Before now poetry has taken notice
Of wars, and what are wars but politics
Transformed from chronic to acute and bloody?
from "Build Soil"
Robert Frost

Monday, July 28, 2008


It’s Day #2 of Annual Training- that two week part of the “Just 1 weekend a month, 2 weeks a year!” that the US Army Reserve Component promises new recruits with dreams of playing soldier. Never minding, of course, those few odd years when there’s a war on.

Tomorrow is the first day of “real training”- today and yesterday have been administrative-heavy with settling in to living quarters and sorting out the rush of confusion that accompanies shipping hundreds of men and tons of equipment to a base hundreds of miles away from home.

Tomorrow is Demolition Day- the best day of the training cycle by far, and the main reason I became a Combat Engineer. I asked the recruiter what Army jobs dealt with explosives; she answered Combat Engineer and Explosives Ordnance Disposal. My nascent impression of the distinction was that Engineers blew stuff up, while EOD neutralized bombs that tried to blow them up. Since I didn’t want to go looking for trouble and get blown up in the process, I decided to join as an engineer. I’ll leave the irony to the reader.

Combat Engineers live for demo. There’s a sense of raw power when dealing with blocks of C4 and loops of detonating cord. There’s a downside, too- most of us can’t watch modern action movies without comment. Grenades don’t explode into fireballs, and a small satchel charge of plastic explosive won’t bring down a large building no matter how well placed.

On the other hand, we learn how much C4 it takes to cut through how much steel; how much Composition H it takes to blast impassable craters into roads, and how detonating cord explodes at 25,000 feet per second- fast enough to race in a straight line from Los Angeles to New York in minutes.

On a night like tonight, we talk about intangibles and wishlists, too. How cool would it be to blow up the old tank that’s sitting out on the range? Better yet, how about we take our blocks of C4 and spools of detonator caps and fuse and teach a class on “field-expedient” demo- the way simple cross-sections of steel with plastic explosive on the back can become simple shaped charges with many times the destructive power of the explosive alone?

I’ve heard older soldiers, experienced with more supplies and less oversight, talk about the way a military shaped charge, when tipped on its side, will send a superheated ball of metal plasma skipping across the desert. If that’s true, could we have shaped charge races? First plasma ball to the end of the valley wins?

Of course we won’t try it… there’s too many high ranking officers and NCOs around who would take an extraordinarily dim view of the proceedings. Still, there’s a lot of improvised demo that is ok, because the Army Field Manual on such makes it so. I know of at least 9 different ways to open a locked door with nothing more than detonating cord, tape, and hard rubber or spare intravenous solution bags. Some are so gentle they remove little more than a doorknob- others will tear a steel fire door off its hinges and send it into the back wall of the building. I can stand within a few meters of them all.

Really, when you think about it, it’s little wonder that former combat engineers are on the short list of people for the FBI to talk to when something explodes.