Best Defense is in summer re-runs. This item originally appeared on April 9, 2015.
By Peter Lucier
Best Defense Council of the Former Enlisted
We are not winning this hot wash. There is something rotten in the stories we tell. We are swimming in shallow water.
I did a radio interview recently. Before the show, the host emailed me a list of questions. I nervously worked over my answer to “Why did I join?” I have different stories I tell, depending on my audience.
To fellow veterans, I like to talk about how I was twelve years old on 9/11. How I spent my nard-drop years watching war footage on CNN. My adolescence was shaped by conflict. Brown-skinned turban clad terrorists were a new iconic enemy to shape my games, my jokes, my play, my world view. I wanted to get my piece of a war that started while I was in middle school.
To the college kids I go to school with now, I talk about how my idealistic eighteen year old self had a lot of ideas and beliefs about the world. I wanted to crash my idealism at high speed against the realities of austerity, poverty, war, and life at the sharp end of American foreign policy.
To my family I talk about our tradition of military service, my brother and uncles and grandparents. I talk about belief in the American experiment, and wanting to give something back.
I hold dearly to my simple, well-worn stories. Because the stories I tell are simple and easy to believe in. Because I’m scared to write new ones. Because it is safer to swim in the shallow water.
I have a confession. I swam in shallow water in Afghanistan. My only mission was to “conduct counter-insurgency operations.” I went to fight my war, then when I got there, I got told no mission I would conduct would be worth the life of a single Marine. I was ordered to swim, but not to reach the other side, so I swam in shallow water. I prayed for the safest, shortest patrol routes, drink chai with the locals, and waited until we could call in that we were returning to base. I turned a blind eye to the drugs, the sexual exploitation of children, the unreadiness of ANSF forces, the oppression of women, the failure to achieve even a reasonable facsimile of success. I fought hard when the bad guys shot at me, but I fought the war just hard enough to make them leave me alone.
I am swimming in shallow waters now, in the aftermath. My enemy is my greatest teacher. He showed me where I am weak, but I didn’t learn. I lost my war, but I never had wave a white flag, never had to hand over my sword, never had to face the humiliation of surrendering to my enemy. I never had to put on the sack cloth and ashes. My stories are empty because they lack the wisdom he tried to teach me.
I made it home alive. I berated boots, and hated civilians because they didn’t fight in my war, they weren’t there, and they don’t know shit. I collect my GI bill checks, and pay off my mortgage, try to make my marriage work, and search for a job.
I hear stories like the ones I tell in the news every day. General Allyn says winning is what we do. General Odierno says the rest of the government didn’t do their part. The official Marine Corps Facebook page posts when Silver Stars and Navy Crosses are awarded under the title “Badass Alert.” There are stories about valiant heroes, victims of failed foreign policy, and boyish faces atop armored vehicles with the wind in their hair and their sticking their tongues out. There are opinion pieces on the merits of the newest military history book, or females in the infantry, or reawakening campaigns. But they are all safe, and despite the vitriol these stories might kick up, they go down easy. Nothing to be afraid of, everything is fine, just arguing over the details, here in the shallow water.
We aren’t getting any closer to the other side of the river. It looks menacing over there. The other side is shrouded in fog, it’s mysterious, and changing. I can’t see the bottom between the other side and where I am. I don’t think I want to cross. I think I’m too old now to cross. I’ve seen too much, survived too much, been on too many adventures already. I own too much that I could lose if I cross. I can’t imagine I’m invincible anymore, like I did when I joined. I’m tired now, and my world is small. Plenty enough young men died right here, on the banks of the Tigris, Euphrates, and the Helmand. Maybe screw the hot wash. Maybe I don’t need to be woken up by my enemy. I think I’ll stay here, with my memories, and the ghosts of my friends, and my stories that pass for wisdom, swimming in shallow water.
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.