Overwatch: The process of watching from a high position another group of soldiers who are involved in a military activity and giving them support if necessary.”*
Overwatch is a relatively common mission given to military units both large and small that comes with a special significance for those entrusted with carrying it out. In a sentence, the mission tells the unit being supported “We’ve got your back.”
One such overwatch mission I carried out has stuck with me to this day.
In 1997 while supporting peacekeeping operations in the war-torn country of Bosnia-Herzegovina I served as an infantry platoon leader responsible for peacekeeping operations in a sector of the US military area covering hundred square miles. As a young military leader and officer newly minted and responsible for 30+ young men on a potentially dangerous mission, my job was terrifying and exhilarating at the same time. Terrifying because of the fear of failure as a leader, but exhilarating because this was a true “real world mission” as we liked to say in the Army – not a training mission. Every day when we left the gate of our tiny military base the true nature of the horrific desolation, ethnic cleansing and genocide visited on the people of this ancient and once peaceful land was evident. Although my platoon was given unprecedented freedom and autonomy to carry out a mission of surveying the area and providing peace through presence, our primary mission was ensuring basic security for the local people.
The perpetrators of some of these horrific crimes were still at large, and rumored to be hiding among the people and we were worried that they might try to retaliate for our presence. One such militia group known as Arkan’s Tigers, perpetrated some of the most horrific atrocities and the true extent of their crimes may never be known. We could see graffiti scrawled and spray painted on abandoned buildings that let us know that their supporters or sympathizers were still active in the area and we were always wary. Every day we passed one abandoned building where the gaping empty doorway was surrounded by hundreds of tiny blotches that appeared to have been poorly and hastily plastered over. A simple one room, single story concrete building abandoned in a field of weeds. We learned from our interpreter who was an ethnic Croat (whose family fled the ethnic cleansing), that this building was the site of one of many massacres that occurred in this area. They related with much stoicism that over 160 people were herded into this building, and then militia gunmen fired machine guns into the open door away until everyone was dead. The bullet riddled wall was a silent testament to one of the many horrific events that scarred the people we saw and spoke to every day. I have a picture of that doorway in a scrapbook at home and the memories it transmits stay with me to this day.
On this particular day our unit was tasked with providing security of a town in our area that was supposed to have a large protest that could possibly turn violent. Two platoons would be in and around the outskirts of the town. It was a grubby town, down in a bowl of sullen gray hills and out of radio contact with the outside world. This was before cell phones and satellite radio were available to small units. My platoon’s mission was “Overwatch”. We would be situated on the highest hill in the area as backup and to provide a “re-transmission” post so that our platoons in the town could communicate with Headquarters miles and hours away in real time. A mission like that could be very boring, but I remember the cameraderie that day and the cold. It was a winter’s day and we bought some firewood from a local woodsman and soon had a merry fire going on the hilltop. Our four dark-green camouflaged Humvees were arranged in a clearing, facing out in a rough perimeter, two soldiers manning turret machine guns. The rest of the men took turns warming their hands by the fire, listening to the radio and telling tall tales. I remember a fellow Lieutenant, Frank who I got to know well. We swapped officer stories and joked with the men. After a time I felt the urge for coffee and got out my “coffee kit”, a small Coleman stove, propane and a steel canteen cup. The burner nestled in a small cardboard box reinforced with dull green duct tape and lit up with a dull hissing blue tongue of flame that soon lit the burner cherry red. I warmed my hands as I poured water from a canteen into the cup. All this balanced on the floor of the Humvee by the open door passenger door as I sat with ear for the radio the other chatting with Frank. When the water was boiling merrily I added an instant coffee packet and a packet of hot chocolate. Instantly the fragrance of the cocoa and bitter coffee mingled with the Humvee exhaust and woodsmoke, and as I wrapped my fingers gingerly around the odd, bean shaped steel canteen, all was right with the world.
The overwatch mission ended without incident, word came over the radio that the protests ended without bloodshed and our soldiers were pulling back and heading home. The fog rolled in as we gingerly navigated the tiny country roads, vacant, destroyed homes like gaping mouths in the looming dark..
A military term, and the topic of William Safire’s October 14, 2007 On Language column.*