Hugh Martin

After an IED in Jalawla, eighty miles northeast of Baghdad, I drove the Humvee back to our base. The three-inch-thick ballistic windshield and the sideview mirror were shattered. The front passenger-side tire, flat. Dozens of dents and holes on the passenger-side door and hood. My platoon sergeant, Kenson, sat in the passenger seat. Blood dried on his face from the explosion, from glass, from tiny bits of shrapnel. We were mostly okay. At the FOB, two medics looked at Kenson's neck and cheek and told him to lie down on an old steel gurney. With tweezers, one of them slowly removed glass from Kenson's skin. Kenson kept his eyes open the whole time. "I've had worse shaving," he smiled. Like him, I was told to undress. I stripped to my briefs. As I stood, bare feet on the concrete floor, I was still trembling, my fingers twitching. The other medic leaned over and began to examine me for shrapnel.

In the 1780s, British officer Henry Shrapnel started developing "a hollow spherical case, filled with small, round shot and a charge of powder." Unlike a cannonball, which traveled far but caused less damage than an exploding mortar shell, Henry Shrapnel wanted to "make a cannonball burst like a mortar shell and do it at a cannon's greater range." He eventually designed a timed fuse which would cause the ball to explode and send fragments—metal shards, lead balls, whatever—"in a cone-shaped spray."

My up-armored Humvee had taken—or, as we said over there, absorbed—most of the blast on the passenger side. If we hadn't been in the two-hundred-thousand dollar up-armored Humvee with a thick frame and doors to protect from shrapnel, at least two of us would be dead. Like so many nights, we'd been driving the main road in downtown Jalawla. It was dusk, but when the IED exploded everything inside the Humvee went dark. It felt like an instant, tornadic wind-burst against the right side of my body. It felt like someone had heaved a bucket of dirt and sand and pebbles—all of this a milder form of shrapnel—against the right side of my face. 

In Iraq I said that word so much, heard it so often. I came home and found myself still saying it. Shrapnel's shell was first used against the Dutch at Surinam (now Guyana). The Dutch were so taken aback by the weapon that they surrendered after only the second time it was fired. By 1804, it was used at the Battle of Waterloo against Napoleon's French Grand Armée. French soldiers were confused. How were they being hit with British musket balls when the British were a mile away? They didn't understand the shell's timed explosion. Who would? They didn't understand how the metal sprayed in many directions: "The projectile is packed with fragments . . . sharp metal, lead balls or nails—and detonates in midair, spraying enemy troops in the vicinity . . ."

Many major newspapers use the term, "wave of bombings," when multiple explosions occur in Iraq or Afghanistan. A March 21, 2014 article in The New York Times: "Iraq Hit by Wave of Bombings and Attacks." June 2, 2019 from Yahoo News: "Student Bus Targeted Amid Deadly Wave of Kabul Bombings." CBS News from May 30, 2013: "New Wave of Bombings in Iraq Leaves at Least 30 Dead." When writing or talking about shrapnel, we often use the verbs scatter, disperse, spray, shower, rain. Many of these invoke the image of water. Perhaps one can only imagine the effects of hot metal traveling through the air and into the body by way of the quick downpour of sharp rain which stings the skin. Or maybe a standard domestic showerhead spraying with too much pressure. Or the moment when, after turning on a garden hose, you click the nozzle switch and watch the water's quick burst.

The medic bent beside me, shined a small flashlight on my skin. He pressed my legs firmly, his fingers in blue latex gloves. He went up and down the sides of my thighs, back, arms, and then he ran his hand gently through my hair. It was the first time someone had touched me like that in months. He explained how shrapnel might enter the body but one won't feel it due to the adrenaline and shock from the explosion. When he finished looking over my skin—scanning me up and down, pressing on scars and moles like we'd do for ticks out in the field—he said, "Everything looks good." I got dressed. Kenson's body—mostly his Kevlar-covered head—had protected me from the tiny shrapnel that had sprayed in through the Humvee's open window. We'd never leave those ballistic windows open again.

Henry Shrapnel—better at designing weapons than naming them—referred to his new device as "spherical case shot." Eventually, British soldiers just called it "Shrapnel's shell."

One morning we drove into Jalawla and heard a subtle boom from somewhere in the city. Soon we saw in the sky a large plume of smoke snaking up. Some IED—probably set for us—had gone off by accident. Or maybe the men waiting to detonate it had become impatient, set it off, then gone to work. Most of the time we didn't know. We drove toward the smoke, which had begun to fade. We parked our four trucks in a wide perimeter around a small hole where locals gathered beside the half-paved road. Our lieutenant was already walking over to talk to people. A man had come out of his house and pointed to a broken window. Near the shattered glass, we could see small jagged holes in the mud-brick wall. Soon we learned the bomb had knocked out windows in some nearby houses. The shrapnel had sprayed everywhere. 

By World War I, most of the armies used cannons that fired shells similar to Shrapnel's. It was soon understood that shells didn't need to be stuffed with metal bits, bullets, or other fragments. The explosion of the shell casing itself, its spray in all directions, would do just as much damage. So the word "Shrapnel"—which had initially meant Henry Shrapnel's specific spherical shell full of musket balls—transformed. Throughout the 20th century it meant, more generally, "any metal fragment of a bomb, projectile, or mine sent flying by its explosion."

"Check it out," I heard someone yell. Down the road, Specialist Wynne, our other driver, stood near a concrete block wall near the edge of the street. He kicked at something. I walked over from my truck and looked at the object: it could've been a dry slab of dark mud from a divot in the dirt road; it could've been a chunk of black concrete from a pothole. He kicked it toward me again and laughed. I bent over, sweating as usual, and studied the thing which was sharp on both ends and almost as long as my size eleven boot. Moving closer, I thought it looked like a twisted piece of dried tar ripped from the road. "It's shrapnel," Wynne said. "Try picking it up." I leaned over and saw that the sharp edges were a dull silver but most of the metal looked like gray smoke. I reached out with my free left hand—my right always held the rifle's grip, index finger against the trigger well. As I pushed at it, I flung back my hand. "Oh, shit!" It was like I'd pressed my fingertip against a stovetop burner. I stood and shook my hand in the warm air. "Still hot from the blast," Wynne said. He unrolled his long blouse-sleeve, which was pulled halfway up his wrist, and walked over and picked the thing up with his sleeve. "Damn, damn, damn," he said as he ran with it to the truck. He tossed it through the air and it clanked atop the Humvee's khaki fiberglass hood, where there was another piece, almost twice as long. "Wait for it to cool off," Wynne said. "I'm going to take that bigger one."

One morning I stood beside an Iraqi Policeman who smoked and talked for hours. We were pulling security near a small government building in Sadiyah. Our platoon stood around the perimeter with more Iraqi Police. This man set his AK on the ground, rolled up one of his pant legs, said, "Mister, look, here, here. See." A scar went up his calf and stopped above the knee. Other small scars and bumps were scattered across the skin. He pushed at his knee with his finger and laughed. "See," he said, gesturing to my hand. I crouched, and with one finger, I pushed against the skin beside his knee and felt it move under my whorl: some small globular piece of metal.

Some shrapnel cannot be removed from the body. Often, over time, small pieces will make their way out. Brian Radke, who survived an IED in Iraq, was eating lunch on a break from treatment at Walter Reed. He bit into a grilled cheese sandwich and felt something hard, sharp. He stopped chewing. He spit into his palm a small fleck of metal the size of a BB. A piece of shrapnel in his throat had become dislodged. Surgeons had already removed over 100 pieces from his body. More would slowly make their way out.

During World War I, many described their experiences with shrapnel. Lieutenant Edward Blunden wrote: "we plunged through that waterfall of shells" and "a man innocently eating might at any time find a shower of dirt and shrapnel arrived in his mess-tin..." Vera Brittain, a British nurse, wrote: "the shrapnel rained down like a thunder-shower upon the trees in the park." David Jones' character, Private John Ball, says "You know no more than do those hands who squirt cement." Lieutenant Wilfred Owen called it "…these rains, these sleets of lead." He also described the trenches to be "…where shell-storms spouted reddest spate."

Every day in Iraq we'd come across remnants from the war, or earlier wars: blue dud rockets and green rusted tank shells in the desert, piles of gray mortar shells hidden under dirt in a farm field, leftover machine-gun belts frozen in the arid sand of a trench. When I left Iraq, in December 2004, I brought along that piece of shrapnel. Because it was small enough to fit into my cargo pocket, I smuggled it home. I dropped it into a thick, freezer-safe Ziploc bag with other contraband we weren't supposed to take and hid that in another bag that had already passed inspections. In the Ziploc bag was also a 40-millimeter M203 shell casing—like the one fired by Al Pacino in Scarface when he says, "Say hello to my little friend." Maybe taking all of this had to do with some fear that I'd forget, that I needed tangible evidence of the war. At home, a year after returning to undergrad, I'd scour and clean the inside of the shell casing so my friends and I could take shots from its deep brass mouth. I kept the shell, and the sharp-edged shrapnel, on top of a small bookshelf in my dorm room. When seeing the shrapnel, some friends have said, Is that petrified wood? Is that obsidian? I could've said, That's a moon rock, and they would've believed me. 

I think of his name among those many other men: Mikhail Kalashnikov, Creighton Abrams, Hiram Stevens Maxim, John Browning, Uziel "Uzi" Gal, Richard Gatling, Samuel Colt, Henry Shrapnel. If Henry Shrapnel had been Henry Johnson or Henry Wilson, the name wouldn't be as memorable. With Henry Shrapnel, as Ian Frazier explains, "it found a miracle of onomatopoeia: the incoming whistle of the 'sh-,' the explosion of the 'rap-,' the death knell of the '-nel.' In the mouth, the word is a minidramatization of what it describes."

In 2017, during an Ariana Grande concert, approximately 185 miles north of The Holy Trinity Churchyard in Bradford-on-Avon where Henry Shrapnel rests, a suicide bomber detonated in the Manchester Arena and killed twenty-two people. One man said, "I've got a bit of a hole in my foot and a [sic] shrapnel." Another person remarked, "there was [sic] nuts and bolts flying everywhere, and also human flesh." Today, those pieces of body moving through the air are also called shrapnel. Doug Anderson, who went to Vietnam as an Army medic, wrote a poem about this other kind of human shrapnel: "I wash my wound. / It's not shrapnel. / A shard of his / shattered bone is sticking in my arm."

Although Shrapnel's design was mostly obsolete by World War II, Frazier argues that we still continue to use the name because it's "so satisfactory to say." "Human destructiveness," Frazier argues, "will never get over its infatuation with his name." I don't know how I should remember Henry Shrapnel. If it hadn't been his invention, wouldn't it have been someone else's?

While imagining a scene in the underworld where men like Henry Shrapnel, Richard Gatling, Uziel Gal, and other men known for their weapons, nervously chat and mingle for eternity, Frazier comments that Henry, compared to the rest of the men, is the jumpiest because he continuously, again and again, hears his name from above. "Imagine it sounds something like this," Frazier writes, "'The children died from the concussion of the blast, and from wounds caused by pieces of [your last name here].'"

When I come home a former teacher asks me to talk about the war with his seventh-graders. I bring digital photos and show them on a projector. I talk about our missions, the cities we patrolled, life on base. I talk about IEDs and then I reach into my pocket, pull out the thick, freezer-safe Ziploc bag. I don't know what I want the seventh-graders to think, but I know the war is all I think about after coming home in 2005. I unroll the bag and take out the shrapnel. I tell them, Be careful. This is sharp. Watch your fingers. I place the shrapnel carefully on the desk of a student in the front row. He grips it with two fingers, lifts it by the tip as one would a dirty sock. Before he passes it, carefully, to the kid behind him, he stops and whispers, "It's heavier than it looks."