The other day I was judged a war criminal in the New York subway by a stranger
The subway swayed rhythmically, roaring down Manhattan. The evening was a celebration, a reunion with old friends.
By Sebastian J. Bae
Best Defense Council of the Former Enlisted
The subway swayed rhythmically, roaring down Manhattan. The evening was a celebration, a reunion with old friends. I talked excitedly about my interview with NPR, spurred on by my latest article on female integration in combat roles. The conversation was innocuous, filled with the hopes and excitement of young, energetic men.
A woman sitting next to me asked what I did for a living. I politely responded that I was a freelance writer, focused on giving a critical human perspective to defense issues — or at least until I could find stable work in the development and security industry. She scoffed disbelievingly.
So I reassured her that I mainly based my writing on my own experience in the Marines.
To which she replied, “You know what? I think the honorable Marines were the ones that fought against that war and went to jail.” Her voice was filled with venomous disdain.
A woman whose name I didn’t even know judged me a coward and war criminal. To her, I was the guard mercilessly torturing hooded detainees in the dark corridors of Abu Ghraib. To her, I was the gunner of Crazy Horse One-Six who murdered several unarmed civilians with jarring efficiency and levity. To her, I represented every failure and every ugly sin of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
In that moment, her words wounded me more than any bullet ever could. Her cold disregard for my own humanity threw me; erasing my story from the war she knew nothing about.
At first, I wanted to unleash the choking rage in my chest, to meet her judgment with my own indignant defense. But deep down, beneath all the seething anger and pain, I just wanted her to know my story. To see my face hidden behind the newspaper bylines and headlines. To learn my name.
I wanted to tell her I never wanted to kill anyone, fearing what I may lose in that fatal trigger pull. I wanted to tell her how I scribbled love letters to my girlfriend between patrols, and how I wept when the letters stop coming. I wanted to tell about the two Iraqi boys I played soccer with in the summer heat, and how their laughter was the closest to the divine I ever felt. I wanted to confess to her my fear of every pothole and garbage heap, terrified of what may be lurking beneath.
I wanted her to grasp that when rifles are raised and bullets fly, discussions of morality are replaced with sudden realizations of our own mortality. Lofty notions of duty and national security are instantly replaced by the overwhelming desire to return home in one piece. War becomes a game of survival, and you become willing to do anything to win – to stay alive. I wanted her to understand society demanded boys barely out of puberty to be perfect in every split-second decision, to be beyond reproach.
I wanted her to understand the sublime joy of seeing every face of my platoon at our homecoming – the relief of seeing our names written in glitter on poster board instead of white tombstones.
I wanted to recount every hour spent hunched over books and articles, trying to make sense of the war and my service. I wanted her to know that I didn’t whitewash my service in self-righteous hero worship or ignore them. I wanted her to know that there isn’t a single day I don’t think about Iraq, about every patrol, about every face.
But the truth is this woman wasn’t interested in me or my story. I was nothing more than a faceless uniform — a disfigured chimera of every ugly truth and every shallow lie about the war.
So, to the woman on the New York City subway, my name is Sebastian Bae. This is my story. Judge me a hero or a villain, but at least learn my name. Because in the end, most of us were a bit of both.
Sebastian J. Bae, a frequent contributor to Best Defense, served six years in the Marine Corps infantry, leaving as a Sergeant. He deployed to Iraq in 2009. He received his Masters 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: Wikimedia Commons