Friday, March 6, 2009

What's Different

Q: Has your opinion of the US military been changed since being in Iraq?

Spending time in the service will always extinguish whatever grandiose notion you have of it. Before joining, I approached the military with curiosity and a healthy dose of intimidation. Everybody seemed perpetually cock sure of themselves, spoke with authority, and I found being among them truly daunting. They seemed to have a solid grasp on things, looked sharp in uniforms, and had been around the world a few times and done some pretty neat things.

But what I discovered is that, like any other organization comprised of people, the Marine Corps is full of people of all personalities, races, creeds and ethics. And in reality, they tend to attract those who struggle most with the question, “do I have what it takes?” In that regard, the Corps may be full of some of the most insecure young adults in the country, which carries with it its own set of problems and outright dysfunction.

With the addition of the human element come mistakes, exhibitions of poor leadership and tactical decisions, and a glut of lazy people exploiting a relatively simple, steady paycheck. To many, myself included, it is a total disappointment. Not all experiences, however, were bad ones.

For quite some time, the Marine Corps aired a television commercial wherein a fit young man scales a mountain, fights a fiery dragon in a complex obstacle course, and then morphs into a Marine in dress blues. The running joke is, “dude, I’ve never fought no damn dragon.” The Marine Corps has long attracted young men and women by appearing, at least on the outside, to be full of the fittest, toughest, most capable leaders in the nation. While it is somewhat true, the rest is a myth, and many of us are crestfallen to realize that, like any other group of people, it has its fair share of complete duds.

The more humorous among us begin to apply nicknames to the Corps, mostly to help cope with a frustrating situation they are totally powerless to change. Some of the more repeatable names are as follows:

United States Moving Company (spoken by a friend who was weary of frequent working parties tasked with little more than moving furniture around a room)
The Big Green Weenie (always screwing us)
Uncle Sam’s Misguided Children (we usually think this is lame)

There are a host of others, but few I am willing to post on this venue. The underlying notion is that the Corps isn’t all we expected it to be. We do not exist in a stasis of perpetual patriotism, nobility, overwhelmed with the warrior spirit. We’re a bunch of clowns in uniform that are occasionally issued guns and told to go shoot something. Another running joke is that the only reason Marines are so effective in combat is that by the time they actually get there, they are so completely infuriated that shooting something makes them feel a little better. And I actually think there’s some truth to that. The Army, who has much better troop welfare than the Marine Corps, is a less ferocious fighting force. Perhaps this is because they aren’t always angry and desperately seeking an outlet.

We have also been described collectively as a scene from Benny Hill, and in dire need of the “Yacketty Sax” theme song set to fast motion film. This is probably slightly more appropriate than the comparison to a herd of chimpanzees humping a doorknob.

Like every other company or organization, there are lazy people, normal people, and extremely motivated people. Lazy Marines are called “shitbags.” Motivated ones are known as “motards.” The normal people have no nicknames that I can recall, besides perhaps “coasters” enjoying “three hots and a cot” (three meals a day and a bed).

If a Marine exhibits signs of apathy, in addition to being called a “shitbag,” it will be said that he has “dropped his pack.” This is especially true of those that are nearing the end of their enlistment. As amazing as it may sound, many drop their packs with a full year remaining on their contract. Those nearing the end proudly refer to themselves as “short timers.” It is almost impossible to extract any sort of effort or responsibility from them.

Three deployments to Iraq have certainly changed my opinion of the Marine Corps, mostly by underscoring a belief that they are woefully unprepared for anything at all. Frequent infantry deployments have not been without the sacrifice of once-standard training – namely in the conduct of more conventional ground combat. Between total disorganization, aged and faulty equipment and insufficient training, I am deeply concerned that the Marine Corps would perform very poorly against an enemy of any tactical competence. As it stands now, large Marine Corps units can be quickly halted and harassed by a small handful of clever insurgents. There is no longer a general preparedness for the unknown.

From the perspective of a tactics instructor, those, too, have been on the decline since nearly the moment of the invasion itself in 2003. Poor tactics tend to drive out whatever confidence troops may have in their fighting ability. Observation of these poor measures leads me now to estimate that a sizeable percentage of casualties sustained in Iraq are the direct result of poor tactical decisions, NOT a terribly aggressive enemy. I will intentionally decline to provide a figure.

The point is that I have lost most of my confidence in the readiness of the Marine Corps to quickly overcome whatever challenges are presented. Given their total inefficiency, it’s amazing they even make it to the fight, much less win anything. What is humorous, however, is that this should come as no surprise. Every military in the world has a high degree of inefficiency and incompetence. The Marine Corps, astoundingly, somehow always manages to exhibit a little less of it than everybody else. It remains our saving grace, and we're extremely proud of it.

Despite the appearance of hopeless negativity, most of us, including those that didn’t particularly enjoy our time in the Marines, will look back on that period as the “glory days,” simultaneously the most exciting, frustrating, purposeful, miserable, and adventuresome time of our lives . We miss it, we hate it, we talk about it incessantly, and thank God we aren’t part of it anymore. Many are, however, and love it.

There is often tragedy, but there is also great humor. There are dysfunctional people, but they become your dysfunctional family. There are also terrible experiences, but they were not endured alone. There were great times, and we remember them more fondly and tend to forget everything else. Would I do it again knowing what I know? Absolutely not. But that being said, if the nation needed us, we would answer the call, and guys who vehemently forsook the Corps and all things related to it, will quickly line up to return to active service. For all its challenges, disappointments and letdowns, we were, are, and will forever remain brothers. No length of time or great tragedy can drive that from us.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved


  1. Q: Has your opinion of the US military been changed since being in Iraq?

    I am not sure if you answered this question. Yes, you noted examples of how your view of the Corps changed during your service but can you give specific examples from your deployments in Iraq. Maybe explain an incident that defines how you will "forever remain brothers."