October 6, 2009

W. J. Prescott

You Hear It

The rumbling of artillery fire passing overhead, the sharp crack of a small-caliber projectile just missing you, the trembling roar of the exploding shell, the scream of agony, the filthy joke, the ugly language, the laugh of amusement, the hysterical laugh, the frightened laugh, the reassuring laugh; someone whistling, singing, whispering, yelling, and the slur of a drunk.

You hear the clatter of the tank, the whine of the shell, the cough of the mortar, the hiss of the flame thrower, the burp of the machine gun, the tinkling of glass and the silence, the loudness of the silence.

Shots in the distance, shots nearby, orders being shouted; complaining, excited voices, soothing voices, calm voices, and incoherent voices. You will hear the screech of an airplane, the throbbing of its guns, the impact of its droppings, the indescribable sound of a plane "going in," and again the silence.

An explosion followed by the tumbling debris of a building, the wail of a child, or of a hysterical woman, of an old man, of a frightened animal, and you will hear yourself curse, pray, then curse again.

You will hear the sucking wound you can't stop, names at mail call and the boasting about the letter they have just received; false fronts of indifference regarding a Dear John, yells of pride, curses of hate and words of hurt; talk of women, of the Old Man, of the Lieutenant, the Sergeant, of the man who didn't make it through yesterday, of his effects and what they found, of the censoring officer who mixed up some letters; of going home, being cold, hot, wet, hungry, thirsty and tired.

You hear boots sloshing in the mud, boots dragged along in the dust; moaning in the aid station, the quiet orders of the doctor, the urgent yell for "Doc!" and the radio operator desperately attempting to establish contact; noise so loud it hurts your teeth, silence so loud it hurts your ears; a bird singing, a cricket chirping, a dog barking, a vehicle roaring into life; the patter of rain, the sinking of a tent peg, a portable radio broadcasting the news, an ex-radio man interpreting the static as short-wave letters, sounds that are not there, and be prepared to hear this every minute for years, then brush it aside as though it just simply didn't exist.

—From "Combat: It Insults the Senses" in Army Magazine, December 1965


Lt. Col. W.J. Prescott, an Army combat veteran and instructor, wrote of war's assault on the senses after being asked countless times by inexperienced young officers, "Help me prepare for war."

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