Thursday, January 26, 2012

The Stench

Believe him or not - take a moment before judging.  

The first time you stand post in civilian clothes you feel pretty cool. The curly radio wire running from your ear down your suit coat looks tough.  The weapon on your hip feels reassuring.  You talk into your cuff – even if you have nothing worthwhile to say.  You are Secret Agent Man.  This lasts about five minutes. 

Then your collar starts to itch.  So does the radio wire running down your back.  And the weapon dragging down your belt just feels heavy. 

How much longer is this interview going to last anyway?    

When the embassy had a “walk-in” one of the Marines was called in, required to put on a shirt and tie, holster his weapon on his belt, button up his sports coat and stand outside the room while an “other government agency” (OGA) officer interviewed the person.  A “walk-in” is someone who enters a U.S. Embassy and asks to speak to a government official.  I would guess that some 98.5% of these people are insane.  The rest are folks that want to spy for the U.S. government or have some kind of threat information.  Some diplomatic facilities have rooms specially designed for this purpose.  This one did not.  The interviews took place outside a stairwell.  Government officials have to meet with these people; no one wants to be the bureaucrat that misses the dot that would complete the next 9-11 puzzle.  But, the prospect of meeting with random, (mostly) insane people off the street is unappealing.  That’s where the Marine Embassy Guards come in.  The cooler OGA officers thank you for coming in before taking their usually not so dangerous looking interviewees onto the stairwell.  Others give you a withering look and you think, “Why didn’t I go straight to college again?” 

On this particular day, the OGA officer was a nice enough guy.  The interview had been going on for about 20 minutes or so.  I was daydreaming when I heard someone fall.  Not the sharp clatter of a clipboard, but the muffled thud of human body weight hitting the stairs.  I unbuttoned my sports coat, drew my weapon and flipped off the safety.  I brought my left hand to the weapon’s handle and tensed.  I shoved the door open with my shoulder and brought the weapon to bear on a very frightened interviewee. 

I have never been a great shot.  I always had problems with breathing control.  You’re supposed to squeeze (not pull – yeah, there’s a difference) the trigger in the natural pause between inhalation and exhalation.  But not hold your breath.  I had marksmanship instructors who would say, “relax your mind – enter the zone.”  I have never been able to consistently enter this Zen-like state of sniperness.  Aiming is also counterintuitive; you should focus on the tiny black site at the end of the muzzle to aim.  Whatever you’re actually aiming at should be fuzzy.  The site is the thing that’s supposed to be clear.  I’d never taken aim at a human being with a loaded weapon before and there he was, not fuzzy, but clear as daylight.  

“Don’t shoot!”

I glanced down.  The OGA officer had tripped on the stairs.  The OGA officer smiled and we all made the sound of laughter.  I lowered my weapon. In my six years in the Marine Corps it was the only time I drew my weapon with the intention of shooting another human being.  When it didn’t happen, I holstered my weapon and my first feeling was not one of relief.  I was disappointed.

I spent a lot of time thinking about this afterwards.  I wondered what type of person this made me.  I was anxious to kill someone.  More specifically, I was anxious to kill someone who had never done a thing to me.  At the school of infantry and embassy guard school I sat in classes on the Geneva Conventions.  Instructors would illustrate points by citing flagrant examples of human rights abuses.  I’d sit there thinking, “Never.  Not me.  Never.”  At that moment in the stairwell, I stopped being so sure.  I’d caught a whiff of something repugnant in my soul.  It was a difficult stench to shake.

***

One of the things boot camp is designed to do is to make would-be Marines comfortable with violence.  Most people aren’t.  When I went through boot camp the 2nd or 3rd training day was something called, “Combat Hitting Skills.”  This involved being issued a beat-up pair of boxing gloves, placed in a small ring and instructed to whale on a fellow recruit for 30 seconds.  Your opponent is only allowed to defend.  Then it’s his turn.  Finally, you’re given a thirty seconds free for all.  The drill instructors removed kids with boxing or martial arts backgrounds beforehand.  You were guaranteed an opponent just as clueless as you.  We had only been training for two or three days.  Most of us didn’t know how to fight yet (not really).  What was the point? 

A lot of kids have never been in a fight before.  It was important for them to understand that they wouldn’t fall apart when they got hit; important for them to understand what it means to inflict “hurt” on command.   Most people aren’t comfortable with violence.  We expect, no, we demand that 17-year-old Marines not only be comfortable with it, but have the ability to dish it out on command in a controlled manner. 

It’s been a tough month for the United States Marine Corps.  First the video showing U.S. Marines apparently urinating on Taliban corpses in Afghanistan, then the unsatisfying verdict of Staff Sergeant Frank Wuterich who stood accused of horrible atrocities in Haditha, Iraq back in 2005.  I am not offering excuses here.  But, I do suggest that we take a long hard look at ourselves before passing judgment.     

I read somewhere recently that in most western societies today physical courage and toughness, “hold the same value as skill in parallel parking: a useful quirk.”  At the time I laughed.  Then I thought these are the type of people who are passing judgment on the Marines in Afghanistan and Iraq; people whose milieu is completely devoid of physical courage, toughness, violence. 

This morning I woke up to the American (mostly liberal) press cheerleading the incredible efforts of the U.S. Navy SEALS who killed 9 kidnappers and freed two humanitarian aid workers in Somalia.  And those heroic SEALS deserve the praise.  But, the rest of us shouldn’t forget that that brave act was carried out by men comfortable with violence.