A good friend recently sent me a book review by Mark Bowden, which I can only assume appeared in The Atlantic. Bowden is best known for writing Black Hawk Down: A story of Modern War. The subject of Bowden’s review is a book titled Eat the Apple: A memoir, by Matt Young.
“The trouble with writing the unvarnished truth in a memoir is that it requires you to be hard not only on others, but also on yourself. Matt Young’s inventive, unsparing, irreverent and consistently entertaining [book] is that, but it is also a useful corrective to the current idealization of the American soldier —or in this case a Marine. Patriotism and respect for the military is so high in this country that we have lately held a national debate over whether professional athletes should be required to stand for the national anthem. Men and women in uniform are given preference in boarding airplanes and are so routinely thanked for their service that the expression has become rote. Each new season brings a crop of movies and glossy TV serials dramatizing the heroics of our Special Operations.”
“[Matt] Young see’s hollowness and potential harm in this.”
“Enforcing the idea that every service member is a hero is dangerous; like creating of generation of veterans who believe everything they did was good,” wrote Young.
Bowden tells us that Matt Young wants to warn us of the dangers in creating an army of fanatics. “[Military] service deserves respect, of course, but it does not in itself guarantee stirring and selfless acts of bravery.”
I’m quite sure that I won’t read Matt Young’s book. I already know about military service and I might even suggest that I completed my career long before Mr. Young enlisted. Still, some things go without saying. Given the nature of our Armed Forces, and the fact that the military services host hundreds of occupational specialties —all of which support the efforts of front-line forces— only about one-third of our 1.4 million military service members serve in the combat arms … which is the place where we’ll find most heroes if we happened to be looking for them. Nevertheless, courageous acts aside, very few of these selfless individuals are without sin. A split second of bravery doesn’t make a soldier a good husband, a good father, or even a trustworthy friend.
Now about those fanatics Mr. Young is worried about. I am unable to speak about the other services, but I can say that it is the purpose of Marine Corps training to turn every Marine into a lethal killing machine. This is how battles are won. If it is fanaticism, it is necessary to the success of combat units (and their combat/service support attachments). If at some future time, as a matter of national policy, we intend to arm milquetoast youngsters with weapons and send them into harm’s way, then our nation will no longer deserve an elite combat force.
Nevertheless, the Marine Corps isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. Roughly 40% of Marines reenlist after their first enlistment, which means that around 60% of everyone who joins the Marine Corps end up leaving at the end of their term of service. Of those who end up getting out of the Corps, probably less than 20% later whine about their service as American Marines. Once a first term Marine decides to leave the Corps, it almost isn’t relevant what it was that he or she did while wearing the uniform. One thing does remain, however: this individual became a United States Marine —and he or she will always be a United States Marine— even if a chronic complainer. If there is one thing that every Marine has in common, whether an officer or an enlisted man, it is the amount of complaining they do. If you find a Marine who isn’t complaining about something, keep an eye on him —he’s probably stealing from the supply section.
Still, no matter what Matt Young says in his book, it isn’t enough to join the Corps. Almost anyone can do that. Moreover, almost anyone can end up in a combat unit. What matters to me is an honest answer to these questions: Have you served honorably and faithfully in an extremely chaotic environment over an extended period of time? During your service as a Marine, did you keep faith with your fellow Marines, past and present?
One will note that I didn’t say it was necessary that the Corps keep faith with us … only that we Marines keep faith with each other because this is the foundation of our brotherhood; this is what the Marine Corps has always been about.
I do have a bother, however —it is this: young Marines returning from combat, where they formed intense bonds with their fellow Marines, who suddenly find themselves isolated in a completely different environment. Many of these young men are soon released from active duty and find themselves in the midst of a society that does not understand what they’ve just been through or the things they did for their country. They are at a place where there is no safety net, and where no one is watching their six —a place where many young men and women struggle to maintain a sense of who they once were only a short time before. We seem to have plenty of time for classes on gender and civility, but there appears to be no time at all for combat decompression. Ours is not (and never has been) a good transition. We (the Marines) could do a lot better in this regard. Personally, I see this as a monumental failure of senior leadership.
Note: The photograph that appears within my last paragraph is that of the iconic James Blake Miller, a Marine who fought in the Second Battle of Fallujah. The photograph was widely published in the American press; he was tagged “Marlboro Marine.” Jim Miller suffers from PTSD and is now in recovery. In my opinion, senior leaders in the Marine Corps deserted this young Marine when what he needed from them was the kind of leadership espoused by Lieutenant General John A. Lejeune, our 13th Commandant. We talk about this leadership annually as part of our celebration of the Marine Corps Birthday. Apparently, modern leaders of the Corps would rather talk about it than to act on it. In my opinion, Jim Miller is one of our greatest of men.