What lessons can people learn from being in a war? Part VII

The Scope of What Humanity Was Capable Of

The last thing I would want to talk about is how war makes you fully aware of just what people are capable of. It will shed any naivety you had about the nature of this human condition. You will come face to face with the reality that there are people out there who are willing to kill their own people just to further their political goals. Writing that sounds like the plot to a movie or something, but it is real. War forces you to learn about massacres like Al-Anfal Campaign and the destruction of the Marsh Arabs way of life. As a child, I could never have imagined such hate, or simply, such practicality absent the value of human life and suffering. As one of the graphs I shared earlier showed, the vast majority of those killed in Iraq were done so by other Iraqi. Worse, was how many people would do so for religious agenda. The depths of depravity of some of the ideas rolling around over there is mind boggling, not to say that the ideas pervade only in Iraq.

What’s really painful though is seeing that your own people aren’t immune to being horrible people either. It always gives me pause to see so many people who are simply aware of so much extremely important information because it is hidden from them, or worse, because they refuse to acknowledge the blinders they have about it. Atrocities go by and people turn a blind eye because it doesn’t fit into the narrative they believed to be true. I’ll be frank, in being there, I believe Iraq was important and we should have been there. I’ve been very open that there were many things we should have done differently and are to blame for many failures in it (With the benefit of hindsight, should America have invaded Iraq in 2003? and Who is responsible for the mess in Iraq today?) but simply saying it was a mistake because you don’t know a better way to do it is a failure in itself. I am not going to try and convert anyone on this matter. I’ve made my arguments many times, but I do think it would improve everyone’s perspective to see it through the eyes of another, an Iraqi Kurd who view the war beginning in 2003 as the first time his people ever had the chance to have freedom and equality in Iraq. Yad Faeq’s answer to In the end, did the U.S. bring freedom, democracy, prosperity, or security to Iraq?

Leaving my soapbox, war gets very personal when you experience month after month working with, living with, eating with, suffering with, and enduring with the same people day, after day, after day. It makes you aware of what people, individual people can really be like. I’ve had Sergeants who doctored their Marine’s performance reports to make their troops appear as failures, so that they could be seen as disciplinarians when there was nothing to punish and miraculous improvements months later. I’ve seen Marines sabotage each other for a pointless position within a fire team. I’ve seen Marines so piss drunk that they had be thrown into a car with their kids watching on a platoon family function. I’ve seen people get pregnant on purpose so that they could avoid a deployment, many times. I’ve seen incompetence, cover-ups, affairs, and mountains of bureaucratic nonsense a mile high, preventing anything from being done.

Perhaps the worst of it was when I was pulled from a counseling with a therapist about what I had gone through in Iraq. My father-in-law past away in a violent accident three days before I was supposed to come home. I was sent home early, three days early, to handle the affairs. The deployment was rough and losing your father at the end of it like that was miserably traumatic. You are robbed of any happiness in seeing your family at all. It was literally the worst period of my life. While speaking to the therapist I received a call that I was in trouble for not being a formation for the platoon that I was longer a part of. That’s not true. I hadn’t spoken to the therapist. I was one step in the door when I found out I was supposed to be in some dumb formation because the Staff Sergeant in charge didn’t realize that I was no longer part of his unit. He forgot to file the paperwork and simply hadn’t noticed I hadn’t been there for over a month. I never went back to speak to the therapist. The sad thing,that wasn’t even the worst part of that story.

What also surprised me was how bad people could be to people they loved. You’d be shocked at how little people in the military seem to care about things like marital fidelity. Knowing who was sleeping with whom was like some deranged version the kids game Guess Who. I remember one guy, a pretty high ranking member of my platoon, come home to a huge sign welcoming him home by his wife and daughters. A few days later, that sign wasn’t taken down. It was ceremonially torn in half. I also thought “Dear John” letters were a myth before being deployed. What surprises me, though, is a phenomenon where some observers have stated that Dear John letters seem to happen more frequently when the war is generally not understood or approved of at home. It would seem they are another subtle way that our inability to understand a conflict affects the lives of those who must endure them. That doesn’t excuse the women who make the lives of their men harder during one of the hardest times they will ever experience because they aren’t getting enough attention, or because their friends don’t feel it is the moral thing to be with them anymore. Yes, it’s true. It happened far more often than I would like to believe. By the way, having the real name of Jon doesn’t help in war. It leaves one irrationally paranoid of such things.

But it wasn’t all bad. Just as I saw the ugliness of the people around me, and the horrors true villains would visit upon each other outside the gates, I saw goodness in people as well. I was signed up for civilian care groups by my family. What followed after that was a flood of mail from dozens, maybe a hundred or so, people I had never met. They sent me food, socks, writing material, playing cards, candy, storage bins, Santa hats… just about anything you could imagine. One old Vietnam Marine somehow smuggled me a full flask. I just so happen to be one of the only non-drinking Marines alive, but I honored his wishes nonetheless. It was all sent to some random Corporal none of them knew. I was pretty overwhelmed. It was a pleasant surprise to see so many people in support of what we were doing, especially by 2007 when the war was old news. Eventually, the letters became too much. I couldn’t keep up with them and failed to be able to correspond to them all. I became very guilty about all the attention and my failures to correspond, so I tried to share in the blessing. I wrote some of them back and told them how taken care of I was, but told them of members of my platoon who weren’t getting mail from anyone. It was nice to see some of the younger ones feel that sense of importance they had been lacking. Eventually I built a wall in our eating area of the entry control point, from a piece of plywood. On it I would just staple up all the letters. I felt that the attention wasn’t really being directed at me, but just anyone these these kind altruistic samaritans could get a hold of. I made the wall of letters. I kept most the candy, though. No one ever told me thank you for the wall, but from time to time I would see them staring at it while they didn’t know I was looking. I’d like to think that in hard moments of that deployment, there were many, that they had that reminder that regardless of what the news and media were saying, there were still many, many people who loved us for what we were doing.

I didn’t really need them. I had my own personal fan club. My wife had special abilities to make a person feel at home in the middle of a warzone. First off, she bakes. Her chocolate chip cookies have always been the pride of our household and famed within any community we have been a part of. She would make me a fresh batch every week for the lunches that she prepared for me every day. She is really old fashioned and I am thankful, undeserving, but thankful. That sort of thing doesn’t happen when you go to Iraq, though. It wasn’t that the food there wasn’t palatable. I’ve mentioned that. It just wasn’t made with love. 6,000 miles didn’t stop my Jennie, however. She searched online the whole time I was gone to discover ways to help make our lives better. Imagine my surprise when one day I opened a flat rate box and saw a bag filled with chocolate chip cookies that must have been shipped weeks ago. About a third were reduced to crumbs, but those that remained were still fresh. That wasn’t possible. Jennie had read that you can ship cookies and keep them from getting stale by placing torn pieces of white bread in the packaging. The cookies will pull moisture from the bread and arrive weeks later as if they were baked yesterday. Yeah, it really works. When I was at my lowest, around the first Christmas when I was really away in 2005, she was still taking care of me. One of our Sergeants found out his wife had had an affair or left him or something. He was a jerk, but that still sucks. It left a lot of us married guys a bit shaken up. I received a flat rate about that time with “Do not open until Christmas.” The 25th of December rolled around, no special day when every day is exactly the same in Iraq, and I found a quiet corner of the COMM bay. There I saw little baggies filled with weird stuff. There was a CD – “The Sounds of Christmas”, with Christmas music and carols. A bag with little nuts and twigs, cinnamon and pine cones – “The Smells of Christmas”, a photo album with memories of growing up on Christmas morning for the two of us – “The sights of Christmas” as well as the few we had spent together. It was a bittersweet moment, but one that made me appreciate what she meant to me. You really don’t know the peaks of what humans are capable of until you’ve known the love a good woman. I learned that from war and have appreciated it ever since.

The last thing I learned was the value of the friends you make over there. These are a few of the guys from the “Lance Corporal’s Tent”, the guys who were the lowest ranking dudes who just didn’t matter at all in our little tent. We were weird and stupid and had fun just getting each other through. One is a rocker, one a psychiatric casualty, another became one of my lifelong best friends. One nearly got so sick that we thought he was going to die, but he refused to go home. One even lived a whole successful enlistment hiding the fact that he was gay, living a life of service under the auspices of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.

War taught me to respect individuals like these, the warriors themselves. In a modern society like the United States, people are free to join or they are free to go on about their lives peacefully. No one makes you enlist here, so it is strange to imagine that there are people who do it willingly. These people accept risk as a given part of their lives. The possibility of death, be it much smaller than most people realize, is a realistic threat to their future, as is maiming and the potential of injury and psychiatric trauma. No one wants this, but it is an unavoidable acceptance. To be quite honest, those risks far outweigh any benefits like college. There are easier ways if you only want to get a cut-rate education. The pay also sucks, if you haven’t heard. These guys were my friends, but in the grand scope of things, they were much more. They deserved to be called heroes. None of them had to fight either, but I know with absolute certainty, that any one of them put themselves in the places where fighting was necessary. They all did afterall.

In reflection, I realize that these individuals have immense value to the world. Their willingness to sacrifice, if not physically, than of the time with their families and from comfort and security is something special itself. They’re willingness to do unpleasant things to horrible people and suffer themselves in doing so helps ensure a measure of security for others. In that security, prosperity grows, but rarely for the veterans themselves. The very idea that a 19 year old kid from one of the most educated, wealthiest countries on the planet, would give up years of his life, as well as endless opportunities to find enjoyment and comfort, would instead train, suffer, and endure to be armed and equipped to fly all the way over to some other part of world to do whatever his country asks of him, and in doing so scare the piss out of anyone who would raise a weapon against him is something profound. Few people would do that, though we who live safely know that someone must. The fact that kids like that exist still baffles me. Absent the politics, absent the discussion of if we should have gone to war then, or if should go war to now, or in the future, to me, these young men and their willingness to do something is important. They actually do things rather than just talk about things, things that are very important. They voluntarily do them at great personal risk for simple ideals like their country, or freedom, or even just pride. This willingness to do things others wouldn’t for values others only talk about truly showcase the scope of what humanity is capable of and the value of the fighting man to all the rest of us.


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What lessons can people learn from being in a war? Part V

Perception is Reality

bilde“Perception is Reality” was a phrase I heard my senior staff non-commissioned officers say regularly. You may never have heard the sentiment, but if you have ever had a boss walk in on something and immediately come to the worst conclusion they could about you with the few seconds they took to gather evidence on the matter, than you know the feeling. “Perception is Reality” was a military axiom that meant, basically, that if I perceive a thing a certain way, that is the way it is. It was, in general, a cop out to doing more thorough work once enough information was gained to come to some conclusion, whether it was the right one or not.

The original title for this section was “I Learned the Facts Don’t Match People’s Perception”. In my own studies, and in keeping with the idea of discovering what war was not, I had to apply this principle to discover the root causes of the conflict and filter out the media noise involved. That’s why it makes it important to understand that combat is nothing like the movies and the warrior experience is nothing like what is conveyed to watchers. One cannot understand it, and gain wisdom or tactical information about combat from media, because it isn’t designed to display how one should fight. It is designed based on carefully and time tested practices to elicit emotional responses in viewers. For example, there is little talk in movies of the mechanical precisioned choreography that goes into clearing a house, and the repetitive nature of doing so. That would be very boring. I’ve never heard the term “overlapping fields of fire” or mention of units like AMLICO, who specialize in bringing to the fight literally every lethal instrument of precision guided destruction the US military has in range. I’ve never seen the way that 90% of the time, the mission is about pushing the terrorists into a very particular part of the city, all bunched up, then leveling them with artillery or helicopter fire. More often than not, the operations are usually quite methodical, even surgical at times, with relatively little danger to our forces, compared to what most perceive that danger to be.
That is how it is supposed to work. It isn’t that dramatic in practice, most of the time. There isn’t all the emotion and flare for effect. Someone seeking to understand warfare and combat through these media resources will simply never be capable of separating the directors’, writers’, and actors’ desire to make you feel an emotion enough to understand warfare as a real world practice. Absent actual experience or objective research, viewers will be left with will be a very hollow understanding of it means to go to war, why wars are fought, or what it is like to be involved. If this is all a person has, the entertainment experience in media will leave them ill prepared to comment or weigh in on these subjects, should their opinion be requested, or even needed, as is the case with many lobbying firms representing parties with no true understanding of conflict or immediate stake in them. This is the perception of what war means. That means that their limited perception is the only reality they will ever know.

bilde (2)

You might think well of yourself, because you believe none of this will ever matter to you since you have no control over what the military does, or that you never take part in conversations like that anyway. The fact is, your opinion of the war and warriors has far more effect on the lives of these individuals than you think. We’ve all heard someone spout off that people in the military are just a bunch of warmongers, or stupid people who couldn’t cut in the real world. This lovely comment came in a few weeks ago for me.

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…

More educated people might even go so far as to say that jingoist politicians are just sending off kids to get killed, or even debating military ethics and the use of force absent an understanding of military law, culture, tactics, and practice. I’ve even had a college professor make fun of the military for being stupid in a class filled with nineteen year old freshmen, and me as well.Individually people insulting the military or its practices can be dismissed as someone not actually knowing what they are talking about, but en masse, these widely held beliefs become policy. We are seeing this surrounding the debate on limiting the use of drones, while nations like China grow their drone force unchecked and Russia is rumored to be producing the largest stealth bomber in history.

A more important example, which many may relate to, of the negative effects of media on veterans can be seen in hiring practice of many civilian companies. Shows that showcase the token veteran with PTSD (Parenthood) or the hopelessly broken combat vet who will never survive the real world (The Hurt Locker, Brothers), or even well made movies which leave audiences seeing no veteran who is not grievously injured or without psychiatric disabilities from war (American Sniper) leave the average person with a damaged view (read: negative stereotype) of the average person who has served. Their net effect is to make others believe that if you go to war, you will be, at best, one of the few lucky survivors and your experiences will leave you nothing more than a damaged worthless mass of a human, incapable to ever love or function in society again.

This has been shown to affect how often veterans are hired in civilian positions after leaving the military. It has actually been measured that because of the negative bias created by these types of media, military veterans suffer unfair stereotyping and bias in hiring practices. This phenomena began making headlines when USA Today put out an article calling attention to it. Often, managers will look at a resume and say that, “He went to Iraq? He probably has PTSD. He might one day snap and shoot up the office.” The veteran is not hired because of an unfair stereotype no more accurate or just than not hiring an African American or Latino man because he was probably at one time part of a gang. Recent studies have shown that while only 5-20% of combat vets have justified PTSD (about the same as civilians who have experienced car accidents or personal tragedy) it is assumed by many people that most veterans have the ailment. It is called PTSD bias and is most damaging among middle managers who don’t understand the disease.

Researchers from the Center for New American Security, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, interviewed executives of 69 leading corporations, including Bank of America, Target, Wal-Mart, Procter and Gamble, and Raytheon. All said hiring veterans can be good for business, but more than half acknowledged harboring a negative image of veterans because of how popular media — from news coverage to films — portray PTSD.

Recent war vets face hiring obstacle: PTSD bias

Hopefully, this example will show that there is a link between the incorrect assumptions formed by media and actual real world civilians perceptions which affect veterans lives. That said, it’s important to understand the real scope of war. For that reason, I’d like to offer a brief testimonial and some context to apply it to the big picture.

Marines and the United States military put a very high investment into their people and consider using them with great care and risk aversion. This is very good for the American warfighter, but safe is a relative word. I actually did know four people who died in Iraq. One was shot down flying a helicopter. One was killed by an accident on the job and two were killed by improvised explosive devices. The helicopter pilot was our old Executive Officer. He was shot down near Ramadi in his SuperCobra. The second was a Master Sergeant in my unit who worked in Explosive Ordnance Disposal. He found and disabled one bomb, but was unaware of the second one hidden just beyond it. The third was over the Military police who guarded our EOD team. He was just doing his job when an Iraqi ran over him with a van. I don’t even think that was actual combat, and may have just been wretched luck. All three of these were lost early in the deployment and hurt our morale pretty bad for the next few months. The fourth, which happened much later was a close friend who I grew up with since childhood. He wasn’t in my unit, but playing football with him for years makes you grow close. I was proud and happy to hear when he joined the Marines and in hearing of of his loss, I felt great pain. Losing him also hurt my hometown very badly.

Still, none of these men were shot. None of them ever even saw the enemy that took their lives. The closest may have been Major Bloomfield, the pilot. This is a more realistic view of war; not the showdown at the OK Corral type combat engagements. It is so rare that you see a duel between warriors that it is almost not even believable to me when I hear it. Of course, it does happen to many among the infantry, but the overall number of people who will be face-to-face with the person they must kill is unbelievably low. The truth is, most people who take part in action do so through methods that are relatively boring to those who have never trained on it. The more common method in which people were taken out by the US military involved spotters hidden at some vantage point, painting targets for precision guiding bombings, or air strikes from everything from Cobra attack helicopters to Unmanned Aerial Vehicles. House-to-house clearing took place, but mostly as part of individual campaigns and usually wouldn’t result in significant fighting on a day-to-day basis.

That said, the idea that you were “one of the lucky ones” is a really bad war trope and a stereotype of the war experience, in spite of the things I saw and the people we lost. I’ve done a lot of work in this area trying to communicate exactly how unlikely someone is to experience hostile action and death in the line of duty. Few would believe that only about a quarter of the United States military even deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan during the entire span of those conflicts. Fewer yet would believe that if you were to be deployed to one, you would suffer less than a .01% chance of being killed. As bad as my story was, of the four people I knew who died, that represents some tiny percentage of the few thousand people I knew when I was in. I’ve spoken at length about the actual metrics of warfare in What is the true risk of being killed in war? andWhat are some mind-blowing facts about the U.S military?

For that matter, the belief that millions of civilians are killed by war, at least when the Americans are involved, is also more myth and hyperbole than truth. At best, it is speculation that is widely taken as fact. Without addressing this one too specifically, during the time when the Americans were at war, and all the numerous failures that took place within it, the worst two years were only twice as bad for the Iraqi people than the average of Saddam Hussein’s thirty years in power. Consider this and the fact that in the entire span of the “quagmire” that was the Iraq war, roughly the same number of people have been killed in Syria in less than half the time.

Second, there is a belief that the vast majority of those killed were caused by American collateral damage. There are even sites dedicated to implying this. Searching through the actual data shows, however, that most of the civilians killed were not victims of American “collateral damage” at all, but by deliberate strikes by the various terrorist groups trying to sway them politically through fear and subjugation.

Lastly, did you know that, for a time, the war was as good as won? I didn’t hear anything from anyone. The news didn’t mention it. And no, I am not talking about in 2011 with the pull out. That moment just marked the beginning of the next round of bloodshed, I mean in 2007 when everything turned around and violence against civilians in the country returned to prewar levels.

The image above shows the actual death tolls from Iraq. Blue represents people killed attributed to Coalition sources. These are legitimate occurrences of collateral damage in the form of civilian losses. Red represents all the deaths of that war. Note that after the initial invasion that blue number, already the lowest number of civilian casualties in any invasion of this magnitude in history, drops to near zero. Terrorists however, began to use this as a tactic to win battles. This they utilized until 2007 when a new doctrine introduced a revolutionary counter insurgency strategy into the mix. It is disappointing that this long after the event, people still aren’t aware of the effects of the 2007 American Troop “Surge” and the stability it brought to that country. News media had a very important job they failed on delivering.

Basically, in studying the events myself and in educating others, I’ve found that standard media outlets can’t be trusted to deliver accurate portrayals of what is happening. They all fail for one reason or another. Some are designed to fail at this and make their money on the emotions they can pull to the surface, excitement and fear (movies and video games), empathy and action (news and personal outlets). No one really has the job of just understanding the conflict. That is our responsibility, but most of us have better things to do. Perhaps, it isn’t that they have better things to do, but for most, it is just too hard to think about these things. There is a lot of guilt involved in not fighting, but studying about those who did, or worse are fighting now has become so much of an obstacle, that they don’t know where to begin. Most avoid the guilt by ignoring the realities while others take it in passing by watching entertainment disguised as military interest pieces. People need to get over this aversion to study and start trying to understand the deep level mechanics of war as well as understanding the facts and metrics by which they are measured. For this, we have to start putting away the emotional responses to warfare and begin our research with some semblance of objectivity on the matter. Otherwise, our emotions will betray us and we will be so ignorant of the signs of war happening that we won’t see it the next time it comes around again.



As a side note, while I have the floor and am on the subject of civilian mortality, I’ve always found it odd that the standard trope is that the Americans make terrorists because we are killing the fathers of little Iraqi children who go on to become terrorists in retribution. The data would indicate, however, that there are many more civilians murdered by terrorists than could ever be attributed to the Americans. One would have to wonder why this logic doesn’t create a new army of counter-terrorists fighting to stabilize the region or at least be effective at murdering the terrorists. We could say that this type of revenge killing is going on, but in seeing the fanatical barbarity of groups like ISIL, we have to wonder why there isn’t more of a revenge based uprising, in sticking to the original logic of “America created the terrorists”. Eventually, this sort of thinking makes us realize that terrorists like ISIL don’t face this retribution because their victims are simply too terrified. They have been fully subjugated. If we continue on, we see the inverse of this philosophy, being the Americans, and one starts to wonder if the solution to this failed line of thinking was just for the Americans and Coalition to act with the same brutality of monsters like the Islamic State.

“But wait!” you say. “There is another way! We should take this evidence you have collected to show that America intervening at all was wrong. If they hadn’t intervened, none of this would have ever happened.” While I am sure that there are many who would believe that, there is another point which must be considered. As I said before, the worst of the Iraq War was only twice as bad as the average year under Saddam. That said, we have to ask who the original terrorists were. I’ll save you the research, they were primarily people who had lost power when the regime was in place and who now want it back. To be more clear, they were people who had significant control, power, and privilege under the Sunni lead, Baathist regime. To leave no uncertainty in my message, those who bombed civilian hospitals, schools, and shopping centers filled with their own people in 2005 were the same people who headed major departments of the government, military, and religious networks in 2002. If left alone, what would prevent them from conducting yet another Al-Anfal Campaign ( 150,000 civilians massacred from 1986 to 1989) or the draining of the marshlands and the complete destruction of the Marsh Arabs? Those who argue that we should never have intervened are arguing that the Iraqi would somehow be better off in the hands of people who willingly killed them just to make a point.


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What lessons can people learn from being in a war? Part III

Fear Inoculation

Fear inoculation is exactly what it sounds like. It is a process of becoming partially immune to the effects of fear. Lt. Col Dave Grossman describes in his books On Combat and On Killing, it is the experiences, conditioning and training to deal with events which would cause fear or stress and managing them to a level your body and mind can handle. Fear, causes people to forget things. It causes a reduction in the amount of blood reaching the brain and reduces the effectiveness of our vital sensory inputs. Fear makes your body do many, many things that it shouldn’t to maintain your effectiveness in high stress situations. Basically, fear makes you a stupid sack of meat. It is put perhaps the best in the science fiction classic Dune,

“Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.”

I’m not saying that Marines and soldiers are some sort of superhero caricatures of real people who can’t feel fear. It’s quite the opposite. These are people who go into some of the worst periods of places where it is impossible to not feel fear. General George Patton even said, “All men are frightened. The more intelligent they are, the more they are frightened.” I tend to agree. Since their jobs force them into intense periods of fear, though, it is necessary to develop mechanisms to suppress and manage your fear. Perhaps an example would be more appropriate.

I have a phobic reaction to heights. I don’t like being near balconies or high places where all there is preventing my fall is my ability to not somehow stumble off the wall or guardrail. I recently had this sensation when visiting a local historic watchtower overlooking our local lake. When I say I have a phobic reaction, I mean that when I am in these situations I can feel my heart rate spike, my breathing changes, and I get cold and perhaps a bit sweaty in the course of a single minute. I know that my fear is also not rational because I can reason that I won’t possibly accidentally trip and stumble off the four foot wall on the edge of that tower. I’ll still go up there, because my wife, completely immune to heights, likes the view. I even can acknowledge that it is a beautiful scene of the lake, but I can’t enjoy it. My body tells me this is a time to be afraid, whether it really is or not. That is a phobia.

So it surprises me that, when I needed to, I willingly stood on the edge of a fifty foot tower, leaned over and jumped off. Repelled is the more correct  term. Either way, heights are one of my greatest fears, yet I jumped off a tower for no other reason than that someone who I knew wouldn’t kill me told me to with nothing but a rope and a fall, which might. This process I would later come to realize, was the Marine Corps training me time and time again to overcome my fears and find a way to perform. While I still use it to go with my wife to be with her while she enjoys a view I very much do not, it was put in me for a very different reason. The Repel Tower, along with many other exercises in warrior training was intended to help Marines survive the wars they may face with some degree of mental clarity.

When I actually went to war I remember the first time I was really afraid. Years later, I realized how this worked. The first time I ever received indirect fire, a rocket attack on the base, I was naturally very scared. It was my first week in Iraq. It was a loud boom that you could feel, like the feeling of standing near a massive drum in a small room. We all scurried to our pre-planned locations. This wasn’t a new thing in 2005 so everyone knew what to do, at least, enough people knew what to do that the rest were able to follow along easily. I followed a Corporal who made his way to one of the bunkers. I didn’t know how long we would be there or if we were still in danger, or what came next. I remember being confused and a bit frustrated at how cavalier the Corporal was about the attack. I remember geared up and sitting under the concrete bunker, built for such purposes. After a long time, I turned to my Corporal and asked him, “Isn’t someone going to go after them?” He just laughed at me without saying anything.

The truth was, there was nothing we could do about the guys with rockets. Those rockets were ingenious little devices set to go off long after the person who set it up had gone home. By the time the blast hit, he was probably at home watching The View. It was a popular show back then. They were also fired from the center of the town of Habbaniyah down below the base, so we couldn’t just blanket the area with artillery fire, because that would be like using a grenade on an ant hill to kill one ant. There was nothing we could do about it. The constant threat of enemy rocket attacks was just something we were going to have to deal with.

So we did. I remember many days when my good friend and fellow comrade at arms Cody Solley would be asleep in our tent and an explosion would go off somewhere on the base. I’d roll over lazily and say to him, “Did that sound like inbound or outbound?” and he would say that it sounded more like us firing at them. “Good.” and I would try to go back to sleep. Moments later, the sirens would cry and we would angrily roll out of our cots, don our protective armor, grab our weapons and make our way to whatever rally point we were instructed to go, the whole time muttering colorful expletives about the stupid terrorists ruining our sleep.

While I fully accept that this story demonstrates how utterly complacent we had become, it also showcases how inoculated to the fear of being struck with one of these rockets or mortars we had become. After telling this story to others who didn’t go through it, people have told me that they don’t know how they would have ever been able to deal with the not knowing. They said that it would be terrifying not knowing if death would just come from anywhere at any time. I thought that was more dramatic than the situation deserved, but there were cases of people that definitely succumbed to this kind of pressure. There also were some casualties throughout the base, and several people I knew had close calls, but mostly just damage to the base itself. The church was hit, as was the mosque, and my blessed chow hall once, as well. The flight line was hit numerous times and as I understand, at least one of the birds was taken out. The worst we saw was a relay hub where a large number of our cabling and communication equipment was taken out, disrupting communications through half the base. That was a bad few weeks, especially for the wire guys. I can think of one person who most certainly lost his wits under the stress, though there were other factors, as well. As for those of us that were able to adapt, we knew not to let it trouble us and were able to focus on our work, in spite of the random timing and locations of these attacks. It could have come at any moment, that was true, and I can see many people being unnerved by that, but we had been conditioned to the point that they were really just nuisance.

I think this is an important time to mention the importance of training for the military. I’ve gone in very deep on the importance of boot camp as well as rationalizing how crazy it is to people who haven’t gone through it in What is U.S. Marine Corps boot camp like? The synopsis of that answer can be found in the first line:

“It is a place where you have to train 18 year olds to run to the sound of gunfire and perform under fire and the threat of death.”

One of the most intriguing descriptions I have seen for Marine Corps Boot Camp is in the way it conditions its warriors towards focused aggression and repression of fear through combat conditioning. Combat conditioning isn’t the same as working out. Regularly recruits are put into situations which simulate high stress, fear inducing events, whether it is jumping off a tower or being yelled at by six different people for minor infractions. Recruits face nonstop situations where they will be tested under extreme stress levels. This isn’t anything like test anxiety, or deadline anxiety. I can state for a fact that we can still fail at those like anyone else. This is high impact stress where in the course of two minutes a person can go from completely calm to a heartbeat of 180 beats per minute. At that heart rate, usually only brought on by the fear of death, extreme exercise or in the sultrous throws of passion (which better be seriously good since you are close to dying from it) much of the brain and body stops working predictably. You lose fine motor control, some of your senses may fail or deceive you, and you might only be capable of thinking at the very base level of mammalian instinct. The Marines train in this environment, know how to induce it under safe conditions and expect the recruit to dismantle and put back together a weapon consisting of numerous extremely tiny parts in under a minute while in it.

This type of training doesn’t just focus on higher order thinking. That is there as well. Military history, customs and courtesies, structure, communications systems, first aid, weapon characteristics, and all manner of scholastic knowledge will be trained. An example would be re-calculating the trajectory of an object traveling at 3,110 ft/s for a three inch change in elevation at 5 times the length of a standard football field when factoring in for wind speed and direction as well as differences in elevation. That’s basic rifle marksmanship. Marine Corps boot camp goes deeper, though. They focus also on mid-brain thinking. This is the mammalian brain and the one where most of our innate, instinctual reactions come from. You might think that because I said, “instinctual”, that one can’t train it, but you would incorrect.
Combat science has shown that most of the time a kill is rendered in combat for infantry, it is a reactionary response. This means that to prepare warriors, you have to train them to react to dangerous situations, not to rationalize their way through them. Essentially, modern militaries know that their soldier is being pitted not against the rationality of the other soldier, but against their enemy’s innate instinctive responses, trained in the middle brain. Under ideal situations, they will be able to take a well aimed shot from cover and concealment at a time of their choosing, but more likely for the young infantryman, they face the danger of needing to react faster than they can think of what to do. To do this, the Marines use numerous operant conditioning mechanisms that reward their reactions to stimulus and condition them to ignore non-important information instinctively. This channels their brain’s cognitive abilities to react to stimulus and building the same neural pathways connecting their reactionary subconscious brain to their bodies muscle receptors. This means that when the training is applied correctly, a person can recognize a target from a non-target, sight in and kill the bad guy, before the average person would rationalize that they are in danger. Yeah.

I’ve made a point of promoting training as the single most important trait that businesses should learn from the military. I’m not saying that businesses should start pushing their accountants off of buildings to see how they handle mid-April or that we should scream at the receptionist for messing up the coffee, but the Marines and most modern militaries have mastered training not only a of a Marine’s ability to analyze a situation when calm is allowed, but to even groom the other parts of the brain to function when it isn’t. This is happening when most civilian companies are wasting millions of dollars in human resources on recruiting because they still pride themselves on a “Sink or Swim” model of management from the nineteenth century. It isn’t that sometimes it doesn’t work, but usually it will just ensure an unnecessarily high turnover rate and fearful company culture, rife with paranoia, politics, and unproductive competition. This isn’t because it is a better system, but because civilians don’t have experience of a better model. While this feels tangential, I can honestly say that I have had a profound respect for the Marines’ education system of training its individuals for success after seeing the failures of the business world, even very successful companies, in this regard. The United States Marines are one of the most successful organizations on the planet because of their training, which doesn’t make them fearless, but which makes them immensely competent under stress. I only really realized after the war and one only really appreciates it when he is wondering what to write in this article, and can think clearly enough to find inspiration from the top of a very, very tall tower.


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What lessons can people learn from being in a war? Part II

You Learn How to Eat Anything Put in Front of You

There is a lot of truth to Dan Rosenthal‘s quip that grown men will wait in line for a juice box and some reheated macaroni to eat in the dirt. When you are starving and have been working in some of the most inhospitable conditions imaginable, food tastes really good, regardless of what it actually tastes like. I’ve always said the best flavors on any food are free and starving. You’ll eat anything, even the artificially tasteless food given out by the food preparation experts that were the cooks. It was apparently like that because people could be allergic to things with flavor, so why bother and just remove all of them. Regardless, even they tasted delicious depending on what you had endured for the last few days. Essentially, flavor is inversely related to suffering endured. Remember that. It might save your life.

I remember when I first arrived in Iraq I went to the dinner one day with one of my Corporals and the two Gunnies. The Gunnies were much more experienced than either us and this was far from their first war. Still, everything was new to me. I was surprised to see the size and scale of the chow hall. There is a few moments of cognitive dissonance when you enter the chow halls in Iraq. They are much larger and more effort put into them than anything you endured during training. It was better than what was offered in Yuma training, anyway. I stood in line and took what was offered. There was something fried and something green. Fork ready, I sat down and prepared to eat when the Corporal among us asked me if I knew what it was I was eating. He pointed to the fried nugget like objects on the plate. I looked, examined, and thought for a second. I hadn’t the foggiest clue.

“You know, I don’t care. I expect you to tell me they are fried goat intestines or camel testicals or something, but I just don’t care at this point. I’m hungry and they’re fried so I am going to eat them.”

I took my fork and skewered one, put it in my mouth, and attempted to identify the flavor. I wasn’t successful, but it wasn’t bad. So I went on to eat another.

“Oh… well, they’re mussels… like what people scrape off the side of ships.”

“Hmm…” I said with the mystery meat still filling my mouth. “Well, that’s not so bad when you go in assuming it was fried camel balls now is it?”

The Gunnies just laughed.

The truth was, I was always a very picky eater until I joined the Marine Corps. That said, in the worst of times, food was actually pretty good. Maybe by the end of boot camp I just wasn’t that picky anymore. During training it was bland, but bland isn’t exactly the same as bad. It’s just eh. By 2005 MREs, Meal Ready to Eat, are pretty good unless you just have really bad luck. You can mix and match, trade up and there was even a cookbook that circulated on how to juryrigg oddly appetizing if not aesthetically displeasing concoctions. For instance, cocoa powder and creamer make pudding! And you can make grilled cheese with spreadable cheese, two breads and the engine block of a humvee as well. Let that depressing thought boil for a minute. Perhaps it was just something you get used to, but I enjoyed them most of the time.

What I actually miss was the chow halls. Yes, I miss them and those who have been over understand. I wanted to mention this because this fact would probably surprise most people who have the wrong idea of what the war was like. If you were lucky enough to be on one of the big bases for a while you would get to eat at the chow halls which were these massive cafeterias. They served food so good I was actually in a state of shock that this was what war was like. I’m really serious about this and most won’t believe, but we had steak every week and the first time I ever experienced lobster or pecan praline ice-cream was in Iraq. I know that wasn’t everyone’s experience, but as I said, I was lucky.

I have heard since coming back that a lot of people are angry about this. Most Marines will tell you about how they had it so much worse. Most really didn’t since the majority never even went to Iraq and still a lot would never want to admit that we had it this good. That said, there were many who had it really rough, and I respect that. Getting sent out to Hit or Camp Korean Village in 2005 was no small achievement and the accommodations, even two years into the war were, shall I say, not yet 5 star quality. That said, if that is one of you reading this, really, my heart goes out to you. You have the gratitude of the nation for what you endured. Congratulations. Here is your medal and a cookie. Please pass the ketchup.

Having said all that, many people who never deployed, as well as many who were never part of the military at all, cry foul at the egregious spending of the Department of Defense on $50 dinners for the military. I don’t know if those figures are an exaggeration or not, or just some idiot who took the military’s entire food budget, including facilities, staff, transportation, plus food and then just divided it by individual meals. I also don’t know people just don’t understand how logistically hard it is to get food that passes American health standards in that sort of quantity to warzones, but if you are one of those people who think there is something wrong with the fact, perhaps you should consider this. Literally the best thing that could happen to me on any given day was having waffles with peanut butter smothered in hot syrup with a side of eggs and an orange for breakfast. Imagine that. That isn’t just a good breakfast, that is the guaranteed to be the best thing that will happen to me that day. The only good things I could imagine on most days revolved around food and phone calls. I hadn’t seen my wife in months. I lived in a tent, slept on a cot, my roommate didn’t bathe, my bosses were [expletives deleted], and I caught athletes foot a month ago from the showers that I will never get rid of. I hadn’t had a day off since I got here and oh, did I mention that we got bombed on a semi-regularly basis? This meal and more importantly, the twenty minutes of renewing socialization where my friends and I can unwind, is all we have. What more do you want to take away from us?

That question aside, there is a rational reason for the “enormously superfluous” spending of the US military on the grounds of food. Basic comforts, where they could be controlled, greatly affect troop morale. During Vietnam and World War II, the vast majority of people who became casualties were not because they suffered gorey bullet and shrapnel wounds. They weren’t casualties in the normal way respected by non-military folk, but were actually psychiatric casualties succumbing to stresses far outside the expected normal human experience. As it turns out, the Brits may have solved this first in World War I where they would cycle troops out of the trenches every ten days or so to the rear where they could have hot food and showers for a few days before going back. It seemed that they were the first to fight a war like that without suffering the impossible to imagine psychological damage that we are only now starting to understand. Basically, food isn’t really a luxury. I was surprised how often, during times when we would be way, way out there in extremely inconvenient conditions, some officer would go so far out of his way to make sure we had “hot” chow. I didn’t feel we needed all the attention, but sometimes, Hell itself couldn’t stop these men. After researching and understanding the mental effects of war on warriors, I’m starting to see that they did this for more than just purely altruistic good leadership. In those situations, it may be another inoculation, this time against future mental breakdown from prolonged poor morale in the middle of a warzone.

So the next time you hear someone say that it’s stupid that people in a war zone are getting to eat so good, at least consider that there is probably more to that decision than that the General just likes ice cream. Perhaps you should remind the person complaining so much that spending a little on food for a deployed service member is far less than spending on a lifetime of potential psychiatric disability payouts. It might actually do well to remind them that at the end of the day, they still get to go home while probably never feeling the pressures military guys feel the moment they leave the chow hall.


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What lessons can people learn from being in a war?

The recent documentary The November War asks the question, “Do you believe a warrior ever truly comes back from war, or will a part of him always remain there?” This question is asked by the documentary maker, himself a veteran of the Second Battle of Fallujah, to fellow members of his platoon ten years after their experiences in the battle that changed the direction of that war. There was no clear answer given by the Marines, but they all agreed that warfare and battle do have a permanent change on the warrior who goes through them.

As far as real lessons, I don’t know. I can’t say there are very many brief bullet points, rules of thumbs, or quiet meditations that can be summed up in few words that describe what one learns from war. None that I know that are meaningful absent the context behind them. It isn’t that you won’t learn from war. War is one of the most fundamentally evolutionary events that a person can endure, and something so uncommon for most people that there is ample opportunity to gain wisdom from the experience. It’s just that no one experiences it the same. It will have a profound effect on you and what you take from it can be many different things. I think, for my experiences at least, a person can’t come back the same as he was before war. It will change you. It can grow you and it can take things away from you. Many come back worse for the experience, while others are given direction for life, a sense of purpose or a new understanding of the world which people who haven’t been a part of the war will never understand. It took many years to realize it and come back to a state of normalcy after my time in Iraq, but I am glad for the opportunity to do what few would undertake willingly. I believe I am a better person for it, not for any particular lesson I might take from the event, but just for the complete change it gave me.

Before I go any further, I want to make sure to clarify that I am not, by my own definition, a “combat veteran.” I was deployed to Iraq twice in 2005 and 2007 in places very near where the fighting was going on. 27 kilometers from my base was Fallujah, 10 as the crow flies, which then was a hotbed of terrorist activities. Surrounding the base in other directions, the insurgent cities of Habbaniyah, and Ramadi. The second time I went I was on a base between the cities of Hit, Al Baghdadi. and Haditha. Though these regions were center to Al Anbar and Nineveh provinces, known to the military as the Sunni Triangle and the source of the worst resistance, I myself, never saw combat. I was part of a unit that oversaw base operations for Marine helicopter units which would fly out to all these cities and help infantry win battles as well as the army’s evacuation teams. My role was very far behind whatever lines of combat existed.  The worst I ever saw were a few rockets land a hundred yards or so from where I was, which were scary but not immediately dangerous by the time I was aware of them, as well as the midnight care flights of dead warriors being flown out of Al Anbar in black bags bound for home long after the heat of battle had subsided. I never came face-to-face with any enemy and never had a need to fire my weapon in anger. I was trained and equipped with all the tools and willingness to fight, but always needed just on the precipice of where fighting was happening.

Though for many, this disqualifies much of my experience as irrelevant to warfare, I am thankful for having had the opportunity to be so near the fighting, but never be fully blooded by it. I feel fortunate that my experiences allowed me to be a part of war while not becoming overwhelmed by it. Though I was ashamed of my passive role for many years, I now realized it gave me the intense training and viewpoints to survive it, while affording me the objective distance to view warfare less as an event, and more as a science of humanity and a practical thing which must be studied and understood. I could objectify it and understand it, while not being overly jaded and traumatized by it. Because of this, I have been able to gain an understanding that many combat veterans are too close to see and that most civilians could never fathom. In the last several years since my war has ended, for me at least, I have been able to use this to help others understand the truth of war, and have been extremely fortunate to help other veterans come to peace with their experiences, as well.

I appreciate The Huffington Post for asking myself and others this question and providing me with the impetus to share what war has taught me in as complete a single place as I can. I’ll warn though, if a simple Top 10 Lessons Warriors Gain From War three minute read was what they wanted, they have come to the wrong place. These warriors, many my fellow veteran friends on Quora, have shown this to be one of the few questions capable of producing volumes without ever being complete. My answer will be no different. My belief is that if one truly wants to gain understanding of experiences so unique and so important to the world they live, they had better be prepared to endure the full scope of the pandora’s box they have opened. That said, years of research and reflection on the matter have left me with much to say, some of which I would like to share with you now.

How would Marines judge Colonel Jessep in the movie “A Few Good Men”?

A few good men can be summed up for Marines in the speech by Col. Jessup. You seriously need to watch it to get any of what I am about to say.

The climax of the movie, the famous minute and half “You can’t handle the truth” scene, is so loaded with theatrical and thematic nuggets of gold that it renders the rest of this great movie feel like a waste of time by comparison. I think that this movie it is a wonderful display of a subculture built on the mentalities of violence necessary for its success and survival, that is unable to coexist or to even be understood by the larger culture which birthed it. Full Metal Jacket and Rules of Engagement are also two great movies to get that experience.

The premise of the movie is based off the unintentional murder of a young Marine. The progress of the movie goes into a very deep story that eventually leads to one Marine’s death as a result of a secret disciplinary action, the “Code Red”. The Code Red was carried out by two junior Marines to forcibly improve one of their members. I even paused when I wrote murder. Murder wasn’t the intention, but the outcome. This is an extreme example and, of course, we don’t actually go this far in disciplining each other. We have at one time used various degrees of the off the books discipline, but never in my experience was physical violence part of that. Usually it means cleaning after you should have gone home or doing the platoons scut work. I want that much on the record.

In the end, Col. Jessup is arrested. The moral is fitting. Perhaps we can’t defend America if we have to give up our humanity to do it. What’s important though, is to see this from the Marine’s point of view. Really this may be the view of any warrior in a country like America. Sometimes we feel like we don’t belong anymore. There is a point when you have been in long enough you start to realize that it takes some very difficult choices to be a Marine. You have to first get over this moral problem of killing people and that is just the start of the journey.

Eventually you have to accept your role in life. Your very presence is something that, whether you fight or not, is meant to instill fear and demoralize anyone who would think about fighting the United States or harming its people from doing so. That is our purpose and to do so we have to be incredibly violent, scary men willing to do terrible things to people in order to protect that country, if only because of our reputation.

But this isn’t really acceptable behavior, not by normal people’s standards. In my answer to Under what, if any circumstances, is war morally justifiable? I touch on this (and actually reference this speech by Col. Jessup). My answer to that question was “A war is morally justifiable when the alternative to it is the destruction of your people or their way of life.” Someone didn’t like that answer. He asked me questions like:

“Are we one species, one world, one genus, yes or no?” and  “Just because their way of life is different?” and then decides “War is never morally justifiable, except when your very life, or the life of one of your children who are unable to defend themselves. War is deep rooted arrogance, greed, fear, nationalism and patriotism.  And wrong.  Just like Col Jessup.  The walls defenders should stand on should be around their own homes.  Not in some far off country.  That’s not defense, no matter how it’s painted.  It is either attack or revenge.”

This isn’t war. It’s self-defense. I don’t agree with him there. It is war, just one that isn’t done very well and lacking any real chance of defending the ones you love.

Yes, we are all the same species, however, we are not animals. We have cultures, religions, values, systems of law and different things that makes us enjoy life while add value to it. Each culture on Earth also enjoys the freedom to have all of these differently than anyone else. At the point that someone attacks not just me, not just my family, but other people like me, my country for example, then I am willing to make war on that person. This is a choice they made and the consequence of it. This is war, as a means of self-defense. But this is what you are missing, but the time that an enemy has already made their way to your homeland and endangered your family, they are already capable of inflicting ungodly amounts of harm on all the people around you.

Furthermore, if you are just a guy on a roof with a gun protecting yourself from whatever might be out there, you will lose. You will be outmaneuvered. You will be targeted. You will be killed and your family along with you. You’d be the most morally justified victim in history, but you would be dead nonetheless. This isn’t war, it’s a form of suicide. This is why we have armies. This is why we have the Marine Corps. This is why we fight wars at our enemies’ homeland and not our own. War must happen somewhere else if you don’t want your own people to suffer, and quite honestly and fairly I don’t want my people to suffer as much when there is the option to make war elsewhere. By the time someone is making war on you in your home it is already too late. That is why when we face a threat we handle it there.

Frankly, it is the reasoning of a person who calls out the military, or rather those willing to protect you and everyone else you know, as arrogant, ignorant warmongers [he did]. This is not only ungrateful to the fullest degree, but the reasoning of a coward who is too afraid to defend himself and his loved ones while resting comfortably and verbally attacking those rougher men who do.

Look. Whether you like to believe it or not, if you are using a computer that you own in a comfortable house, with internet connection, and you have the time to write your opinions, you are better off than at least 90% of the world. And many of those 90% would love to take from you what makes you happy and comfortable. A few are even organized enough to do it. The only real protection you have from that small bit of the world who are less fortunate, but more violent than yourself, are two oceans and a very large, very powerful military. Most of the world experiences war first-hand often. It is the most real condition that humanity has had since before recorded history began. To say that it is wrong because you don’t like it is childish, because there are so many others who, very happily would make war on you if given the opportunity.

Now, your statement that “only self defense is appropriate” is another subject altogether. You are a person who sleeps comfortably beneath the veil of security provided by rough men and women while declaring your position the moral high ground. This is absurd. You know good and well, as well as everyone who will ever read this, you will never be faced with an opportunity to need to defend yourself. You have a happy life. Be thankful.

While there are people of every country who swear to defend everyone in their country; the children, the beggars, the nurses, the teachers, the grandmothers, the prisoners, the firemen, the tall, the brown, people like you, and every single other person in their country, you say that it is rightonly to protect yourself and your immediate household. This isn’t morality. This is self-centered, selfish and cowardly. The fact that you refer to the people who are part of war as acting out of “arrogance, greed, fear” is incomprehensible. You have obviously spent a great deal of time justifying your position, without actually considering the reality of the world. So enjoy your moral high ground. It may be paved with gold, but it is really just a glorified pile of garbage.

This conversation goes on much more, especially later on when it is picked up by Feifei Wang, whom I am now a major fan of. Great job Faye. But I have already gone far enough off topic.

You see the conversation I had with the moral man is one that I have to think about all the time. People disagree with the war, or war in general or with civilians who die or with Marines and soldiers who lose and start to go into a place where they believe that the military is evil or unjust or wrong for existing. They forget that there are powers out there who very clearly want them to die and all that stops them is the idea that there are people out there who are well trained, well funded, highly motivated, vicious, angry and unforgiving enough to cross the entire planet to find them and kill them.

I’ve mentioned before that being a Marine is at times resenting the civilian population for not taking part in what we are experiencing. We do. We can’t talk about it, but we think about it on a cold night in a desert in some place no one you know can find on a map. We think about how we have tried to rationalize war in our minds, yet how the people we went to high school with are at college, or at the mall, or with their families and why is it that I am not? Why is it that I am here and they are safe and free and warm? Why is it that they are questioning me in doing this, or painting me as some sort of villain? What happened to the victory gardens or the war bonds of WWII? Does anyone really care that we are still here?

And then it all comes full circle. “Because I am willing. I want to go and fight so that my family doesn’t feel danger and so that my friends can be happy. I want to preserve my way of life for one more generation so that my kids can one day have the chances and opportunities I do. I am willing to stand on Col Jessup’s wall and do those things that moral men and polite people turn away from in polite conversation. And though no one will understand why or think about how there has to have been some other way, I am willing to do it.” That is why I always loved this movie, because no one really got what Jessup was saying. No one else really feels it.

To the common viewer who watches this movie in their comfortable living room Col Jessup is a barbarian. There is a darkness in him they can’t understand and fear ever being able to. He is a cold and vicious man willing to do anything for the mission. Marines who watch it always quietly smile and agree.

Was it wrong to order a young Marine to be beaten for his failures? Yes. Today he would probably just administratively separated, but that doesn’t make for good story. Whatever you viewpoints on Col. Jessup, be he right or wrong in his decision, I obviously view it as wrong, but I see where he was coming from, the film’s closing was correct in how it viewed the morality of the matter.


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 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.


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