The True Meaning of Calling for Combat

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A Review of Charles R. Cawthorn’s Other Clay available on Amazon

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I just finished a slim volume about a young captain of the 29th Infantry Division who went ashore on Omaha Beach in the second wave of D-Day.  On that day he was hit with shrapnel in the face twice but remained in the fight.  A few months later after the slaughter of countless fellow officers he took command of his battalion.  It was a moment of self-doubt for a converted civilian journalist asked to assume the ultimate responsibility for his men – who was to die that day, the next, and the next.

He finally left the battle with a third shrapnel injury prior to the winter of 1944 and the Battle of the Bulge.  After recovery he rejoined the 29th for the final move into Germany in the Spring of 1945.  His regiment traced its roots back to the famous Stonewall Brigade of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia.  As someone who went to Washington & Lee University in Lexington, Virginia and saw Stonewall Jackson’s grave almost everyday on my way to class, I was struck at how shallow we sometimes think about combat.

Jackson’s famous nickname was earned at the First Battle of Bull Run in the opening months of our Civil War.  As the Confederate line began to falter Jackson’s brigade advanced, suffered horrendous casualties, turned back the Union advance, and provided victory to the Confederates.  One of the Confederate generals pointed to the brigade and said “there stands Jackson like a stonewall”.  His victory and his brilliant campaigns until his death in 1863 not only became his moniker, but consigned the United States to four years of carnage on a scale we have never suffered again.

Cawthorn returns over and over throughout his own fight to the history of his battalion of the 29th Division.  Before its ranks were killed and replaced several times in 1944 and 1945 it consisted of Virginians descended from Jackson’s men.  What is fascinating is what Cawthorn focuses on in the Stonewall brigade’s history.  He makes no claim of heroic stands.  He makes no claims of brilliant tactics.

What he is drawn to again and again is the carnage of 1861 to 1865 and the carnage he faces.  The grinding destruction of men and machines.  The intentional and unintentional massacre of French civilians in the pursuit of the defeat of Nazi Germany.

For Cawthorn “stonewall” meant the ability of some troops to withstand the daily bloodletting.  The ability to watch your friends ripped open at the point of the spear of combat.  The ability to advance daily into chaos while broken bodies streamed from the front mixed with cowards avoiding the fight.  To advance into a reality created by man’s worst instincts and failures.

The heroism is not some comic book “stonewall” moment of a singular act, but the unrelenting horror of daily death with no certain end.

So when I hear the Republican candidates in last night’s debate (with the notable exception of Ron Paul) calling for military action in Iran, I hope they understand what they are really saying.  It is ironic those calls in the debate were on the same day that  we held our closing ceremonies in Baghdad.  Closing ceremonies that the Iraqi President and Prime Minister both skipped in the ultimate Iraqi judgment regarding our veterans’ sacrifice.

And if those Republican candidates and the President do not understand, then they should read this slim little volume about the blood and confusion of real combat.

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