The first question they ask, if they ask any, is almost always “what is it like?” They don’t mean what is it like to leave home, or take long flights over the mispronounced nations of the world, or clean weapons and recount gear for the hundredth time. They’re not concerned with the structure of a patrol order and most would prefer to be spared the detailed instructions for disposing bagged shit. While they don’t usually say it, what they mean is, what does it feel like to get shot at, and shoot back? Or even more simply, what does it feel like to face and do violent things?
And of course this is what they ask. It’s not a fault or a shortcoming to wonder… it’s the same question I asked, deep down, as I took the long track from youth into the Marines, right up until I had the answer from the source. It is the experience I felt most protected and insulated from within the confines of middle-class suburbia, an unreachable test in a sea of convenience and comfort.
It’s a testament to the Marine Corps that it can so successfully mine our farms, suburbs, and cities for young Americans, deposit them into bleak training depots, and instill within them a deep mythology that exalts violence and destruction and immortalizes the most loyal adherents throughout its history. The question follows you like a shadow throughout your career, as stories about heroes and leaders and faraway gun fights weave their way through every run, shoot, and class you undertake. Across the Corps, battle streamers and Medal of Honor citations adorn the walls of schools, headquarters, barracks and chow halls, where the faded eyes of posthumous honorees stare down as if to examine your resolve as you order an omelette. They have their answer. Many men in a long line before you have theirs as well. How will you react? Who will you be during, and after? You know you have to find it for yourself.
Within the ranks of the Marine Corps, there is no metric, trait, or accomplishment that is more valued than service in direct combat. Damn the medals, billets, promotions, wings, bubbles, and citations. If you can’t answer the question, it can feel like you’ve got an asterisk attached to your career. So, when my unit would deploy 12-16 man detachments to combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, the competition for those limited spots was fierce. Like the churn of an NFL roster, pre-deployment injuries or legal issues simply meant the next man in a long, willing line would fall into place, hungry, green, and charged with anticipation for their chance to prove themselves. I was one of them once, and I was ecstatic. And then, quickly, my answer came.
When that first round snapped past and struck the wall behind me, followed shortly by a few more, and then the thunderous cacophony of machine guns and shouted commands in response, the only feeling I could conjure when I squeezed the trigger was tremendous, unadulterated relief. In an instant, that short exchange of gunfire had vacated years of frustration and waiting, and I reveled in it. Violence felt like relief. But, as profound and real as that experience was, I began to feel the answer shift almost immediately.
In subsequent fights, relief was replaced with an adrenaline kick that can’t be reproduced. No indoctrination required. It is intense, focused, and empowering. It overwhelms fear and common sense and magnifies images, sounds, and smells. A specific mixture of sulfur and dirt can still make the hair stand up on the back of my neck. Suddenly, violence felt like a high. And still, the answer continued to morph with each passing bullet. After some time, a tinge of dread and doubt began to creep up like a bad aftertaste. While you’d be surprised how hard it can be for a person to die, seeing people shot, fragged, or missing chunks of flesh and limb as they waited at the LZ next to our hooch for a medevac changed my perspective. Now, violence felt like a burden.
Fear and the prospect of pain aside, the adrenaline still flowed freely and you didn’t have to look far beyond the man by your side in a fight to find purpose and inspiration. Violence had come to feel like an obligation, something owed to people you love. By the end, the answer had veered from relief to a high, and then from doubt to a sense of closeness and trust. Even now, as I look back and try to summon the emotions of those moments, I’m met with new perspectives that are colored by time and experience. And then I realize that my answer never really changed as much as my question, which after so many years and degrees of distance from the culture and practice of violence, is really for them…“Why?”