This has nothing to do with the NFL, and it’s not very funny. But if you’re interested in the military roots of a football blogger, read on.
I did a reading last week. The person organizing the event, knowing of my experience as a Marine in the initial invasion of Iraq, asked me to read something about the Middle East. I accepted. Ohhhhh did I accept.
This particular reading series is run by and populated with graduates of the M.F.A. writing program at Sarah Lawrence College — a commendable program by all accounts, but one that inevitably produces a lot of female writers talking about their relationship with their mothers. Furthermore, it’s a nonfiction reading series, and since most of the readers are highly educated writers by trade, there’s no REAL drama. No violent crime, no fires being put out, no fistfights — only existential crises that inevitably stem from an absent father or overbearing mother, or vice versa.
Well, I was determined to turn their reading series on its head. I selected a passage that I put in the category of DARK AS HELL, one of the more emotional and gruesome passages from my always-and-forever-unfinished memoir about the war. I was gonna freak some bitches out.
However, there was one thing I didn’t count on: I don’t generally share my experience at war with anyone besides fellow veterans. I’ll tell the funny stories, or show the pictures of me with friends goofing off, but my feelings about war and my fear of death and the lives I broke as carelessly as a glass from Ikea are all things that I keep inside of me.
And you know what? That doesn’t help anyone. It doesn’t help the civilians who ask me honest questions about combat, it doesn’t help other veterans who are fighting the demons of their own memories, and it doesn’t help those who try to avoid the ugly reality of war. Like, say, our Congress since the all-volunteer force was adopted.
With that in mind, what follows is the passage I read last week. It’s about my fears of going to combat just after we got the word that the invasion was about to begin. It was extremely uncomfortable for me to share it with an audience of strangers. I hope that it’s uncomfortable for you to read.
As the sun rises, so does my anxiety. Are we actually going to war? We are. We are actually going to war. I personally am going to war. Holy Jesus living fuck save me God in heaven fuh-huh-huh-huh-huck.
I don’t want to die. Oh God, how is it going to happen? So many ways, death at every corner and lining the streets in between. Who’s going to shoot at me? Iraqi tanks? Okay, that’s okay—we’ve got armor for that. Good armor. Great armor, the best armor. But what if it’s a close shot? Maybe that Iraqi tank round doesn’t penetrate but the shock of the blast causes the inside of the turret to splinter—spalling, it’s called—and all it takes is one little piece of metal to go into my exposed neck, to cut my jugular, and I’m gasping, choking on my own blood, trying to get out a desperate last prayer for life. Or maybe that hot piece of metal goes through my eye and I go quick. No, no—I know. I’m going to have to get off my tank—there’s a wounded Marine, or I need to help an innocent citizen, or there’s a reporter in the way—and that’s when the large-caliber rounds rip through my legs—why didn’t I see that machine gun emplacement?—shattering my femurs, cutting my femoral arteries, and oh God no not my balls. My balls are going to get shot off and even if I live I’ll be a crazy legless veteran with no balls.
Jesus, RPGs. I haven’t even thought about the RPGs. One shot from behind, or a top-down shot in a city whose name I don’t even know, and there goes the fuel tank. It’ll burn slowly at first, and I’ll be standing on the turret, making sure Sprague gets out of the gunner’s hole when the fire catches the ammunition, maybe the violently combustible main gun rounds, maybe just a box of 7.62; it won’t take much to shatter this fragile body, shred my guts to mincemeat, blow my limbs off—the flies will lay their eggs on the muscle of my detached humerus when it lands three hundred yards away; maggots will feast on my decomposing bicep. Feral dogs will fight over a piece of my foot rotting in its boot near the charred tank, and I’ll have died with the smell of my own flesh burning in my nostrils.
Oh God don’t let it be me. Maybe it won’t be me. Carnline—he’s the curious type, always has his head out of the loader’s hatch when he should be staying down. He’ll be up joy-riding on the side of the hatch because I’ve gotten tired of telling him not to, and the sniper’s bullet is going to catch him in the cheek, and his helmet will prevent an exit wound. I’ll be the one to lay him down on top of the turret, and I’ll pull his helmet off and his brains and shattered skull will fall into my lap, gray matter and pink stuff I can’t identify and flecks of bone like ivory, hard and sharp in the soft mess. And I’ll vomit into Carnline’s brains, and I’ll cry into his open skull, and my Marines will look at me and ask each other This is the guy they chose to lead us?
My heartbeat throbs against my wrists, beats my eardrums, thunders against my woozy temples. I chain-smoke behind my tank. I’m trying to get enough nicotine into my body to stop my hands from shaking. It hasn’t worked yet.
My platoon sergeant comes around the side of the tank and says, “Oh. There you are, sir. Been lookin’ for ya.”
“Well, I’ve been right here.” I’ve been hiding.
“The platoon’s all here, if you wanna talk to ’em.”
I don’t. Not at all. “Thanks, I’ll be there as soon as I finish my smoke.”
I’ve never been good at speeches. I always forget what it is that I want to say, so I have to write down notes, which cuts down on the rambling but makes for less effective go-get-’em speeches. Today I have so little to say that I’ve foregone notes.
I toss my cigarette into the sand and walk to the front of my tank. I look at my platoon. They’re a motley crew: gangsters, country boys, college-kid reservists, immigrants, tattooed thugs. They can drink and swear and tank like no other group of Americans I know. I have trained them, trained with them, and I love them fiercely.
I can count on Sergeant Melville for detailed, even excessive, reports. Corporal Weber—Big Joe, he’s from Washington, I’ll write him a recommendation for a college scholarship next year. Sergeant Horner’s little boy Lawson isn’t more than a couple months old. I know when Sprague has been sneaking cans of chili into the gunner’s hole because his farts smell worse than usual. Willie—when was the last time Willie brushed his teeth? Zapien’s a reservist; he works in a bank and has a pretty Asian girlfriend he’s going to marry when we get back. Lopez, just a baby when he got to the company—now he’s practically an old salt. I’ve watched him grow up. I guess he’s watched me grow up, too.
My Marines. My men, for whom I’m responsible. I’m twenty-four and older than all but two of them. I’m twenty-four and responsible for as many lives as I have years, if I count my own (and I do). I have twenty-four mothers to answer to, eight wives depending on me not to fuck this up. These men deserve the toughest, smartest leader that the Marine Corps can produce.
What they have is me, and I.
I clear my throat.
“I know y’all were probably lookin’ forward to a big Braveheart talk, but you know me—I’m not one to speechify.” Dead silence. Is my voice actually trembling? “We all know that we have a just cause for going to war, and we’ve already gone over the scheme of maneuver a hundred times.
“I’m just like the rest of you: I’ve never been to combat, so I don’t know what it’s like. But I want to tell you all that it’s okay to be scared.” I’ve been looking at the ground. I raise my head and force myself to look at them; I move my gaze around to meet several different sets of eyes. “What’s not okay is to let that fear overcome you. No panicking. We’re all well-trained, and as long as we go with our training and make quick decisions, we’re gonna accomplish the mission and be fine. Tank commanders, you know what I expect.”
They’re still looking at me. I’ve just given one of the least inspirational speeches in the history of warfare.
“That’s about all I wanted to say.”