By Shannon Bond
The heels of our boots strike a cadence on the old concrete flight line and my heart pounds like Thor’s hammer against the inside of my body armor. I adjust the camera strapped to my chest. The city is burning and, from what I’ve been told, we’re heading toward a firefight. Our photographers are embedding with each National Guard unit as they support civilian police. This is to document events, of course, but these images won’t make their way into the National Archives any time soon. These images will help fend off litigation. We are here to prove that the soldiers and airmen in the National Guard are doing their jobs professionally and without excessive force.
My muscles protest and joints ache as I stride along. It’s not just the age of a senior NCO catching up with me, like everyone else, I’ve been awake for more than thirty hours. Normally, I would be in the control center running the photo support operation, but all the other photographers are out, and they need someone to go with the last Quick Reaction Force. So, I handed my notes to a nearby captain and slid into my battle rattle.
I don’t know exactly where this QRF is headed but I’ve been coordinating with the four Tactical Operation Centers, or TOCs, since we got here, so I have a sense of where the trouble spots are. And the intel we have says there may be an armed group causing trouble. QRFs, as I understand them, do more than crowd control. They are designed to respond to serious threats.
A few days ago, or maybe longer, it’s hard to tell, the public affairs officer setting up this media operation called me while I was sitting in my office back in real life. Ironically, I was in a crisis communications course. Naturally, I had been keeping track of the civil unrest on television like everyone else. That’s the complex part about the Air National Guard, we’re your neighbors and friends. Putting on the camouflage uniform doesn’t change that.
One of the first things out of the officer’s mouth during the phone call was, “I need a senior NCO to come and un-fuck this cluster.” I knew him from before and appreciated his dry wit and his understanding of what senior NCOs were for. When I arrived, I discovered how much of a cluster it was. But most clusters can be un-fucked by looking around with a fresh eye and breaking down complicated goals into the simplest tasks. Then, put the right people on those tasks. To detangle this cluster, I had to connect with the crowd control units and QRFs, so I knew where they were going, why, and when.
Each morning I’ve been gathering my junior NCOs and taking them on what I call a TOC walk. The TOCs are spread out across the abandoned airbase we’re occupying. They are tiny rooms crammed with over-caffeinated soldiers and maps that cover entire walls. These maps divide the metro area into “battle spaces” with different units covering different areas. We are trying to keep people and property safe, and I know it’s just a term to organize operational space, but I feel a sense of foreboding when I see large maps of an American city labeled with “battle space.” I also wonder why nobody else in the room has this reservation.
I tell the commanders that using this term may be problematic, even if it is just within the TOCs. I imagine the term fashioned into a dramatic graphic, splashed across a news broadcast as a serious anchor talks about how the National Guard is dividing cities into battle zones. The commanders brush me aside and tell me that this is how it’s done. That was days ago, or was it this morning?
We’ve been quietly moving our National Guard troops into the abandoned air base on the edge of the city, a truck at a time. I’m not sure exactly how many of us are here, but the base is full, and it looks like thousands to me. The media thinks there are only five hundred of us in these dusty old hangers. It’s a convenient spot to set up shop because the base fell victim to BRAC a few years ago.
BRAC, otherwise known as the Base Realignment and Closure process, is a method the Department of Defense uses to allegedly create a more efficient and effective force. From what I’ve seen from the bottom of the rank pile, it involves a lot of plotting and scheming between Congress, DoD, and commanders. Minute to minute, it’s hard to tell what political motives move such large cogs.
As we make our way through the night, the QRF’s First Sergeant, or Top as the Army calls them, is telling me what he knows about the situation, which isn’t much. It’s something about a threat from an armed group and a possible firefight. I look to the horizon again, as I’ve done a dozen times tonight, to the massive cloud of smoke glowing red in the distance. Congress shall make no law that prohibits the people from peaceably assembling or petitioning the government for a redress of grievances. Or something like that, I haven’t had a political science class in a long time, but I know it’s important to protect people’s right to protest.
As I look at the skyline, lit up by the flames from burning buildings, I wonder what kind of redress this is. Are the protest organizers asking their followers to set local businesses on fire? I doubt it. I find it difficult to understand why anyone would loot local businesses in their own community when a jury’s verdict angers them. But, I’m not close enough to the issue to understand all the nuances and grievances, so I don’t pretend to. I just want to keep people safe and tell their story.
The National Guard wants me to take pictures and keep them out of trouble. They also want to make sure the soldiers and airmen are staying professional. That’s probably fair as long as we provide the images, no matter what they portray. And if they don’t, that’s what the Freedom of Information Act is for.
When we finally reach our destination, we find the QRF commander, a captain, probably in his 30s, with hard features and sharp eyes, standing in an abandoned barracks surrounded by his squad leaders. One of them is pacing back and forth. He looks at me and asks if he should bring his tomahawk. He wonders, out loud, if he’ll get to scalp a motherfucker. He asks me if I think someone will put this on YouTube. I don’t think so, I tell him. YouTube probably doesn’t let people post content like that, but I’m not sure. I am sure he’s just trying to psyche himself up if there is a firefight coming.
This unit does not provide crowd control. These men, as far as I know, are war fighters recently returned from a year overseas. If there is a firefight, that’s a good thing for me, especially since I’m not armed. I focus in on the commander who is complaining about the military police running the operation. His men gather around him. Apparently, the MPs have reduced munitions and hindered combat effectiveness. I don’t think the MPs see this as a combat mission.
MPs aren’t built out of the same training as the men in front of me. Each Guardsman listening to the commander has some type of combat patch on his shoulder and an M4 rifle slung across his chest. I think about the camera strapped to my own chest and wish it was an M4. I don’t think any of them will trade though. My heart continues to crash against my heavy body armor as if trying to escape. I steel my expression and stare at the hard-faced commander as he continues. I wonder what he does in real life? Maybe he’s a teacher or an HVAC technician.
The commander calls in his supply officer, a lanky kid in his mid-twenties, and explains that if he radios in with a codeword, how about “broken arrow,” he says, the officer is to send every Goddamn troop they have left with every Goddamn round and heavy weapon they have. He’ll be damned if his men are going to die in this city because the MPs don’t know how to run a fucking operation. To save his soldiers and protect civilian life, he says, he’s more than willing to go to prison.
The supply officer nods, and the squad leaders separate, waiting for the go order. The commander sinks down against a wall and stares straight ahead with his fingers clasped around the neckline of his armor. One of the squad leaders paces, the one with the tomahawk, trying to rally the confidence it will take to deal with the moments to come. Maybe he’s an I.T. help desk guy on the outside, that would explain the anxiety. I mean, that and the armed threat we’re responding to, the city burning and rioters looting and smashing businesses.
We finally make our way into the frigid night and I find myself standing in front of three squads of laser-focused warriors. In their line of work, they have to be focused. They have to be warriors, even if their day job is at the local coffee shop or shoe store. I look into their youthful faces and imagine half of them sitting in class at the local university.
Top jumps on a loading dock in front of the ranks. “This is sergeant so-and-so,” he says, pointing to me. “He’s combat camera, he’s one of us, don’t fuck with him.” I am not combat camera, I’m a photojournalist. Most people don’t even know that’s a job in the Air National Guard. Some soldiers look at me. I’m wearing a different uniform covered with Air Force insignia. I’m an alien to them, but they see me through Top’s eyes.
After the briefing I follow Top and the commander to the Humvee in the center of the convoy. Top is giving me instructions as we mount up. “If our vehicle is disabled in route,” he says, “or while engaging the enemy,” which will be American citizens, I think, “we’ll regroup on something-or-other street,” he says in a steady voice full of gravel. I don’t catch the street name, it’s hard to focus on the details as I lift myself into the Humvee.
Surely the intel is wrong. We won’t run into any kind of organized attack on American soil, even if the protests are highly organized and flooded with people from across the country. Protests are something we should protect, they are a unified voice of frustration about equality and injustice, at least during the day they are. It’s hard to imagine the scene by firelight as the buildings burn. That’s not protesting, that’s rioting. It twists a knot in my stomach as I think about the genuine message lost in the roar of flames and the crash of windows.
I think about the restaurant owners hoping their store survives the night. I’ve roamed these streets with friends while I was a young airman here many years before. These are not streets in Afghanistan or Iraq, they are American streets, in an American city. And we’re here to keep Americans safe and protect their voices of protest as they cry out for change. At least, that’s what I signed up for.
“Stay on me at all costs,” Top is saying.
Moments later, we roll out through the gate of our makeshift forward operating base. We roll out into a city on fire. A city I have lived in. We roll out through neighborhoods I have explored with friends. We roll through the polarized landscape of beliefs and ideas into the battle space of America.
Authors Note: Battle Space America was written many years ago after a deployment and then later used in a writing workshop in an MFA program.
Shannon Bond is a writer and visual artist living in middle America who believes that the stories we carry create us. He enjoys flawed characters in tough predicaments. It doesn’t matter if stories are fiction or non-fiction as long as they are full of truth. He retired from the U.S. Air National Guard as a photojournalist in 2016 and holds a Master of Fine Arts in writing from Lindenwood University. He has written for many organizations and publications including the Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Air Force, Air National Guard, and The Regular Joe. His first novel will be published in the summer of 2020 and the second is coming in 2021.