The Marine I met looked exhausted. I thought the “1000 yard stare” was nonsense made up by Kubric’s characters. It isn’t. We were at Balad Air Base, Iraq in 2005. He looked about 19 years old, maybe 20. I was escorting Filipino nationals, workers, outside of the theatre hospital. The short conversation we had is about the same kind you hear when any two servicemembers meet.
How long you been in the AOR? (area of responsibility, the military euphemism for warzone) I asked. 15 months. you? I told him I’d been at Balad a couple months. What’s your job?, I asked. Machine gunner, he says.
How do you like it?
People shoot at you. He said, with half a shrug.
I nodded. That’s a pretty good reason. The Marine spoke plainly and matter of factly. He had neither enthusiasm nor spite. Coincidentally, the Secretary of Defense at the time, Donald Rumsfeld was landing in Balad as we spoke, just a half mile away. Soldiers not working would be hand-picked to ask him superfluous questions; the Marine and I had our jobs to do.
I asked why he was at the hospital. He related a story with remarkable candor and detachment. He had been on patrol. His unit was fired upon by a small group of assailants. They returned fire, the battle was short. Two of the attackers were killed. A third was mortally wounded, but alive.
We couldn’t finish him off, there were too many people around. So the surviving assailant, now a prisoner of war, was now being put back together by some of the finest of American doctors. Pity that, I replied. I was angry. The night before the ground shook with explosions as the housing area I slept in was mortared by people who were trying to kill me and my friends. It wasn’t the first time. It had happened regularly. Sooner or later, you want to kill the people who are doing it, no matter who you are.
I was angry and I was learning to hate. I hadn’t arrived with either. The Marine was just the opposite. His expression flat, his voice nearly indifferent. It was just another day in the AOR for him and he was, at least, alive.
This writing is not meant to make any political points, at all. People serve for many reasons, some are 19 and have no idea what else to do. Some have families to take care of. None have much of any control over where they are sent. Most of the servicemembers I served with came to hate the war because war is always an ugly business that keeps you away from loved ones and erodes your sanity.
It’s also just one perspective on that particular tour. Here is another:
This is video I recorded