We romanticize military service — until we see some combat and bury some friends
“The American Marines made quite the man out of you!”
By Sebastian J. Bae
Member, Best Defense Council of the Former Enlisted
When I recently visited my uncle, a former Republic of Korea (ROK) Marine, he jokingly declared, “The American Marines made quite the man out of you!” To which, I jovially responded, “More than the Korean Marines would have!” Well into two bottles of throat-burning liquor, we were two former Marines, reminiscent and nostalgic for our days in uniform. Then with innocent curiosity, my uncle asked, “I never saw combat, but what was the war like?”
I paused. I drank. And then I lied, “It was nothing we weren’t prepared for. We did what we had to.” To which, my uncle roared with approval, imagining me as a steely-eyed warfighter, righteous in his cause and unfazed by the fires of war. For it was the answer he expected, and the answer I wished was true.
Born in 1965, my uncle grew up in the shadow of the Korean War (1950-1953), which devastated a nascent nation. And as a young ROK Marine, my uncle served at the height of the Cold War. He patrolled the world’s most militarized border, playing a dangerous staring contest with a North Korean counterpart, commonly termed a ‘mirror.’ During my uncle’s tenure, the North Korean threat was palpable — with only a narrow strip of barbed wire separating South Korea from the Communist specter. But the war never came, and he hung up his uniform without ever firing a shot.
Consequently, my uncle, like many of his generation, nurses romantic notions of military service, invoking images of valiant, young men gloriously enamored in uniform, proving their courage and strength with bayonets and rifles. For my uncle’s generation, combat retains the allure only afforded by distance and unfamiliarity. To this day, patriotism, manhood, and military service are inextricably intertwined, inseparable in their minds. This is reflected in the mandatory military service of twenty-one months for all male Korean citizens between the ages of eighteen and thirty-five.
But the truth is… I’m nothing like my uncle’s visions of the ideal man, of the picturesque warfighter.
I came of age in the smoke of the Twin Towers, my convictions forged in its fires. Slogans like “Never Forget” and “the Axis of Evil” seemed so poignant, so self-evident. I enlisted in the infantry, wholly believing the war was not only just, but also necessary. I wanted to serve my country, protect people, and change the world — all with the barrel of my M16 rifle. Thus, in the beginning, I shared my uncle’s romanticized visions of war with the optimism of a starry-eyed eighteen-year-old — envisioning feats of heroism and glory.
Yet, unlike my uncle, I discovered the realities of war are brutal and unkind. There is no romance in draping flags over fallen comrades. There is no joy in the pull of a trigger. Even six years after the war, I’m left wrestling with questions that seemed so easy before: Was the war righteous? Did it mean anything? Could I’ve done more? On good days, I have answers I can live with… and on other days, I find there are no answers, no words. Only deafening silence.
For me, the uniform will always be tied to Iraq — the faces of Echo Company, the winding streets of Ramadi, and the byzantine ambiguity of counterinsurgency. Yet for all its trials and tribulations, I don’t regret my enlistment; I would do it all over again if I could. I just wish I did it different — entering the service with eyes wide open.
If I did it again, I would buy better boots, recognizing regulations don’t trump common sense. I would rely on my mind more than my rifle; understanding knowledge is the greatest asset on a battlefield filled with uncertainty. I would abandon my childish notions of war, accepting glory is empty and the military cemeteries too crowded.
But most of all, I wish someone had told me the war never ends, but follows you home — for the uniform is seductive, and the idea of war seemingly romantic, but there is no wisdom in rose-colored glasses.
Sebastian J. Bae served six years in the Marine Corps infantry, leaving as a Sergeant. He deployed to Iraq in 2009. He received his master’s degree at Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program, specializing in counterinsurgency and humanitarian interventions. He holds the Marine co-chair on Best Defense’s Council of Former Enlisted.
Photo credit: U.S. National Archives