After action: Some thoughts about friends inspired in part by the Yemen raid and the reactions to it in political Washington
- 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Peter Lucier
Best Defense Council of the Former Enlisted.
Whenever someone dies in war, there are a thousand people to blame. Victory has a thousand fathers, but defeat is an orphan. A service member died a few days ago, on a raid where it sounds like everything went wrong. Senator John McCain questioned whether the mission was a success: a $75 million aircraft lost, a service member dead, others wounded, civilian children dead. “Anyone who would suggest it [wasn’t] a success does a disservice to the life” of the service member who died, replied the White House press secretary, Sean Spicer.
Was the raid a success? I don’t know. Was my war? Senator McCain, always the gadfly, asked that question to General John W. Nicholson, regarding Afghanistan yesterday. Are we winning or losing? “I think it’s a stalemate,” replied the general.
In the quiet moments, in the stillness, I ask the same questions. I have no answers. I just remember faces. Fucking war. What can you say?
He was a huge Pacific Islander, who came to America from Saipan when he was 14. He got busted smoking that synthetic weed, “spice,” in the barracks, and lost rank. He was the guy who gave you a haircut when you came home drunk at 4 a.m. on Sunday and the barber was closed and you needed a fresh buzz before formation. He was a meticulous point man, incredibly cautious, and because he lost rank, he had to run point on two deployments in a row, instead of being able to take a safer spot further back in the patrol, as a team leader or radio operator.
He died when someone told him pick up a Taliban flag in a place where you don’t pick up shit off the ground if you didn’t drop it. He knew the rules better than anyone, but did what he was told. 50 pounds of HME blew up beneath his feet on a pressure release. Our CO came down in an MRAP, took off his FROG top, and gingerly put the pieces of him he could find into the cloth. A courageous and good man, our CO. Finest combat leader I ever met. I held security and stared outboard. I didn’t have the balls to look or help.
A Marine I didn’t know, but whose story I know, got murdered by an ANA that he was on post with. My friend had his rifle taken away as he tried to kill the bastard. Another friend was in a post tower that night. He had to sit and listen as the chaos on the radios unfolded after the gun shot. The COC conducted a radio check, and one post didn’t roger up. The guy I know was normally on the post that didn’t roger up. He had switched with the Marine who had just been killed, just for that night.
On the deployment before mine, a Marine got killed on a road that a post stander from a COP, not 300 meters away, could see. One day, during my deployment, a sweet young kind of shaky kid bringing us our mail got blown up and wounded 50 meters outside our COP. I was waiting for my dip and Reeses just inside the gate when the IED went off. I can’t believe he survived. We had to push out a patrol and secure the blast site, so we ate everyone’s candy and dipped American tobacco for the hours while we waited for the wrecker. If Marines on post had bothered to scan areas hardly a stone’s throw away, one Marine would still talk right and another might still be alive.
In a neighboring AO, covered by another company in the battalion, a Marine got killed a few weeks before the Marine in my platoon. He wasn’t even a citizen. He was awarded citizenship posthumously. He applied right before the deployment. He was 24. He was the last Marine to die in an LAV in Afghanistan. LAV’s can’t take an IED blast. They are death traps. This was 2012. MRAP’s and MATV’s had been out forever and mandated for all mounted patrols because guys kept dying or drowning in HMMWV’s. That’s how a Marine I was with in Spain’s brother died. The brother was with 3/1 in 2010. His HMMWV rolled into a canal and two Marines drowned. MRAPs and MATVs have special latches for that, and we started to get trained on that stuff after all the deaths. But LAR battalion commanders have a love affair with LAVs, and insist on their relevance and combat prowess, so we kept rolling around in them. Afterwards, the RC commander ordered all LAV’s be taken off the battle space. We exchanged them for MRAPs and MATVs six weeks before we went home.
In those quiet times, I think of another friend with whom I went to boot camp. He was only a year older, but he was always big brother, always the leader. He was a natural in that role. Tall. Handsome. Responsible. Quiet. We went to all the same schools together, designated marksman, coaches course, everything. He knocked on my door every morning at 4 a.m. to make sure I was up. He signed for the government van we used to drive around. No one told him to look out for me. We were the same rank. He just did it. He took us to his friend’s place on the weekend’s so we’d have a place to stay outside the barracks. We split after FAST, but he went to Afghanistan a month after me. The week I got back, Memorial Day weekend, I got a call driving to Vegas. I was going to drink away the deployment. He just took a bad step. Sometimes there isn’t anyone to blame. He lost both his legs.
Our drill instructors made sure we knew to not let anyone call us heroes, because only the dead are heroes. In Afghanistan, that’s even what they called over the radio when a service member died. It’s how you know you don’t have to rush out to the blast site, or on QRF, because a dead casualty is a routine casualty. There isn’t any use hitting a secondary or getting into a compromised position in a firefight over someone who can’t be helped. Hero.
Bad decisions, green on blue, a chance post switch, post standers who miss something they shouldn’t have, a love for a vehicle that doesn’t make sense in the war we are fighting, plain bad luck. Plus the people who put us over there in the first place, and all the ones that kept us fighting long after we could have or should have left.
Confronting our own complicity in the deaths of heroes is difficult. But failing to look deeply into the causes, failing to question whether they died for a good reason, doesn’t do a disservice to those who died. Their bravery and heroism stays with us, and is not diminished by the success or failure of their mission. Failing to partake in those quiet moments and wonder what the hell went wrong, and what we could have done better, however, spares only those of us left behind from guilt we’d rather not face. We cannot look away from questioning the events that lead to their deaths, steeling ourselves to face difficult questions, and resolving ourselves to not repeat our mistakes. Failure to examine their deaths is what truly does disservice to the lives of heroes.
When my friend died, I didn’t have the balls to look. I couldn’t face what had happened. I was goddamn coward and I know it. Sometimes it still seems pretty senseless. I don’t know why he died. I know that he was young. I know that he was beautiful, and so were all of the other heroes. Fucking war. What can you say?
Peter Lucier is a former Marine infantry rifleman (2008-2013) who deployed to Afghanistan in 2011. He co-holds the Marine chair on the Best Defense Council of the Former Enlisted.
Photo credit: Defense Video Imagery Distribution System