, I could see that I had been spectacularly successful. I could see the driver through the front wind-screen of the car and it as clear from the angle of his head that he was no longer a threat. The passenger side of the front wind-screen had been shot out and there was blood and gore all over the front bonnet. It took me a second to realise that one of the shooters in the back seat must have been firing when we hit and hadn’t stopped. ‘Own Goal’ I thought smugly to myself. Just as I was about to pat myself on the back, I saw movement to my left and swung my fire-arm to cover it. Before I could even get my weapon around, I was startled by the sound of two shots going off in rapid succession, and I saw one of the shooters who had obviously got out of the car, going down. I glanced further left and was surprised to see that Daise was standing in the Landy’s passenger doorway with her weapon extended and obviously looking for more targets.

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