Many years ago, while talking to my father and some of his air force mates, I stumbled into a conversation about munitions. There was talk of rockets, shells, casings, high-explosive rounds, tracer bullets, napalm, and all of the rest. Realizing I was in the right company, I asked if someone could tell me what ‘shrapnel’ was. I had seen it mentioned in many books and had a dim idea of what it might have been: it went ‘flying’ and it seemed to hurt people. Now I had experts that would inform me. A pilot, a veteran of the 1971 war with Pakistan, someone who flown had many ground-attack missions, spoke up. He began with ‘Shrapnel is the worst thing you can imagine’ and then launched into a quick description of its anti-personnel raison d’être. He finished with a grim, ‘You don’t have to get hit directly by a shell to be killed by it.’
I was a child, still naive about war despite my steady consumption of military history books, boy’s battle comics and my childhood in a war veteran’s home. So it wasn’t so surprising that my reaction to how shrapnel worked, what made it effective was one of bemused surprise. So those beautiful explosions, the end-result of sleek canisters tumbling from low-flying, screaming jets describing aggressive trajectories through the sky, those lovely flames capped off by plumes of smoke with debris flying gracefully to all corners, were also sending out red-hot pieces of jagged metal, which, when they made contact with human flesh, lacerated, tore, and shredded? I had no idea. Boom-boom, ow?
Thirty-one victims remained hospitalized at the city’s trauma centers on Thursday, including some who lost legs or feet. Sixteen people had limbs blown off in the blasts or amputated afterward, ranging in age from 7 to 71….For some whose limbs were preserved…the wounds were so littered with debris that five or six operations have been needed to decontaminate them.
This nation has now been at war for some twelve years. In that period of time, we have grown used to, and blase about, impressive visuals of shock-and-awe bombing, cruise missile strikes, drone attacks, and of course, most pertinently to Americans, the improvised explosive device, planted on a roadside and set off remotely. What is common to all of these acts of warfare is that at the business end of all the prettiness–the flash, the bang, the diversely shaped smoke cloud–lies a great deal of ugliness. Intestines spilling out, crudely amputated limbs, gouged out eyes; the stuff of medieval torture tales. Because shrapnel is indiscriminate, it goes places and does things that even horror movie writers might hesitate to put into their scripts: slicing one side off a baby’s head, or driving shards deep into an old man’s brains.
Weapons work the same way everywhere; the laws of physics dictate that they do. Human bodies are impacted by them quite uniformly too; the laws of human physiology dictate that.
Flesh and flying hot metal; there’s only one winner, every single time.