S+O+B=Three letters that appear in almost every war story, in the same order, but with dozens of different meanings.

SOB=Love and Respect

From, Clare Boothe Luce’s foreword to GEN Victor H. Krulak’s First to Fight:

My only brother enlisted in the Marine Corps at the age of eighteen when the United States entered World War I. . . . Strangely enough his letters from the war zone complained more about the cruel Simon Legree-like character of his battalion’s colonel than about the food, the privations, the fierceness of the Boche enemy he and his comrades were facing, or the wound he received at Belleau Wood. When the war was over, and my brother returned on leave to regale us with his war experiences, I asked him about that terrible colonel. Whereupon something very strange happened. “Oh,” he said in the flattest of flat voices, “he was killed.” And then, after a silent moment his young eyes grew moist. “Sorry, Sis,” he said, furtively wiping away a pair of tears, “but we loved that SOB; he took such damn good care of us.”

SOB=Son of a Bitch (Competitor/Competition)

From I’m Staying With My Boys: The Heroic Life of SGT. John Basilone, USMC by Jim Proser with Jerry Cutter

This match was for all the marbles. I wasn’t really looking forward to twelve rounds with this Danish farmer, a machinist’s mate on a Navy destroyer, who looked like he could bend horseshoes in each hand. I was 19–0, all knockouts but these were against guys in the outfit. The Dane had a dozen pro fights, at least that was the rumor. My CO and every man in camp had laid down a month’s pay on the bet that I was going to take this swabbie apart like the other guys I fought. But this big shitkicker looked like he enjoyed his work. I’d heard he stove in a guy’s ribs with his right hook and that soldier never walked straight again. He was that raw-boned kind of farmhand I used to toss hay bales to. The kind that worked all day in leather. You have to kill them to get them to stop.

After three years of garrison duty in Manila, these Army buddies of mine were near stir-crazy and would have bet their left nut on a roach race. Jesus Christ if there wasn’t a war soon, these guys would start one. I could hear them screaming for blood—mine, the Dane’s they didn’t care. They just wanted to see someone get the shit beat out of them. My hands were getting taped when the CO came in. I made a move. “At ease,” he said. “Basilone, you are a bastard breaker of hearts and killer of men. Am I right?”

“Yes, sir.”

“You are going to teach this swabbie son of a bitch something about pain, are you not?

“Yes, sir.”

“That’s good son, how you feel?”

“I feel like getting into a fight, sir.”

“I’ll bet you do. I’ve got fifty bucks that’s saying you’re going to knock this guy out. Should I get my money back?”

“No, sir.”

He clapped me on the shoulder and left trailing cigar smoke and I went in to my hunker-down before a fight. I see the punches landing. I see the Dane swing and miss. I see my combination find its mark and the big Dane hit the canvas. Soon it’s going to be time to go, so I say an “Our Father” hoping this Danish shit-shoveler doesn’t break my neck.


From On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society by Dave Grossman

The magnitude of the trauma associated with killing became particularly apparent to me in an interview with Paul, a VFW post commander and sergeant of the 101st Airborne at Bastogne in World War II. He talked freely about his experiences and about comrades who had been killed, but when I asked him about his own kills he stated that usually you couldn’t be sure who it was that did the killing. Then tears welled up in Paul’s eyes, and after a long pause he said, “But the one time I was sure…” and then his sentence was stopped by a little sob, and pain racked the face of this old gentleman. “It still hurts, after all these years?” I asked in wonder. “Yes,” he said, “after all these years.” And he would not speak of it again.

The next day he told me, “You know, the questions you’re asking, you must be very careful not to hurt anyone with these questions. Not me, you know, I can take it, but some of these young guys are still hurting very badly. These guys don’t need to be hurt anymore.” These memories were the scabs of terrible, hidden wounds in the minds of these kind and gentle men.

SOB=Son of a Bitch (Target)

From Chosen Soldier: The Making of a Special Forces Warrior by Dick Couch

The second field exercise amounts to camping out on the firing ranges at Fort Bragg. The cadre and support staff truck in weapons and ammunition, and the Bravo candidates are treated to a final round of shooting, firing as many of the weapons systems as possible. The most popular event during this field evolution is the combat range. Each candidate is armed with his personal M4 rifle and standard Beretta 9mm pistol—primary weapon to secondary weapon when speed counts.

“You guys got to be aggressive—this is the business of killing,” Rick Blaylock tells them. “If you’re going to your secondary weapon in a tactical situation, you’re in trouble. If that rifle jams or you’re out of ammo, you have to get to that pistol—fast.  It’s kill or be killed—you or him. Most of your range time has been static firing—shooting for nice groups or double-tapping a silhouette target. In a gunfight, you’re going to shoot that son of a bitch until he goes down, and you’re going to keep shooting him. Get aggressive; get mean; get pissed. You kill him, or he kills you.”

SOB=Motivation to Remain Strong and Fight Back

From With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa by E.B. Sledge

During prolonged shelling, I often had to restrain myself and fight back a wild, inexorable urge to scream, to sob, and to cry. As Peleliu dragged on, I feared that if I ever lost control of myself under shell fire my mind would be shattered. I hated shells as much for their damage to the mind as to the body. To be under heavy shell fire was to me by far the most terrifying of combat experiences. Each time it left me feeling more forlorn and helpless, more fatalistic, and with less confidence that I could escape the dreadful law of averages that inexorably reduced our numbers. Fear is many-faceted and has many subtle nuances, but the terror and desperation endured under heavy shelling are by far the most unbearable.

SOB=Son of a Bitch (Friend and Foe)

From Flags of Our Fathers by James Bradley with Ron Powers

With their cargo of telephone wire, batteries, and American flag, the five boys set off up the mountain, unreeling the wire as they climbed. Doc had remained atop the mountain.

They reached the rim around noon. Mike reported to Lieutenant Schrier and explained the delivery of wire and batteries, and Johnson’s desire to preserve the first flag. As Rene handed Mike the replacement flag, the sergeant decided an explanation was in order.

“Colonel Johnson wants this big flag run up high,” he told the lieutenant, “so every son of a bitch on this whole cruddy island can see it!”

Mike directed Ira and Franklin to look for a length of pipe. He and Harlon started clearing a spot for planting the pole, and Harlon began stacking stones.

* * *

On his descent from the crater, Lowery encountered Joe Rosenthal, Bill Genaust, and Bob Campbell picking their way upward. Lowery told the group that he’d photographed the flagraising. The three photographers considered turning around and heading back. But Lowery had a different idea. “You should go on up there,” he said. “There’s a hell of a good view of the harbor.” The three photographers trudged on.

A good view of a different sort greeted Rosenthal when he reached the summit, a little after noon: the American flag, in close-up, snapping in the strong breeze. “I tell you, I still get this feeling of a patriotic jolt when I recall seeing our flag flying up there,” he told an interviewer some years later.

Then Rosenthal spotted another interesting sight toward the far side of the crater: a couple of Marines hauling an iron pole toward another Marine, who was holding a second American flag, neatly folded.


From In Love and War: The Story of a Family’s Ordeal and Sacrifice During the Vietnam Years by Jim and Sybil Stockdale

It was easy to tell that Rabbit and Chihuahua had gone over to Cat’s office; I could hear my just-recorded voice booming out of his recorder through the early-morning darkness of the courtyard. Then I started realizing that I had stumbled into winning! I had all the trends going in my direction: I was well into a hunger strike, I was unpresentable in public and would take pains to reblacken my cheeks every day. Rabbit and even Chihuahua were getting fed up with me, and fed up with Cat’s pretentious ambitions.

I put my good right arm back and worked my way onto my blanket where it lay on the floor and thought of the picture of Jimmy that Rabbit brought in and taunted me with and just started to sob—sob for joy! I had learned how to make these sons of bitches work every step of the way! I had finally learned to not be reasonable. The only thing they had going for them was to try to get a person to take options, their options, which were dresses up as “the only sensible way to go.” I was finally learning what Dostoevsky’s “underground man” knew: “What a man craves is not a rationally desirable choice, but an independent choice!” I pray I can pull it out with honor. And that I will make Syb and those boys of our proud.

SOB=Son of a Bitch (Asshole)

From Once a Marine: An Iraq War Tank Commander’s Inspirational Memoir of Combat, Courage, and Recovery by Nick Popaditch, with Mike Steere

One morning during the week before Christmas, before my visual skills session with John, a voice comes over the intercom saying I have a call. Since I’m still in my room all I have to do is pick up the phone to take it.

The caller IDs himself as Colonel McSomething, whom I will call Colonel McMoney. He’s in D.C., responding to my PEB appeal, which went out when I flew up here.

The exact words escape me, but in pogue Colonel-ese he says he can fix everything for me right now over the phone with no need for pursuing the appeal any further.

He opens with an offer of an additional 10 percent disability for my facial scars.

What? That was on my medical record but we never tried to claim it as part of my disability, first time around or in the appeal. At this point my bullshit alarm goes off.

Ten percent takes me to 75 percent disability, which the Colonel says rounds up to 80 percent.

This puts me at the max in terms of Marine Corps medical retirement money.

I can’t believe it. The son-of-a-bitch wants to haggle, like I—my career, my honor, my war wounds, my life—am a trade-in at a used car lot. The Colonel even adapts that smarmy used car salesman manner.

“I’m offering you the max on money, what more do you want?” McMoney says, like he’s doing me a favor that I’d be foolish to turn down.

“I want it right,” I say a little too loudly, because I’m not just suspicious, I’m mad, and heading toward furious.

He asks me what isn’t right, and I bring up the TDRL, the temporary disability status that means the board will review and rule again on my case in 18 months. What is temporary here? What can be fixed?

“If you have some miracle cure, you might want to share it with my doctors,” I say. This, along with the blunt and increasingly salty language, takes me as close to insubordinate as I want to get.

The Colonel has the nerve to say this, voice full of concern: “The TDRL is for your benefit.” In case things get worse, he says, the board can make adjustments, which is, of course, total bullshit because if I’m maxed out already, how do I get more maxed? Bullshit, bullshit, bullshit.

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  1. Jason Fonceca on January 14, 2012 at 12:57 pm

    Callie, this is a great eye-opening look at one of my favourite things, the fluidity of language, directed by tone, context, intention and energy.

    Really awesome excerpts.

    Also… did I miss it? Was “SOB” mentioned in the second one: “Competition” ?

    Either way, very cool post 🙂 Thanks for sharing!

  2. phrazle on May 30, 2023 at 3:29 am

    With their cargo of telephone wire, batteries, and American flag, the five boys set off up the mountain, unreeling the wire as they climbed. Doc had remained atop the mountain.

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    I learned a lot about how S, O and B can have so many meanings in war stories. For example, SOB can be an insult, a CIA unit, or a group of mercenaries.
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