The recent documentaryasks 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 appreciatefor 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.
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 possiblyaccidentally 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 armsCody 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.
You Learn What War Isn’t
Before I went to Iraq, I believed that my experience in the war would be filled with pain, anguish, sorrow, loss, and destruction. I imagined that I would “lose a lot of good people”, while I, however, would somehow be leading some glorious come from behind charge against a bloodthirsty horde of terrorist gunmen. These were fantasies. I could not have been more wrong in this portrayal of what warfare and combat actually was as depicted from my fellow Marines, the testimonials and after action reports I have studied, and the training I took part in and led. In looking back, it isn’t that difficult to find the source of my misconception. Most of my views of warfare, real face-to-face warfare, even as a young Marine, were still built off the perceptions given to me by movies and television I watched, the video games I played, the books I read, and even the news. It would take a lot of living through a real war to undo the damage these media sources would give me in relation to understanding what a real person would experience if they went to one.
After years of America at war, this phenomenon of societal ignorance hasn’t improved much in spite of the presence of millions of new veterans capable to serve either as military advisers, or harsh critics of your work if you don’t bother listening. At the top of my hit list were movies like the Hurt Locker and Brothers. I’ve spoken often about these abominations for being everything wrong with the entertainment industry where topics like warfare and veterans are concerned. These two especially take advantage of actual veterans’ issues while recklessly blowing all dramatic elements out of proportion, not in a way that brings awareness to these issues, but just as a way to garner attention from military sympathizers and awards. Their filmmakers were opportunists, at best.
In spite of these shameful misrepresentations of combat and the people who take part in it professionally, movies like the Hurt Locker went on to win 98 major industry awards, in part, for their “Gritty realism and attention to detail” to quote one non-veteran critic.
Even well done movies, like Black Hawk down, based off the book that is the single greatest retelling of actual battlefield events in our generation, perhaps ever, and the newly minted American Sniper didn’t do justice to how it actually is for the vast majority of us who take part in war. I even recently gave
Then I have to account for their perceptions brought about by their source of military education, i.e. games like Call of Duty. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy games, and appreciate how much further the COD franchise has pushed the technology and improved the art form, but that isn’t warfare. Take, for example, the fact that most missions involve you killing more people than the current record holder for kills mentioned previously in American Sniper. It’s just very unrealistic in that representation and leaves kids, let alone adults, with an even worse understanding of what war was like than even those just watching movies and TV as their main source of information. This argument is set aside from the fact that games utilize embedded operant conditioning mechanisms, such as those described by the groundbreaking Professor of Psychology B. F. Skinner, to reward players for violent acts which dehumanize the act of killing in combat and warfare.
The news was no better. Honestly. If I were someone who received all my knowledge from the news I would believe that war was a never ending death spiral where no one has ever been better off from it and where I was actually fated to die in a quagmire of death and destruction. Numerous historians and social scientists have shifted their view on this belief of the unnecessary futility of War in general after looking at the history and evidence of events that one would consider were productive wars. Productive wars exist when threats push different groups together into stronger, more cohesive and more stable societies to deal with the dangers they face. One could look at the existence of the United States, once a collection of different and unrelated colonies as evidence of this, as could we view the evolution of all nations following the end of World War II. No one has articulated this idea of productive war better than Stanford Professor Ian Morris in his book War! What is it Good For?
News doesn’t communicate this though. They don’t communicate what needs to be understood, but what gets people attention and may be true. These are not necessarily the same. What I never understood was why more attention was given to mothers of war dead than the war itself. How is this person going to help people understand the conflict? What can she add to the discussion about strategic gains and losses on the ground? What can she add to the understanding of the mentalities and motivations of the people who killed her son? Nothing, she was brought there to make people upset and emotional, because that improves ratings. Her pain and suffering, far too intense to be considered an objective opinion, is being used as is PTSD in movies. Sometimes, it isn’t even about political bias, which it is far too often, but just news media misrepresenting events on the ground so that it drives views and thereby increasing the value they have to advertisers. It’s a bit disgraceful when you consider how much the news actually fails at their job of giving people executable knowledge of what is going on.
What war is actually like, is a long, slow grind of day-to-day drudgery, speckled with intermittent bursts of high impact stress. The vast majority of us view it as horrific in its scale of boredom and time spent away from family and society, rather than the carnage one expects. From time to time, it is only interrupted by a few moments of intense stress. Before long, you forget that you are in a completely different part of the world, by many definitions. The experiences and familiarities of your other life begin to fade away, like the smells of sea water or of the forest, along with the subtleties of the faces of loved ones. You just start to forget all the important details as you acclimate to this place where the smells of home begin to take on the smells of war, those ofEventually, war for you feels just like another home – a horrible home, like what I imagine being raised with an abusive father, negligent mother and in condemned tenements on the other side of the railroad tracks, but a home nonetheless. The biggest danger we face are our bosses becoming monsters, mostly through their own boredom or the fact that they received a letter from their wife/girlfriend/fiance/baby mama bringing them drama which we must pay for. Most of the time, the enemy is each other. You’ll find yourself planning out “I bet I could get away with it if…” scenarios by the third month and by the fifth, 90% of your free thinking has been devoted to fantasizing of glorious night long love making in the arms of your lover, or whomever will have you upon your return. You don’t feel you are in any real danger, despite the scholarly knowledge that one of the most violent battles of the decade is happening only 30 miles away. For most, there is no combat involved. Most of us will never fire our weapons in anger, and probably never see this enemy we’ve worked so hard to hate. These are the long tail of people who facilitate the fighters like the infantry and pilots. Even for most of them, at some point, you realize that besides getting to call home for a bittersweet “Hello, how was your day?” and six thousand mile goodnight kisses, the only real thing you look forward to at the end of the day is throwing papers into the burn barrel. They no longer have a strategic purpose, but hold classified information that you just don’t want to possibly be intercepted in the trash. So you just watch them burn, stir them with your stick, add more fluid. This is the new ESPN.
What is the net effect of all this? Every year, one of my students will eventually ask the question, “Mr. Davis, have you ever killed anybody?” to which I always reply back, “There are no good answers to that question. One, ‘No I haven’t.’ which you will be disappointed to hear, because I have failed to live up to your ideal of what a warrior was supposed to be. I have failed because I have not done what, to most is the most traumatic and most life changing thing that can be done, snuffing out the hopes, dreams, potential, and value of another human being. Two, ‘Yeah, it was really terrible.’ Now, the person who used to teach you Geography will forever no longer be a person, but will be a killer. This person who I used to love and admire, or at least tolerate, I am no longer comfortable with, because there is something wrong about one who kills. Three, ‘Yes, and it was great’. This human now terrifies me. There is no good way for the veteran to answer this question because society, at its core, has conditioned responses against every answer he might give.”
*(Seriously, though, everyone should see The November War. It’s on Youtube andby actual Iraq veterans that also include links to the movie.)
Perception is Reality
“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.
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.
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.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.
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 inand
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 ofcounter-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( 150,000 civilians massacred from 1986 to 1989) or the draining of the marshlands and the complete destruction of the ? 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.
The war changed me. When I arrived in Iraq, I was 19. At that point, they were the bad guys, I was one of the good guys. What more was there to understand? Then one day came around where I asked myself on a cold night in Iraq somewhere around the winter of 2005, what am I doing here? Not in the sense of why was I serving my country, not even in the sense of what was America doing here. I mean why is it that people from this part of the world were the way they were that they would willingly fly a plane to their doom just to make a point? What was the motivation of these people? What did they care about? Why would they kill each other, as I have pointed out, in far greater numbers than us? Where the f*** am I?
It was on that night that, for the first time, I realized how drastically my educational upbringing had failed me. It appears that having a few years of government and world history classes ran mostly by individuals who were more concerned with recent sports scores, had not prepared me with the necessary knowledge to tackle such dilemmas of geopolitical importance. Back then, only 10 years ago, I’m ashamed to say that I had no idea the answers to most of these questions. It was because of this, that part of my free time became dedicated to correcting the holes in my understanding of the world.
I studied the history of the region, it’s religions, yes (plural) religions and the politics of the region. Only now could I tell you the significance of the first empire there and how that began the bronze age. Only after the war could I tell you about the march of Islam and its evolution, as well the effects it has had everywhere else. In part, much of my spare time has been dedicated to this continuing endeavour to learn and understand the region I once lived. Now, only after years of study, do I consider myself a good enough first source of information on the subject, that I would feel confident enough to give people a good place to get started in their search for discovery. Because of this I have been asked to answer often on subjects of Iraq and more recently, the invasion of Islamic jihadists to the country:
It was only because of the war that I realized how vital an understanding of the world at large was. In helping others better understand how it all works together I realized how much many other people experienced the same ignorance in their education as I had. This motivated me to become a freelance writer and a history teacher. Now, every day I get to tell kids about what is going on outside of our sleepy little hometown and how it all fits together, because of the experiences they know well that I have had. The kids who didn’t care about anything are now asking me about the Sunni, Shia divide and each of my students can provide an up to date play-by-play of the recent battle for Tikrit. That may bother you, but none of mine are going to wake up one day unaware of the world as I did. I’m very proud of that.
The original problem I ran into though, still exists; people in general have no idea what is going on beyond our borders. This is true, yet people continually weigh in on topics which they have absolutely no clue about.once shared something with me that doesn’t exactly explain the phenomena, but makes a clear picture of how it works. It’s called Mount Stupid.
There just seems to be this misguided sense of the superiority of self in all things, that people think their expertise, be it on 1980’s hair metal bands, grants their opinions merit in the same field as one who has first hand experience in the matter in which we are speaking, say, geopolitics as they apply to the Middle Eastern conflict. You’ve heard stuff on Iraq from your favorite blog or even from some nice woman who lost her son in Iraq on the news. You’re an expert on the topic now. This is Mount Stupid.
If we are speaking on the subject of 80’s hair bands, please lead the way, but if we are speaking about the evolution of the Ba’ath Party and its influence on modern politics of the Middle East (which is pretty important FYI) and your knowledge of Steven Tyler’s vocal range doesn’t seem particularly germane to the subject, that’s because it isn’t. Shut up and listen. You might learn something and it might improve your ability to handle the future. Maybe, just maybe, you will no longer be part of the problem – people who know very little about things, but make irrational (in hindsight) demands on those who do. As I have said before, a person who knows very little but says things that are dumb can be ignored. En masse though, those same dumb statements get validated, and then they become policy.
Don’t think that last point is valid? You think your opinion of the Middle East matters? Think Mount Stupid is just a funny joke that doesn’t apply to you? My active followers will recognize these questions from my recent answer toHopefully they can shed some light on it. Let’s start off easy:
Be honest with yourself and tell me which one of these countries is Iraq. We’ve only been at war there since the early 90’s, you should know this by now. You can click to expand the image.
Can’t do it? Not sure?
How about this one? What information is being shown to you? What is the importance of the different shades of green in this picture?
Had to consult your Googleviser?
Let’s try this one. Take a good, hard long look at it to see if you can figure out what it displays. What do you think the green areas represent in this one?
Think you know the answer?
You really think you know what it means?
Really sure about that? Here is the map’s key:
Yes, that is a map displaying where and how often women undergo, or are forced into enduring. Now, so that we are clear, FGM is a cultural problem and governments have a hard time governing something that is traditionally done behind closed doors and by unlicensed practitioners. I, however, personally believe, as would many of you, that in a population where women are extended and ensured equal representation as men, that those new voters would probably vote on the side of orgasm rather than being stitched together at the age of three in some barbaric ritual to help gratify male pleasures decades later. This single practice is responsible for the majority of women being sexually assaulted in the Middle East, forcing the procedure on adults who didn’t receive it as young girls. As sure as anything in my life, I know that once outlawed, they would never choose to go back to that old status quo.
If any of that last segment left you with the feeling that perhaps you don’t understand the issues surrounding the Middle East, maybe you shouldn’t voice your opinion on it quite so much. You should, however, seek out and gain knowledge and understanding from those who do have such understanding. Your quiet will literally save lives and ensure the quality of life for others.
The war opened my eyes to important things that are going on which need to be understood. They need to be talked about by people who have experience and those people need to not be drown out by the flood of people who just don’t agree. War gave me a world mindset that most Americans simply don’t have, because they don’t need it survive. We can get by our whole lives without ever truly concerning ourselves with what is going anywhere else. When we do though, important things happen. I wish more Americans cared about what happens beyond their shores without descending to tired and inaccurate stereotypes handed down to them for years. We live in the internet age, and for goodness sake, a third of the people reading this answer will probably be in India. I don’t know how to make others really take the note I do about the world, but I know the war, and being a warrior, did it for me.
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 likeand the destruction of the 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.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 ( and ) 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.
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,
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 after all.
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 , from comfort and security is something special itself. Their 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, is surprising. That he or she would willingly instead train, suffer, and endure hardship to be armed and equipped to fly all the way over to some other part of world to do whatever their country asks of them, is profound. That fact alone scares the piss out of anyone who would raise a weapon against such a person.
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 we should go war to now, or in the future, to me, is irrelevant when you think about what these people are doing. These young men and women and their willingness to do something is important. They actually do things rather than just talk about things which should be done by someone. The actions they take have real significance and make history. They voluntarily put themselves 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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