- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at email@example.com.
By Peter Lucier
Marine co-chair, Best Defense Council of the Enlisted
Mr. Bae said enlisted have a role to play in crafting policy. That role was looked at and debated in the comments to his article. It was rightly noted that enlisted necessarily and by definition have a narrow view of the wars they fight, and that they have competing interests with policy makers. Namely, their own survival might compete with policy makers larger goals. So how can enlisted and former enlisted members contribute to the conversation?
In his introduction to the publication of Allen Ginsberg’s poem Howl, poet William Carlos Williams said, “We are blind and live our blind lives out in blindness. Poets are damned but they are not blind, they see with the eyes of the angels. This poet sees through and all around the horrors he partakes of in the very intimate details of his poem. He avoids nothing but experiences it to the hilt. He contains it.”
Policy makers must be in some ways blind to the human cost of their decisions, for how else could they send young men and women to kill and to die? Civilians are blind to the wars we fight by choice or indifference. Enlisted persons, warfighters, are damned, but we are not blind. Enlisted members’ role is to not see the whole picture, but to see what comes into their field of view wholly, wholly in its horrors, wholly in its triumphs. The enlisted person’s field of view can be as eerily narrow and magnified as a rifle scope set to 12x. It can shrink to the size of the chest of a child on whom the crosshairs are centered. It can be filled wholly with the back of a teenage Pakistani boy, shredded from shrapnel of 30mm rounds, fired from an A-10, flying a thousand feet above the fertile soil of the Helmand river valley. Wholly, wholly, and like Ginsberg or Whitman, the things we see wholly become holy, holy, holy, holy. The rifle and bullets, and the dirt, and the cold, and the heat, and the fear, and the hate, and the love, holy.
In Plato’s Republic, Socrates rightly looks to the story tellers and poets of society. Socrates knows the power of these in crafting a just person, or a just society. Our strategists and policy makers are story tellers, novelists. They write long form narrative, from the third person omniscient view. They see the whole story, unfolding each part in turn, from a detached perspective with an eye always fixed to the ending, the conclusion. Enlisted men and women are poets. Our poems are whirlwind gut-punches, raw flooding deluges, that hit and twist and fill the stomach in an instant, then are gone, unfiltered, unprocessed. Like the great Tim O’Brien said, a soldier’s story must make the stomach believe, believe in a place that has no capacity for language, to which a listener can only reply, “Huh” or “Oh.”
To make just policy, successful policy, that ends well, that has a good conclusion, the story must be written by policy makers, by strategists, whose view, like the A-10 speedily flying over the land, is from above. But for the story, the policy, to be true, to conform to reality, it must be informed by the poets.
That is the role of the enlisted: to be damned, to be truth tellers, to be like Dante, a traveler who goes down to hell, to be the ones who leave Plato’s cave, and come back, to wrench those who make predictions about the shadows projected on the wall, and show them not only the fire that makes those shadows, and but also the sun, the true fire. Enlisted are not and cannot be kings, but it is their job and duty to inform the king when the king thinks he is dressed resplendently, but in fact is naked.
Peter Lucier is a former Marine infantry rifleman (2008-2013) who deployed to Afghanistan in 2011. He is currently a student at St. Louis University.