Here is what a real Afghan reading list looks like: I saw John Wayne on the battlefield, but Bartleby Scrivener too
On my journeys overseas, meaning wasn’t hiding somewhere to be found.
By Peter Lucier
Best Defense Council of the Former Enlisted
In high school, when I read The Odyssey and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, my English teachers always stressed that when reading, not to search for some hidden reference from the author, but to make meaning. On my journeys overseas, meaning wasn’t hiding somewhere to be found. I had to try and make sense out of the events I was witnessing and in which I was participating.
From the roof of the American embassy in Bahrain, my platoon and I watched a king try to repress his own people, and when he failed, watched Saudi Arabia cross the King Fahd Causeway in tanks and APC’s to enforce a crackdown. Laying in a ditch outside of a town called Krum, my reticle centered on a man wearing white. I couldn’t tell if he had a weapon or not. A sergeant was firing over my head while a staff sergeant told me to take the man in white. I had to decide whether to put on my own people shooting hat, like Holden Caufield, or like Prince Hamlet, to plunge the sword into the treacherous Claudius.
The best tools I have to make meaning are American myths, stories we wrote, or adopted, or believe; stories about us, who we are, where we think we came from, and where we want to go. When I think about Afghanistan, I think of Macbeth, and tales told by idiots, “signifying nothing.” I think of Catch-22, and Snowden’s secret, spilled all over the back of the plane; that spirit gone, man is meat. I took with me overseas the stories of our beginnings: stories of cowboys, secretaries, Gatsby’s Ashland and Eliot’s Wasteland. In Iraq and Afghanistan, politicians and officers had dreams of tabula rasa, terra incognita and John Edward’s City on a Hill. In the ranks of lance corporals I met and knew many Bartleby the Scriveners and John Waynes. The democratic spirit De Tocqueville wrote about descended on each of us imagined western messiahs not as white doves, but in plain, small, brown birds at which the Afghan men slung rocks. I waded through canals with Melville, Hawthorne and Whitman. I ate MRE’s with Hemingway, Faulkner, and Ellison. And you Mark Twain, what were you doing on the banks of the Helmand?
When I think about lance corporals, I think about Kerouac and his mad ones, and want to tell John Updike that when he wrote that the only people left with any magic left in America were the blacks and the Jews, he should have included junior Marines. Like Wordsworth’s pagans suckled in creeds outworn, lance corporals couched ourselves in myth and ritual. There is a magic and madness in lance corporals, the one pump chumps, the sleepy looking marauders, the files-on-parade. There is no zealot like a convert, and boot Marines brim with zeal. The drinkers drink too much, the lovers get married too young, the religious ones pray just a little too hard. We held these and all of the stories of America in our hearts, and lived and trained and fought every day so as to make the stories true.
When I think about strategy, I think about Hemingway, and his code hero. I think about how Nick Adams and bull fighters, in a chaotic meaningless world picked an arbitrary arena, entered naked, except for the physical prowess and wit, fought with courage, and left with only grace and wisdom. I wonder if we ever really chose an area, or let the arena grow year by year. Instead of clarifying and defining, our ever expanding mission amplified the madness like an echo chamber. I think about how instead of staying in the arena, we carasouled into and out of it six months, a year, or fifteen months at a time.
I think about how we didn’t enter naked. We took with us the American war chest, and it spilled open and flooded the sands with garbage and excess. I ate too many Pop Tarts, and not enough naan bread. I drank too much Gatorade, and not enough chai (tea).
I wonder why our stories lack the grace and wisdom Hemingway’s heroes won. Because as a lance I believed in magic and madness, I ask without irony why the gods didn’t grant us victory? I have to go back and ask what part of the ritual we failed, in what ways our sacrifices were imperfect and rejected, like Cain’s were.
I’ve seen lots of Afghanistan and Iraq reading lists, filled with histories, manuals, and first person accounts. I think about Stepchild, the call sign of my EOD tech in Afghanistan. He laid on top of a hole in the ground, interrogating an IED. He couldn’t find a trigger mechanism, so he laid a charge on it, and called for an emergency blast window. Even a simple homemade explosive sometimes defies our technical ability to find meaning. So I have to make it, and for that, I need a different kind of reading list.
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. He holds the Marine co-chair in the Best Defense’s Council of the Former Enlisted.
Photo credit: Sgt. Pete Thibodeau/U.S. Marine Corps/Defense Video and Imagery Distribution System
Thomas E. Ricks is a former contributing editor to Foreign Policy. Twitter: @tomricks1
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