By Thomas E. Ricks in Foreign Policy
By Peter Lucier (Best Defense Council of the Former Enlisted)
To my ex-lover:
It’s not you, USMC, it’s me.
No, that’s not true. After so much dishonesty, and talking around each other, I have to be honest. It’s you. But it isn’t that I don’t or can’t love you anymore. It’s that as a young man, I took you on as a lover. But I don’t think a lover is what you need right now.
I’ll always cherish our time together. You didn’t just help me find myself, you showed me a new way to be. The violence you taught me wasn’t just about destruction, although the two of us were pretty good at that. It was about a fierceness of purpose. We attacked problems together, in an unspoken agreement of trust to the point of killing or dying for those next to us. In you, these two halves of myself, purpose and brotherhood, found balance and meaning
I remember when we first met. I was nervous, but isn’t that always the way? At boot camp I wasn’t sure if you knew that I existed. Back then I thought you were brash, crass, arrogant and rude. But you told such incredible stories, stories about Guadalcanal, Iwo Jima, the Chosin Reservoir, Hue City, and Fallujah. I fell under the mystical spell of your charisma, your unbroken string of victories, reaching far back into the past, your warrior spirit.
I remember the day I knew I loved you, the day I gave into your insane demands. We were running a LFAM, at SOI. I saw each part of you moving perfectly. Your strong geometries of fire, the clean lines cut by your left and right lateral limits, the perfect grace of your coordinated movements. We live fired together that day, and again that night, and for many months after we shot and moved together, lovers drunk on our own youth and excellence.
It was not an easy life. You demanded austerity, strict discipline, total commitment. You told me frankly I’d be putting myself in danger, and would be expected to perform in dangerous situations, without excuse. But like so many young men before me, going back to the Spartan agoge and before, having been thoroughly instilled with love of Corps and country, I accepted the sword that you offered, and I took up the heavy burden.
You taught me about “Message to Garcia.” Your stories had that distinctly American flavor of Protestantism, of cynicism and idealism clashing at high speed; man as a fallen, depraved creature, but through relentless hard work, he could redeem himself. And if work could redeem, maybe, just maybe, all mankind could be redeem. Maybe if we worked hard enough, we could remake the whole world in our image. Maybe there was nothing we couldn’t do. We were beasts, but we might be gods.
We went to war together. We were challenged. The enemy pushed back against us. They offered us lessons. The land was not new. Its valleys and mountain contained stories older than ours. There was knowledge and wisdom in that very old place, where empires across the ages had been buried, but the people lived on.
A great leader in our brotherhood arose, and challenged us. He told us we had to engage our minds, before we engaged our triggers. He said it wasn’t enough to have a juvenile sense of invulnerability, we had to also have an adult sense of responsibility. It wasn’t enough to celebrate our seemingly unbroken string of victories, our tradition and heritage. We had to learn, to adapt. But we didn’t listen. In our hubris, perhaps we believed the myths that had sprung up around us. We went on as we always had, running faster and faster, our arms outstretched, running to the stories of our past.
When we came home, I felt like my blindness had fallen away. War had given lie to the stories you told. They had been tested in fire and found wanting. But you still talked as you always had, before the war. You fell right back into your old habits. We ran the same ranges together, but our shooting and moving, seemed empty now.
So you see why I had to leave. I think you are in trouble, Marine Corps. I think you have hard times ahead of you. It kills me to leave you now, when I see you drowning. But I can’t help you, not as a lover. So I’m leaving. I will study the ways of the enemy. I will learn the lessons he tried to teach us. And when I know what I need to know, I’ll return.
I’ll come with a new story. It will be a painful one. Young boys will always come to you, looking to test themselves as I did. And they’ll fall in love with you, just like I did. But I will leave a warning for them. A warning called Afghanistan. The new ones who come to find you will be forced to face our failure, yours and mine. Even more than your victories and glories, they will shout our shame as they march, and drill, and train, when they wait in line for chow, as they clean their rifles, and before they get into their racks at night. This will be our new story. Love, always love. But caution. Temperance. In place of redemption, we will strive for wisdom. We will teach them to value efficacy as much as we valued effort.
I don’t expect you to change. I am not sure anyone ever really changes, and you are too beautiful the way you are. You won’t become something new. But you will become something better. Then, when you are strong and whole, maybe we can shoot and move together, as lovers again.
Peter Lucier was a Marine infantry rifleman (2008-2013) who deployed to Afghanistan in 2011. He currently is a student at St. Louis University.