Anyone who has done hard, repetitive work for a living knows that the grind can worm its way into dreamtime. Wash enough dishes, slit enough turkey necks, mop enough floors, punch enough steel bumpers on the thousand-tonner, and you find that suddenly all your most familiar dreams are being subjugated.
That's how it is now, too, but with the mortars. A dream left over from the year I spent living on a reservation:
I bury the tomahawk in the man's face, and howl.
I am wearing a deerskin loincloth. I am covered in paint made from mud and berries. Around my neck hangs a totem made of human teeth.
The whistle of incoming fire distracts me from the task of removing the man's scalp, and I look up to see something shrieking in. A single, impossible dot against the cloudy pink sky.
I know instinctively that it is an 82mm mortar round. I know that it has been buried in a hillside for eight years, until this morning. I know that a man woke to pray at first light, walked to the cache and started digging. He found it laying in a crate with its brothers, and a bag of threaded fuzes. He uses a toothbrush to get the dirt out of the threaded hole on the nose of the mortar and screws in a fuze. He buries the bag with the other rounds, dusts off his hands, and slips the four kilo device into the front of his baggy shalwar kameez.
He carries it to a carefully concealed baseplate, pulls the tube out of the ditch, and sends the newly restored munition on its way. Before the first thump of the launch has ridden the shockwave to the target, the tube is back in the ditch and the baseplate covered with the fine brown moon dust that defines this place.
It's falling on the second, downward leg of its perfect parabola, and is somehow leaving a visible wake behind it in the air, like a CONTRAIL. The round is lit with a vaudeville stage spotlight. I watch it, and learn its story as it approaches.
It falls at my feet, and I die in the noise.
My first thoughts are that I do not own a tomahawk, and that I am alive. This is not how the dream is supposed to end.
"...repeat, there will be a controlled detonation in five minutes," says a man's voice on the loudspeaker.
Five minutes and sixteen seconds later, by my watch, there is an explosion. The man says, "Attention: All clear. I repeat: All clear."
I roll over. I am not a plainsman.
I have had this dream a hundred times since the first, and I am terrified no less each time. It is not my first recurring nightmare. There are others, of course, some left over from childhood, and this place has given me new ones - Mortars, martyrs, and dead men on the radio.
Mortars hold a special horror, when you consider them carefully and with full regard for the consequences of their defining characteristics:
Their flight path carries them neatly over the carefully reinforced and defended perimeter wall.
They're too small and fast to shoot down.
They're plentiful, cheap, man portable, and easy to launch with improvised materials.
They are fired at random, nearly continuously, in the general direction of your existence, and probability dictates that eventually it will be your turn. They become background noise, like the clanging of stoneware plates or the gobble of turkeys in the chute.
You can tell when they're no threat. There's a deep bass thump out in the distance as it leaves the tube, and then nothing until it hits somewhere else and the noise of impact is like a heavy pallet being dropped on a concrete floor. You can hear a brief whistle if they're going to hit close, but not close enough to worry you. You can hear a hissing noise if they're goddamned close. You learn to lay down if you hear a noise for which there is no proper onomatopoeia. When you hear it
It'll be hitting close enough that you might catch some shrapnel or debris if you're not "flat (laying down), dumb (ears plugged, eyes closed, mouth open), and happy (this part comes when you stand up)".
I don't know what they sound like when they're closer than that. I don't know anybody who's alive who can tell me.
The mortar is the insurgency's most common day-to-day weapon. Indirect fire is really the only way they have left to shoot at us without dying almost immediately. If they ever got their shit together and learned how to actually use them, we'd be in trouble... But thankfully the rank-and-file are generally willfully ignorant, illiterate fools whose idea of military training is a whispered prayer before each engagement, and a colorful oral history of the mujahidin who fought off the Soviet occupation through what they suppose is a combination of divine favor and what their culture esteems to be general manliness.
The really good mortarmen, the ones who have a natural knack for it, don't tend to last very long, just as the ones with the instinctive feel for the RPG don't either. They tend to get a reputation as the guy who can get shit blown up, and are put out on the pointy end time and again until their instinct and experience are inevitably snuffed out by an Apache or JDAM.
Much more common are 'drivebys' like the ones I dream about, or the comically Rube Goldberg-esque unattended launch devices that they construct from teapots, alarm clocks, blocks of ice, 500-foot pull strings, pendulum springs, magnifying glasses, solar panel cellphone charging devices, or children with birth defects who can only get into heaven by serving the will of Allah.
On September 11 this year, we were mortared continuously from sunup to sundown, with small breaks during prayer times. They were mostly 82mm, but the occasional bigger thump let us know that they had broken out some of the truly weird shit that sometimes not even Jane's can identify with any certainty.
You see, our Soviet predecessors were clever enough to re-use a lot of their armament industry tooling, to save time and money. Thus, an 82mm mortar has the same outside diameter as an 82mm recoilless rifle shell. They also both have the same threads for fuzing options as the RPG-7 and -9 warheads, and so there's an awful lot of very strange mix-and-match going on between warheads, fuzes, and launch tubes. Chalk it up to animal cunning, or more likely just not knowing any better.
Sometimes mix-and-match ends up blowing up a badguy, like when they tried to shoot a mortar round from a recoilless rifle tube using cannon fuze. Sometimes, they bet right and figure out how to double the max flight range of an RPG.
Most of the time it's just like most of the time, and it's a half-assed, random shelling - but that's what so unsettling.
A bullet may have your name on it, but mortars are addressed "To whom it may concern:"