The Roller Coaster of War
Inside the combat experience.


George Washington himself once wrote, “I have heard the bullets whistle; and believe me, there is something charming in the sound.” And Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee said, “It is well that war is so terrible, lest we grow too fond of it.”

Then there is fear in combat: The fear level is often high in the days prior to moving into a combat zone for the first time. It is often less in the moments just before moving into action for the first time and even after initial contact. Then for many, the fear increases after the novelty of combat wears off, and the horror of losses and danger set in.

As I explained on “The Tank,” everyone is afraid of something at some time, but fear in combat may be managed and channeled into battlefield effectiveness, enabling soldiers to maintain focus and a greater sense of operational security.

It is interesting, however, when we realize the things that frighten us most in the most dangerous circumstances, are often not the physical dangers we are actually facing at the moment.

War correspondent Janine Di Giovanni described to me her greatest fears while covering the February 2000 fall of Grozny during the war in Chechnya: “I was sure I was going to die, and I was not yet a mother,” she said. “I remember saying my prayers that night. I knew I had lived a good life, so I was fine with that. My only concern was that I was not going to be able to get my story out. No one would actually know the evil things that had happened in that village.”

As for me, my single greatest fear in Iraq was that I would lose my Internet signal, and like Di Giovanni, not be able to get my story out.

A former U.S. Marine infantry leader, W. Thomas Smith Jr. writes about military issues and has covered war in the Balkans, on the West Bank, and in Iraq. He is the author of six books, and his articles appear in a variety of publications.


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