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No. 43 – Strap in

by | Feb 6, 2021 | Letters

“All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not reached by the frost.

From the ashes a fire shall be woken,
A light from the shadows shall spring;
Renewed shall be blade that was broken,
The crownless again shall be king.”

~J.R.R. Tolkien

Dear Friend,

Strap in. I’m spilling all the tea. [I swear I’ve never watched a Bachelor episode, though.]

Earlier this week, I had an extraordinarily calamitous exchange with a friend. Via a group text, we discussed Kurt Vonnegut’s use of humor as a means of coping with tragedy. [I have strange text conversations, I know.] Vonnegut was a WWII prisoner of war and witnessed the Dresden firebombing. Our conversation about him brought about a difference of opinion. In my mind, dark humor is a short-term coping mechanism until a later time when one can deal with the full magnitude of tragedy. The friend disagreed. He thought humor could be the final response.

I replied back that I don’t think people dying is funny, ultimately. Then, in reply to Vonnegut’s WWII experience we’d just noted I added, tongue-in-cheek, “sounds crazy coming from a machine gunner but idk.”

I was multi-tasking between the texts, some emails and taking notes. I didn’t place much significance in the difference of opinion. About 15 minutes later, I read the reply. I was stunned.

“If you keep throwing around the marine/gunner thing like a trump card, someone’s gonna wanna hear it add up with your body count. You probably don’t want to give a number of how many people you’ve gunned down.”

Bewildered, I got up and left the room. I was angry. I thought we were talking about Vonnegut. This friend knows all about my Marine Corps experience. Why the reply at me? I calmed down a bit and sat back down. At this point, I didn’t pick up the phone and call like I should have. I thought it was a misunderstanding, so I replied that the comment had crossed a line.

I was even more shocked by the reply:

“I’d say hiding behind ‘Since I killed people, my opinion is worth more’ is where the first line is crossed.” [Incidentally, not what I had said.] At this point, I realized his comments were intentional. I became extremely angry and my response far outweighed (what I saw as) the initial offense.

Since then, I’ve been trying to understand my anger. Anger is a response to a boundary that’s been crossed, so what line was crossed? Was it the difference of opinion via text? Was it Vonnegut? Was it because I wanted to be right? Was it because it was that specific friend? Was it because he abruptly shifted the focus from Vonnegut to me?

I realize now the reason for my anger. My friend had twice slammed a huge red button I didn’t realize I had. He was right. I “don’t want to give a number of how many people [I’ve] gunned down.” I don’t want to give my body count. In fact, the truth is I feel like an incomplete machine-gunner… a fraud of a Marine.

A Marine is trained “to close with and destroy the enemy by fire and maneuver.” At 18 years old, I screamed that mission statement and others like it until my throat was raw. At 19, I was taught to “close with” and out maneuver the enemy, receiving months of training in individual, squad and vehicle tactics. Combined with that, I learned to “destroy the enemy” using hand-to-hand combat, bayonets, hand grenades, rifles, grenade launchers, rockets, and different types of machine-guns. In the field, I slept with my rifle. I cheered bomb explosions and delighted in the radiance of tracer rounds. It is not merely that I carried weapons… I became one. Put bluntly, I existed to destroy.

I knew what a properly trained and tasked Marine infantryman looked like. I was trained by exemplary Marines. My senior drill instructor and my infantry instructor were both highly decorated combat veterans. They’d saved innocent civilians and fellow Marines, killed the enemy and buried friends. One of them is mentioned by name in the book, No True Glory. In their dress uniforms, their ribbon stacks were impressive- campaign ribbons, Purple Hearts, combat action ribbons, Bronze Stars and meritorious unit commendations, to name a few awards. They subtly mocked Marines that hadn’t seen combat. I wanted to be like them. They were living weapons. They were the real Marines. I wanted to destroy like them.

I never lived up to that standard.

Nearing my 20th birthday, my unit and I deployed to Iraq.  When I got there, I didn’t destroy the enemy. Instead, that attack-minded Marine focus became defensive and reactive. It was my job. I tried to keep myself, our truck and the convoy from getting blown up. As a gunner, I constantly scanned for suicide bombers, found IEDs and tried not to get decapitated or electrocuted by low hanging electrical wires. Wary of snipers, I often peered out at the world from behind my turret’s thick bulletproof glass. On missions, I did unimportant things like drop off mail at forward operating bases, or guard metal trunks full of Iraqi dinar as we paid local policemen. When we were back at base, I was tasked with dumb things like picking up bottles of urine. There was nothing impressive about my service, at all. I was a weapon that was never used. I didn’t destroy anything.

Until this week, I subconsciously thought I was a fraud. I wanted recognition for all I offered to the United States those many years ago. But I didn’t (and still don’t) want questions about what it took from me. I wanted respect for all I’d endured. But I didn’t want questions about the details. I wanted gratitude for all the dumb s*** I put up with. But I didn’t want questions about the dumb s*** I did. I wanted people to know that I’d stood in the gap, ready for action. But I didn’t want to tell those same people that basically no action came my way. And, for the love of God… don’t ever ask me to back up an opinion with a body count.

When I realized this, I texted several veterans. They were a mix of guys- Special Forces, scout snipers, Marine infantry, Army infantry. Some have Bronze Stars (an award for valor). Most have combat action ribbons or combat patches. They’d served in Afghanistan or Aruba or Ghana or Iraq or undisclosed locations. Every one of them is a badass I wouldn’t mess with. I posed a simple question: am I a fraud of a Marine?

You’re welcome to your own opinion. I was relieved by theirs, though, and now believe it to be true. They said that I had done far more than most, but less than some. In their mind, I had simply done my job and wasn’t a fraud. Like a shadow departs the light, my previously unspeakable, subconscious shame vanished.

So, here I am on the other side of all this. I’m sure some new shadow will soon extend its weightless burden to my subconscious, but for now I’m in awe of the light. I hope this, in some strange way, brings a light to you as well.


P.S. As I contemplate this all, I realize that I am still that weapon. I still destroy, though no longer with fire and maneuver. Sometimes, I destroy business disorder and incompetency. It is necessary as I breakdown structures, finances, and teams in order to better reassemble them. Sometimes, I try to destroy injustice. The status quo is often not good enough.

But there is an enormous tragedy lurking for those of us that became weapons. If you accept, as I did at 18, that your purpose is to destroy, then destruction becomes a metric of success. Conversely, if you don’t destroy, you’re not a success and you haven’t lived up to your identity… so you’re a fraud. That’s what I felt.

There are several tragedies in this model.

First, society doesn’t understand how its warrior adapts to meet its original summons. To enter the field of battle, the warrior adopts a destruction-based mindset, as noted before. He gains the ability to rapidly, efficiently and effectively destroy others. But it doesn’t stop there… the last part of the process is the most impactful: the warrior comes to terms with his own potential destruction. It is an unnatural, but necessary process.

But that process also strips the warrior of gentleness and dignity, meekness and kindness. Those traits get you killed. Instead, the warrior takes up courage, might, terror, destruction, and the profane. As noted before, he doesn’t just take up weapons, he IS the weapon. He becomes like the invincible, terrible Hindu god Shiva, destroyer of worlds… not Superman. This is fundamentally not understood by most.

Second, since society doesn’t what it has demanded of the warrior, it also doesn’t know how to receive him back. There are no rituals outside of preferred Federal hiring, Veteran’s Day discounts, bumper stickers and Facebook posts. Vietnam veteran Karl Marlantes said in What Its Like to Go to War, “[t]here should be parades, but they should be solemn processionals, rifles upside down, symbol of the sword sheathed once again. They should be conducted with all the dignity of a military funeral, mourning for those lost on both sides, giving thanks for those who returned.” But there are no such parades. Society doesn’t know how to receive those it honed into a lethal tool and wielded in its defense.

Third, the destructive model and the lack of a ritual to return that model to its place keeps the warrior from returning home. He has seen his own powers of destruction. Any returning serviceman or woman with half a brain knows that you’re obviously not supposed to blow up a work problem. Or shoot it up. So, what do you do? What do you do if nothing around you is an enemy that’s supposed to be destroyed?

Answer: Stay far, far away.

Fourth, if the warrior does bring this model home, it is catastrophic to normal life. Earlier this week one of my veteran buddies, also a Kwacha Road reader, texted me. The news was devastating. A team leader from an old unit had committed suicide. The night before, he had tucked his kids into bed, gone into the living room, and kissed his wife. Then he shot himself.

What does one say when the present self, at the urging of the past self, murders the future self? When being has become nothingness, thus fulfilling Mephistopheles’ perverse desire? There isn’t a word that accurately expresses the appropriate grief, tragedy, anger, confusion, betrayal, sadness, and senselessness of such an act. “Suicide” works as a noun. It is inadequate as an explanation.

In my mind, the high suicide rate amongst veterans indicates that many, unable to find a replacement, attempt to bring the destructive model home. It doesn’t belong in civilized society, though. Unable to separate themselves from it, their final act is to exact its destructive force on themselves.

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