Wednesday, June 24, 2009

I Died Every Day

I think people have the impression that we consider ourselves invincible, but that’s not true at all. Maybe we thought we were in boot camp, or in the first few days in a combat zone, but once you’ve seen a body, that’s it. You know what death is and you know it may not be far away. Military psychologists boast that the purpose behind their efforts is to instill in men a high level of maturity yet at the same time preserve their youthful invincibility. They underestimate us. It’s not like that at all. We know the risks, at least on some level, we accept them, and then we do what needs to be done anyway. There’s no room for ignorance.

Whenever we’d patrol down a road full of IED craters, we’d have to check each crater to make sure the insurgents didn’t hide another one in them. They did that a lot, so we had to be careful. The last thing we wanted to do is park on top of one, or miss one, and then everybody around us would get blown up. Unfortunately, that meant peering into each of them. Nobody liked to do it.

I was often the dismount on my humvee, so I’d park on the road and walk over to the holes to check them out. I never thought, “I hope this doesn’t kill me.” That’s lame. Part of our training is to consider every possible outcome to a situation and then act accordingly. In this case, it meant considering my own demise. What I would do before approaching each hole is go over whatever could happen. I could walk over and there would be nothing in the crater, or I could walk over and be immediately blown into small pieces. So basically, not just before you deploy, but a thousand times throughout a tour, you make your peace with God, somehow find acceptance in whatever may happen, and proceed anyway. Better put, you die, at least in your mind, repeatedly. There’s none of this crap about running into harm’s way because we’re too exuberant to know the risk we’re taking. We do know. We just do it anyway.

The same applies when you’re searching a building. You don’t know what’s inside, but you prepare for everything. In your mind, you mull over what happens if you step around a corner and get sprayed with AK rounds. Chances are, they’re aiming low, so you take a couple rounds in the groin, maybe your flak vest stops a couple across your chest, but then you get shot in the neck and then the face. That’s what happens when they fire on automatic – the weapon slowly rises, right up the body of the person they’re shooting at: you. You think about that, you think about stepping around into an empty room, you make your peace, and then you proceed.

None of this is ever slow. The whole thought process takes place in the course of maybe a second or two. You think through everything, imagine yourself dying suddenly, then act. Hesitation, under almost any circumstances, is deadly. The longer you wait, the more time the enemy has to prepare for your approach. So, you think quickly, then move. I hesitate to say we all presume we’re GOING to die, but I know we all consider that we MAY die. It all begs the question why would put ourselves in that situation.

The only answer that I can come up with is that we know we have to. The purpose of the Marine rifle squad is to, “locate, close with, and destroy the enemy by fire and maneuver, or repel the enemy’s assault with fire and close combat.” There’s nothing in there about trying to play it safe. Even the fundamental purpose of the Marine Corps is first: mission accomplishment, and second: troop welfare. The first, we all know, may come at the total expense of the second.

I would propose that this has to do with superior character, but many would probably take issue with such a statement. I don’t, frankly, but there are better ways to put it. I prefer this: the men and women in these situations are thinking bigger than themselves. They know their part in the grand scheme of things is incredibly small, they know it may cost them everything, but they do what is asked of them, and they do it with total disregard to self. There’s no other way to explain how somebody can knowingly enter a situation they’re aware might kill them in an instant. It is acquaintance and comfort with death.

And that, without a doubt, testifies to great character, especially in a culture that invests the vast majority of its time pleasing and entertaining self. So while the world is seeking satiation, we’re out there dying daily – at least in our minds. They have chosen their paths and we have chosen ours. And strangest of all, we’re content with it.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved


  1. "And as for us, why do we endanger ourselves every hour? I die every day — I mean that, brothers..."
    1 Corinthians 15:30,31

    Same thing here.

  2. Thank you for sharing, Ben. Thank you for your writing that inspires and touches so many. Thank you for the courage to actually talk, think, and process on paper thoughts that so many people push far back in the depths of their mind. Thank you for being willing to say things that might offend, hurt, or make other people despise you and your writings. I know people who have returned from war so bitter, and I wish they all had your writing talent to be able to deal with issues through writing, but like you have said many time, alcohol, drugs, and strip clubs seem to dull the pain away at least for a time... The time that those things help for is very limited and can make the situation work. Your honesty IS incredible, and so once again, I thank you!

  3. You are definitely back in the mindset for the middle east. I am torn between worrying about my nephew, who has been there too many times before, and the feeling of pride I feel that one of my own is "taking the path less traveled by." You are ready. Go with God. Be true to yourself and don't take unnessary risks.

  4. You mention that the fundamental purpose of the Marine Corps is first: mission accomplishment, and second: troop welfare. I think this time around your mission will be reversed and troop welfare will be first.