Saturday, February 14, 2009

Honoring the Purchase

When I presented today my conviction that a nation who knows her troops will be thus more inclined to labor for their safe, expedient and victorious return, the gentleman listening fired back a response almost immediately.

“I don’t think I WANT to know them that well.”

This not something I have ever heard before, or even considered for a moment. I have found the general public to be particularly curious, if not concerned already about the welfare of troops overseas. Yet here this man was suggesting that he didn’t wish to know them well at all. He continued:

“It’s so hard to know them. Because then it’s like losing your own child. It’s SO hard. And their moms…I have no idea how they do it. I can’t even imagine what they go through.”

While I initially thought his remarks were cold or even rooted in apathy, it became quickly clear that it was intended as an avoidance of profound grief. He, also a veteran of another war, had probably already experienced more than his fair share. But is avoidance necessarily the answer?

I’ve attended only one military funeral – and that for a friend that was killed when an IED went off under his vehicle. He was about 28. I will never forget this service, it’s solemnity, nor the wails of this man’s mother for her son. They haunt me, actually, and I think they always will. Nevertheless, I am glad I went, and glad that I was able to demonstrate, for what little it may be worth, that I cared about her son, and wished to honor him and his family one final time.

Perhaps it is easier for the nation to send troops into harm’s way if they remain faceless, unknown, and to some degree therefore unreal. Perhaps the anonymity is necessary for leaders and citizens alike to make or support decisions that will undoubtedly place many thousands in great peril. Perhaps the fact they volunteered their service releases us from some level of concern for them. Maybe knowing and loving them personally would prevent anybody being willing to send them anywhere at all.

Knowing and caring about the troops is, without a doubt, a voluntary shouldering of overwhelming grief. But to ignore them is a refusal to accept reality. Though it may be extremely painful; though we may feel like we are losing our own children, we must know them. Not doing so is fleeing difficulty for the safety of ignorance. This nation was not won by apathy, however. It was purchased with the blood of our country’s willing, concerned, and indignant young men and women. It was far from free.

One of the most odious aspects of leadership is knowing that your decisions, however right and necessary they may be, will send some men to their deaths. It is a mantle few wish to carry, and fewer still sleep well having accepted. But for a commander to distance himself from his charges, knowing full well that some will not come home, is not full acceptance of the yoke of leadership. It is circumventing the greatest honor of the position. A leader does not act in the best interest of the troops or himself. He acts in the best interest of the mission, and therefore the nation. He sets aside personal objection to an order, acknowledges that some of his men will not survive, accepts the agonizing self-questioning that accompanies it, and then, disavowing self, delivers his orders with country in the deepest chambers of his heart. For his nation, he has sacrificed a clear conscience. Ask any officer who has lost men.

To some degree, this applies to the citizens of this nation. It is our responsibility to commit the troops to war with the utmost reluctance. It is our duty to care about them and know them – for they are our own. And it is our honor and simultaneous burden to grieve in their loss. An American should know full well the cost of freedom. Those who take it for granted lack appreciation for those that provided and defended it. Citizenship is a responsibility – and not an easy one. We, too, will sacrifice our clear conscience for the sake of our own.

“We’ll be landing under fire, gentlemen. Men will die.” So said Colonel Moore to his troops as they readied to ship out to la Drang Valley, Vietnam. Such is the nature of war. Yet though nobody may wish to openly admit it, war still serves its purpose. With war comes death, grief, and misery. Most of us are fortunate to have never experienced it. But while war takes the life of the warrior far from home, it kills the spirit and destroys the families of the surviving right here. We should know their loved ones, and stand with them in their grief. It could just as easily have been our son or daughter. Or it could have been us, had not so many millions gone before us to preserve what we now so casually enjoy.

Entering into a condition of caring for the troops means walking squarely into a wound, but I must go there all the same. I cannot accept the alternative. I have much to be thankful for, and somebody paid for it. Scripturally, to love is to suffer. Indeed this is the case. Preserving freedom comes at high cost; and I want to know the men and women who volunteer to pay it, regardless of the cost to me.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved

Friday, February 13, 2009

The Other V-Day

There is something about being stuck in a war zone that causes a man to fabricate in his mind a fantastic image of the return home. While the scene may have banners and ticker tape, marching bands, his family, cheering crowds and a triumphal parade, there is one element present that he most dearly misses: his sweetheart. However young or old, there is no other face he so dearly wishes to spot in the crowd, no other figure he wants to wrap in his arms, and no other lips he wishes to kiss. Above all others, it was she he missed.

Absence does, indeed, make the heart grow fonder. During a long tour, a fighter’s helmet, flak vest and pockets are frequently crammed with photographs, letters, or odd mementos of his lover. In the greatest moments of peril, it is her he longs to see – and tell one final time that he loves her. In the loneliest hours of solitude, it is her company he misses, and he pulls out a photo or a note and simply misses her all the more. When the time comes to go home, she occupies his every thought and even dream.

No single person so occupies his mind and heart. And in a sea of faces, it is only her that he seeks, and having fixated upon her, he will not rest until they have been united. This woman, though thousands of miles away, saw him off to war, saw him through it, and somehow saw him home. It is love; and virtually indescribable.No single photograph so beautifully captures the exuberance of returning home safely, victoriously, and to a beautiful woman than Alfred Eisenstaedt’s world-famous capture of a sailor kissing a woman in Times Square on VJ day, 1945. It is unknown if the two even knew each other. It is also totally irrelevant. No better exhibition of emotion and glee has ever been committed to film.

In the absence of a true sweetheart, a soldier will “create” one. He will date, romance and make out with a girl in a relationship which exists solely in his mind and heart. He will even dream of her waiting when he returns. Perhaps she is a friend, or a pretty face he picked out of a crowd years ago. Maybe a model from a magazine. He may hardly know her, but he loves her. And he fights primarily for her. Many a girl stateside remains totally unaware that she was involved in a long-distance relationship with a man she never dated. Perhaps it is better this way. He retains the unreal, but gorgeous lady in his heart, and she is freed from having to put up with him. It is not ideology and patriotism that sees men through wars; it is their girls back home – whether they know it, or even exist at all.

Millions of men have returned with tattered photos and worn out letters. Stiff from sweat, abraded by dirt and sand, they were more valuable to him than his rifle, and may have done more to protect him. This woman gives him something to come home to, something to kiss, and while far way, somebody to sigh over and miss. She is a saint in his eyes.

Only a modest number of troops return home to sweethearts. Most – young, socially awkward and single, come back to families or even nobody at all. It is, to say the least, a total disappointment. The truth sets in, and the months of preparing for a hero’s return to a lass back home is recognized as a farce and a self-created, but a highly successful crutch. There is no girl at all.

Tomorrow, countless numbers girls will miss their boys overseas, stuck in Iraq, Afghanistan, Djibuti, Kenya, Germany, Italy, or any one of a number of bases throughout the world. And those boys will miss their girls, no doubt, and dig out a picture to gently cradle with a faraway stare. The thousands more that have no such girl, and there are many, will feel the deep sting of being alone. Deployments are even harder when you have no lover to miss. They are dreary affairs indeed.

Right now, somewhere around 100,000 love relationships are being taxed by distance, poor communication and agonizing worry. Some will not survive the ordeal, but many more will be deepened. Encourage them if you can. Remind them of the kiss that awaits their lover’s return. And be there if you can to witness it. It is love, and it is beautiful.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved

Thursday, February 12, 2009


Due perhaps to our lack of direct involvement in the whole affair, the “Deliverance of Dunkirk” is poorly understood and infrequently remembered here in the United States. Despite our detachment from the event, it is well worth the effort of remembering it – as a fantastic time in world history, a superb exhibition of a nation’s total unity to a cause, and as a reminder of the perils this nation has been fortunate to not endure.

May of 1940 found British Expeditionary Force commander General Gort conceding that their “counterstroke” against the advancing Nazi army was unsuccessful, and the collapse of the nearby Belgian Army was eminent. Reluctantly, he chose to withdraw his dwindling forces to the coast for evacuation to England. With them moved also more than half of the deteriorating First French Army. Their retreat concentrated hundreds of thousands of French and British soldiers on the beaches of Dunkirk (or Dunkerque), a relatively small city at the northernmost tip of France – a mere 10 kilometers from Belgium.

As the waves troops poured into the town, and their desperate confusion mounted, even the interior of their own perimeter was a total disaster. Vehicles, bumper-to-bumper, clogged the main street so completely eventually a one-way track was created, “by bulldozers hurling them into the ditches on either side,” as Churchill put it. Soon after the British and French began staggering into this provisional position, word came that the Belgian Army had surrendered, exposing the Allies’ entire left flank thus permitting the Nazi army to focus their entire attention on thwarting this hasty retreat.

Oddly, though, and for reasons that are still debated, Hitler forbade the German Army sweep through Dunkirk. There are three main assumptions, however. First Hitler may have believed that such a bold (but certainly feasible) act would eliminate any hope of England retreating to her own shores and suing for peace. Second, he may have been hesitant to commit the terrifying Panzer units nearby in the hopes of saving them (and the remainder of his army) for future operations in Europe. Thirdly, and by far the most plausible, he was overconfident of the German Luftwaffe’s ability to totally destroy the stranded armies. This may also have been a personal gift to Herman Goering for his previous successes. Regardless of his reasons, they provided the British and French armies sufficient time to erect a vast, well-defended perimeter, and shuttle over a quarter million soldiers across the channel to England.

While the Germans did launch small ground attacks against the elements at Dunkirk, they met with bloody (perhaps desperate) resistance, and made little headway. The British artillery and medium guns had been ordered to fire off every round they possessed, which they did with great pleasure, and deadly result. All the while, extensive fortifications were thrown into place around the perimeter, and word was sent to England about the severity of the situation.

Winston Churchill recalled his appearance before the members of Parliament with the poor news:

The House should prepare itself for hard and heavy tidings. I have only to add that nothing which may happen in this battle can in any relieve us of our duty to defend the world cause to which we have vowed ourselves; nor should it destroy our confidence in our power to make our way, as on former occasions in our history, through disaster and through grief to the ultimate defeat of our enemies.

His remarks are best summarized as, “expect the worst.” Nevertheless, a national call was issued that nearly any craft that floated in the water at all was to head for Dunkirk and begin troop evacuation under the guard of British, Dutch, French, and Belgian Naval vessels.

Despite relentless pounding by the Luftwaffe, and the constant, real threat of U-boat attack, the flotilla, which Churchill referred to as the “Mosquito Fleet,” began appearing on the coast of Dunkirk to ferry troops to larger troop transports, or back under their own steam. Boats that were not at all designed to cross the channel now found themselves under enemy bombardment on the coast of France, packed beyond capacity with wearied, distraught troops, and limping back to England. The smallest craft involved in this Operation Dynamo, the 15-foot fishing boat Tamzine, now sits in the Imperial War Museum as a testament to the solidarity and resolve of the British citizenry. Another vessel, the Sundowner, commanded by former Titanic second officer Charles Lightoller, shuttled more than 130 men across the channel, nearly capsizing from overload upon arrival in England.

In addition to vessels from the French, British, Dutch, and Belgian Navies, more than 700 civilian craft participated in the evacuation, mostly manned by fishermen and boating enthusiasts, but with magnificent results. They were not, however, without their losses. Over 200 Allied craft were sunk over the course of five days, and just as many were damaged. These numbers include several British and French Naval vessels, sunk by torpedoes, air attack, and U-boats. In truth, these losses alone were staggering.

What started as a total national disaster to both France and England, was rapidly transformed into a rallying event that led ultimately to the safe evacuation of 338,226 French and British soldiers, all while under relentless Luftwaffe attack. Where it not for the committal of every single available Royal Air Force plane to this mission, it would have been a rout. Small fighter units ferociously attacked any Luftwaffe craft that they spotted, shooting over 134 Luftwaffe aircraft from the sky. The cost: 145 of their own. An intense fog blanketing the region forbade any soldier on the ground from seeing this, and many of them blamed the RAF for abandoning them to repeated Luftwaffe bombings. Yet even the German bombings were largely ineffective. With what short time they had been given, these masses of troops have constructed elaborate, and highly effective fortifications that left few of them harmed from bombings. Additionally, the soft sand on the beaches were more forgiving to the bombs than anticipated, greatly reducing their destructive power. The soldiers, huddled in the water shivering, on some occasions for hours, come in time to view the bombings with little more than contempt. They were little more than annoyances. The sea craft, however, suffered tremendously.

When Churchill met with members of the House of commons through this ordeal, he was unprepared for the response.

We were perhaps twenty-five round the table. I described the course of events and I showed them plainly where we were, and that all was in the balance. Then I said quite casually, and not treating it as a point of special significance: “Of course, whatever happens in Dunkerque, we shall fight on.”

There occurred a demonstration which, considering the character of the gathering – twenty-five experienced politicians and Parliament men, who represented all the different points of view, quite right or wrong, before the war – surprised me. Quite a number seemed to jump up from the table and come running to my chair, shouting and patting me on the back. There is no doubt that had I at this juncture faltered at all in the leading of the nation that I should have been hurled out of office. I was sure that every Minister was ready to be killed quite soon, and have all his family and possessions destroyed, rather than give in. In this they represented the House of Commons and almost all the people. It fell to me that in these coming days and months to express their sentiments on suitable occasions. This I was able to do because they were mine also. There was a white glow, overpowering, sublime, which ran through our Island from end to end.

Dunkirk was “typical of a British strategy that specializes in losing battles and winning wars.” Yet without a doubt, it was a total military disaster. While well over a third of a million British and French soldiers were saved, elements from both armies remained behind as rearguard, and 68,111 British were killed, wounded, or captured, while at similarly large numbers of Frenchmen remained as well to suffer an uncertain fate. In fact, towards the end of the evacuation, ships were turned away empty. Many of the French refused to leave. They, in company with the remaining British, fought valiantly to cover the evacuation of to others, facing certain death or capture.

For the many thousands that eventually surrendered to the advancing Nazis, their struggle had only just begun. Following a grueling, 20-day forced march back to German POW camps, many died of exhaustion, starvation, execution, or succumbed to their wounds. The Germans, marching ahead of the prisoners, kicked over any bucket the French civilians had placed by the road for the prisoner train. Many of those that survived the march spent the remainder of the war working farms in Germany. Yet many, however, did not survive.

The consequences of the “Dunkirk Deliverance” were impressive. On one hand, the staggering loss of military supplies so damaged British supplies that it solidified their dependency on the American financial support to continue the war effort. The British press so underscored the incident as a “Disaster Turned to Triumph,” that Churchill felt it necessary to remind them that, “we must be very careful not to assign to this deliverance the attributes of a victory. Wars are not won by evacuations.” Despite that of the total numbers evacuated, 139,977 were Frenchmen, many in France felt that Great Britain had showed undue favoritism towards her own troops by evacuating them first, leaving behind thousands of French as rearguard – and to certain defeat. The retreat also firmly signaled the total, inevitable collapse of France. On June 22nd, 1940, the French formally surrendered in the same clearing of Compiegne Forest “where Marshal Ferdinand Foch had dictated terms to Germany in November, 1918. The war was far from over. In fact, it was only just beginning.

Eighteen months later, the United States, following an unanticipated attack on Pearl Harbor, would throw the entire weight of her armies into Europe and the Pacific theaters, adding exponentially to Nazi woes. Millions more would die still, on front lines, in gas chambers, and in cataclysmic bombings. Yet “Dunkirk Spirit” emboldened a small island nation. Tiny and isolated though she was, she would see the war to its end. Winston Churchill stated as much in his June 4th speech before Parliament:

Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous States have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, we shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight in the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air; we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender; and even it, which I do not for one moment believe, this Island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the Old.

We joined them eighteen months later, repulsed by the horror of our enemy, encouraged by the tenacity of our Island friends, and comforted to know that, should we, too, find ourselves outnumbered and surrounded on the beaches of France, a fleet of little boats would see us safely away.

Swung by tides, stranded in the shallows beside the burning beach, harried by airplanes that hunted them by night with parachute flares and riddled them by day with tracers, this extraordinary flotilla headed across the cluttered Channel waters for a shore that was black with men – and took them off.
-C. L. Sulzberger, “World War II”

British & French Wounded Help Each Other During Evacuation

British Troops In Lifeboats

British Troops Loaded for Evacuation

French Troops Celebrate Their Rescue


Sulzsberger. C.L, "World War II." Houghton Mifflin. Boston. 1985.

Churchill, W.S. et al. "The Second World War." Golden Press. 1960.

Wheal. E., Pope. S., Taylor. "Encyclopedia of the Second World War." Penguin. 1992.

Wikipedia. "Dunkirk."

Wikipedia. "Dunkirk Evacuation."

*All photos contained herein are in the public domain through either the United States War Department, or the United States Archives.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Hide Your Booze

Whenever there is threat of snowstorm, ice storm, tornadoes, hurricanes, or any of a number of weather anomalies, I have found that locals all rush to the grocery store and create riots on the bread and milk sections trying to stock up on essentials. I equate it with the same absurdity that a woman in labor will always send a gaggle of others away to boil water. I get the impression it’s just something that you do when there’s a baby being born. Boil water.

My Marine counterparts, however, always approached it from a different perspective. After enduring literally hours of briefs, emergency plans, and activating a small contingent of troops to stand by with humvees, weapons, and fresh water, everybody, as in the civilian world, flocks to the local grocery store or PX. But their purchases are not what one might consider to be appropriate to the threat of calamity. They buy all the beer and liquor they can find. A pre-hurricane civilian grocery store will have an empty bread aisle. A pre-hurricane PX will have a full bread aisle, and not a drop of beer.

Perhaps this is a function of youth – that no natural disaster will be sufficient to cause long-term problems or harm anybody, so it is best to “celebrate” the event by drinking. The only time I can recall seeing such behavior in the civilian world is after Hurricane Katrina: rednecks floating around on inflatable mattresses with a wide assortment of alcohol to help keep them entertained/warm/well fed. Sure.

The result of Marines buying alcohol during base shutdowns on account of potential weather anomalies is rather unfortunate. In the end, they only contribute to the problem – by creating near-riot conditions in the barracks.

During one such lockdown on base, as the weather worsened, the wind picked up and the rain fell harder, orders came down the line that we were forbidden to leave our rooms without wearing a helmet and ballistic goggles. While such a command is fairly intended to keep Marines from being struck with flying objects, it was quickly reduced to use as a crash helmet and hard hat to prevent beer bottles from knocking them flat.

Within a matter of hours, Marines were running around outside with their ponchos – using them as sails and parachutes, jumping from the higher decks, and letting the wind soften their fall. Others preferred to hunch down in large, Rubbermaid tubs and let their windsail/poncho drag them across the field – made all the more hilarious by their sporting a helmet and goggles.

A few couldn’t open their doors on account of the floor being so littered with beer bottles and cans. One room, if I recall correctly, consumed over four cases in a matter of 24 hours. Only two or three people typically occupy a room, by the way.

As the antics outside continued, so did the crowd of onlookers, eventually resulting in well over a hundred young, bored Marines in helmets and goggles lining the rails, cradling beer, and cheering on the idiots slipping around in the mud. Naturally, this egged them on even further, until a few were taking running swan dives into flooded sections of the field. Nobody was hurt, to my knowledge. Perhaps because they were all drunk.

Without fail, sensing that things were quickly devolving into an “incident,” the Officer of the Day (OOD), an armed, on-duty Staff NCO or officer, was summoned to send people back to their rooms and out of sight. Seeing the “enemy,” Marines began winging beer bottles at him and booing. In fear for his safety, he retreated – still armed, by the way. To my knowledge, he never ventured out again. He, and others, simply sent out a plea for base maintenance to QUICKLY restore power. Maybe they’d all go inside and watch TV or something.

That way was the first and last time I stated publicly that I was embarrassed to be a Marine sometimes. This remark followed me indefinitely.

These stateside shenanigans pale, however, to those that were alcohol-induced overseas. During a port visit to Italy, there were countless incidents of public drunkenness, Marines falling down in the streets and others falling on top of them. One Marine found it a good idea to stab the bus seat – and paid through the nose for it. Some picked fights or defended others in fights. A few were lugged home on the backs of their comrades – comatose from alcohol poisoning. One fell and broke her ankle. And of course, several clutched filthy trash cans and toilets and puked up their shoelaces, weeping for assistance and begging for death. Most, though, simply dropped their military ID cards into the water as they staggered up the gangplank onto the ship. They were not permitted to leave the ships again.

I had the personal thrill of having a full 25% of my Marines wind up charged for one thing or another – arriving back on ship late, losing an ID to a hooker in an off-limits establishment, and so forth. That one, by the way, was married.

Even in Iraq some of these incidents persisted. Where there is a will, or perhaps an addiction, there is a way. While I never personally witnessed the following, I was informed of it from a “reliable source.” One Marine, somehow finding alcohol, abandoned his night post (and lone comrade) at a vehicle checkpoint, dropped his gear, and wandered off into the city. Were it not for the fact that an Iraqi National Guardsman followed him, I don’t know if he’d have lived.

Others broke into and stole a car and drove around the city – supposedly beheading a dog and leaving it on an Iraqi’s dining room table. Naturally, they were charged for this.

But my personal favorite is, by far, the best. At another checkpoint in the city, Marines were supposed to man machine guns at either end of their position. When the battalion commander drove up in his convoy, he immediately observed one slumped over his gun – passed out. Another snored in a nearby bunker. In fact, the only two Marines that were awake were standing on the center of the bridge. One hurled water bottles into the air and the other tried to shoot them before they hit the water. When they saw the battalion commander, they invited him to join in their fun. How very courteous.

It is well-known that a number of Marines have drinking problems, but the consequences of their habits are less publicized, with good reason. They’re completely embarrassing. Nevertheless, they are somewhat humorous, if one can set aside total horror about the matter.

Whenever there is another threat of awful weather, I will join the throngs clamoring for bread and milk, because I like bread and milk. The beer aisle I will leave alone. Should you find it empty, there must be Marines in town. In which case, the coming weather is not your greatest concern. Purchase your staples, go home, lock and bar the doors, confine your dogs and send your daughters to their rooms. Then just wait out the storm, with a gun in your hand.

“Lock up your daughter; lock up your wives. Lock all the doors and run for your lives.” – ACDC, “TNT”

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Blame Poorly Cast

Over the last 41 days, there have been numerous posts written on this blog that illustrate examples of supremely poor judgment, erroneous leadership decisions, and the direct (and very indirect) consequences that they bring. In general, the accusers unjustly heap extraordinary blame on a few figures who may be totally undeserving of this burden.

In a perfect war, people will still die – presumably the enemy. But there is still death. Nor is there such thing as a perfect war. The nature of war itself is inherently evil, profoundly tragic, and for many altogether terminal. It is war – the outcome of a total breakdown in diplomacy. Nevertheless, as much as many may not wish to concede it, war still serves a noble purpose.

At best, and even when prosecuted by tactical geniuses and military heroes, war is a collection of imperfect men and women carrying out an imperfect mission with results that will be, without question, also imperfect. In the case of conflict, however, the imperfection is decidedly obvious, disastrous, and awful. People die.

In a volunteer military, I believe that we, as volunteers, cede some of our right to complain about our leaders. While none of us can ever truly anticipate where we will go and what we will do, we are volunteers nevertheless – an unspoken acknowledgment that we recognize that our leaders will be imperfect because humans are also imperfect and that some decisions they make will probably be poor ones. As volunteers who purposefully offered our labor and life to the cause, we must choose to trust our leaders.

Undeniably, a position of military leadership carries with it an untold level of responsibility, and perhaps also the lifelong consequences that a decision we made was a wrong one – potentially resulting in injury and death to others. As warriors, however, we must accept it.

As a buck private with a gun, your job is simple. There is nobody else to order around and nobody else whose life may have been forever altered (or ended) by an order you issued. While we are all mutually responsible for each other, the private is mostly responsible for himself. But that changes with rank. As rank increases, so also does decision-making and responsibility – perhaps exponentially so. Realistically, we will all make mistakes. Some, however, may be more consequential than others.

Culturally, Americans love scapegoats. After 9/11, there was a concerted effort to find one man or woman who was to blame for not “reading the tea leaves.” After Hurricane Katrina, similar blame was cast on a relative few. And in the military, it is convenient, simple, though entirely inappropriate to do the same thing. We blame our leaders.

In truth, we do them a disservice, since we are holding them to a higher standard than we hold ourselves. We accept our own mistakes, but not those of others. This is not to suggest that all their errors are permissible, for many are not. However, anger towards leadership ultimately accomplishes nothing. For all their faults, they cannot be held but so responsible. Foremost, they are human, as are we, and inclined to make poor decisions. Additionally, we give them blame that is best reserved for the enemy.

A commander may have rashly ignored sound advice and sent his troops into harm’s way, but we, as combatants, must accept this situation. We volunteered; and it would do us well to remember our oath of commitment. And it is ultimately not the commander that caused the casualties. It is the enemy. They are the ones who are making the concerted effort to kill, injure, and demoralize us. We and our leaders, attempting to make some order in chaos that THEY created, are left acting on training, inclinations, and ambiguous conjecture. Naturally, mistakes will be made.
The reason it is easy to blame a leader is because we can easily put a face to their names, rather than on the elusive, unknown enemy that continually harasses us. Yet this simplicity is in no way justification. The leaders didn’t kill us; the enemy did.

Accepting a leadership position means also accepting the responsibility, high demands, and consequences of one’s actions. Appropriately, leaders must take ownership of their part in choices that led to the harm or death of others. That is the burden they bear. Nor is it an enviable position. However, we must give them some grace. They, like we, are human.

The greatest blame rests not with them, but with the purveyors of evil who necessitated war in the first place. If we perpetuate the myth that poor leadership killed our comrades, we perpetuate the enemy’s cause, for we have fixated all attention and aggression on our own ranks rather than those of the aggressor. Just as we extend grace to ourselves for our own limitations, so also must we give it to our leaders. We are all created the same: fallible. Until we direct our abhorrence to the original source of evil and tragedy (the enemy), we will be unable to individually make peace with our war.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved

Monday, February 9, 2009

One Star=Three Men

We’d been in the AO for about a month and a half without any major incidents. It was a pretty quite place, except for one platoon in another company that was constantly “finding” themselves engaged by an overwhelming force – the pursuit of whom, incidentally, always necessitated them leaving their scheduled route and venturing into somebody else’s. But then they’d get screamed at – over the radio, actually – and eventually would wander off and sulk. They all thought they were heroes, but everybody else just thought they were idiots.

My LT had actually warned us all to avoid their platoon commander. He was reckless, needlessly endangering his unit, and at least twice engaging civilians for no other purpose than he was utterly convinced they were hostile. They were, of course, not, and my unit ended up going outside the wire on MORE than one occasion to conduct investigations into his “firefights.” His boys had successfully attacked some farmers – and killed them. He was an absolutely retarded, useless as an officer, and his platoon sergeant was just as bad. We stayed as far away from him as possible. I had no doubt that he’d fire on us, too, because he clearly never took the time to properly identify his target. I hope he’s been relieved since then, but I imagine they promoted him. Maybe gave him an entire company to recklessly endanger. He had no business being in the Marines, though. I still remember his name, though I’m not going to say it. If I did, that asshole would probably sue me for defamation of character. I have a hunch that people who are chronically insecure would do that – fueled by the same sort of chronic insecurity that drove him to make up incidents and shoot innocent people just to feel important.

Aside from a couple poorly-placed IEDs and occasional pot shots, the whole AO was pretty darn quiet, though. Only one unit got hit all the time, and none of them ever got hurt. They just broke their LAVs all the time [light armored vehicle from light armored reconnaissance battalion].

One night, though, one of our companies got hit horribly. I wasn’t at the place, so I can’t be certain of the details, but basically, the insurgents had dug a huge hole in the center of the road and packed it with explosives. I’m not sure how they detonated it, but however they did it, the thing went off right under the humvee, completely destroying it. Nobody survived.

I ran into a friend of mine who was first on the scene that night, and what he told me was absolutely awful. The blast was so powerful that it immediately set off a lot of the ammunition inside the truck, which sprayed at least one or two of the guys. One was still alive when they found him, though he was missing most of his face. Somehow, the corpsmen worked on him and got him evacuated. But two of the other guys, they couldn’t even find them at first.

They started searching in the ditches and the sides of the road, and eventually they spotted one lying in a ditch some distance down the road. He was utterly mangled, and dead. The third guy was even harder to find.

I’m not certain, but I think he was the gunner, so he was propelled from the turret to who knows where. Where did they end up finding him? On the roof of a nearby building – and also dead. What bothered me was that when my friend told me about it, he didn’t seem to show much emotion at all. Like none. This was so gruesome I figured he’d at least tell me it was hard. But he didn’t. How do Marines deal with this stuff? I don’t think they do. They just ignore how terrible it was.

Rumor had it that the MEU commander [Marine Expeditionary Unit] was overheard in the COC saying that, “I didn’t take this deployment until these men died.” I don’t know of it’s true, but the number of times I heard it certainly suggested it could be. And I’d spent enough time with him to determine that this was the sort of person that he was – completely self-serving.

The fact is (at least to the best of my knowledge), we weren’t even supposed to BE in Iraq. We were only supposed to sail around in the gulf for awhile, then sail back through the Suez and hang out in the Mediterranean. How do I know this? Because a number of higher-ups told me this. And when sailed into Kuwaiti Naval Base, almost every ship had a high-ranking Kuwaiti general come on board and demand to meet with the captain of the ships – to ask “why are you here in my country?” They all brought a pile of plainclothes goons with them. Huge Arabs with little earpieces rammed in their ears that glared at you if you so much as looked at them funny. They were all acting like their general was the president or something, which was stupid. Who’s going to attack them on a US Naval vessel? Nobody. I’ve seen generals travel with less protection in Iraq. Whatever. Maybe it’s just how they operate – constantly paranoid.

But the whole disorganized and unwelcome way we landed, the way we always struggled for equipment and gear, certainly suggested that we weren’t even meant to be there. It explains why we had no maps, not enough ammo, not even parts to fix the humvees. We had nothing but crappy, outdated trucks that blow to small pieces when they’re hit by IEDs. And three guys paid for the arrogance of our MEU commander.

As a MEU colonel, his next step was to pick up general. If he didn’t, he’d probably be forced to retire. I guess he figured he could earn his star by sending his unit – the entire freaking MEU – into Iraq. Nevermind that meant sending more than 2,000 men and women into harm’s way. He clearly didn’t give a damn.

I was comforted, however, to learn that the commandant choppered into our base one day and met with him personally. And when he left, the MEU colonel was not a general. Rumor, once again, said that the commandant had flown in to tell the idiot personally that he was NOT going to get his star. Good. Men like him, who pursue career success at the total expense of their units, are not men at all. They’re children, and this one cost three men their lives, and countless millions of taxpayer money. Three years later, though, he’s somehow, gotten his star, and he’s still in, too. I want him out. And I’d like to see how he justified putting personal ambition over the interests of the United States Marine Corps. I hope those deaths haunt him forever.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved

Sunday, February 8, 2009

We Still Kill Ourselves

Just a few days ago, I wrote at great length about the subject of servicemember suicide, speculating some of the multitudinous factors that are contributing to the rise in incidents the military is now seeing. While many will probably lump military and veteran suicides into the same category they are, at least as far as I am concerned, entirely different matters, rooted in remarkably different reasons.

As I have surmised previously, the emotional situation that leads any servicemembers to contemplate ending their own lives often centers around a feeling of total entrapment. They are unable to leave the military (which may be the perceived source of the problem), and also feel unable to change their lot where they are. Perhaps only few try. At any rate, veterans, having now left the military, will no longer subject to any sort of binding oath preventing them from simply walking away from something that bothers them. Therefore, the explanations for their increased suicides must lay elsewhere.
I know from personal experience that the transition from military to civilian life is exceedingly challenging, for a number of reasons. Foremost among them, I was, for the first time in exactly four years and five months, master of my own domain. Nobody was telling me to be any particular place. Nobody was yelling at me. There were no consequences to being late or simply not showing up at all. Finally, I had virtually no responsibility – in stark contrast to Marine life where I was accountable for well over a dozen men and perhaps millions of dollars of equipment. Before me stood great opportunity and lots of doors – perhaps an overwhelming number.

For many, the urgency of finding a job, a house, and settling into a career keeps them sufficiently preoccupied to not dwell on the vast expanse of opportunity before them and struggle to make a decision. For them, even if what they’re slipping into is more of a rut than a groove – it is responsibility, necessity, and routine. That, at least coming from an organization where routine is critical to getting things accomplished, is beneficial. They are avoiding idleness.

My situation was somewhat complicated by the fact that I had no family to support, and only myself to worry about – and I had saved a good chunk of money for just that. In fact, I had no need to work – for a very long time. The best way to look at it is that I was set completely adrift. I could do virtually anything, yet didn’t know where to start.

Another reason the transition from military to civilian is troublesome is physiological. Young Marines (myself included) are accustomed to staying up late, getting up early, burning lots of energy with physical training, yelling and work, and then retreating in the late afternoon to do other things. That’s when we’re stateside. When we’re overseas (I am speaking for combat troops), our days are a constant inundation of high-stress missions, orders, and racing to get things done “yesterday.” Chemically, the adrenalin, endorphins and other hormonal factors become the new norm – though they are quote abnormal. In fact, they could even be described as an addiction. Even our circadian rhythms are adjusted to sleep whenever we can, move with purpose when we must, and find ways to find respite from it, however brief, and give ourselves some rest. Yet as new civilians, still trained to sleep whenever we sit down, and run hard when we must, boredom quickly appear in the absence of responsibility. And then we find ourselves missing the action, so to speak. Combat isn’t addictive. At best, it’s utter chaos and confusion, and at worst it’s tragic. But the hormones and their consequences can certainly be addictive. We pursue other things to entertain ourselves and alleviate the boredom.

Some of us buy motorcycles (I bought two) and keep living life on the edge. Some start spending money (I spent at least $20,000 in eight months), and a few others simply slump into boredom – and start occupying themselves with destructive behavior (I struggled with heavy drinking for a short while).

The reality is that many of our friends now are no longer recognize us for who we once were. Even our spouses, parents and children, for that matter. Our personalities have changed, for one. Additionally, we’re more alert, responsible (sometimes), and less inclined to simply relax, let our guards down, and enjoy a casual social atmosphere. And honestly, we don’t have nearly as much in common with these people as we did at one time. We are decidedly different.

We went away to war, in a manner of speaking, and come back to find them doing the same things they were doing when we left. They don’t exactly know how to view our service, and we don’t know how to tolerate what appears, at least on the outside, to be a profoundly boring existence. Their lives are terribly uninteresting, untraveled, and not in the least bit fraught with difficulty. They’re worried about the performance of their favorite sports team on Monday night. We, at least at one time, were worried if we and our buddies would come back alive from a mission. We have lost our sense of normalcy – or perhaps our toleration of it.

As the realization hits that we are different and not well adapted to “normal” life, an ugly seed of bitterness is given permission to take root – and potentially grow quickly, and destructively, into total isolation.

I have said before, and heard others say it, too, that our civilian peers are out of touch with reality, that they are unconcerned about the world in which they live, that they are apathetic to the daily horrors that many millions face, and are content to simply not think about them and focus on their lives – which to us are terribly small. We, though, having seen the world, are unable to settle for such determined ignorance. It seems counter to reason, justice, and responsible living. Many, and I have done this too, back away from civilian life because we don’t WANT to fit in. It seems boring, apathetic, and insular.

But unless one is surrounded by a cadre of like-minded companions (veterans), such thinking results in little more than a total disassociation from the reality we are supposed to be embracing. Life, they say, is pretty darn dull at times. It’s what you make of it that redeems it. Many refuse to make that concessions, since it would require “shutting off” the parts of our brains and hearts that have been awakened by service overseas, combat, and seeing the plight of those living in fear. Yet now, no longer in the military and supposedly making a difference, we have lost our sense of purpose to resolve these matters. We are truly adrift.

Many veterans are so unable to accept that life is often quite uninteresting, begin drinking simply to escape from it. Either they cannot sleep because their circadian rhythms are so scrambled that an alcohol-induced coma is the only reprieve, or, as they draw away from everybody else, the drink becomes their only remaining friend. But like all addictions, it is indulged in to assist the problem, but in the end considerably worsens it. Alcohol begets more alcohol.

What is created is a scenario where a young man or woman, presumably in the prime of life, is relegated to lonesome contemplation along the lines of, “I don’t fit in here, and nor do I really want to. Everything is stupid, and everyBODY is stupid. I’m bored out of my mind, and don’t know what to do about it.” This self-focused thinking can devolve quickly into total isolation, misery and boredom – especially when veterans convince themselves that there is nobody else like them, that nobody cares about them, and that there will never be anything exciting happening in their lives.

When the standard demons of service are added to this fray, disaster can quickly follow. Most combat vets wish they had done more, seen more action, saved more lives, and taken more of their enemies. Some regret decisions which they are convinced hastened the deaths of friends. Some still see their dead friends faces. Some, in total self-flagellation, wish they, too were dead with them. It appears, at times, more appealing than the survivor’s guilt. In short, it works effectively to further distance veterans from civilians, and solidify their conviction that nobody understands them, that they will never fit in, and that nobody will have any clue how to relate to what they have endured. And, there may be some truth to it. Enough, at least, that many veterans lose the once-natural will to live.

It is here and only here that the explanations for the rise in military and civilian suicides overlap. The conditioning we received in the military worked highly effectively to reduce our value in life. Such things are essential to making successful combat troops. The innate disinclination to take another human life is now damaged, if not destroyed. Companion to that is recognition of the sanctity of one’s own life. This, combined with training that has successfully activated our ability to kill, eases thoughts of death, morbidity, and suicide. The unthinkable is now quite thinkable indeed.

The consequence of the isolation, the boredom, the lack direction/responsibility and the demons leads many to seek their escape in death, convinced that they will never find their place in society. As I have said before, many feel that, in fighting for civilians, they have lost their place among them. There can be no other explanation for the fact that veterans under 29 are twice as likely to take their own lives as their civilian counterparts.

The obvious next question is what can be done about it. Having clearly identified a problem, and hopefully explaining some of its sources, what, realistically, can now be undertaken to help these young men and women so ill-adapted to civilian life? As strange as it may be, though refreshing, MUCH can be done.

For the friends of veterans (especially combat veterans), expect that your companion is going to come back a different person than when they departed. They’ve been through a lot. Much of they have little interest in talking about – mostly because they don’t think you’ll understand, or that you’ll be so horrified or disturbed by it that you’ll never wish to spend time with them again. Be prepared to make a new friend, for the old one is now gone. Rather than delicately skirt the subject of their service, gently encourage them talk about it. This needn’t be so much done by prodding them for information, because such things will be poorly received. What you can do, however, is open the door of communication and invite them to walk through it. The rest, as much as it may frustrate you, is entirely up to them. But talking about things, especially difficult subjects, is a balm to us. Never speaking about the obvious means it is obviously trapped within us. There, it fosters innumerable problems.

Speaking from experience, one of the worst things that a veteran can endure when he or she is freshly returned to civilian life is to be left alone. We do not need our space, despite what people may say. We need our friends, and we need our families. You, collectively, have much to offer us – mostly your friendship and your unconditional love for a bunch of people that are undoubtedly difficult to love.

Do not consider us victims, for victims we may then very well become. We have been through a lot, yes, and often survived quite well, but to assume we are victims will lend credence to whatever victimhood we may already feel. What will follow is bitterness and a sense of entitlement. Neither of which are constructive. It is acceptable to ask questions rooted in curiosity, and you will probably get a very lengthy answer. Be careful, however, not to touch on certain subjects, like horrifying experiences, deaths of friends, or how many the veteran may have killed in combat. These should never be asked. If the subjects are ever mentioned at all, they must be completely volunteered. None of us want to be interrogated.

To help alleviate the boredom, involve your veteran friend/family member in things. Invite them out with you and other friends; include them in your social life, even if they’re radically different from everybody else. Do not let them slip into isolation, self-imposed or otherwise. If you need help with something, ask them for their assistance. Encourage them to go to school, to read the news, to find work, and then keep up with them on it. Discuss it with them. Ask them about their day, their studies, and their jobs. And rather than pretending to care, truly do so.

If the veteran shows a strong propensity to drink and act violent, do not do them the disservice of perpetuating the problem. Avoid excessive drinking, or perhaps drinking altogether. If they don’t like terribly violent movies, don’t watch them in their presence. If they are hellbent on telling you their opinion on a matter, just listen. Argue, but carefully so. The idea is to include them in your life, not do anything that would drive them away. Do not, however, make any moral or character concessions on account of them being troubled veterans. Expect much from them, but in love.

If he or she shows signs of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD – the new name for an age-old problem), help them. Encourage them to seek help somewhere, preferably from other veterans. While counselors all over the country may feel equipped to address these matters, few “get it” unless they “did it.” Veterans, naturally, make the best counselors for veterans. Rather than look at their struggles as a weakness, focus on the boldness and strength it takes to do something about it. Besides which, having a struggle with killing is not a weakness; it’s natural. NOT having a struggle with it is the bigger problem. As much as the term may be overused and obnoxious, encourage the veteran to “plug in.” Again, it’s isolation that does the most profound damage.

The biggest complaint that a civilian friend or family member has in dealing with “their” veteran is that they have nothing to offer. On the contrary, you have everything. You have yourself. You loved this person before, probably prayed for their safe and quick return, and now you are presented with the opportunity to demonstrate it. They needed your support when they were overseas, and, all the more they need it now. Veterans don’t necessarily need each other; they need you. And so, should they have difficulty fitting in or feel isolated, you, as friends, spouses, family members and Americans, are there to lift them up.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved