President Bill Sherman sat at his table, sipping his black coffee and reading the Washington Post, having just finished a breakfast of two sunny-side up eggs, a whole rasher of bacon, six pieces of sour-dough toast, and a generous portion of orange marmalade. He had a pile of briefing papers prepared for him to review prior to the morning NSA briefing, but right now he was enjoying the newspaper. He was perusing the high-school football scores from the previous evening. He always enjoyed the morning paper. Sometimes he got more accurate information from it than the pile of briefings stacked up beside his coffee cup. In fact, it seemed to him that sometimes these briefings were taken word for word from the newspaper. He wondered which had come first, the briefings or the newspaper articles. He sighed as he put his paper aside and began going over the briefings. His NSA meeting was in fifteen minutes.
The more he read, the more he frowned. He said to himself, “Dammit, last week it was Egypt. This week, it’s Syria. A year ago it was North Korea.” He wondered what it would be next week. He thought about how, in dealing bellicose dictators, the scenarios were all the same, just insert different country names and reuse the same briefs.
He lingered over the brief that called for a “limited response,” a “surgical, precision strike,” on targets in Syria as a way of sending a message. He was an old soldier. He knew nothing about limitations in warfare, he only knew about an all out effort to achieve a specific end. The only limitations he ever considered were his orders, the lengths of his supply line, the size and strength of the enemy operating in his rear, the size and strength of the enemy before him, and the limitations of his own forces and how he may best employ them. If the desired specific end was complete capitulation of the enemy, he knew how to go about that and of its costs. If the desired end was sending a message, he thought, “Why not send a letter by mail? Delivering a message attached to a Tomahawk missile would serve no purpose.” He thought that as a general, how he would not have obeyed any orders that charged him with a task and simultaneously prevented him from carrying it out . . he would have resigned his commission.
He wondered where all this limited military involvement came from. Who had invented it? Sun Tzu had said that to be unprepared to wage an all out campaign was to be certain of destruction. This country, he thought, insulated by two oceans, had an odd way of looking at war. He recalled his own service during the American Civil War, and remembered how badly things had gone for the Union until General Grant showed that he was willing to spend lives and bring unrelenting pressure to his enemy. Sherman served Grant, and believed likewise . . . prosecute your enemy until he surrenders or is no longer capable of engaging. He had seen what this had cost his own men, their families, and the families of his opponents. He understood this. He did not understand a gentle war. He knew that there was no such thing as a gentle war. The adjective “gentle” could not be properly attached to the noun “war.”
He looked at another brief, which recommended supplying arms and ammunition to rebel fighters in their effort to remove Syrian ditator Bashar Assad from power. He then looked at another brief which listed those rebel groups, and every single one of them were only united in their desire to get rid of Assad and their hatred of the USA. He knew the minute Assad was gone they would be fighting each other with the very same arms we had furnished. He also knew that, ultimately, they would turn those same arms on any group so foolish as to intervene to stop what the whole progressive humanitarian world would be able to denounce as genocide. He shook his head.
No matter how he chided those in his service, he could not get them to understand that there would be no limited military engagements during his tenure . . . it would be all or nothing. If the issue was too unimportant to risk everything, then he would risk nothing. He would not send a single soldier to die for nothing, for mere police work. He refused allow America to be the world’s policeman since he knew that soldiers, trained to break things and kill people, did not make good policemen. He knew that you cannot put a soldier in harm’s way then deny him the right to defend himself or his buddies in his squadron, platoon or company. Soldiers escalate quickly. They don’t call in the SWAT team and hostage negotiators, they call in close air support. Collateral damage? Well, what of it? There was bound to be collateral damage, and it was best for soldiers to think of their mission, their objective, than it was for them to sit around worrying about collateral damage. One would see them through to victory; the other would get them killed.
“Why do they keep recommending this to me?” he asked his American Pit Bull Terrier, Forrest. Forrest looked up at him, wagging his tail, waiting for the faithful hand that would scratch his ear. Sure enough, there came the hand settling down on the ear, and the wave of endorphins released by the scratch of his master’s hand sent ol’ Forrest into an ecstasy just like a junkie getting a shot of heroin. Forrest’s foot patted in time with the scratching.
Sherman thought about his old nemesis, Nathan B. Forrest, for whom the dog was named. “Forrest,” he said to himself, or perhaps to the dog, “Now there was an enemy you could admire. He could do more with less than any commander I ever saw, and he did it quick, decisively, and unpredictably. I detested the man, personally, but I admired his courage, and sincerely respected his capability.” Forrest looked at Sherman as he talked about his namesake, his head tilted to one side as if he were trying to understand. “Forrest commanded your respect,” Sherman continued. “He never led from the rear. Because of that, his men would have followed him straight into hell. The minute you failed to respect Forrest, you placed yourself in grave danger as you always do when you underestimate your opponent.”
He reviewed more of the briefings. The more he reviewed them, the more unsure he was of who his actual opponents were. They all seemed like enemies. Only the women and children seemed worthy of assistance, yet any of the armed rebels, or Assad himself, would discount the lives of thousands of women and children as insignificant. It was a hard reality, but then again, it was a hard world, he thought to himself.
It was past time for the NSA meeting. He picked up the phone, calling down to the situation room in Basement Level 3 of the White House. The NSA director immediately answered. “Yes, Mr. President?”
“Good morning. Is there anything y’all have to tell me that is not contained in these briefings?” he asked.
“No sir, Mr. President,” NSA replied. “We are just needing your approval on limited engagement if we are to proceed. DOD has a plan for different scenarios.”
“What is today’s domestic threat level?” asked The President.
“Yellow, sir,” said NSA.
“It’s always yellow. Is there ever a green day?” He asked.
“We never use green, sir,” said NSA.
“So I’ve noticed,” pausing, and continuing, “There will be no limited military engagements today, or any day, or ever,” said The President.
“But, Mr. President . . . ,” stammered NSA as the President cut him off.
“Nope. Nope. Nope. Nothing. Nada. Zilch. Zip. Do you understand?”
“Yes, Mr. President,” said NSA.
“Then stop sending me briefings advising them,” said the President as he hung up the phone.
He sipped his coffee. He thought about a road trip.
He turned to his personal assistant. “Get on the horn and order up the unmarked C-37. I want to take a little trip this morning, right now. I’m taking Forrest with me.”
“Where shall I tell them you are going, sir,” asked his assistant.
President Sherman shook his head. “Top secret,” was his reply.
Marine 1, the helicopter that provides local transportation for the President had received orders and fired up its turbines, performing all the pre-flight inspections, preparing to take the President to Andrews Air Force Base where Air Force 1 would be standing by, engines running, waiting to transport the President to the top secret location.
The C-37 was the military equivalent of the Grumman Gulfstream V business jet. It would become Air Force 1 when the President was on board. He was taking it rather than the Boeing 747 because he could not very well be top secret flying it into a small-town airport, or any airport for that matter. He saluted the Marines standing at attention at the helicopter, boarded Marine 1 with his dog, and they took off to Andrews. The only people accompanying him were his two personal Secret Service Agents. They frantically tried to get the President to tell them where he was planning to go so they could arrange for field Secret Service protection, but he declined to do so, and forbade them to make any phone calls. That didn’t stop the pilots on Marine 1 from talking on encrypted radio frequencies, or them being ordered to provide answers to the Secret Service to questions for which they had no answers.
Fifteen minutes after take-off, Marine 1 landed at Andrews. The C-47, now Air Force 1, was ready and waiting. Earlier, two F-22 Raptors and two F-15 Eagles had taken off and were being directed by an ever-circling AWACS plane which was assessing all air traffic and monitoring any threats. The fire control systems on the F22 were remotely capable of being operated by the AWACS technicians. Wherever Air Force 1 was headed, it would not be headed there by itself. The President knew this and did not mind, since none of this would be seen by the public, therefore, making him relatively incognito to the place he was planning on visiting.
He returned the salutes of the Marines as he left Marine 1, and saluted the Marines standing guard at Air Force 1 as he went aboard, Forrest following at his heels without the need for a leash. The President flopped down in the seat nearest the pilots. Forrest lay on the floor at Sherman’s feet. The two Secret Service agents sat in seats in the back of the plane.
“Where to, Mr. President?” asked the Captain.
“Vicksburg,” said The President. “Call ahead to the Army Corps of Engineers. Tell them you have a senior White House official that will need a ride and an escort. Do not tell them who. If they insist on knowing, tell them you at not at liberty, but it comes from the top. If they persist, get General McWilliams from Army Corps of Engineers on the horn and let me speak to him.”
In spite of the pilots’ best efforts, they were not able to get anyone in the military chain of command to respond since they did not have the authority to order anyone about, nor could they reveal the real call sign of their aircraft, nor divulge who was on board. The President wanted no scene, just to make a trip to Vicksburg.
“Mr. President, We’ve got General McWilliams on the horn. You’ll need to speak to him,” said the Captain.
“Jim!” said the President into the phone.
“Who the hell is this?” asked General Jim McWilliams, Commanding General of the US Army Corps of Engineers.
“Bill Sherman,” laughed the President into the phone, which went absolutely silent on the other end.
“Well I’ll be damn, I’m sorry, Mr. President,” said General McWilliams. “How may I serve you, sir?”
“It’s good to hear to the voice of a regular soldier and a friend,” said the President.
“Thank you, sir,” said the General to his commander-in-chief.
“Jim, I need a small escort to meet me at the Vicksburg airport. I want to make a little inspection.”
“Bill,” said General McWilliams to his old friend, “I could have used a little warning before a Presidential base inspection.”
“Not coming to the base,” said Sherman. “Making a little trip to the military park. I want to do a little thinking there. I need a driver, a couple of escorts, and as little fanfare as possible. I don’t want anyone to know I was there until I’m back on the way to Washington. Do you understand?”
“Yes, sir,” said General McWilliams, “I’ll make it happen.”
“You bet, Bill . . . I mean, Mr. President.”
“’Bill’ will work when it’s like this, Jim.”
“Thanks, ol’ pal. I’ll bet you still suck at hitting a two iron,” said the General.
“At least I know which end of the putter to use,” said the President to his friend. They both laughed as he hung up the phone.
Air Force 1 landed at Vicksburg Municipal Airport, but it looked exactly like hundreds of others that landed there on a regular basis. A limousine and two cars were standing by. The president jumped down the ladder of the C-37, saluted the Marines, and turned to the astonished Army Lieutenant and Sergeant who were awaiting their previously undisclosed VIP. They snapped to attention and saluted. President Sherman returned their salutes. “At ease, men.”
He stuck out his hand, first to the sergeant. “Bill Sherman,” he said while shaking the sergeant’s hand. The slack-jawed sergeant could hardly believe what was happening to him. He escorted VIP’s all the time, but never any such as the one now shaking his hand. He was speechless, just holding on to the President’s hand, continuing shaking it.
“Damn, son,” he said, retrieving his hand “What’s your name?”
Snapping back to attention and saluting, he said, “Staff Sergeant Timothy O’Daniel, Mr President.”
“At ease, I said,” laughed the President. “Where are you from, son?”
“Angleton, Texas, sir,” he said.
“Brazoria County?” asked Sherman.
“Yes, sir,” said the Sergeant.
“Do you know where China Grove Plantation was,” asked the President.
“Yes, sir. About a mile from my home,” was the reply.
“The hell you say.”
“How do you know about China Grove Plantation, Mr. President?”
“I’ve been lots of places,” The President said sadly. Why this was stated with sadness was a mystery to the two soldiers.
Turning to the Lieutenant, who had witnessed the whole exchange, the President stuck out his hand. The Lieutenant said, “Second Lieutenant Ollie Dixon. Shiloh, Tennessee, sir.”
“Where? Where did you say?” asked the President as if he did not hear.
“Shiloh, Tennessee, sir. Are you familiar with it, sir?” The Lieutenant grinned, knowing full well that the President was familiar with Shiloh.
“Oh, yes, son. I’ve been there, but it was a very long time ago. I am glad to have you to men as my escort here. I want to go to the military park, me and my dog, but on second thought, Lieutenant Dixon…Sergeant O’Daniel, have you ever been to the Shiloh Military Park?”
“Oh, yes sir, Mr. President!,” fairly shouted Lieutenant Dixon. “My whole family is from Shiloh and Selmer. My home place is just a couple of miles from the park. I’ve walked every square inch of it many times.”
“Would you like to make a little trip there and be my guide?” asked the President.
“Yes, sir. Is that an order, sir?” asked Lieutenant Dixon.
Sherman laughed out loud. “I believe it is! You and Sergeant O’Daniel hop on board. We’ll fly up there for a visit. Can you arrange some transportation from some of your kinfolk, Lieutenant Dixon?”
“Yes, sir. My dad has a conversion van we can all fit in. I’ll get him to meet us at the Savannah airport, which would be the closest one you could fly this plane into.”
“Well, when we get airborne, you can call him. You can tell him that you are coming for a surprise visit with a couple of your friends and that you need to escort an official to the military park, but you understand, you must not tell him who. Can you do that?”
“Without fail, sir,” said Lieutenant Dixon.
“And, furthermore,” said the President to them, ”You are both sworn to secrecy about this whole trip. You may not say anything, under direct order, to your superiors when you return and are questioned as to your whereabouts. This is top secret. If they press you, tell them you have been ordered to tell them to call General McWilliams who will be able to explain things, I’m sure, to their satisfaction.”
Turning to the pilot, the President said, “Savannah, Tennessee. We got enough fuel to get there”
“Yes, Mr. President, but there is no jet refueling at Savannah. We’ll need to refuel here, then we’ll be good to go and come back or return to Washington.”
Upon hearing the mention of Washington, the President turned to his escorts. “Can you men stand to get away for a couple of days?”
“Yes, sir,” they both said. “We’ll need to get some gear, though.”
“You won’t needing anything that I can’t come up with, I expect,” said The President. “I will keep you long enough for your commanding officers to decide that you’ve gone AWOL. I’d love to see their faces when they get the word back from General McWilliams. In the meantime, you’ll get to see your folks,” he said to Lieutenant Dixon, “You’ll both get a trip to Shiloh, and then you’ll both be my guests at the White House for a day or two. Ever been to Washington?”
“No, sir,” they said in unison.
“Well, there’s no better way to see it than as my guest.”
As soon as they were refueled and airborne, there was an insane scramble by the Secret Service to keep up with their President. They managed to do so safely and discretely. Savannah and Shiloh, Tennessee, never knew that President Sherman was there until Lieutenant Dixon’s father later told his wife, who immediately called the ladies of the Shiloh Baptist Church, who called everyone they could think of. Sooner that you could blink an eye, the word had spread from Memphis, to Jackson, to Nashville, even to Corinth and Tupelo, Mississippi, but it was all too late, and all for naught. The presence of President Sherman was just a wisp of a memory to McNairy County, all of western and central Tennessee, and all of north Mississippi, which is just how the President wanted it…no fanfare until it was too late to matter.
The first thing the President did when he arrived at Shiloh was visit the place where his friend and enemy, the very capable and competent Confederate Commanding General Albert Sidney Johnston had taken a bullet in the calf of his leg, and refusing to have it tended to in the heat of battle, had bled to death from a wound that could have easily been treated. Sherman hung his head in a moment of silence. He and Johnston had served together in Mexico, had been friends, and were both saddened that fate had placed them on opposite sides of a desperate battlefield.
“Was General Johnston how you knew about China Grove Plantation, sir?” asked Sergeant O’Daniel.
“Yes,” said Sherman, sadly. “We were friends before we were enemies. Even as enemies, we were still friends. He was a very capable commander, though foolish to have refused medical treatment, which resulted in his untimely death, though death on a battlefield can hardly be called untimely.”
“Then you knew that my hometown is where General Johnston made his Texas home, which is how you knew about China Grove,” said the Sergeant.
“Yes. I visited him and his family there as a guest when I was the headmaster of the Louisiana Military Academy in Pineville, Louisiana. He was a fine man. An honorable man. And my friend.”
“Had you met each other face to face in the battle, what would you have done, Mr. President?” asked Lieutenant Dixon.
“I would have blown his brains out,” said Sherman, matter-of-factly.
“Even though he was your friend?” asked Lieutenant Dixon.
“Business is business,” said Sherman. “He would have done the same for me, and would have wept over my grave as I am weeping at his now. Back then it would have been a question of which one of us could deliver the fatal shot first. There would have been no hard feelings unless one of us was such a bad aim as to have gut-shot the other.” He wiped a tear from his eye.
Amid the sights of the battlefield, where so many thousands of Americans bled and died, many of them serving a cause they felt was right, and many more of them simply doing their duty, the memories of the sights, sounds, and smells of battle overcame President Sherman. He thought of all the dead and wounded he had seen on this battlefield. He thought now of how peaceful it seemed, as if the horrors of Shiloh had never happened, as if the land itself had no memory, or the blood of the fallen had not fertilized its soils nurturing the lush growth he saw before him now, where once had stood only the splinters of trees from flying cannonballs, and where the torn bodies of men had lain from those same cannonballs, minie-balls, and grape shot. The blood of horses and men had mingled until the ground was red. If men could only have seen what he had seen, and if men could see that and still choose that, then they needed killing, he thought. Better dead those that would visit this on mother’s sons than those sons themselves, he thought to himself.
“And they said I was insane,” said Sherman to himself.
“Beg your pardon, sir?”
“Nothing, Lieutenant Dixon. Nothing. I was just thinking out loud to myself in this place where men gave everything they had. This place knew no limitations. It was all out.” Forrest sensed his master’s sadness and whined a bit, wagging his tail, looking for some way to cheer him up, as if one look from his eyes would be enough to shake his master from the gloom that had overtaken him.
The President looked down at his dog. “That dog’s namesake served admirably here,” said Sherman to his escorts. “I don’t suppose there was ever a tougher son-of-a-bitch than General N.B. Forrest. If that man had fear, he knew how to conceal it. He over-ran his own men leading a charge, and when they pulled back due to withering fire, Forrest didn’t know it and broke through our lines all by himself. Everyone and his brother was shooting at him, alone on his horse, a target that seemed so easy but proved to be elusive. Forrest reached down, pulled up a dead soldier behind him and used him as a shield as he turned tail and got out of there. Never was there a feat of such daring, or an escape so magnificent. I have often admired him, and more than once feared him. I regret that we were never formally introduced after the war. I didn’t like him, or any thing that he stood for, but one doesn’t have to like a man that one respects . . . the respect alone is enough, and sometimes, even better than fondness.”
Whatever it was that President Sherman needed from a visit to his old battlefield, he seem to have gotten it. After their stay in Washington, Lieutenant Dixon and Sergeant O’Daniel, after first being in trouble, which General McWilliams straightened out forthwith, were surprised to learn that they were now Brevet First Lieutenant Dixon and First Sergeant O’Daniel. Brevet meant that they got to wear the uniforms and insignia and have all the distinctions of their upgraded rank, but the pay increase would not follow until it was time for their next pay grade increase, at which time they would be further surprised to learn that they had been breveted again to Captain and Master Sergeant. This breveting would follow them throughout their entire Army career, much to the puzzlement of their superiors who only saw in their files that they had been engaged in some top secret mission.
When he returned to the White House, and at the very next NSA meeting, he asked those seated around the table, “Have you ever been to Shiloh?” They all said no.
The very next day, they were dispatched to McNairy County, Tennessee, where Lieutenant Dixon’s father, Charles, a Viet Nam Veteran, escorted them around the Shiloh Military Park. He told them of what he had seen of President Sherman the day of his visit.
It was at least a month before they dared to mention “Limited Military Engagement” to him again.