It is absolutely incredible what you can learn when you just...listen. Music, literature, cinema, politics, philosophy, all can be absorbed only with your mouth closed. Learning is a receiving of knowledge, an activity that presupposes a void to be filled. I was mostly a quiet child, or so I am told, and I spent the lion's share of my time with my mouth closed and my ears open. It was with great trepidation, indeed only after urging, that I created a blog, this blog.
However, after only a few posts, I realized that a lifetime of listening does not prepare one for speaking up. I viewed the written expression of my opinion in much the same way many people view public speaking. It wasn't so much a fear of the audience that has kept me mostly silent. It was the realization of just how little I know in comparison to the perceived "knowledge" of other writers and opinion-holders with a voice. A perception I have come to acknowledge as misguided; not entirely false, of course, but an underestimation of my own truth-testing and an overestimation of the authority of any single individual. What follows is the first part of an explanation(not excuse) for this silence and, hopefully, a reason to speak up. Whether to help myself or someone else, I don't really know yet. Without further adieu...
I don't make plans, I don't have dreams for the future, I don't have personal goals. This behavior is completely alien to me. It isn't as though I just don't want to fulfill my purposes; I don't have any. As callous as this may sound, the events of September 11th, 2001, were a boon. I had applied to no colleges, attended no job fairs, had no marketable skills. I had no drive to "succeed"; nothing animated me to action. That shocking footage gave me a path to walk, one that resonated with...something indescribable, powerful, right. The feeling came out of nowhere and overwhelmed me. So when I joined the Marines in 2002, it wasn't to pay for college or to see the world or to shoot a gun. I joined to kill the people who had killed my fellow Americans. Tribalism, Nationalism, these urges are what animated my choice when I woke up from dozing in Sociology class during my senior year of High School. I watched the news feed as the second plane hit the two towers, and my blood boiled. Prehistoric man roared from the African plains of my biological past, and with determination, I affirmed the desire for bloody reprisal in the only civil way possible: join the military.
The next day I received a call from the Marine Corp recruiter, as do all young men and women who take the ASVAB to get out of class. I can't say whether I would have still joined the Marines if another branch had called first. When I think back to why I wanted to be a Marine, such as when someone asks that very question, I generally reply that I had skated through life up to that point and wanted to do something hard. Do something hard and do it right. I think now, however, that it was rather more primal than that. I didn't want to fly over my country's enemies, or sail past them, or arrive as part of a mob. I intended to see the whites of their eyes when the light went out. I had this idea that I wasn't going to be part of a machine, however well-oiled and effective, I was going to make "them" see me as the angel of justice.
Well, the Marines was the right choice, but OIF was the wrong war. I had no previous experience, but it didn't feel like a 'war' in any sense of the word. Perhaps it felt this way for the men and women who came before me, as well. Oh, the fear was there, but the anger faded very quickly and only reared it's ugly head in the quiet and dark hours after the fear had worn off.
It was the spring of 2003 when we sat more or less perched on the Kuwait/Iraq border. It didn't look or feel like spring. I don't think the desert has the capacity to express the season. During the day it looked and felt like a summer that never starts or ends, and at night a winter without comfort. The evening before we crossed the border, a sandstorm had kicked up as though the angry spirit of Iraq was protesting our imminent intrusion. American and British vehicles formed lines that stretched towards and away from the border, disappearing into the swirling sand after only a dozen or so tan and green hulks in either direction. The whole world had turned brown, as it often does in the desert at dusk when the sand flies.
We sat atop our iron chariots and squinted against the sand and wind, watching the 155s soar over our heads through the pale green world revealed by our night vision goggles. Each thundering impact felt like the beat of a drum; the little drummer boy of previous human conflicts had evolved into a mighty hammer shaking the earth with mighty swings. Some of us cheered and were rewarded with a mouthful of sand, but most just sat listening and replaying the briefing of the previous evening. We were to face Russian tanks, buried in the sand and ready to bite through the soft aluminum of our amphibious assault vehicles. Well, we would be shielded by humvees with rockets, but I'm sure I don't have to elaborate on why that was less than reassuring. I wasn't the only one to consider a bevy of hummers, skilled though they may be, as little more than an appetizer to a battalion of bunkered tanks.
Thud. Boom. Thudthud. Booboobooommmm. Thudthudthuthtuthtuthtutddddddddd.
I still remember that night vividly; the taste of sand, the green-tinged streaks of each hammer as it whistled overhead, and the thrumpthrumpthrump of the drums of war as those hammers pounded the earth. As the ground shook, no one slept. Some laughed nervously, some wrote home, others ate. I listened. Surely, I thought, the rest of the world can hear this.
It was the last time during my tour in the Marines that I actually thought I was part of a war. It was also the last time I can remember being afraid to die.