Category Archives: military

The Angle

Chuck Wendig’s latest challenge is 1000 words of action. I pride myself on my action, it’s one thing I think I do pretty good with, but Chuck’s further injunction to make it a story caused me to hesitate. I’m not so good turning short fiction into a tale with a beginning, middle and end. I fumbled around with a couple of ideas, but nothing stuck.

But then….

I have been reading Ralph Peters’ Hell or Richmond about the Union’s 1864 invasion of Virginia during the Civil War. Peters does a good job conveying the horror of the campaign. This was where and when warfare changed from occasional battles and armies maneuvering for advantage to constant battle and victory through attrition. The fighting prefigured the slaughter of World War I (too bad nobody in Europe was paying attention). One of the worst battles in this campaign occurred on May 12th to 13th, 1864, as part of Hancock’s assault on the Confederate salient known as the Mule Shoe. A Union division moving in to support Hancock hit the Confederate lines on the western side of the salient, and for about twenty-one hours a two hundred yard section of the line was turned into possibly the most savage slaughter-pen ever seen on the North American continent. Ever since it has been called “The Bloody Angle”, which is actually a mild term, considering what happened there.

Thinking about the Angle, I realized I had something I could write, although I will leave it to others to judge if it works as a story.

Warning: this is possibly the most graphic action piece I have ever written. It contains extreme violence and images. Even so, I probably didn’t really capture the essence of what happened at the Angle. I doubt mere words could.

Copyright 2014 Douglas Daniel
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Timothy crawled.

Screams, thunder, darkness, fire. Curses from men pushing forward, howls of pain from men falling, lances of flame as rifles went off in men’s faces. Rain.

Timothy pulled himself forward. He couldn’t see more than a yard; the rain was coming down so hard that each drop threw up a spray of mud and water in his face. The feet and legs of soldiers– he wasn’t sure which unit they belonged to– trampled about him, over him, on him. One man, then another, tripped over him and fell, cursing. Timothy fought to keep his head above the mud.

Get away from the works. He knew, in his bowels, if he stayed here he would be trampled down and out of existence, like a dog in the middle of a road. Thousands of men were coming on behind the first wave, all cramming into this little section of the line. Along the enemy line, rifles raised as clubs swung downward, the sound of skulls cracking like gourds beneath a hammer. Indistinct forms of men struggled and stabbed one another.

Get away.

Each time he pulled himself forward agony ran through his arm and leg like electric fire. He’d already puked from it, a sickness unnoticed in the muck all around him. His leg had been shot through; he couldn’t stand on it. Even if he could have, he wouldn’t– the air whined thick with Minie balls. Men charging forward were hit more times than Timothy’s distracted brain could count. Some of them just came apart.

His arm– the worst pain of all– dragged useless at his side. He’d been hit twice there. The ends of the shattered bone grated on each other.

Over the thunder and the gunfire, the shouts and cries of pain, Timothy heard officers urging men forward. It was if they spoke a strange language, pointless in its babble. There was no order here. It was some savage corner of existence where the normal laws of life were abolished.

More trampling feet– some soldier or another, anonymous in the mass shoving forward, slammed Timothy in the ribs with his brogans. A fresh, white-hot pain shot through him. He gasped, sucking in mud and rainwater, coughed them back out, making the pain flash through him again. Ribs. It would have been almost adding insult to injury, if it hadn’t hurt so much.

Weeping, his salt tears unnoticed in the rain that soaked him, he crawled on. Every inch was purchased with agony. More men stumbled over him. Was he invisible? Was he already dead? No, death would surely mean the end of pain, and pain was his present reality.

Mud in his eyes– he tried to shake his head to clear them. At the moment a shell burst high above him in the tree-tops. Bright light and a crack beyond thunder, and the tree came down, crushing men beneath it. One man was speared right through by a branch and pinned to the earth, where he writhed like a bug on a pin.

Out of the rain, a captain appeared, waving his sword, urging men forward. A volley tore the top of his head off. The officer fell right on top of Timothy. Blood and brains spilled over him; Timothy hardly noticed, as the officer’s weight crushed him into the mud. Every one of his wounds shrieked. Timothy, for just a moment, knew nothing but a white haze of pain.

He came to with muck choking his nose and mouth. He got his head up, spat it out, gasped for air. He tasted dirt and water and blood.

For a moment, the dead captain pressing him down, the feet of other men trampling him into the mud, Timothy knew he had no more strength. The sounds of the fighting faded. It would be easier, so much easier, just to rest and let it end.

He remembered a garden, a shading tree, the side of a house– Janie, sitting on that bench behind her mother’s house as he proposed to her. She had looked beautiful then. She had always looked beautiful to him– it didn’t matter about her nose, and the freckles. Timothy had never minded the little imperfections of a woman who made him want to be a better man.

This will be hard on her. To be a widow; more than that, a widow with a young baby. Clara, born the fall before. In his imagination Clara had her mother’s red hair.

But he had never seen her.

With a scream as much of rage as of pain, Timothy forced himself up on his one good leg and hand. The dead captain rolled off him. Balancing himself with his wounded leg– ignoring the lances of agony this sent through him– he crawled forward, with a sort of odd, lurching motion. The pain this caused him was expected now, reminders that he yet lived. With his unbalanced posture, he was going as much sideways as forward, but he was moving. Soldiers still moving toward the works saw him now, and dodged around him….

…until one of them didn’t, and blundered right into him. The soldier went one way and Timothy the other. He was blinded by more pain as he rolled down a slope, the back side of one of the undulations in the ground they had crossed in their attack. He came to rest on his back.

When he could think again, Timothy realized he was in a pocket of calm. The ground here was just low enough to shield him from enemy fire. Timothy lay panting. He was utterly spent. He could not go another foot. I’m sorry, Janie.

Other wounded lay scattered around this stretch of ground. One boy, who could have not been more than sixteen, lay against a felled tree, holding in his entrails. He gave Timothy a pleading look. Timothy wished he could do something for the lad. But there was nothing more he could do for himself.

He may have lost consciousness then, for it seemed as if a face suddenly appeared before him. It was young, and round, and smooth-cheeked. It took Timothy a moment to realize it was the face of a youth, leaning over him, peering down at him.

“Hey, there, corporal,” the boy said. “You still on this side of the Jordan? So you are, by the Lord God. I was afraid you’d gone on, like those other poor fellows.”

Timothy managed to lift his head and see that the boy wore the uniform of a drummer. “It’s bad out here, corporal, as bad as I ever seen it, and worse. Good thing you managed to crawl down here– can’t go up into the field to get any of the boys, that Reb fire’s cutting men to pieces. But now you just put your trust in the Lord Jesus and Jim Mahaffey. I’m Jim, not Jesus, by the way, just in case you’re confused. Between the two of us we’ll get you out of here.” The boy reached down and got his arm around Timothy’s shoulders.

“You just lean on me,” the boy said.

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Films that inspire me– “Aliens”

Once more, I need you to join me in the Wayback Machine. We’re returning to a distant historical era– the ’70’s. Specifically Fall, 1979, in a small movie theater in a US Army kaserne in Germany. The geeky kid in the Army-issue glasses, about midway down the auditorium, is me. I’m about to watch Alien for the first time.

I didn’t go into this movie cold– I had intentionally spoiled myself at the World Science Fiction Convention in Brighton, England that summer, where there were exhibits and people from the production. (Yes, I am a spoiler junkie. It doesn’t really affect my enjoyment of a movie– or a book, for that matter– and it has saved me from some notable catastrophes). I was therefore forewarned going into a movie I might not have seen otherwise.

Oh, by the way–

***SPOILERS******SPOILERS******SPOILERS******SPOILERS***

I have mentioned before that I do not like horror, and I might have skipped a film that was set up as the sort of horror flick in which a cast of colorful characters gets picked off one-by-one, but its space setting, and the production values associated with it, got my butt in the theater seat. Ridley Scott, in his second directorial effort for film, and the producers Gordon Carroll, David Giler, and Walter Hill, all made a serious effort to create a believable, workaday science-fiction universe in which to tell their story, and discussions about it at the convention had persuaded me this was a film I wanted to see.

I found myself drawn in and held tight by a story that kept you guessing, despite a few flaws in its logic and some actions that did not make complete sense. I was particularly mesmerized by the young actress playing Ripley, who seemed to be the only character who had her head on halfway straight. It was the first time I had ever seen Sigourney Weaver, and I’ve been in love ever since.

(If by this you construe I like skinny, dark-haired women, I would have to say “yes” and ask you what your point is).

I liked the movie so much I watched it three times in a week, no mean feat when movies in the military theater system were usually there and gone before you could blink. I enjoyed the gritty feel of the film, the interactions between the crew, the derelict alien ship, and the spooky Space Jockey. The alien itself was refreshingly, well, alien, and I found I could deal with the horror elements without open weeping (yeah, I’m a wuss). Ripley was largely responsible for that– I was rooting for her from about the seven minute mark in the film. I am so very glad Ridley Scott was talked out of killing her off at the end of the film– the ending in its final form was just about perfect, and was the perfect setup for Aliens.

Fast forward seven years. I am out of the Army, working in California as a baker in a health food bakery (with a cockroach problem– go figure). When I hear that a sequel of Alien is being made, I am interested. When I see the trailers and realize that the second movie has a military flavor, I am very interested.

Aliens opened on July 18, 1986–

Personally, I have to count that date as one of the watersheds of my life.

It is hard for me to overstate the impact this film had on me, and continues to have to this day. It pushed just about every sci-fi action-adventure button I have. Once again the story centered on Ripley, now overwhelmed by the memories of what happened in the first film. At the end of Alien, Ripley is in an escape pod, in suspended animation, hoping to get rescued. Instead, she drifts right through human space and is only found fifty-seven years later. Her story of the destruction of her crew by a supremely vicious alien is not believed, particularly as there have been colonists on LV-426, the planetoid where her crew found the first alien, for many years.

Then contact is lost with LV-426 and Ripley goes with a platoon of Colonial Marines to investigate. Needless to say, things go from bad to worse to utterly catastrophic, except that this time there is visceral satisfaction in the discovery that these aliens (most definitely plural this time) go to pieces quite nicely under heavy munitions. It’s military stupidity and corporate cupidity that get Ripley and the Marines in trouble this time.

In the process Ripley connects with a young survivor of the colony, a shell-shocked little girl called Newt, and their relationship becomes the emotional linchpin of the whole story. When things go really bad, and Newt appears to be lost to the aliens, it is Ripley’s irrational refusal to accept that fact that pushes her, and the story, into a cathartic, and climatic, confrontation.

I enjoy action-adventure films, but I have never been a fan of the sort of action film that seem to exist primarily to showcase explosions and things going fast– I have had zero interest in The Fast and the Furious franchise, and do not get me started on 300 and similar trash. I prefer adventure movies in which something is at stake, and which possess some heart. Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings (particularly The Fellowship of the the Ring), Miyazaki’s Castle in the Sky, and Peter Weir’s Master and Commander are all examples of the sort of adventure film that holds my interest.

For me Aliens is supremely this type of film. Ripley’s struggle to overcome her demons (figurative and literal) is where we start. Slowly she becomes part of an extended family of Marines, and then comes her connection with Newt. At this point Ripley once again has something to lose, and something to protect, and it forces her out of her fear into courage. That’s the best sort of adventure film– not populated by super-beings, but ordinary humans who struggle to overcome obstacles far greater than themselves to preserve something precious, or forestall a horrible evil.

It does not hurt at all that Aliens is one of the most tightly written action films ever, basically keeping you legitimately on the edge of your seat and/or hanging on to the back of the one in front of you the whole way through. To this day, when the second drop-ship is heading straight for the atmosphere processing plant to rescue Newt, I simply cannot sit still.

Looked at another way, Aliens is almost the only great sci-fi military film, for my money the closest anyone has ever come to adapting Heinlein’s Starship Troopers (Verhoeven’s abortion does not count. Uh-uh, sorry). James Cameron, in fact, asked the actors portraying the Marines to read the novel during preparations for filming.

A special edition of the movie, released in 1992, restores seventeen minutes of footage that had been cut from the theatrical release. It’s not an unmixed blessing– it telegraphs things about the colony on LV-426 that had been left as spooky mysteries in the theatrical version. But the special edition works for me because it critically expands Ripley’s character and deepens her relationship with Newt. In the extended version, when Ripley is willing to go into the bowels of her personal nightmare to save Newt, you understand exactly why.

Now, let me balance this all out. I don’t believe Aliens is the greatest science-fiction film ever. There are films with more profound themes and deeper examinations of human nature and the meaning of the universe. Ridley Scott’s Bladerunner (particularly the director’s cut) is certainly a contender for that title. Nor is Aliens absolutely perfect in its execution– some of the characters are not fleshed out (let’s face it, they’re there to be alien-fodder) and some of the plot points don’t quite make sense (if the second drop-ship was available the whole time, why didn’t they call it down at once, instead of waiting for the processing station to start going into overload?). You don’t really notice, though, because the film as a whole just pulls you along and enlists you in the fight these people are waging to survive.

This film is probably a good portion of the reason why I am spoiled for lesser action flicks. When I want to remember how to structure a story that you can’t put down, built around people you give a damn about, I think of Aliens. The first movie script I ever bought (during one of my delusional periods in which I thought I could be a screenwriter) was for Aliens. This film taught me a lot about story and action, and it’s a personal touchstone of quality. I’m almost tempted to say they don’t make movies like this anymore, but I keep hoping….

As for the Alien franchise, it took a nose dive after Aliens with the two subsequent sequels. Re: Alien 3— wretched trash. Do not bother. Alien Resurrection— its got some cute moments, but mostly meh.

(By the way, if the folks who own this property happen to be reading this, I have a concept that will reboot the franchise. Call me. Seriously).

Flash Fiction– A hole in the world

46-02-february-9th-2014

“Damn thing’s gotta be a hundred miles across,” the crew-chief’s voice said in Lucas’ earphones.

The anomaly ahead of them was an open wound in the earth. Reddish-gold light, so unlike the Sun’s, poured out. Lucas kept the chopper’s nose pointed straight at it.

Someone, the crew-chief or the door-gunners, muttered a prayer over the intercom. Brandon, the co-pilot, crossed himself. Lucas remembered a song–

And everywhere that man can be,
Thou, God, art present there.

The last of the Pennsylvania countryside passed underneath them. Then they were over the anomaly. One moment there was earth beneath them, and the next, sky. Sky above, sky below– Lucas fought the sensation of being in a climb, and the impulse to put the chopper’s nose down. Not yet.

The door-gunners charged their weapons. The land inside the anomaly– Lucas could see it now, behind him and at right-angles to his flight path– was dark and green and rolling.

“Committing,” he said, to the crew, and all the world listening. “Hold on.” Now he tipped the chopper’s nose down. There was a moment of vertigo, of stomach-churning redirection, and then the chopper flew straight and level, under the light of an alien sun.

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