The Fog of War

Have you heard that term? It’s used to describe the way things can’t be perfectly remembered after a combat event. Battle in actual combat compresses time, it makes events seem longer or shorter than they really are. Events become hazy afterwards, especially when confronted with either the actual timeline of the event or the event itself.

I’ve experienced it as an aircrewman during a potential event during the Bosnia conflict. We were flying patrol in the Adriatic and were a P-3 loaded out with live torpedoes and ‘Rockeye’ cluster bombs on the wings. (Cluster munitions have since been outlawed by international law) Our mission was to patrol a particular area, rig ships (rigging ships was flying about 200 feet off the water and make multiple passes to photograph the ship, identify it and verify they were allowed to pass and not running a blockade).

One night, we rigged a ship and radioed it on international marine VHF channels to identify itself. Nothing. Requested again. Nothing. Another request. “Unidentified ship being overflown by US Navy P-3, identify yourself immediately or risk being fired on.” Nothing. Shit.

We had trained over and over for this minute. This very next 3 minutes to be exact. We had done this on ranges far and wide, with countless practice bombs and torps being dropped. We were ready. We were trained.

Until that minute. Pilot: “Weapons prosecution checklist.” Altitude, airspeed for weapon, weapons armed, confirmation to fire, weapons release switch, uncovered. (There is no trigger). Racetrack turn to intercept course, airspeed, weapons free…”Radio, make one last attempt to raise him on the radio” “Unidentified ship being approached by US Navy P-3 aircraft, I say one last time, identify or we will fire upon you.”

My job, as the Flight Engineer up front with the pilots, was to first maintain awareness of the engines, systems and to set airspeed at the required speed for the weapons, then to arm the wing racks and bomb bay doors on command. I was sweating and while my actions were automatic (as they should be since I was trained to do this) my mind was thinking about the human lives I was about to be accountable for taking. It is a sobering thought and time truly seemed to stand still.

It felt like hours. We were approaching at 300 knots and the pilot had his finger on the release switch. 1000 pounds of death from above was about to rain down on this ship in the night. At that point, I had to surrender my thoughts and focus on my job.

At literally the last seconds, the ship radioed back a response and identified itself. The Captain explained they had a radio issue and were about to fire a signal flare to alert us of their intentions and identity. We unarmed, climbed to altitude and continued our patrol.

The rest of that flight was very quiet. None of the typical skylarking and bullshitting and certainly none of our typical bravado. We had experienced the fog of war and all realized how close we came to taking what would have been innocent lives.

I would go on to fly 1000s of more hours, and I’d engage again in hostile action and would indeed wind up firing and taking lives. But that’s another story.

We’ve heard the term ‘fog of war’ thrown around a lot lately, and we’ll hear it more with current events. A lot use it as an excuse for actions they don’t want to be accountable for and for bad decisions that are made. I don’t. It’s a fog when time compresses, it’s a fog when you have to stare through moral implications to do your job and follow your training. It’s a fog when you walk away and carry those memories with you for the rest of your life.

Semper Fortis

Chief Chuck