My Inactivity Explored, Part 2

Go here for part 1.

It was the waiting, I think, that finally sapped my fear of death.  I can't recall much of the crossing or of the days that followed, only glimpses of the dusty, smokey interior of our vehicle and the shouts and gunfire coming from outside the little metal box I shared with twelve or so others.  I couldn't hear the radio chatter over my helmet, only the intercom between the driver and crewchief, and so I simply waited.

At first, I waited fearfully; my emotions in lockstep with the other passengers as we stared at each other, straining to hear the whistle of the tank round that had our name on it.  Our 'chariot' roared and quieted, stopped and started, throwing us off our seats or into the walls.  Gunfire erupted and subdued, the intercom squeaked and hissed and shouted, and quieted.  The ping and snap of small rounds rang against the vehicle like tiny hammers against a muffled bell.

Intense emotion tends to wear one down over time, and this is what I suspect happened to me.  I don't know precisely when, but at some point during that day I let something go.  Some feeling I had held back, some truth or hunch that was hanging over my intellect.  In part, I let it go because I didn't want to be surprised; I've never been a fan of surprises.  The larger part, however, was that within the confines of that mobile metal box, I came to realize that even if I survived the day I would have to face tomorrow, and the next day, and the next, with the same harrowing trepidation that ate at me.  I finally just let go, accepting that, if not today, tomorrow would be my last; the properly aimed rocket, the perfectly timed explosive, or the expertly aimed rifle round would find it's target.  No matter what, or when, or where, I would not live with this gnawing fear overshadowing my every moment.

From then on, though I took every precaution required to stay out of trouble, I didn't find the inevitable end to my existence a compelling motivation to further caution.  When ambushed, I leaped out of the vehicle as requested and made room for the infantry to follow after.  While the chatter of machine gun fire surrounded us, while rounds kicked up the dust at my feet and slapped the metal hatch at my side, I peered curiously back into the dark interior of my vehicle and into the frozen faces of the young men I had just called to follow me.  Following their gaze, I glanced over my shoulder at the field across the road just as a humvee roared past.  Blinking the sand out of my eyes, I watched mortar rounds making ten foot high teardrops of sand as they slowly walked them towards our position.  The second impact was near enough, and the sudden burst of 50cal fire loud enough, that I lost all sense of hearing but for a loud ring.  Turning back to the infantry, I punched their squad leader on the knee and held up four fingers.  He immediately snapped out of his reverie and into his training, tapping three others and jumping out past me.  I turned again to watch the teardrops as they filed out and ran behind me.

Later on, after a sandstorm that had claimed a tank and it's crew which fell off a bridge and into a river, we found ourselves on an extremely muddy stretch of road in the dead of night.  Through the top hatch, which had been folded back to allow three of the riflemen in back with me to stand and aim out over the side, I saw tracers streak past and heard the chatter of us returning fire.  The details elude me, but we spent some significant portion of that night trading rounds at shadows of one another.  So far as I could tell, no one was even wounded.

The next morning I stepped lightly out the back of the vehicle and set up to shave and brush my teeth, wearing my jumpsuit and boots but no protective gear.  The infantry on either side of the road, still in full combat gear, urged me to don my flak jacket for fear of another surge from the sand.  I ignored them, and went about my hygiene nonplussed.  They must have assumed that I knew something they didn't, and, though still keyed up from the previous night, they slowly relaxed.  I later discovered that the enemy snipers were poorly trained, and weren't likely to even hit the vehicle from a decent distance, much less a man shaving in it's shadow.  Besides, I thought, if they do get lucky, I won't have to shave in cold water any longer, or wear those bloody rubber boots that make your feet sweat so badly.  These were the terms of my existence at the time, and they constituted a burden I would have found easy to cast aside.

When, through all sorts of misadventures and dusty, endless days, we finally arrived in Baghdad, I finally had the opportunity to meet Iraqis without guns.  They didn't emerge until several hours after we arrived, most likely to confirm that we were not actively engaged in digesting small children (the interpretors, almost en masse, confirmed that this was how many people thought Marines earned the title).  Once again surrounded by people, I watched and listened.  You know, the strangest realization found it's way into my consciousness: they're just people.  The children do childish things, the adults do things adults do.  They care for one another, work for their livelihoods, laugh, fear, love, and cry.

I thought back to the episodes on the road in, the molten anger that sought fleshy purchase in our ranks, and contrasted it with this city and it's inhabitants.  What, I thought, would I have done in their place?  If someone invaded their home, intent upon killing them (as Saddam announced over the state television and radio).  Well, I would have...

Oh, that's why I'm here.  Huh.


My inactivity explored, part one

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.