What does War Smell Like?

I was deployed to Iraq’s Al Anbar province. This is a particularly arid desert region which is important to understand the next point. When stepping off the plane you are instantly embraced by the heat and the smell. Immediately after the heat, depending on the time of year you are there, you get a smell that I have only been able to describe as the smell of “thousands of years of death and woe.” It was somehow very different from that of training in the Arizona deserts of Yuma or even in Kuwait.

Dust

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In Al Anbar, the smell that is ever present is of earthen dust with a certain staleness. You don’t notice this smell anywhere else because of the particular weather conditions that are present there. The region suffers permanent drought which means that you might see less than a few inches of precipitation a year at best. The environment also causes sandstorms known as haboobs that happen at least once a year. The haboob will pull up all top layers of soil and deposit the finest of it on the surface, while helping to weather the rest for future generations of desert dwellers. The result is an ultra fine layer of dust coating the entire region. After a few weeks of no moisture, that being a return to the norm, every step you take creates a cloud of dust beneath your feet. The collected dust is almost liquid; it will flow through your fingers like water, but solid enough to leave a perfect imprint of your boots preserved in the dust until the wind carries it away perhaps hours later. In parts, the dust dunes, not quite “sand” dunes, seem to create seas of it. This video, recorded by an Army soldier demonstrates this perfectly.

The dust is so fine that all of it never really settles. You can look in the distance and always see a dull orange haze darken the blue sky along the horizon. This is the dust that is always circulating literally everywhere around you, but only visible en masse from a distance. The net effect of this layer of dust on the entirety of a region is a smell that always exists. The hardest part of describing the smell is describing what it is like to remove scents you have always experienced and have long ago filtered from your conscious thought. Moisture and the various aromas of vegetation are usually all around us in parts of the planet people enjoy living, so we forget about them until they are gone. Take these away, and replace it with the dusty desert and you are left an arid, earthy, stale, chalky smell that will be a constant for your next seven months. For some reason, I immediately attributed this smell with the scent of something ancient and long dead, like what I imagined to be the smell inside a tomb, or perhaps a stale old dumb.

Gunpowder

The second smell I would think of is that of gunpowder. I worked at a rifle and pistol range as a weapons instructor for two years with the Marines, so I became very familiar with the smell. Though I never was given the responsibility to fire a shot in anger, the constant training for such an event left an indelible mark on my memory. I failed to articulate it though, so I asked the question What does gunpowder smell like? to try to refine it. Some of the best answers were fellow veterans.

Sam Morningstar

I’ve been in sustained gun battles in Iraq and I found the smell to be distinctly like a “metallic sulfur” (if that makes any sense).

Nick Layon

To me, it smells of “burnt earth”.

Takeo Eda

Sharp, pungent, leaves a metallic flavor on the roof of your mouth. If in sufficient quantities it will water your eyes, will deaden your smell sensitivity for other things for a long time.

The common themes I can identify with were the presence of a sulfuric “rotten egg” scent. I can only guess that this is from some modern derivative of the classic saltpeter brew of gunpowder. I wouldn’t know the specifics of that. This is overridden by an acidic, lingering, metalliod aroma that one could taste, as much as smell.

As I stood on the range behind my shooters firing round, after round, after round, the scent became very familiar to me, pleasant even. I’d never experienced it before pulling the trigger for the first time at the rifle range in boot camp. The target I fired upon descended into the pits and registered a hit for full points. I was a good shot and I loved the smell of that moment. Even today, when I go to the range as a civilian hobbyist, the scent of gunpowder is a pleasantly nostalgic. It brings about feelings of accomplishment, of power, and of pride. It is the intoxicatingly manly scent that accompanies the military experience and one finds that they long for the sulfur rich acidic bitterness long after they’ve left the war behind them for good.

BO

Next is the presence of yourself. Frankly, there are some things you can never get clean.

I couldn’t find an image of a grimy flak jacket, so I took this guy because he will never get all of that out. Eventually, after wearing the same piece of equipment every single day for months, sweat and mud will dry and congeal into a strange type of black film that you can never get clean. You can take away the top layers of the muck, but you can never prevent it from staining the once khaki colored gear to non uniform shades of grey and black.

Add to this the constant smell of yourself after not getting to regularly shower, bathe, or really function on any degree of civilized cleanliness and you have a smell that I can only describe as pure and unadulterated manfunk. I also didn’t know how much salt could come from the human body. It turns out, that if you are forced to wear the same clothes over and over again, such as the few cammies you are capable of taking with you, and work very physically demanding jobs, you leave salt deposits on your clothes which will never wash out. Trust me. Over time, this uncleanness and chronic discomfort has been attributed more to the decline of morale over the long term in periods of prolonged fighting than most other factors barring the actual death of teammates and can be a leading factor in the breakdown that leads to psychiatric casualties in war. That fact surprised me, that people could stink so bad that they go crazy. Just go without bathing for a few weeks while rolling around in dirt, dust and a moderate supply of gun oil to top off and you won’t feel like a warrior, but you’ll smell like one.

Decay of a Nation

War has a few distinctive smells that are relatively common in most warzones, but rarely occur anywhere else today together. In the early stages of war, the government is broken down and basic services fail. Fires burn out of control if there are no government agencies to administer them. When delegates were sent in by the Americans following the collapse of the Hussein regime, they entered Baghdad and saw the smoke rising from all around. Fires had been burning nonstop for weeks. At first, the question centered on getting the firefighters back up and running, It was made obvious very soon that the fires were directly caused by the American weapons or the fighting. The real problem was those who set the fires intentionally. Looters were unpoliced by a police force that had abandoned their posts when their source of income had dissolved. Eventually, the fires would just burn themselves out. Imagine the time before this where for months, every breath was partially choked with the raspy irritation of soot, burning rubber, ash and smoke from distant fires burning from every direction of the city all around.

Then there is the fact that none of the public utilities are in operation. One element that many people know little about war is that it rarely takes anyone by surprise. The signs of it happening in Iraq were more than six months long. This resulted in what many called a “brain drain” effect among the Iraqi educated, where all the scholars, engineers, civil servants, and major leadership just disappeared prior to the war beginning or not long after. It happens in every major war. Part of why we couldn’t get power back up and running, along with so many other basic services we consider necessary for human civilization, wasn’t because of lack of effort. It was much more because everyone from Iraq who had the means to run the country from the middle, the managers, the engineers, the doctors, all had fled abroad. This meant that even basic problems were magnified when there were no educated and experienced individuals left to take care of it. Children die of the common cold. Power plants that weren’t even hit suffer catastrophic failures because a low level engineer hired three weeks ago is now the senior manager. Honestly ask yourself what exactly is the President of the United States and the US Military are supposed to do about jittery electrical grid in the town of Hīt in Al Anbar? Is some Lance Corporal supposed to just hook a generator to the central grid and solve all that? What if someone blows that up, again, and again, and again? What then? I’m honestly curious why people think combat statecraft is supposed to be easy.

That said, this brain drain had it’s own unique odor. Basic plumbing ceases to be a reality. It’s hard to keep pumps running without power, or knowledgeable people who know how the system works. Really, when you’re government is gone and you are unsure of getting a paycheck next week, why would you shovel human feces from the deep pipes? The system backs up and the putrid aroma hangs distantly, in the air, distant if you’re lucky. It was the same on base. We didn’t use the regular in ground systems where they existed because most needed too many engineers and support we didn’t have to keep them working. There were more pressing matters, war you know. Instead, we had hundreds of port-o-johns keeping our needs met. In the summers they were the worst possible inconvenience. We called them BLIS units: the Blue Water Iraqi Saunas. By the second deployment in 2007, we had a much better infrastructure in place. By 2005 though, the smell of sewage was a weekly recurrent. I am willing to bet that for the Iraqis beyond my base, the smell was etched in their memory of that time period, as well as billions throughout history of their wars.

Along with police work and firefighting, other crucial services of government fail and leave those who witness war in its early phases with an unforgettable memory. At its worst war has the faint odor of putrescine and cadaverine. You probably aren’t familiar with these two chemicals, but your body instinctively know them. When you first experience it, you experience a visceral sensation in your gut and you may feel the desire to vomit as they give off a putrid aroma. These are chemicals released as the body decomposes. It has a sickly sweet scent that you will recognize very quickly. It is the smell of death and your body knows it because you are evolved to stay away from the dead as an innate safeguard to not spread disease. Your olfactories know this scent and your body will react to it as is natural. It could be an animal killed on the side of the road after a few days or, during times of war, of people, insurgents killed in an active battlefield or civilians with no one to safely remove their bodies. This is the end result of a nation caught in war, there are no government agencies or rescue workers who can safely remove of the dead with dignity and protect others from disease, no one left ensure the streets are clean and fires burning everywhere.

Will ISIS attack the United States?

I’ll be straight to the point. Yes, but not in the way you’re probably thinking.

The group we call ISIS will never have a force capable of achieving some sort of international campaign to conquer the United States. Some World War II pitched battle, land exchange style of warfare isn’t going to happen. They way they have been fighting in the Middle East won’t do anything for them abroad. They were barely able to achieve significant gains in Syria and Iraq, owing those victories more to the filling of a vacuum caused by incompetence in the Iraqi military and governance and the Syrians engaged in a state of civil war than to their own military competence. To expect them to expand a great deal beyond their current borders militarily is far reaching, at best.

What is more likely is something like what we saw in France with Charlie Hebdo. Individuals who have fanatical ties and may have been radicalized by direct intervention overseas (such as with the three shooters in France) are also a major threat. Individuals who have actually made a presence in those theaters are a different sort of monster when they return. This is why when people leave the United States presumably to join the Islamic State, they are watched extremely closely by the various intelligence agencies.

The threat of a second 9/11 event is also a legitimate concern. It’s important to remember that the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant are much, much more advanced and well organized an organization than was the Mujaheddin of Afghanistan in the 1980’s. From that came Al Qaeda, and Al Qaeda was able to complete the 9/11 operation with only a total annual budget of $30 million for all international operations. To put that to scale, according to Al Araby Al Jadeed, ISIL’s budget now stands at $2bn with a surplus of $250m. I’m not technically saying that another 9/11 is on its way. Islamic law actually does have rules about this which even ISIL must obey to maintain legitimacy with their followers. While terrorist attacks are obviously allowable by such groups, there does need to be an official declaration of war for it to be legal, such as what occurred in Bin Laden’s Fatwa and subsequent declaration in 1996. That I know of, no such official declaration has been made by the Islamic State. To do so would bring about the immediate retaliatory strike which would be nothing less than an existential threat to the Islamic State’s ability to survive as a land empire. That said, right now, it really doesn’t behoove them to declare war on the United States and it would be an even worse strategy to dedicate a massive force to an operation such as a second 9/11, invoking the historical wrath of the US. That also isn’t to say such a thing is impossible. There is a legal loophole that Bin Laden and Al Qaeda’s declaration of war may still be legally valid as, by many interpretations, ISIL is an offshoot of the Al Qaeda that existed in 1996.

What is much more likely, though are attacks like what we saw at the Sydney Lindt Chocolate shooting in Australia late last year where a single gunman attacked the store and took hostages and to pull it even closer to home, the Oklahoma beheading in September of last year. Charlie Hebdo in January and the more recent shooting in Denmark also fall into this category. These events were carried out by individual Islamic fundamentalists, inspired by Islamist fundamentalist principles. They are often dismissed as “Lone Gunmen” or simply “Random Fanatics” by media at large, with their ties to fundamentalist Islamic factions and ideology underplayed. Often they are dismissed by the general public as being the work of the mentally unstable and no real connection to Islam, or sometimes rather, no connection to “real Islam”. Symanantics not withstanding, this is a pernicious viewpoint to take, as it is not always the case and rarely the whole truth. Events like these are praised by the Islamic State who has often directly asked sympathizers to conduct such terrorist attacks everywhere. A new poll recently showed that as many as 11% of Muslims in the areas of the Middle East may be sympathetic to Islamic State views. Knowing this, we have to be concerned if the idea that “only a few deranged fanatics” aren’t actually an indicator of a much larger problem.

The Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies, based in Doha, Qatar, surveyed the opinions in the Arab world in relation to IS and the international coalition against it. Their findings were published on November 11.

Findings from telephone interviews with 5,100 respondents in seven Arab countries (Lebanon, Iraq, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Turkey and “Palestine”) and in Syrian refugee camps located in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey show that 85 percent of Arabs hold negative views of IS, to varying degrees. This compares to only 11 percent of the Arab public whose views towards the group were either “Positive” or “Positive to some extent.”

The Islamic diaspora is estimated to consist of more than 1.3 billion souls. While I don’t want to raise flags, 10%, or even 1% of such a massive population that is sympathetic to the cause of the Islamic State is alarming. Though potential fanatics are possible in any community, they are not evenly distributed. Some Mosques may be places of concern and may even function to funnel support toward IS or spread their ideas, but the majority are still benign in nature in regard to this question. As always, we must not underscore the majority of Muslims who do not support violent interpretations of the doctrine, for they are also victims in this. They will face the suspicion and fear of those who are legitimately concerned by these trends in the years to come until they have purged support for IS from their own communities.

Having said all this, the “Lone Gunman” style of attack, as displayed in Oklahoma, Sydney, Paris, and now Denmark will likely become not just more likely, but the norm in not just the United States, but across Europe and everywhere else where Islamic fighters feel conflict, as well.


Thanks for reading. This is a post presented by the Quora blog Jon’s Deep Thoughts. If you would like to support the author, please visit: Support Jon Davis creating Short Stories and Essays in Military, Science Fiction and Life.

What is a Veteran and Why are They Considered Heroes?

In the United States, we call people who have been in the military veterans just as a colloquial term. A “veteran” of anything is really just someone who has experience in something, such as a “veteran” teacher being someone who has been in education for 10 years or so, “veteran” nurse, being someone with more than a few years experience in nursing. At some point, and I am not sure why, “A veteran” with no other qualification became generally understood to be a military veteran. I can’t really tell you when or why that happened. I suppose it came from people who “veterans” of a particular war, having experience with it, that then stuck for all others.

As to the second, and much larger question, and I will also qualify assumption, not all veterans are considered heroes by many people. I personally wouldn’t qualify all of them as such, speaking as a veteran of the Iraq War myself. Some of them are nasty, brutish people deserving of little praise, respect, nor honor. I’ll qualify that statement to make clear that it has nothing to with whether a military service member were able to deploy or participate in combat. Some people are just terrible human beings no matter if they have been in the military or not. That said, apart from me there are many non-veterans who don’t believe veterans, as a class, are heroes either. In the three years that I have written on Quora I have personally been attacked I have no idea how many times. As an example, this comment came in just yesterday:

And, of course, there’s no shortage of idiot 18-25 year-old kids who will buy whatever line their government sells them, and happily be cannon fodder, because ‘merica.

http://www.quora.com/Did-America…

I frequently receive this sort of attack which I usually just report and block the source, and I am just happy that Quora doesn’t allow anons to comment, otherwise I know I would have left it long ago. Since I came home from Iraq, when I participated online I’ve been called names and accused of many things, not the least of which being asked to answer the question Murder: What does it feel like to murder someone?. While many people see the numerous efforts by varying groups and individuals to thank veterans, particularly those who took part in the wars, for every hundred or so that publicly acknowledge what we did favorably, there is one person who very blatantly slaps us in the face with their disapproval of us or what we believe. Sometimes, it is very hard to remember the hundred people who said “Thank you”, when their efforts are completely overshadowed by just one who called you a murderer.

Having said that, there is a question of why there is so much positive attention given publically to troops that deserves to be answered, or at least attempted to answer. In some cases, this is a welcome acknowledgement, in others it is downright shameless marketing. Last year after the Super Bowl I gave this answer Jon Davis’ answer to How do military veterans view the manner in which the NFL attempts to associate its brand with the military, particularly during the Superbowl? I’ll share this except here:

… it is a completely rational choice for the NFL to choose military to be the group they would want to associate themselves with. The types of people who support the military fall neatly into many of the demographics. They really should be supporting the military, but then again so should every other company that enjoys the freedom of American patronage, customer base and the most secure and profitable economic environment on Earth. But that is besides the point. As long as they keep doing as much as they are doing to make sure that the people of the military are still part of our thoughts, they don’t overstep themselves in literally comparing themselves to those same member and are sincere in their efforts, then I wouldn’t have any problem with using my efforts to ensure they are profitable.

We’ve seen dozens of commercials that thank troops, letting you know that Company X supports troops. Many of these I’ve noted involve actors and production units who did very poorly with unresearched acting, incorrect uniforms, and simply seemed to be communicating to civilians “we love troops, shop with us”. Many pulled from a base that was just a few miles away in the middle of California, asking them to say hello to someone back home, implying to the audience that these soldiers were overseas. One even went so far as to imply that the troops on a ship were overseas with the scripted “I’ll be home soon,” from a sailor, unaware that his message would be used to imply something other than that this ship any future out to sea than San Diego Harbor. I’ve seen few of these commercials go so far as to send actual crews to places like Iraq or Afghanistan, which has many secure areas for their civilian crews, Letterman did a whole week live from Iraq for goodness sake, to connect actual military families. Instead, they do the cheap and easy way of attaching themselves to vets, while leaving actual troops feeling taken advantage of. It’s worse if you look at corporations who advertise how much they “endeavor to hire veterans” while showing no evidence that they do in the slightest. I’m putting Chase bank on the altar of public humiliation for this one. I’d like to see of independent third party evidence to support their several years of claims that they did so. Stereotypes around vets, particularly those returning from recent wars have made such individuals virtually unhirable.

So, yes please note that while you see a lot of thank yous going out, a great deal of it is just branding for military sympathizers.

Having said that, there are many actual military sympathizers out there who say “Thank you” with the best of intentions and in complete sincerity. I think these are the people this question is honestly asking about. If I were to venture a guess as to what these people’s motivations were I would narrow it down to three things:


People were very scared after 9/11

This section will be short because it requires little understanding. People get scared. 9/11 was this era’s Pearl Harbor and woke millions to the reality that they aren’t as invulnerable as they once were. For the first time, really since the Civil War, the idea of our prosperity, our businesses, our livelihoods, and our very lives being taken from us was a reality. Now that there was a very obvious enemy that existed, there was really only one source to provide protection, as well as what many people wanted even more, retribution. That was the United States military.

In a way different from wars and conflicts like Grenada, the First Gulf War, and Vietnam, Americans very much felt the justification behind war. There wasn’t any misgivings around why it needed to happen in the months following 9/11. Most people couldn’t really do anything about that. The military was in a position to give them that sense of security and satisfy their need to see vengeance dealt to those who would attack us.

I don’t think it would be a lie to say that many people felt helpless following 9/11. The military was our arm to reach back and deliver a message that events that robbed America of 3,000 of their own wouldn’t be tolerated. For many, not feeling helpless was something that gave them a sense of security and retribution. In a small way, I think that many responded to this sensation though gratitude to the military, as it gave them a sense of empowerment in a very, very turbulent and unsure period of American history.


Many people feel horrible for the treatment of Vietnam Veterans, as well they should.

In studying veterans since leaving the military myself, I’ve noticed the drastic change in how veterans were treated from my war, the Iraq War of 2003-2011, as opposed to the war of my father’s generation. He was a Green Beret who trained many soldiers who went over to Vietnam as a hand-to-hand knife fighting specialist. In trying to understand him better, I realized the level of social harm inflicted upon soldiers of that era upon their return for what was realistically, political grievances.

On returning from Vietnam minus one arm, I was accosted twice by individuals who inquired, “Where did you lose your arm, Vietnam? I replied, “Yes.” The response was, “Good. Serves you right.”

– James W. Wagonback, quoted in Bob Greene’s Homecoming

Richard Gabriel describes another experience featured in Lt. Col. Dave Grossman’s On Killing

The presence of a Vietnam veteran in his uniform in his hometown was often the occasion for glares and slurs. He was not told that he had fought well, nor was we reassured that what he had done only what his country and his fellow citizens had asked him to do. Instead of reassurance, there was often condemnation, “Baby Killer”, “Murderer” until he too began to question what he had done and ultimately his sanity. The result was that at least half a million and perhaps as many as one and a half million returning Vietnam veterans suffered some degree of psychiatric debilitation called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, an illness which has become associated in the public mind with an entire generation of soldiers sent to war in Vietnam.

As a result of this Gabriel concludes that Vietnam produced more psychiatric casualties than any other war in American history. Numerous psychological studies have found that this social support system, or lack thereof upon returning from combat is a critical factor in the veterans’ psychological health. Indeed social support after war has been demonstrated in a large body of research by psychiatrists, military psychologists, Veterans Administration mental health professionals and sociologists to be more crucial than even the intensity of combat experience. When the Vietnam War began to become unpopular the soldiers who were fighting that war began to pay a psychological price for it – even before they returned home.

Another segment of On Killing provides additional examples of the deep traumatization and scarring as a result of the hostile and accusing homecoming for the nation in which they had suffered and sacrificed.

The greatest indignity heaped upon the soldier waited for him when he returned home. Many veterans were verbally abused and physically attacked or even spit on. The phenomenon of returning soldiers being spit on deserves special attention here. Many Americans do not believe, or do not want to believe that such events ever occurred.

Bob Greene, a syndicated newspaper columnist, was one of those who believe these accounts were probably a myth. Greene issued a request in his column for anyone who actually experienced such an event to write in and tell about it. He received more than a thousand letters in response collected in his book Homecoming. A typical account is that of Douglas Detmer.

“I was spat upon in the San Francisco airport. The man who spat on me ran up to me from my left rear, spat, and turned to face me. The spittal hit me on my left shoulder and on my few military decorations above my  left breast pocket. He then shouted at me that I was a Mother F’ing murderer. I was quite shocked and just stared at him.”

Speaking from my own personal experience as a returning Iraq War veteran, I can only say how profoundly different my experience was from someone who would have joined during Vietnam. Besides the few who are unafraid to comment online, I was warmly welcomed by many casual acquaintances, thanked and admired in ways I could have never imagined. The greatest of these was upon returning home during leave after my first deployment. I went to the church where I had grown up just down the street from my house. At the behest of my mother, I wore my dress blues uniform. While there, the preacher acknowledged me in front of the congregation of around three hundred people from my small town and asked that stand to be recognized. The congregation clapped and stood, giving me my first standing ovation at the age of 20.

I never received public face-to-face condemnation for my participation in the military during the War on Terror. What I had endured online was by people who I could see didn’t really matter anyway and only had the courage to speak through the mask on online distance, a factor my studies have taught me is an import factor in empowering troops in combat as well. In spite of them, I was always overwhelmed by the support of wellwishers and fans, both American and, much to my surprise, from all around the world. I always felt that I was loved and respected for my brief period of service and I know that support helped me move on from a great many burdens I carried. I’m now one of the proudest people I know to have served. I can’t imagine a world coming home to what the Vietnam veteran returned to. It must have been like returning from Hell only to experience a second circle of it, one in which the tour of service would never end. While there is nothing I could do or say for them I can only say how extremely thankful my reception has been, not only for my happiness, but for my psychiatric health as well. It should be noted that my father, the trainer of soldiers who went to Vietnam, never actually went himself, even being a member of the Special Forces community. He still suffered greatly in his later years, eventually succoming to deep seated pyschological damage and alcoholism. That may have brought about for many reasons not related to the military, but his involvement in the Vietnam war, as an “accomplice to murder”, may have had a deeply profound and negative effect on him that reverberated in him for decades. Eventually, his alcoholism took his life when he died of cirrhosis of the liver. He died a miserable and lonely man, a fate that was unfortunately not unique to him, but shared by many, perhaps statistically too many, fellow veterans from that period of the American military.

The only guess I can make is that one of two things had happened between my father’s time and my own, or perhaps both; either the public has come to realize that the way in which they treat returning veterans has far more impact on the degree of traumatization they receive than the veterans’ experiences in combat, or they have come to realize that warriors of the United States are not the representatives of the people who sent them there. I have no evidence to support my first theory, in fact, if movies and TV are any indicator, there is no common knowledge of phenomenon at all. Most people would have never have considered themselves possibly culpable of damaging the health of a military veteran, but the evidence shows they are. The second seems very plausible. It seems to me that, perhaps in the presence of imminent threat, such as that caused by 9/11, people knew that the troops were necessary and even when the war became unpopular, the sentiment that these individuals fighting it deserved respect never dissipated. I will say this though, there is still a massive number of post combat sufferers of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. If what was learned by Grossman’s studies of the warrior experience on the warrior’s psychological health is to be trusted, then the huge number PTSD patients existing today should lead us to ask ourselves not what the government, or the military should be doing for returning for returning veterans, but how have we personally welcomed them back?

While I can only say that the treatment of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans is worlds better than that of Vietnam veterans, I’d still suggest that for the sake of any potential veteran’s health, it might not be that important for you to join in the chorus of voices repeating commonly known tropes, and even a few myths, about the current wars we are engaging in or which many young veterans are still dealing with internally. An example of this is the Quora question With the benefit of hindsight, should America have invaded Iraq in 2003?. For a point of reference, my own answer, as the only active participant in it, is ranked 20th. Of the other 58, only one other posts the possibility of it being a productive conflict (ranked 16th) and only one other is neutral on the matter (ranked 30th). That being said, what value do the 50 people after the original several arguments against going to Iraq feel they are offering to the debate? This sort of virulent “Me too!” form of unproductive debate and suppression of alternative opinions, views, and outright facts, I fear may be damaging to our returning veterans. I don’t believe this is the same kind of damage that was done to the Vietnam veterans, but it may be used as evidence one day that when subsets of a culture makes it so vehemently clear to veterans that it doesn’t support what they sacrificed so much for, whether they showed outright hostility to them individually or not, will produce the same or similar psychological damage as those who did. I’m not asking people to not argue against war or to not have a point of view, but in the future of conflicts that will come about, please consider if your voice is actually adding anything to the debate, or if it just more noise that does little to help your, but that echoes violently in the mind of the participants who took part in it.

Please ensure that your facts are correct, that your words are more than just empty rhetoric and additional noise, and mostly that you communicate your concerns with compassion to the participants who took part in it.


There is a selflessness inherent in the volunteer warrior

I want to ensure that I stay on topic with this one and attempt to communicate this without trying to make myself and others sound like we deserve the hero mantle. I want to talk about the nature of selflessness.

Selflessness is the attribute of someone who places someone or something at greater value than their own well-being. By itself, it isn’t really a trait that is heroic. We see it in people who are in love, parents, and great leaders. What they put in front of themselves may be many things; their family, their nation, an idea, or even a company. As with many leaders of many organizations, their obsession to success goes beyond greed, but into a true passion for success of their idea and a better world it may bring. That’s selflessness too. Most people don’t understand selflessness though.

Today’s world is one built on materialism and individualism, two cultural traits that represent the antithesis of selflessness. I’m not saying that I don’t like our culture. I love the things that the progress of our world have brought me. I’m sitting on my computer in my comfortable climate controlled living room (as opposed to the freezing temperatures outside) and could just as easily as writing to you, be watching a movie or streaming Netflix on the TV to my side. It’s a great time to be alive. I’m certainly not saying I am selfless either. I consider myself often very selfish, self-centered, and a narcissist, but in one regard, I am different from most other people. At one time, I was willing to endure great hardship for a set of ideals which included the risk of my own death. Such an idea is something most people will never experience. To be honest, I am glad of that.

Returning to the time when I received the standing ovation in my church, one might think that would have been one of the proudest moments of my life. It wasn’t; in fact, it was one of the most humiliating things I have ever endured. I didn’t expect it and then when it came, I felt a complete sense of embarrassment and the desire to not be the center of attention. I felt guilty about it for years. I wasn’t able to relieve the guilt until I met a friend of mine who, on that same day, had recently returned home from a mission trip to Romania. That was an act I thought deserved more recognition in a church than going to war, but, as far as I knew had received none of what I felt. Years later I saw him at a wedding and I was finally able to tell him that I felt he deserved the recognition and that I did not. Only after that was I able to feel good about having ever received it at all, and look back on the event without the sensation of guilt.

I’ve also noticed this same sentiments in other veterans, as well. I recently gave a review of the new movie American Sniper. In it, I was surprised to see this sentiment lived out by the films main actor, Bradley Cooper.

In that scene, Cooper displays classic signs of a veteran who doesn’t enjoy being thanked. He immediately deeply retreats upon being recognized and becomes politely evasive. His speech breaks down into monosyllabic chirps of general acknowledgement, while not maintaining eye contact and attempting to not carry the conversation further. While I’ve never saved anybody, I’ve had this experience dozens of times when random strangers thank me for my service. You really can’t describe the feeling that follows, but last Veterans’ Day when my boss made a big deal about thanking me in front of all my students, a motive I am deeply appreciative of, I was overwhelmed with a feeling I can only describe as a profound and sudden sense of humiliation which I can’t begin to quite understand. All I can say is Cooper’s portrayal of this feeling was something I saw in his short chirps and expressionless awkward glances that communicated a level of detailed research, coaching, and acting, to say the least of getting to know realveterans that needs to be known and acknowledged.

In reflecting on that profound and sudden sense of humiliation, the only thing I can guess was the cause was a sense that nothing we have done was particularly heroic or deserving of praise. As my last point about Vietnam should have made exhaustively clear, no one deserves condemnation for military service, but I haven’t ever met one who has shown that they need or particularly loved the praise either. The fact is, I don’t know anyone who joined so that people would thank them, and if that was all they received, it wouldn’t be worth it. I think what the sense of embarrassment that veterans feel comes down to is that most haven’t acknowledged the trait that sets them apart from the rest of Americans. They are, or were at one time, willing to endure pain, such as the pain of learning that you actually can keep running even as your leg seizes up in an excruciating cramp while at bootcamp, which all go through. Many also willingly endure a lack of food, comfort, and safety while in country, not to mention the months and years many often spend apart from friends family and the society which they serve. Finally, a few make the ultimate sacrifice in the supreme anti-statement to modern individualism, through death. While many say, and some rightly believe that they would make make these commitments, veterans are those who actually did. They put themselves in that position knowing the risks involved.

It isn’t that the risks were that great that I would die and I have stated often that the United States military is by far one of the safest to have ever been in. The risk of death in the United States military during the most recent decade is less than .1% while the risk of being wounded in action is a sizable amount less than 1%. That’s even if you are part of the only 26% who get deployed to a combat environment at all. It also isn’t like the United States doesn’t reward it’s veterans well for their service. Add on the fact that there is nowhere else in the world an eighteen year old with no skills upon entering can receive such a generous pay and compensation package, to include world class vocational education, housing, and the opportunity to travel the world, there is also free college, healthcare benefits for service connected disabilities, the VA loan and many other benefits I can’t name. The facts are, there are many selfish and rational reasons to join the military.

But there is that risk. There is a risk that is different from the risk of failure that an entrepreneur might take on. You actually could die in this endeavour. Despite the odds, I knew several who did just that. Many people, for whatever the reason, could never bring themselves to take on that risk, be it even for greed or something greater than themselves. I feel that, perhaps, people realize this in themselves, and look to veterans with, perhaps, admiration for it, or at the very least confusion and curiosity about it.

We have an all volunteer service today. That means that people there weren’t forced to join. They weren’t coerced or drafted. Every one of them showed in some little way that they had a part of them that valued something enough to risk their life for it. To the American people today, that means something. I presume they are aware that their lives and prosperity are in many ways contingent of the existence of a warrior class willing to risk pain, discomfort, and death to scare away the forces that would rob Americans of their prosperity. I can’t say that this is a fact, but I think that that selflessness, or whatever it is you want to call it, that the military show is something they are very thankful for. In many ways, I think that many respect such a trait as something of value and rarity. They view it as noble, while the veteran probably has never really thought about it at all.


As I stated in the beginning, I don’t think every veteran is a hero. I think that few are given any real test to prove heroism or cowardice. I went to Iraq twice with the Marines and never faced such a test. The only test they faced was if they were selfless enough to put themselves in that position. It also isn’t that I am saying that the average American is selfish. That would be hypocritical. I love my life today and don’t want to endure pain nor discomfort. I enjoy waking up next to wife with my dog at the foot of the bed and to feel no sense of unsafety in my home. I love that I live in a nation that is prosperous beyond reason. I also know that there are billions of people who don’t get these benefits, but I also know that they are contingent. I know that my comfort and happiness rely on the continued dedication and commitment of a few who have pledged to suffer for a time to ensure it for all of us. To you, I acknowledge your suffering, having been there myself, and am deeply appreciative of everything you do each day.


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The Lion and the Lights of Al-Baghdadi

Seven years ago, I was a Corporal in the United States Marine Corps. During that time, I deployed to Iraq twice. The second of these missions took me to the base known by the Marines as Al Asad.

Al Asad, or Ain Al Assad, is the Arabic term for “The Lion”. The base was built in response to the failures of the Arab world against the Israelis in the early 1970’s as a super base to empower Iraq for the future. It now houses elements of the Iraqi Army’s 7th Division, along with 300 United States Marine Corps military advisors and trainers. The base is located in the Hīt District of Al Anbar Governorate, about 100 miles (160 km) west of Baghdad and 5 miles (8.0 km) west of the village of Khan al Baghdadi. That means that Al Asad has been in the center of the contested ISIS held lands since their initial invasion in June of 2014.

Today Al Asad is back in the news. Beginning last week, insurgent forces occupied the nearby town of al Baghdadi. Al Baghdadi serves a key strategic point for the base as control of the town means control of access to the nearest highway and the only land connection to the rest of the country, as well as access to the Euphrates River. It is also of tactical importance because the town lies within range of numerous rockets, some acquired from the fallen and abandoned Iraqi bases, some bought from overseas, and some – homemade. This shows the base, the vicinity to the town of Al-Baghdadi, and the fact that it is in range of the rockets.

What it doesn’t show is why I care so much about this particular battlefield. As I said before Al Asad, was one of the bases I was stationed during my two tours to Iraq. On the Eastern edge of the base, along the long road snaking in, is an entry control point. At least there was in 2008. I spent every day of my seven month deployment checking trucks and vehicles for contraband and explosives at that control point. Beside that point was a very large tower where, if I was lucky I could spend the night alone to watch the shifting sands and be alone with my thoughts. On many cold Iraqi nights, I remember staring out that tower into the open desert. From it, I could see the distant lights of the town that lay just beyond the hills to the Northeast. These were the lights of Al-Baghdadi. The town was so small and so insignificant then.

Today, those lights still shine, but illuminate a different town. Insurgents with the Islamic State have occupied it in a bold move, hoping to put pressure on the Iraqi government. According to reports, the Islamic State have been shelling the base since their arrival. So far, there has been no damage reported to the base. This doesn’t surprise me because this kind of rocket fire is more of a nuisance than a real threat. I can say this from personal experience. After you have survived a few of them, it really is just an interruption to the flow of events before long. That may change very soon, however. It was reported that last Friday, a suicide squad of eight men, four with suicide vests, attempted to infiltrate the base. It is probable that they wanted to sneak onto the base and inflict either massive casualties against the Iraqi army or destroy many of the important assets crucial to maintaining security in Al Anbar and the fight against ISIS housed therein. This squad was intercepted by the Iraqi army without achieving their goals, later confirmed by a Marine attack helicopter, observing the area where the fighting had already ended.

This attack, while ending with a victory for the Iraqi Army, marks another crucial event where Islamist jihadi fighters took the initiative to what appears to be a passive Iraqi force. It symbolizes the Islamic States’ ability to mount just outside the walls of the Iraqi army and deliver attacks at the time of their choosing. Though it ended in their failure it was only one of many so far, and we will most likely see many more to come in the future, as well. In what is being called the Siege Al-Asad, the base has endured such attacks since October. Months ago, the base was reportedly surrounded by ISIS fighters, hopeful to destroy a key asset to defense of the nation of Iraq. That invasion was pushed back by Iraqi forces with the aid of US Marines and again, attacks took place in December which were also met with the pushing back of Islamic State forces.

What can be sure is that news of my old home will continue to come so long as the Islamic State exists in Iraq and the Al Anbar province. It will remain an important strategic point for Iraqi defense and a handsome target for jihadist insurgents. Even in the event of unsuccessful attacks like last Friday’s, the continued fighting around Al Asad and the town of al-Baghdadi showcase the Islamic States’ willingness and ability to mount attacks against the Iraqi forces at their most fortified locations. As Islamist forces grow more desperate and more bold with the coming of warmer whether, we should expect to see more of the Lion in the months to come.


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Does ISIS really stand a chance in the long run?

The group that exists today is probably doomed, but the ideas that they have propagated and evolved will live on, as will most of the individuals who are taking part in the atrocities.

The ideas that the Islamic State are building themselves around are not new. By some interpretations they can be sourced to Islamic leaders in the mid 1700’s in Saudi Arabia, but more recently in the contributions to these philosophies by others in from the Egypt, Kashmere, and others since the 1920’s. These ideas have spread throughout the Islamic world and are the root cause of Islamic Jihadism today. Until these ideas are segregated from the greater Islamic philosophy, villainized properly for the barbarity they eventually lead to, and purged by Muslims from their own practices, these ideas will continue to grow, prosper, spread, and evolve in places like Iraq and Syria (ISIS) , Afghanistan (Taliban), Mali, Nigeria, and Chad (Boko Haram), and Somalia (Al-Shabaab). Even if ISIS were to be completely routed and destroyed, (magic wand thinking), the ideology behind what brought it into existence will continue to grow even if the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant no longer exists.

Second, the people who fight for ISIS will continue to exist, as well. Most of the people who fight in jihadist wars don’t come from the land where they are fighting. Instead, they follow an international call to arms against a myriad of supposed threats. Below is an estimated map of where most of the international recruits to ISIS come from. The vast majority of are from Middle Eastern and North African nations. Still, a disturbing amount are coming from Islamic communities within Western Europe.

There are several problems with this beyond the sheer terror that it invokes. First that I will mention, is that if the core of ISIS were magically destroyed, all of these individuals would return home to their native countries. In places like France, this phenomenon has directly caused at least one massacre, as well as others in Spain and London, not to mention the rest of the Middle East. The fear that many international security agencies have had is that these individuals will go back home and bring terror with him, once again, independent of what is going on in actual war zones like Syria and Iraq. Charlie Hebdo provided proof of concept in this concern, dubbed “islamophobic” only a month ago.

Moving on from this is the international conflict it invokes. What happens if we were to be able to just capture all these individuals, not kill them, but not let them go back home? Well, they are still citizens of those foreign governments and now they are under US (or whoever’s) control. How would the Russian community respond to hearing of Russians being held by Western forces indefinitely for actions that took place overseas? What about the Chinese, or the French, or the Saudis? The United States doesn’t even understand the rationality behind it and will fight the very act of detaining known terrorists, so I have to ask about the strain this sort of event would have on international relations. Probably, in at least a few cases, important bonds would break down and geopolitical stability would be damaged.

Third, even if ISIS were to disappear, the Jihadi Wars will continue. As I have said, the land may be deprived of the jihadists, but their ideas will not go away, nor will the individuals disappear. They will continue to go on and spread their ideals and attempt to reform their home mosques to their own version of Islam. If we were to even hope to track all these people, it would require the creation of perhaps another separate CIA or an international intelligence task force with the sole purpose of tracking these individuals. It’s an almost impossible problem, let alone the philosophical and legal burdens that implies. This means that keeping track of them is a pipe dream. They will also take with them the connections: financing, weapons dealers, fanatical religious leaders, the media. These relationships will be able to grow, as well. So too will their will their tactics and the ideas which form the pillar of their fundamentalist agenda. All this will be happening as they reintegrate into their native homelands, unaware of the jihadist’s past.

Eventually, the call to arms will move somewhere else. It may be that the fight is called for Somalia, or West Africa. Perhaps it will be in the Kashmere region. It may just as easily move to places like Chechnya, Kazakhstan, Serbia, or even in Southwestern China or France. When that happens, the same mujahid fighting today will flock to the region, this time with their sons and their friends who they have converted to their perverted view of Islam. The rest of the world won’t make the connection between say, Chechnya in 2020 and ISIS today, but by the same connection, no one was tracing the link to Al Qaeda and the Islamic State, or between them and the Mujahideen of Afghanistan in the 1980’s or between all of them and some Saudi cleric three hundred years ago.

If we ever want to truly see the forces which caused the rise of the Islamic State to fail, we are going to have to support Muslim’s effort to purge the jihadists’ ideology from their own belief system. Their media outlets and outreach need to be secured and silenced and as many of them as possible need to be killed right now, before they go on to pollute the rest of Islam with their fanatical belief system.


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Review of American Sniper from Marine Iraq War Veteran

So far, I haven’t seen very many reviews of American Sniper from anyone who was present in Iraq during the time Kyle was there. My first base, Al Taqaddum was about thirty minutes from Fallujah , the location of much of the story. Some of the times we were there coincided, so I feel like I have a different view of the story than most movie goers or professional reviewers.

I really don’t like seeing war movies about Iraq because, like “The Hurt Locker” and “Brothers”, they are critically acclaimed by millions who never took part in the wars, but create ridiculously stereotypical caricatures of real people who deserve more respect, and are abysmal failures of research into the actual military methodology that deserves more understanding. To me, movies like these are just riding waves of war curiosity and civilian guilt while telling their over-sensationalized story, rather than any semblance of a real story – essentially, an insult to anyone who actually took part in the conflict while making millions for people who didn’t. I fully expected American Sniper to be much of the same, so I was probably just going to wait and rent the DVD. It wasn’t until my sixth grade students, some of which still in diapers when I went to war, started asking questions about what it is was like for me after seeing they saw the movie that I decided to watch so that I could give an answer based on their new context, rather than mine.

When I sat down for the movie I fully expecting all the nonsense and war porn that was The Hurt Locker. My only hope was that Clint Eastwood, whose work I have enjoyed in the past, would do better. The lights went down and the opening began to the Islamic call to prayer. Before even the first frame of actual film footage, I was shocked that I was immediately taken back to that other time and place. What the Adhan means, to me, is an immediate sense of anxiety and foreboding. I know that for billions of people, that is not the case, but when the first place you hear it is over hundreds of loudspeakers echoing from the village of Haditha below your base, it is more reminiscent of the people living there lobbing rockets at you every week than of any religion of peace. Eastwood starting the movie with that, I feel was intended as a spiritual call to arms for Iraq veterans and for me at least, it landed. What the opening first scene actually ended up being, locked me in for the rest of the movie.

Where this film shines, in my opinion, was in the degree of accuracy it had in its presentation. As I said before, movies like The Hurt Locker turned me off for military flicks for years. This one got details right that I have no idea how they could have known. I have no idea how they thought to even ask. My case in point, which no one reading this noticed, was a water bottle used to automatically close the wooden door in their plywood shelter on the first deployment. It is an almost meaningless detail of that war that we walked past every day, but that you would never think to see in a movie because it is just so mundane and inglorious. But there it was. It meant a lot to me that that detail made it in, among countless others which will go unheralded. Honestly, the whole living area was done perfectly. It felt exactly like what I would have expected to see in Iraq. In fact, it was too perfect. There was no dust and everything was at right angles so shelves didn’t look like they were made by a cross-eyed Lance Corporal who lost his glasses. But besides being too perfect, it was perfect. To be clear, this was a very researched and well done military movie. There were times where troops wore the wrong gear and other things, but overall, very well done in most regards.

Second, was the actual portrayal of military deployments. Every war movie I have ever seen shows you and your war buddies gearing up for “The Big One” and going off to war. Those who miraculously survive come home to ticker tape and beautiful women, the war forever just a memory. What the regular people don’t get is that we go to war, once, twice, four times, eight times… I commented to Jay Wacker‘s review to his point that, “The film dragged a little in the 3rd tour, which began to feel a bit same-same…” which shows a great deal of how good movies run counter to real life. There’s a reason that the film drug during the third tour. By the third 6-to-10 month combat tour, life is same-sameish. That said, the fact that Eastwood showed the transition – civilian home, killing insurgents, having a baby, seeing a child murdered, playing with the dog, seeing your friend killed, going to the mall, nearly dying, as a realistic sequence of events does far more to display life for those of us who really deployed and our families. Living in that perpetual state of transition was a a mind numbing experience, delivered of course, by the film’s leading actor, Bradley Cooper.

Cooper got it right in so many ways I can’t even describe how much I now respect this Hangover alumni. It wasn’t his general badassness in battle. Every war movie tries to make their hero a superhero. Whatever, boring. I’ve seen that before over, and over, and over… So to those who see this as just a real-life Iron Man or Captain America”, you missed so, so much.

The scene that meant the most to me when thinking about Cooper’s acting ability was one that most people were probably bored by, but for veterans, really drives the point home that they got it right. I’ll throw a spoiler because the plot point really doesn’t matter. It was the scene where Kyle and his family are having the tire on their car changed. A Marine recognizes Kyle and comes up to thank him with all the “You saved me in, blah, blah, blah…” and “A lot of guys didn’t come back, blah, blah, blah…” tropes that are in every war movie. What you probably didn’t notice about that scene was Cooper. To moviegoers he was boring, but what I saw was something I don’t understand how he got right.

In that scene, Cooper displays classic signs of a veteran who doesn’t enjoy being thanked. He immediately deeply retreats upon being recognized and becomes politely evasive. His speech breaks down into monosyllabic chirps of general acknowledgement, while not maintaining eye contact and attempting to not carry the conversation further. While I’ve never saved anybody, I’ve had this experience dozens of times when random strangers thank me for my service. You really can’t describe the feeling that follows, but last Veterans’ Day when my boss made a big deal about thanking me in front of all my students, a motive I am deeply appreciative of, I was overwhelmed with a feeling I can only describe as a profound and sudden sense of humiliation which I can’t begin to quite understand. I had to ask her to stop. Like seriously. All I can say is Cooper’s portrayal of this feeling was something I saw in his short chirps and expressionless awkward glances that communicated a level of detailed research, coaching, and acting, to say the least of getting to know real veterans that needs to be known and acknowledged.

What I didn’t like most was the wife, played by Sienna Miller. The character was too one-dimensional. The acting was fine, but the role was built to serve as a person who represented the state-side life of deployed military personnel and nothing else. For that reason, regardless of the real Taya Kyle’s persona, the character came off as deeply unsupportive and against the war or at least her husband’s participation in it. It lends to the idea that “normal” people wouldn’t be all right doing what he does. The only time you actually see her mention that she is proud of her husband’s achievements was when he retired from service, which left a very ambiguous taste in my mouth. What exactly was she proud of? This felt very unrealistic as the SEALs are pretty much the most gung-ho, hyper military individuals that Hollywood often paints them to be, but their families are just as gung-ho proud as they are. They suffer the deployments, sure, but “My husbands a SEAL, dammit!” In my experience, you don’t find successful military people who have a home life with someone that unsupportive of their efforts “over there”, particularly when they were in service prior to their romantic life. I can easily dismiss this because this character, in the movie, is a symbol meant to showcase the torn nature of Kyle’s character, and rounding her out would have taken away from the plot while adding time to an already very long movie, but it just didn’t land home with me. The brother’s extremely short feature in the late story also seemed remarkably unrealistic and more Hollywood than real life. I get that he may not have liked the war (who does?) but the day you go home is the happiest day of your life. You’re happy. Act happy.

There were other plot problems, as well. Specifically, on his first deployment he is pretty much looked at as some sort of key leadership role, which isn’t realistic. He’s a SEAL, not a God of Warfare. What it seemed to me to happened was that several key leaders, namely SEAL officers, were merged with Kyle’s character for story telling convenience. By his third or fourth tour he would have been an actual Chief (Chief Petty Officer) and had a leadership role, but not by the first deployment. Abandoning overwatch to go house to house was also a bit unforgivable, because I said so. “Let me show you a few things,” to the Marines, which were filmed as almost incompetent, was a bit annoying. Getting a phone call in the middle of a mission? Umm… no. The whole climax scene was also really over the top and highly fictionalized for the movie from several different events in the book at once.

The last thing I didn’t really enjoy seeing; all the PTSD and blown up troops. Honestly, the next time you see it, attempt to find me one single veteran who left the military and was not very much traumatized or horrifically maimed. If movies like this were the only evidence you had to go on, everyone would believe that all 2.5 million of us who went would to Iraq or Afghanistan are sporting a titanium leg. I’ve seen a dozen different reviews that speak about how they did a great job of showing what it’s like for returning troops mentally speaking, but they really didn’t. Don’t get me wrong, they did better than any other, but you don’t feel what having cancer is like by watching an actor play a person with cancer. You just feel sad for the character. You don’t understand it, though. I appreciate how very, very hard they obviously worked on showcasing the issue respectfully, but honestly I’m concerned that the fact that since every war movie must show returning veterans as irreparably broken and destroyed individuals, (Brothers anyone?) is just perpetuating the idea that we are creatures to be pitied in the best case scenario; that is, pitied but kept safely away from friends, children, dogs, your workplaces, or guns because we will probably murder you in a fit of PTSD rage. We have enough problems without dealing with the stereotypes that films about the war continually reinforce in a population that has no first hand experience with its actual military veterans.

These few major points and the numerous small inaccuracies were why it isn’t a five star movie for me. That said, I can dismiss these because I get that we need certain things in a movie to take place and be entertaining to movie-going audiences. Enough of the details and story were preserved and given their proper respect that I can deal with the hyped up sensationalization of much of the movie. I do want to end on a positive note.

Many have spoken to the fact no one says a word when the movie ends. It was the same for us. The ending was extremely powerful and brought to the surface many emotions that you just can’t go back to the real world immediately from. For my wife and I, it remained silent for most of the twenty minute car ride home, as well. I dealt with a lot of personal feelings that the movie dug up. I’m usually livid after movies like that, talking about how this was wrong, or that was wrong, but Eastwood’s film just reached me in a way that others who want to tie themselves to the trials of military personnel couldn’t. The film respectfully and as accurately as I could imagine, tells the story of one American warrior’s struggle in making terrible choices, fighting against terrible people, separated from his family and doing it again and again for something he believed was important. To many of us who were there, the story also helps in a small way to communicate parts of ourselves we simply failed to communicate before. I honestly don’t know if there will ever be an Iraq War movie that I would give five stars to, but I am deeply appreciative to the work that Clint Eastwood, Bradley Cooper, and the team that brought American Sniper have done to bring this story to the big screen.

In summary: Must See.


unnamedJon Davis is a US Marine Corps veteran writer, focusing on the topics of US veterans and international defense. His work has been featured in Newsweek, Forbes, Gizmodo and elsewhere. He is also a writer of military science fiction with his first book, The Next War, due out early this year. You can follow Jon Davis via his personal blog Jon’s Deep Thoughts, and can support his writing via the web donation service, Patreon.

Standing Up to Your Bully

This is my story about being bullied. More importantly it is my story about overcoming it, how it changed me, how I grew from it and how my experiences changed my life. It is a deeply personal story and one which I haven’t shared much, but I want to now. It was terrible, but it made me the man I am today.

 

When I was in the seventh grade I was bullied, a lot. I lived in a small town and when you get ostracized there is little getting away from it. I was always the pudgy kid who was really smart in elementary school, so people hated me. I was raised to be a kind person and do right. I didn’t have the defense mechanisms that others had. I felt like I was always a bit of a target and that I could never really have close friends. I was lonely and left myself vulnerable when I was young to being hurt because of how badly I wanted to have friends.

Then one day in the seventh grade one of my “closest” friends started a vicious rumor for little other reason than to… I still have no understanding why. Perhaps to gain points with the popular crowd. Does knocking people down 50 notches raise you 5? Was it somehow worth it? This was one of the worst betrayals of my life and why I am always suspicious of people, always. Still though, this wasn’t the worst of it, not by far.

After that it seemed like my whole life spiraled out of control as everyone started whispering and laughing after I walked past. It felt like the whole school was in on it.  My friends completely abandoned me, afraid that they would catch loser, and I felt totally lost. It was probably one of the worst long term periods of my life. The worst part was how my old friends seemed to turn at the drop of a hat if it meant being on the wrong side of the loser line. I’m not exaggerating to say that I literally felt completely alone. Worse I felt that the only time I could escape was when I was actually alone. Worse yet, I felt like every time I turned, someone wanted to take their shot. In truth it lasted for years, but the culminating event happened when I was in the seventh grade when a friend started a rumor and then my bully found out about it.

The rumor lasted for about five months. Then people got tired of it. People didn’t really make fun of me, but I didn’t have any friends either. There was one person who didn’t get tired of it though. Andy. He was in the grade above me and ran with the popular 8th graders. It seemed he couldn’t go a day without trying to create some mental damage in me. Andy made songs that they would all sing, talk about me where they knew I could hear, pick on me in every available opportunity. I hated him. I loathed him. I hated my life.

This went on until the end of the school year, another three months. One day Mom was driving me home. It was about four days until the last day of school. She saw me looking incredibly down. I hadn’t ever told her what was going on with me. It had been a very hard day, I don’t remember what he did I just knew that I just wanted to be alone in my room.

She said to me, “OK. You’re going to tell me what is going on. I see you like this like this for months and you never tell me what is going on. What is happening with you?”

I told her everything. I told them what they were saying, how my friends had started the rumors to get me to look stupid, how it blew up from there, the songs, the names, and especially about Andy. I remember starting to choke up as I looked off out the window of the car.

A minute or so passed.

“Jon, tomorrow when you go school I want you to go up to this Andy and…”

I thought a dozen things in that second. “Ask him why he is picking on me” or “You’re hurting my feelings so please stop” or “If you keep doing this I will tell”. These were all stupid and I couldn’t believe that my Mom would have thought that would do anything. They were stupid, but that wasn’t what she was going to say.

“Jon, tomorrow when you go school I want you to go up to this Andy and I want you to kick his ass.

“…”

I just looked at her, completely shocked. This was not the woman I had known for the last 13 years of my life. The woman who sang me to sleep or took me to Church or raised me to always do what’s right. This wasn’t her. This was a scary woman, kind of like a bear with her cubs I guess. This I will always remember as the moment I met my mother.

That afternoon we talked about things. She asked me why I put up with it. The funny thing was that I could probably have fought him and done well enough at any time before that. Surprised? I had been in martial arts for several years. I competed and had placed first in the State in sparring two years in a row. Two years after this I received my black belt in Tae Kwon Do. Fighting wasn’t really the problem, it was not fighting. As miserable as I was I had one rule to follow. Since knowing how to fight gave me a certain advantage my mom also gave me a very important rule.

Never throw the first punch. If someone else attacks you, give it back to them, but I better never throw the first punch. However afraid I was of Andy came nowhere near how afraid I could be of my mom, of letting her, the people at Church, or my martial arts instructor down. The tragic irony in all this was that the rule was intended to keep me from becoming a bully.

So now is when she gave me the most important lesson of my life. She told me that I needed to make a choice. I could fight Andy, I had the option. I should definitely get in trouble for it, since I was basically starting the whole thing and I would spend the last four days of school in ISS. ISS was in school suspension and where the “bad” kids went. She also told me that if I got in trouble at school she would have to follow her rule that she would double the punishment and I would be grounded. She also explained that if I did fight him I would gain his respect and the respect of everyone who saw it, and that they would probably not pick on me any more. This was the first time that I ever contemplated that doing something traditionally thought to be wrong, would be right and that it may be necessary to make a sacrifice for something more important. The day I met my mother was the day she taught me how make a choice, a real adult choice.

I decided I would fight.

Of course she had made her opinion pretty clear when she gave me the anatomy lesson on how to both cause the most debilitating damage and pain to my victim. Did I mention she is a nurse? Yeah all that healing knowledge of the human body can be a dangerous thing when you mess with her kid I suppose. It was nice to know that even though I would have to be grounded, I had her support… and training.

The next day I planned it all out, set up the location, waited for an excuse, called in my actors, played out the scenarios. I had a plan. I would wait until after athletics class. There was a walk from the football field to the middle school that was a block away. We would be away from any adults and it would be just me and Andy, and all the boys of my school. All the people I wanted to send a message to and no one who would stop me.

That day I went to school with a sense of purpose. I felt different than I ever did. This day I wasn’t wishing that he would leave me alone. I was thinking “Oh I hope you do it.” Second period came around and he walked past my desk. “Hey there ‘poopiehead’.” ( He didn’t say poopiehead, but this isn’t an adults only thread.)

Thank you Andy. That was all I needed.

I spent the rest of the day looking forward to the sixth period. When we got out of class I remember the adrenaline. I don’t think I had been as prepared for anything in my life, perhaps not since. Two of my friends were beside me.

Me: “Hey… You guys want to see a fight?”
Chris: “What… You serious?”
Me: “…”
Me: “Go.”

I am serious that is exactly how it happened. They were excited and ran off to tell Andy. I don’t know what they said, I just remember Andy turning around yelling out “What’s your problem?”

Me: “YOU’RE MY PROBLEM!”

I walked up to this guy, stared up at him with an intensity that I couldn’t recreate if my life depended on it. I stood up to him, and the six inch, fifty pounds of post pubescent advantage he had on me. It didn’t stop me a bit, didn’t even slow me down. I was in some sort of rage that was the expression of a year of pent up hate and frustration. I don’t know what could have stopped me at that moment.

Andy: “What are you talking about? You’re ju-”
Me: “YOU KNOW EXACTLY WHAT I’M TALKING ABOUT! YOU HAVE BEEN MAKING FUN OF ME FOR A WHOLE YEAR NOW AND I’M SICK OF IT.”
Andy: You know I don’t actually remember what he said next…

Let me step out to explain how guy fights work. In tradition the ceremony takes place when two young men are angry at one another. They will have what is known as the face off. Next is a round of back and forth banter. This can last a few hours until one will eventually lightly touch the other, usually on the shoulder. Then the other will touch him back. Then it turns to poking and poking harder. A light push, a shove and then a real push and then after around seven hours after the “fight” started someone will have finally thrown a punch and the real fight will begin. Well not today. Back to the story.

Andy: “Something, something, some-”

And then I hit him in the face. It wasn’t one of those pull back and go straight at him. It was a sweeping arc of a wild child whose fist was suddenly possessed by the spirit of a sledgehammer. There was the moment of shock in his face and of the kids who were watching. No one thought I would actually do it. It was a good feeling. Every punch that landed felt like gaining my life back. I didn’t even feel his punches. I fought well. We punched each other back and forth. At some point we were rolling around on the ground. I never stopped hitting him, kicking him, whatever I could to just cause him pain. And everyone saw it. They saw the chubby nerd they had made fun of, viciously attack a kid a year older, six inches taller, 50 pounds bigger who had it coming.

This went on for several minutes. Maybe hours, I don’t know. It was crazy. Then everyone else fled back to the middle school. That could only mean one thing… faculty. We both looked to the football field and saw the coaches walking towards us. They didn’t seem in any real hurry. All the other boys were gone. My mission was over. The fight was done. We started to walk over to the coaches and take what was coming to us.

They took us to the office of the field house and asked what happened. Andy, obviously the victim of this kid a head shorter than himself, pled innocence and ignorance as to why this crazy person would attack him in such a manner.

Me: “THAT’S BULLCRAP AND YOU KNOW IT! YOU HAVE BEEN PICKING ON ME AND CALLING ME NAMES FOR WHOLE YEAR! TELL THEM THE NAMES! SING THEM THE SONG! YOU KNOW EXACTLY WHAT YOU DID!”

The coaches had to pull me down. Like I said before, I was pretty set on getting in trouble for all this so I was ready for whatever the coaches were about to say, except what they said. They gave me a slap on the wrist, almost nothing… We have to sit next to each other at lunch? (We didn’t.) Seriously? Is that all? I just beat the crap out this guy and you aren’t even going to write me up?

Ok…

The next day when my mom dropped me off at school, I got out of the car and all the seventh graders cheered for me. They called me the “Giant killer.” That was one of those moments you bottle up and pull out on those really rough days. The 8th graders snickered at Andy. He also had a few more bruises than I did. That was a great moment. As much as I hold onto the vision of seeing all the seventh graders hooting and cheering I wish for a moment I could have turned around to see what the look on my mom’s face looked like when she saw the same thing.

I never really understood why I never got in trouble though. It was a small town so by that point, everyone knew. Not just the kids, but everyone; every teacher, every parent, the guy at Subway even asked if I was that kid who beat up Andy. So as I said, I was confused to say the least why I never saw the inside of any office for what was now the most important piece of town gossip. At least not until a few days later when my Mom went to talk to the coaches for an unrelated matter with football camp. They were laughing about it. It seems that the whole town thought he needed it. It seems that I wasn’t the only one he pissed off. I think she was proud when they told about how they thought I was going to tear into him right there in the office.

Coach: “Yeah I bet Frank (Andy’s Dad) sure had some questions that night.”
Mom: “Frank?”
Coach: “Yeah. Frank… Frank X.”
Mom: “As in Mr. X… the High School Principal Mr. X?”
Coach: “… You didn’t know?”

Nope, we sure didn’t. It was probably for the best. She might not have told me to do it. I might not have wanted to do it. There are so many things in my life that might not have happened if I had known. But I didn’t and they did. And for what it is worth their name wasn’t “X”, but this story has become rather public so I don’t want their names out there for the whole world to see.

I would easily say this was the most formative day of my childhood, and probably the most formative of my life. I was respected after that by other members of the school and I didn’t get picked on much more than anyone else. It gave me courage to stand up to things that I was afraid of. It influenced why I joined the Marines and how I treat others. I grew up without a father so many men like me never receive these lessons as they should, but I did. I did because I had a mom who knew what it took to make a boy into a man. She said the things that most people wouldn’t, because they are weak. She wasn’t, and because she was strong now I am too. I am very thankful that I was fortunate enough to have a mother who could give me the lessons she did.

There is more to this story though.

No one made fun of me about that ever again. From time to time little bullies would rise up. They would say things for a few weeks, then I had a way of reminding them about Andy. I enjoyed high school much more than middle school.

The Principal? It turns out he didn’t really hold a grudge. What I was really afraid of was that, since he was also a coach of the football team, he wouldn’t let me play. Well he did. He actually started me… offense… and defense… and special teams… as a sophomore. Apparently since the whole town was annoyed with his son who had a massive chip on his shoulder, I did him a favor.

And Andy? Well it turns out he never made fun of me again. He also played football too. A few years later we were starting together. We had spots right next to one another for the next two years. We practiced together, we played together, won together, we lost together, we celebrated together… We high fived.  I had gained his respect and maybe a little bit of his fear. Our past was behind us. And he was apparently better off for it too. People say that they were happy that he had it coming and that he grew up from it. I don’t know of anyone else he bullied either. We’re Facebook friends now believe it or not. That doesn’t exactly mean we’re old buddies or that we ever were, but he hasn’t been my bully since that day.

 

That single event taught me more about being a man than any other event in my life.

  • I learned how to make up my own mind and weigh the consequences with the rewards. I learned that real men accept that there are consequences and rewards to every choice. I can’t just do what people expect because it is the right thing in their eyes. Sometimes I have to make the hard choice. I have to make sacrifices and that sometimes is the only way to gain any real success. My mom left me with the very clear lesson that I could make absolutely any choice so long as I was willing to accept the consequences.
  • I learned that sometimes you have to fight to protect yourself.You can’t do the right thing all the time. It won’t get you anywhere, besides miserable.
  • I learned the importance of strategic and political planning. I waited all day to fight him in the one spot where we were the farthest from any adults who would break us up, where we were surrounded by the other boys and I could fight until I decided it was over. From there I delivered just the message to Andy and to everyone else I wanted.
  • I learned that my mother knew some seriously scary stuff about hurting people if you have to. She’s a nurse so her knowledge is meant to heal, but it is dangerous knowledge when she get’s angry. Seriously, I outweigh her by a good 150 pounds, stand a foot taller, have military and martial arts training and I don’t ever want to piss her off. .

 


In Summary:
I wanted to leave readers of this article with a single lesson about bullying. You’re a victim. It isn’t fair, but it is happening. It won’t stop because you tell or because you wish it away, or because you are hiding in the bathroom and no amount of crying into your pillow will fix it either. You need to accept that no one is ever going to help you. No one wants to see what you are going through and most of the time, they just aren’t thinking that hard about you anyway. You are in this alone and you have to fix the situation. You have to accept that no one cares as much about your situation as you do. Your bullies are also never going to change. Something has to make them see that it is wrong what they are doing and that, at the very least they are going to have to find someone else. Peace is a sweet ideal, but the funny thing about peace is that it only exists when there are no bullies. Pacifism, forgiveness, turning the other cheek or being the bigger man are luxuries of people who just haven’t been desperate enough yet. You have to stand up and scream that this isn’t the life you want to live. You were the victim and now you won’t be. You have to fight. My wife and I have debated about how we would raise our sons and daughters to handle bullies. I will let them know when it is right to fight. I will teach them how to fight, with their fists and their minds. Most importantly I will teach them about bullying and how much it hurts people and how they should never stand for it, not as the victim, not even as the witness, and never the perpetrator. I hope others do as I do too, so that there might one day be less bullies and less kids like me who stand up, and hopefully one day no more kids that don’t.


unnamedJon Davis is a US Marine Corps veteran writer, focusing on the topics of US veterans and international defense. His work has been featured in Newsweek, Forbes, Gizmodo and elsewhere. He is also a writer of military science fiction with his first book, The Next War, due out early this year. You can follow Jon Davis via his personal blog Jon’s Deep Thoughts, and can support his writing via the web donation service, Patreon.