They will, when called upon, do their duty; they will quit their complaining and act with conviction, with pride, with the reservoir of heroism tapped into once the brain shuts down and instinct takes over. (Valor, according to most who have dodged a bullet and squeezed a trigger in the scalding heat of battle, exists only after reason is replaced by self-preservation; honor is something that shows up when nerves are shattered and all you have left is a rifle.) But they do not all view death, inescapable and seemingly inevitable, as The Ultimate Sacrifice made in the name of Peace and Freedom. Rather, they believe themselves little more than "cheap, squandered lives" taking part in the "comedy of combat," writes former Marine sniper Anthony Swofford in his recently published Jarhead, already heralded as a battlefield masterpiece. War is what happens when there's nothing else to do and nowhere else to go.
"War comes anonymously from the fuckin' sky or in a stupid accident," says Baghdad Express: A Gulf War Memoir author Joel Turnipseed, a Marine Corps reservist who hauled truckloads of munitions back and forth across the desert during Gulf War I. Turnipseed may not have fired a shot in anger, or in fear, but he carried the ammo responsible for the deaths of thousands of soldiers and untold civilians. Something like that tends to, you know, mess with your head a bit.
"We're no longer crossing sabers to see which man is best," he says from his home in Minneapolis. "There still is the romance of The Grunt, and their life is certainly fucking hard. I used to watch them do forced marches when I was in mechanics school in North Carolina. They'd get up at 6 in the morning and march till 10 in the fuckin' night wearing 85 pounds of combat gear, and you just thought, 'Hmm, be a mechanic, be a grunt? I know, I'll be a mechanic. I can read books at lunch.' I think the most important thing of all is the core intention of anybody who tries to tell a war story right is to try and get people to just imagine, 'Hey, man, this is what that life is like, and it's mostly about being very tired and about swearing a lot and experiencing something so weird it's almost impossible to describe.'"
Yes, these are just the impressions given by a few men, soldiers-turned-writers who shipped off to Saudi Arabia and Kuwait and Iraq the first time a president named Bush sent the military to the Middle East to dispose of Saddam Hussein. Anthony Swofford and Joel Turnipseed and Dear Mr. President author Gabe Hudson, a rifleman in the Marine Corps reserves, do not speak for all military men. Their generalizations, dark and funny and sad and tragic and tormented and cathartic, are merely their impressions, their damned and fragmented memories of too much time spent in too many places they'd rather forget--Burqan, Jubayl, Mishab. (Hudson was too late to the party, but his collection of fictional short stories are tinged with the despairing comedy of someone who was more than a bystander.)
The Army's TV ads promise a life of adventure; the Air Force's ads, thrills in the sky; the Navy's, college and a trip around the world. The Marine Corps says only in its new ad campaign, "Maybe you can be one of us." It is for some a last chance--jail or service. For others, it's the ultimate challenge--the Big Dare.
Not all Marines imagine themselves characters in tragic-comic coming-of-age stories; not all Marines read The Iliad in the battlefield, compare blank-eyed and haggard Iraqi prisoners of war to Vladimir and Estragon from Waiting for Godot, return home from battle to enroll in writers' workshops and find themselves on best-seller lists and 24-hour news networks. Not all Marines come from broken homes, like Swofford and Turnipseed; not all Marines are "fuck-ups, Uncle Sam's Misguided Children," as Turnipseed says during an interview. My brother, Captain Mike Wilonsky, commanding officer of Gulf Company, Second Battalion, Third Marines, is a man of unswerving duty and honor, a true believer who will not flinch from the Good Fight. Our parents are still together, 36 years after their six-day courtship. Mike attended Officer Candidate School while at the University of Oklahoma; he did not enlist, he was not looking for an escape. He might read Jarhead and Baghdad Express and recognize (and reprimand) some of these men, but he's not one of them.