The Firing Line

by Richard Dieterle

I have been pretty free about describing my short comings and failures of nerve, but I am not a particularly simple person, and have had my better moments as well. The relationship between war and æsthetics might seem to be a very dim subject, or no subject at all, inasmuch as no common element might be seen to answer to it, but in American culture all moral qualities are tinctured with some element of style. The moral worth of actions are often evaluated in terms of "cool" and "uncool," which concepts are native to the æsthetics of music and physical appearance. In the end, it is not so much what you do as how you do it. I myself had always admired the English officer's style in combat, at least as it was conducted in the last century; that is, the calm, unperturbed demeanor, the willingness to stand calmly in a conspicuous position while under heavy fire. This used to be imitated by American officers in the Civil War, but had since gradually faded away.

I remember one day we were acting as a blocking force on the other side of a village that was being "swept" by the ARVNs. We were some distance from its edge, separated by a large field covered in short green grass. The village was about 120 yards distant. We were on a slight rise in an area covered by this same short green grass, where there was very little cover. While we were practically milling about, all of a sudden the village erupted in small arms fire, with bullets sizzling all over the place. Everybody but me hit the ground behind the nearest piece of shelter they could find, which in this terrain was not much anyway. I, on the other hand, put my hands behind my back and remained standing. I strolled a little way in one direction, then turned and slowly paced back again, just like I fancied myself to be the Duke of Marlborough. The guys on the ground rolled on their side and angrily yelled, "Get down! Get down!" not so much from concern for my safety, but from jealousy that they were lying on the ground while I was standing up. Their style was inferior, although they were perfectly justified in being on the ground. I had always wanted to experience the firing line, which had gone out with the War Between the States, and this was certainly very much like it. The bullets came in droves, but they were generally high. I considered that I had a pretty good probability of escaping intact, but if everybody had done it, then the probability would actually favor someone getting shot. Such in truth was the firing line, as the incoming rounds actually produced few casualties on any given command to fire, but if the firing went on for awhile, then it began to have a telling effect.

The English style has dignity, the precise thing most lacking in ground-hugging. Once an Englishman who had been through some of the heaviest bombing in the blitz, had been asked how he had been able to act with such calm and dignity during it all, and he replied that he thought that he had simply lacked imagination. Had he allowed himself to dwell on what it might feel like to have a ceiling or wall collapse on top of him, or what it might feel like to have a piece of bomb shrapnel rip through his intestines, he might not have acted with such reserve. I know that I was concentrating on how grand it felt to stand the firing line and to strut about like a peacock while danger literally hung in the air. If I had taken a moment to reflect on what it would feel like to have a bullet smash my jaw and exit out the other side, I might have forsaken the joy of composure for a more realistic attitude. Now in my sober old age, I am more inclined to think that had I been struck with a round that tore my flesh and shattered the bone, I would have howled like a kerosene-soaked mongrel lit on fire by a blow-torch. The dignity of that is hard to assess, but the æsthetics are not.