Archive for July, 2006

(started on July 4th, 2006. A non-fictional account of one of my more memorable moments as a U.S. Marine)

Recently, my memory revisited the occasion in which John and I stood before nearly thirty snickos (staff NCOs, a “Staff NCO” is an enlisted marine with a rank of Staff Sergeant or higher) in May 2004, while we were stationed near Fallujah, Iraq. From one perspective, it is a tale of two degenerates answering for their misconduct by being shamed for their actions in front of their superiors. From another, it is an account of two corporals vs. every senior enlisted man in their entire company -and may the best men win. The lot of us grappled, the fight was dirty however unphysical; a cut-throat game of psychological chess ensued that night. I believe both sides departed bruised and battered, uncertain of the victor. John did not seem at all appreciative of my free-spirited belligerence and its ability to get him roped into a bind, but I am certain, as certain as I am of the origin of rain to be from the clouds above, that the two of us had been forged into life-long friendship that night. We share a friendship that’s proven unbreakable by the forces of baseless pride and ignorant presumptions of self-importance as embodied by the pitiful leaders we encountered together.

The ordeal began with a crude piece of unedited writing the two of us co-wrote and submitted to our squad leader. You know the type of thing school kids are forced to do when they misbehave, how they have to write this-many thousand words about such and such or something else and, bottom line: nobody reads it -right? Well, in this case, the piece was read indeed, and it was not very well liked. The assignment was 5,000 words on Marine Corps leadership, but we only penned out around 2,000 or so. 2,000 proved enough to turn a few heads and land ours on the chopping block. The following afternoon we both found ourselves in front of the company level Commanding Officer, one at a time, trying to placate the Captain and preserve our hides. This was around the time I was informed that I didn’t have the right to the air I breathed but that I wasn’t worth the expense of the bullet it would take to kill me. I found myself in sharp disagreement with both of these assertions and tactfully informed the Captain of this. We argued for a while, neither of us willing to compromise. After a semi-intense face off with the man (backed by three of his cronies because he presumably didn’t have the pebbles to face me one on one), I was dismissed and told this matter was still not resolved and would remain so until I was back in the U.S., a civilian, dishonorably discharged from the military. I assessed the threat as empty and the emotions that spurred it as pathetic, but I kept these assessments to myself for I felt their source, the captain, was a man beyond redemption. He was right though, the matter was indeed not resolved; John and I were summoned once again, later that evening, this time to report to the berthing hut of the company 1st Sgt. Upon entering the hooch, we were welcomed not just by the 1st Sgt., but also by 27 other senior enlisted men of our company, ranging in rank from Staff Sgt. to Master Sgt. I’d estimate their cumulative time of military service to be something in the neighborhood of 500 to 600 years -stacked against the 7 shared by John and I. Immediately after coming inside, the door was secured behind us and we were handed our legendary manuscript. The 1st Sgt. ordered us to read our words aloud and to heed any interruption by the marines present in order to answer any questions to their satisfaction. We proceeded with his orders; John read slowly and clearly what we had written and I surveyed the 56 eager and bloodthirsty eyes that never left John and I. I suppressed my grins, forced myself to appear calm though I was extremely anxious, and didn’t suppress any tears or fear because neither of these surfaced to threaten my composure; I must admit though, having all of these thoroughly indoctrinated and vigilant marines before me, seeming to be just a few pokes away from assault mode, was kind of euphoric. I masked my pleasure in an effort to appear professional, even though it was truly a boy-hood dream fulfilled: having dozens of men that I vilely despised listening to my friend and I formally charge a stream of deep-cutting grievances against them and the institution they held sacrosanct but that we held in contempt. The interruptions the 1st Sgt. had forewarned arrived frequently, sometimes several one right after another with no reversions back to the reading to offer us respite. I handled the majority of the questions, speaking softly but sincerely -a strategy I’d developed on-site to command silence while endowing my words heavily with meaning and integrity. I looked deeply into the eyes of whomever dared pose a question, pausing extensively for each breath, allowing each batch of my words to sink in before beginning the volley that followed them. Many of the snickos appeared never in their lives to have thought independently before, but they took to it like an infant learning to crawl: struggling hopelessly at first with the new discovery, much to the amusement of the seasoned veterans (John and I) who observed, but unembarrassed and playfully enjoying every moment of the learning process; it was kind of adorable. Many were stalwarts, tough to break, that could not bear to request clarification of something expressed by a subordinate; I gave each of these men a concentrated glare every time John’s reading arrived upon a vocabulary word I knew they’d never before heard, and each time they’d look away, knowing that I knew they didn’t know, their pride sustaining one blow after another. Others became intrigued by our writing (after all, it was common sense-based) and gradually became comfortable asking what we meant by certain things, what we thought about certain other things they’d thought of but that we’d omitted, and offering their own perspective, which nearly always opposed ours, but expressed in a civil, lateral tone. These communications were, however, isolated cases of very carefully guarded outreach and deviations from their prideful group decorum were only ever mild at best. Throughout the impromptu course of instruction, the underlying tone was one of cold hatred and disposition. From their angle, John and I had approached their altar before rendering appropriate customs and then we defecated on it, wiping out buttocks on the shawl; this was displeasing to them. Our conversational contributions flew back and forth, packaged in professional language, but making minimal efforts to conceal the mutual disaffection for each other inside.

Our lives were threatened, I remember that. The 1st Sgt. once said something about a lack of witnesses… if something should happen in that room… us not walking out. He said “or maybe there aren’t any witnesses”, I recall verbatim, and his eyes as he spoke were unforgettable. After he said so, I remember eyeing the 28 pistols in the room and the 28 marines holstering them. I remember calmly realizing that in an outright shooting match, John and I would most surely lose and be killed, but thinking I was quick enough to maybe gun down a few of them first. Concentrating deeply, I looked throughout the room and carefully selected the targets I would dispose of in order of their priority; I would never have such a chance. The conflict that broiled between our two sides, the two of us against the twenty eight of them, never transcended the medium of spoken language. Did I, at least at first, find this a bit disappointing? Did I consider the loss of my life a price worth paying if it meant bringing a few of those wretched, soulless, despicable men down to a lifeless slumber beside me? It’s possible. Was I beginning to embrace an ideology that I hadn’t yet come to intimately know but was getting my first tastes of understanding that night, the ideology of peaceful resolution? It’s possible as well, I suppose. Respecting universal humanity and acknowledging the value of human life are lessons and styles of living that repetitiously cycle through various stages during the course of one’s life: learning, forgetting, unlearning, remembering, and relearning. Perhaps there are more; it is a difficult discipline to master. But I do know, with absolute certainty, that all thirty of us did sleep peacefully that night, whole and free of gunshot wounds, the same way we had awakened that morning (if only all veterans could be so lucky). The exchange lasted between two and three hours, an exchange restricted to words and the thoughts/emotions that had bred them. Our M-16s draped inanimately at our sides, vessels of intolerance and injustice left lifeless and silent, for these were not the tools with which we crafted our combat. We stood unarmed but for our words, warriors of the pen, not of the gun.

I remember capitalizing decisively on a faux pas opportunity the 1st Sgt. let slip once when he chastised my for citing poetry (something considered by the insecure to be feminine/homosexual and therefore placeless in the military), he said “have any other poems you’d like to share with us?” I responded that I did and drew a notebook from my cammie pocket wherein I had jotted down a poem I came across while reading Phillip Caputo’s book, A Rumor of War. For the benefit of my readers, I will retype it here in the blog, from memory:

And the end of the fight
Is a tombstone, white
With the name of the late deceased.

And the epitaph drear:
“A fool lies here
Who tried to hustle the East.”

I described for them what I believe to be an obvious parallel between the war Caputo wrote about, the War in Vietnam, and the war we were fighting at the present day, the War in Iraq. They dismissed the idea as preposterous, pointing out that Caputo’s credibility was questionable because he had been a commissioned officer, not having the heart to hack it in the enlistment corps. I didn’t respond; I didn’t know of a convincing way to do so in addressing rear-echelon mechanics that were safeguarded from action their entire careers but had nevertheless spoken so condescendingly and self-importantly of a platoon commander who continually saw combat in the early stages of the Vietnam War. “Just an officer…” -I remember thinking these men were depressingly destitute for passing up an opportunity to grow wise if only they could, for even just a few seconds, shelve their pride then consciously reflect. Pride is an inhibitor of understanding; perhaps this is why so many who perceive themselves as elitists in some regard are so often ignorant.

The ambitions of the Captain remain unrealized even to this day. Both John and I were honorably discharged from military service and never looked back. John got out first, but the two of us met up a couple months later at Myrtle Beach, S.C. I was happy to see his hair growing back, a symbolic indication of gradually returning to civilian life. He asked me about the goings-on of our unit back at Camp Lejeune and laughed hysterically at my cynical but truthful responses. He seemed to have developed an appreciation for by my free-spirited belligerence since that night in Iraq. We never again saw the 2,000 or so words that caused so much disruption; they were hand-written and never copied, lost forever along with any respect we might have had for their original premise: Marine Corps leadership. The reality that so few people will concede is that Marine Corps leadership is like any-other: a few good apples and a few bad apples with the majority lying somewhere in between, Nothing Special. To complete the hackneyed Marine Corps slogan, “a few good men”, I will add the second facet that so few people even know exists: “A Few Good Men, A Whole Lot of Douche Bags”. Judging from my experiences that night in Iraq, I’d estimate the standing ratio of douche bags to good men in our unit was approximately 14:1, the pistol-bearers comprising the former; myself and John, the latter.

So what changed? Simply stated: very little. The war continued, as it does even today, and all of the relating injustices that branch forth continued, multiplied even, as well. Why then the bold and loaded title? Because the changes, though very little, comprise the potential result of answering the call to defiance. Hierarchies in which John and I once were repressively enmeshed we had effectively shattered and then erased. No longer did these men view us as two little “semper fi” corporals that happily adhered to an arbitrary command structure without critically examining its merits. We, the defense department’s goons, fought an unjust war, but John and I deprived that war of one properly functioning company, inverting it into one devoid of the textbook ‘good order and discipline’ that military fanatics obsess over only by responding to that call, seeing and expressing that the entire campaign lacked that ‘good order and discipline’ itself. This is the power of standing against power, the reward for self-liberation from a pattern of thoughtless submission to illegitimate authority, the hope for a world deadlocked in the crosshairs of a self-defeating culture of consumerism and genocide. Answer the call, that is my advice for all who read my words; the changes may by difficult to discern at the macro level, but your personal gains will be of a measure astronomical. Though uncertain of the victor, we were, conceivably for the first time, certain of ourselves.

— Dan Black

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As I suppose possibly every conscious man, woman, and child in this hemisphere is already aware, today is the 4th day of the 7th month, the day that the United States celebrates the anniversary of declaring its independence. For those that are unaware, the abnormal behavior of millions of U.S. citizens shall provide sufficient alert that July 4th is a special day for the U.S.A. How we have found ourselves to remain ‘independent’ or ‘free’, still, after 230 years, is beyond my abilities to explain or even vaguely understand. It is far beyond those abilities of any other American as well, ignore their mindless banter to the contrary and confide in me, for they were not present at the D of I’s signing either.

What I mean with what write, surely not to appear the sour grape, but to ask of every American citizen, rather beseech of all able-minded souls that still possess the breath of life and the strength to stand, to reflect upon, if even for only one moment, the progression through the pages of history, the state of affairs at present, and the prospect of days still to come, and to attempt to fathom this nation and its continued prestige as a world power.

This nation’s presence in the world as its supreme, uncontested power; this nation’s identity as the consumer of the worlds resources, in actuality, the consumer of the world itself; this nation’s behavior in the global community as morally groundless, purely egotistic, and boundless in its capacity to repress, intervene, augment terrorist operatives against, and crush with all its strength, other nations’ efforts at establishing democracy anywhere in the world; this nation’s people’s collective identity as flatly ignorant though selectively attentive, and basely apathetic to the most pressing of world affairs; this nation’s cultural traditions rooted in transparent myth, thin veils behind which the truth, perverse obsessive genocide and other despicable things, lurks unspeakably.

These are the realities we, whether cognizant of or not, celebrate when we declare our allegiance to the stars and stripes. The supposition that we enjoy the greatest amount of individual freedom known to any citizenry of the world is a less-than-skin-deep fallacy. Our country’s freedom, though extremely great, is enjoyed by only a select few, wielded by those few in a manner to further those freedoms at any expense. We are a state controlled by an elitist class -a tight, impermeable circle that functions nothing like a democratic society, something closer to a totalitarian theocracy.

My assertions above capture only a brief snapshot of the world as I see it, see it through all the distortion and deceit, that is; but I am nonetheless very optimistic about the future of this land. I will now share what I believe awaits this human race, its inevitably destination, that end of ends wherein our arrival is continuous, perhaps even at this very moment, but still to greet us in every passage of time that shall follow hereafter until eternity suffers its demise. That any system or institution that presumes to govern the lives of men must suffer the very same trialsome pattern of refinement through progressive deaths that each man, himself, suffers.

The psychologist Catherine Snow explains the process of the developing brain, “Brain maturation is not about the way the brain grows, it’s about the way it dies. As it ages, its neurons disappear.” The process of which she speaks, ‘synaptic pruning’, which posits that an individual’s mind will never have such a high level of neuro-connectivity as it does on the day of his/her birth. Each day that follows is a day that the connections between neurons are severed, the synapses connecting these brain cells are cut, plasticity diminishes and specialization within different domains of intelligence are defined. As a marble statue is crafted through the chiseling away of unwanted marble from the exquisite work of art that awaits its emancipation from within, the human mind is born a block of connected cells that are gradually trimmed to eventually unveil before the world that person’s individual identity.

And the development of government follows this model as well, I believe, for government must certainly be, among other things, a product of human psychology. And looking back through the pages of history, it would be difficult to argue otherwise. Systems of social order began with structures characterized by absolute power. Social reform as imposed by the people began to gradually alter the identity of their ruling entity through progressive evolution typically resembling the “trial and error” paradigm seen in nature. When this particular form of government has run its course, it will be scrapped and replaced; what replaces it must, by reasonable logic, be better. For evolution is neither liberal nor conservative, it serves not the agenda of the Democrats or the Republicans. It concerns itself merely with the survival of it species: in this case, the need and right of the individual, as child of nature, to operate within a civil social order. Happy Independence Day, all my fellow citizens of the human race; I believe that independence indeed awaits, unwritten into the script of history for it is we who must pen it into one of the forthcoming acts.

— Dan Black

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