Reading Like a Marine

After two weeks of storm-generated church closures in Providence, services resumed this past Sunday. In keeping with their practice since 2006, as in churches around the country, the worship leaders at the First Unitarian Church of Providence read the names of the service personnel killed since the congregation last gathered - including the most recent, 15-year veteran U.S. Marine Staff Sergeant Jonathan D. Davis from Arizona.  

This death was a reminder of the human toll, part of the overall cost of what some consider the longest war in U.S. history.  And it served to remind me again of the disproportionate burden carried by senior enlisted personnel--the corporals and sergeants who are the backbone of Marine Corps in particular--and their families.  Yet their sacrifice and their service--as well as they way they think about it--remain largely invisible to the wider public.

I caught a glimpse, though,  a while back, in a chance encounter with another Marine staff sergeant in Washington’s National Airport, on the day before Thanksgiving.  I was reading Packing Inferno: The Unmaking of a Marine, a memoir of deployment to Iraq by a twelve-year Marine officer veteran, Tyler A. Boudreau. A passer-by stopped when he saw the book’s title and struck up conversation.

His first question was “Are you a Marine?” I answered, no. He was. Specifically, he was a Staff sergeant and twelve-year veteran. His family was from Nebraska; his sister also serves in the Marines, and their father had served in Vietnam.  He was on his way to visit with his wife’s family in Boston—she too was a veteran, having just retired as an Air Force Captain after seven years service.  He was still active service; with six deployments behind him including the Lebanon evacuation in 2006, one each to Afghanistan and Africa, and three in Iraq. When we met, he was stationed at Norfolk, as a close-quarter combat instructor, but anticipating another overseas tour.

His second comment was a response to Boudreau’s provocative sub-title. “You can’t unmake a Marine” he said—in that one sentence, affirming what most histories of the Corps, and a majority of memoirs, assert.  Thomas Ricks’ now-classic study, for example, Making the Corps, relates how present and former generations of active-service Marines connect; the same story is at the heart of more recent first-person accounts like Marco Martinez’s Hard Corps. These books epitomize the Marine motto, Semper Fi—always faithful. Recruits become permanent members of the extended community of over 2.5 million Marine veterans in the United States, and exhibit fierce loyalty to the Corps.  For Marco Martinez, in Iraq, that sentiment drove an extreme act of literary criticism; reading Anthony Swofford’s critically-acclaimed Jarhead, and adjudging it “whiny drivel,” he threw it into one of the diesel drum braziers that, since at least the Vietnam War, the U.S. military has deployed to burn the fecal waste it generates.

Martinez’ objection was that Swofford’s book, describing the 1991 Gulf War but published on the eve of Operation Iraqi Freedom, criticized the Corps and therefore represented a betrayal of brotherhood.  The Staff Sergeant in Washington National Airport read in Boudreau’s sub-title a similar message.  Nonetheless (like Martinez, who did sit down with Swofford’s book), he gave the book a chance, and listened as I tried to represent Boudreau’s argument.

Packing Inferno describes the central dilemma of service in stability operations, operations other than war, or counterinsurgency, where the lines of combatant and civilian are repeatedly blurred.  Marine infantry training and orientation is geared toward seizing the initiative; take the hill, engage the enemy closely, strike first, complete the mission. But the reality of service in Iraq much of the time, was waiting to be hit, or advancing among a civilian population knowing that U.S. Rules of Engagement ensure that the adversary will have the first chance to inflict casualties, most likely by detonating an Improvised Explosive Device or I.E.D.  The mission was rarely clear-cut or achievable, and the orders sent down the chain of command—which Marines are trained to respect— at times appeared oblivious to the on-the-ground realities that rifle squads were facing. Boudreau, then, records his own “unmaking” as he came to question the assumptions and principles by which he had lived and worked.  As Operations Officer, for example, he was responsible with selecting Marines to patrol a road called Route Jackson every day, even though everyone knew that the insurgents, having observed this predictable pattern, mined the road every night. Boudreau records finding ways to cancel the patrol whenever he could, thus “saving lives by subterfuge” but bending the rule of respect for the chain of command so central to the Corps’ ideals.

The staff sergeant nodded his agreement with that lived tension. He even knew about Route Jackson. He had had a close buddy, he reported, on his last deployment to Iraq, who later died in a helicopter crash in Africa. They were once discussing how to tell their parents about what it was like to serve in Iraq. And his buddy had said: its like you’re standing in the driveway, and someone’s on the roof of the house, blindfolded, lobbing cinder blocks at you. You know that sooner or later there’s a good chance you’ll be hurt; but as long as you stay in the driveway, there’s nothing you can do about it.   His attitude towards I.E.D.s expressed a kind of fatalism.  If it’s your time it will get you; if its not, it won’t.  Boudreau’s formulation was similar, but added a knowing sense of the logical flaw in this view; “someone I know is going to die. I only know it isn’t going to be me” (Boudreau 2008: 47).

The Staff Sergeant also acknowledged the longer-term effect of this kind of cognitive dissonance.  We’re all angry, he said, coming back.  He shares with his young Marines a simple mantra for dealing with the U.S civilian world they served to protect: “shut up and get away from me.” When they return home, whether they’ve deployed in combat or not, they stare across a gulf of hard-earned warrior knowledge at the communities in which they grew up, former friends and acquaintances, and see how messed up they are.  And those old acquaintances don’t get it.  They’ll show up twenty minutes late for an arranged meeting or at a bar and they’ll apologize, of course.  What the Marine knows, but doesn’t ever say is that twenty minutes late gets people killed.  People die in that twenty minutes.

And then after they’ve had a drink or two, those acquaintances might start talking about how they meant to be a Marine, or they thought about it. And the response he recommended to his young charges—who could so easily take such comments as a sign of deep disrespect—is simply to say, in the politest possible terms, well, you didn’t do it, so shut up and get away from me.  The enormous experiential gap that veterans understand, viscerally, and that some civilian wannabes cannot grasp, is part of the reason why, at any gathering, the folks with military service will find one another. And if there are just two Marines, he said, they’ll do the same.

His sense of responsibility for younger Marines made me think of the self-effacing tone that runs through Sergeant-Major Brad Kassel’s memoir that I had recently read, My Men are My Heroes.  When I brought it up, the Staff Sergeant knew the book—everyone in the Corps, he said, knows about Sergeant-Major Kassel—but, by the same token, refused the comparison.

What I realized, then—as we talked further about reading—is that, like all the other Marines with whom I have spoken in recent years,  he loathed above all any hint of self-aggrandisement.  When it comes to the Marine Corps Commandant’s reading list—recommendations for professional development for all ranks—he thinks it’s a waste of time, because some of the books are no good.  The one example he gave was Victor H. Krulak’s First To Fight which he described as a terrible book, because its overall arc is “look how great I am,” which is anathema to the Corps.

Instead, he gave me two of his own book recommendations: A Vietnam memoir by a fighter-bomber pilot, When Thunder Rolled, and an edited collection of firsthand accounts from veterans decorated in Afghanistan and Iraq, Heroes Among Us. This latter book, which includes among its subjects Marines Brad Kasal and Marco Martinez’s squad leader, Timothy Tardif, has subsequently been added to the Commandant's reading list.

And then as his flight was called, he turned again to his guidance and care for his junior Marines’ minds and spirits.   He tells them, simply, this:

You do this work, so vital for the folks back home, and they don’t get it and they never will.  You can’t get angry about that. You just need to keep your humble on, and approach them in that spirit, secure in your own knowledge of what you have done.  And assured that what you do matters, even when they can’t even find how to thank you.

We all have someting to learn from Marines.