And so it begins.
It’s not the first time. It won’t be the last. You’re only halfway home and you’re deep into mid-deployment fatalism.
It’s important you do everything the same way. Preparing for combat or making coffee, the process is almost as important as the product. The process is one of the few things you can absolutely control. Control is important when you may be zipped into a bag within a few hours. Standard Operating Procedures keep you alive. They make the little things easier when the big things don’t go as you planned. Ignore that truth and people might die. Timelines keep you moving. They ensure everyone is in the right place to do the right thing at the right time. Ignore that truth and people might die.
There are a lot of ways to die here; mines, IEDs, snipers, rockets, ambushes, close-quarters fights. Ignore that truth and people will die.
Your Platoon Sergeant quietly wakes the Marines, according to the timeline you published. You put on a tan polypropylene shirt against the night chill and pull on your desert camouflage pants. Now boots, your name and blood type inked on their tops in case you get hit. Some guys tattoo that information on their ribs. They call it a “meat tag.” Extra precautions taken to ensure Doc will push the right blood to fill flattened veins or bag the correct foot with the correct torso if it comes to that. You tuck your shirt into your pants to keep the tail from obstructing something you might need. A gunbelt with a pistol tightens around your waist. Armored vest over your head, secured by zippers and heavy-duty velcro. Now check your magazines. Eight loaded with twenty-eight rounds apiece. Tighten loose gear. Check weapons. The click-clack of bolts cycling in carbines sounds like Dante’s typing class. Oil the slide of your pistol. Not too much or the desert dust will grab the oil and foul the weapon when you need it most. You pull the feeder springs out of the pistol magazines and stretch them. Fail to do this and the mags turn into something like PEZ dispensers from which rounds won’t feed forcefully enough and they will fail you. Practice dropping your carbine and drawing your pistol, the single point sling ensures the carbine falls to the center of your body; out of the way so you can bring the pistol up and fight till you get the carbine back in action. It feels like a lie you’re telling yourself.
The bullshitting is always heavy before you go because talking and laughing beats considering the options. If you’re scared, say you’re scared. I’m not scared, you’re scared. The music starts. The volume comes up on the same words as last time. Marines are getting hyped now; you’re warming to your work. Coheed and Cambria’s “A Favorhouse Atlantic” is followed by Type O Negative’s “Black No. 1”; it’s on the playlist in honor of a goth stripper in Jacksonville, N.C. Then Smile Empty Soul’s singer croons “This is War.” It’s a song whose lyrics speak a truth that distills your current existence too accurately, but you have to listen because when it comes on, you know it’s time to go. It’s all part of the process;
“I’m just a normal man, I wouldn’t hurt nothing at all, but here we are
Our leaders have a plan, I’d only kill if it’s for them, now here we are
I drove in a car, flew in a plane, to come to your house and kick your door in,
Now it’s down to this, it’s just you and me,
I’ll blow your fucking head off… for my country…”
Of course, you would hurt something. Here you are. It’s what you do. This is what you signed up for. Other people are here to put this place back together. You’re here to move to contact, to meet and engage the enemy, whoever that is. No one seems completely clear on that. You “kill or capture.” Or at least you did until that was considered impolitic and now you just “capture.” Unless that becomes impossible, in which case you just “kill.” It’s part of the process.
You stop by the operations center to report that you are ready to depart. It’s always jarring to walk in the tent. So well-lit, white walls glaring back as if demanding to know why you’re not already outside the wire. You pass the list of who’s leaving, you call it a kill sheet; “1/24/2 departing friendly lines.” That’s 1 Marine officer, 24 Marine enlisted, and 2 Sailors stepping out to do what you came for. There is no front out there, no demarcation between good and bad, safe or dangerous. It’s all bad guy land and all good guy land and none of it is your land.
The Platoon Sergeant has the trucks lined up, ready to go. Machine guns are hung and lubricated. Ammunition is staged and ready to cycle into chambers. Gas and water and plastic explosive are in each truck. You’re ready if this takes longer than anticipated. Everyone has seen Black Hawk Down and you won’t be caught out like that.
You walk the line of trucks. Stop and talk to the boys if there is time, move right to your truck if there isn’t. Heavy weapon up front. Your truck the lead; always the lead. Don’t think about it, just do it. Ignore the fact that you will be the first into the ambush, the minefield, the killzone. It’s armored anyway. You feel guilty about that. Two trucks back, nine of the boys are riding in what you call the “ladder truck.” It has little armor and an open back, like a pickup. You came to this war with what you had. Thank you, Mr. Rumsfeld.
You get in your truck. You check with the gunner, the driver, the radio operator in the back to see if everyone is ready. Tone of voice tells you a lot. Sometimes it’s chipper, like you’re all heading to a tailgate party. Sometimes the voices from the darkness just sound resigned. When you get the word that your crew is ready, you call the Platoon Sergeant on your radio, saying, “Dagger Eight Zero, this is Dagger Eight, Vehicle One is up.”
He calls the rest of the vehicles and they reply in sequential order. “Two’s Up…Three’s Up…Four’s up…Five’s Up.” You move to the clearing barrels and load weapons. Crew served machine guns, personal carbines, then pistols. You move back to the vehicles. Check your weapons one more time. You slide the bolt back a hair and check the chamber of your carbine, a nervous tic that ensures there’s a round in there, then you let the bolt ride home and tap the forward assist. Wait while someone takes a last nervous piss. Maybe it’s you. It’s all Ares’ version of watch, wallet, keys. It’s the process.
The Platoon Sergeant comes over the radio, “Dagger Eight, this is Eight Zero…I have five victors with 1/24/2.” You reply, “Roger, Eight Zero. I copy 1/24/2” and tell the radio operator to report the same to headquarters to let them know you’re headed out. The numbers matter. You repeat them like a mantra; carry them as totem against the chance you could lose one, leave a Marine behind in a moment of chaos. It’s the process.
The inside of the gate has “Good Luck” spray painted on it. You always laugh at that. It feels like a “Fuck You” said through a smile. The guards open the gate, you weave your way out of the blast barriers, and you’re all alone together, relying on the process to minimize the variables and maximize your chances in the most dangerous place on earth.
Russell Worth Parker is a career Marine Corps Special Operations Officer. He likes barely making the cut-offs in ultra-marathon events, sport eating, and complaining about losing the genetic lottery. He is an Iraq and Afghanistan veteran and graduate of the University of Colorado, the Florida State University College of Law and the Masters in Conflict Management and Resolution Program at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the United States Special Operations Command, the United States Marine Corps, the Department of the Navy, the Department of Defense, or the United States Government.