My cousin’s response to my request that he be my first salute.
Thank you for thinking of and asking me for your upcoming ceremony; it is very flattering and humbling indeed. Unfortunately my uniform, though I am proud to report it still fits, is far from complete. I have not kept it all, just the jacket in fact, and furthermore I am quite certain I will be very far from New Jersey at that time, so I’m afraid you’ll have to find yourself another marine for the job.
I want you to know that I am very grateful to you and your sister for being such prolific letter-writers in 2003 and 2004, a time when such letters were hugely beneficial and only a very few of my friends and family stepped up as vigorously as the two of you. During that time I was already having my falling out with the Marine Corps (the whole military, more accurately, but through the lens of my experience in the Marine Corps), though I did not feel inclined to inform you and Edith on all the dreary drama; to write about it would have meant living it more than I already was, which already was more than I cared to, and our correspondence was a means of escape from those aspects of my life I found least endearing. Looking back, I wish I had shared more with you. The whole story, the only version worth telling in my opinion, is very long and would take a very long time to tell; to mentally digest it would take another very long time—time, a luxury we had once, but have no longer.
That time, as it turns out, was spent moving in quite the opposite direction. In the case of your life, you have spent the last several years of your life preparing to become a marine. The opportunities were lost, and with apparently the gravest imaginable consequence. I blame only myself for missing these opportunities; it was I who was asleep at the wheel. Now I worry that if anything happens to you during your years of service, I will do that massively unhealthy and worthless thought exercise of wondering how things might have been different if only I’d spoken up at the opportune moments. I worry that my letters painted a romantic picture of life abroad; let me promise you those were lies. I was lying all the time in my letters to everyone from Kuwait and Iraq because I didn’t want anyone to worry. I figured the worry probably wasn’t worth much as it wasn’t going to improve my odds, and why not just have everyone at home sleeping with ease and minimizing their worry? In the case of everyone else but you I would say I made the right call, but I wish I had spared you none of the worst details, in fact I wish I had lied in the opposite direction, with infinitely greater magnitude (of course, in the twilight zone realm of military lore, this often has the odd effect of evincing greater romance: the more awful the conditions, the more awesome the glory. You cannot win. Go figure). Anyway, it is impossible to say what might have been, and useless to engage in such thought exercises.
There is, of course, much to say on this issue. I thought maybe someday, if you get deployed, I could recount the details in a series of letters. Or even if you don’t get deployed it could still be done, whether from Kabul or Quantico, doesn’t make a difference. To a large extent, I believe that for you (or anyone) to come to know what I know, it is necessary to experience things for yourself. I could tell you everything I learned, and then you would have that knowledge, but there is something profoundly different between knowledge one is told and knowledge attained through the course of one’s own lived experience. You are probably looking forward to the experiences you’re going to have in the military, and I do not wish to disabuse you of that excitement. It is, however, a hazardous course you mean to uptake, let’s harbor no delusions, and from my point of view, the knowledge is not worth the risks incurred. But that is the point of view of someone looking back on the experience, possessing already the luxury of the attainable knowledge. You are approaching the situation from the opposite end, and therefore the costs/benefits do not appear to you in the same way. Another thing, and this point is actually of greatest importance to me, the consequences of your decisions, you must always remind yourself, go far beyond yourself. I’m talking of course about obvious things like family and community and so on, but also the less commonly thought of folks that are even more greatly affected, namely people living in the foreign countries that are unfortunate recipients of America’s democracy-promoting adventures abroad. (I must now offer a conditional apology on account of what I am about to say—my apology not for saying these things, but rather for not having said them sooner. I now see that, although neither choice is very appealing, it is less unappealing to say these things now, late, than it is to leave them still unsaid).
These people are veritably invisible to everyone in our society, even most people in uniform, but they are real and they suffer hugely on account of the crass, cold decisions of our society’s political leadership. Lots of people are killed, every day, in their homes, with no place to run to escape the onslaught. These people will continue to die all throughout your time in the military, there cannot be any doubt. They did not want or ask for the farce humanitarianism visited upon them, and our people for the most part look upon them, if they look at all, at best with indifference and nonunderstanding, and at worst with hostility and scorn.
It is a pity that we, as a society, seem to have so little curiosity and little interest regarding what is the truth, and I think it has something to do with the enormous conflicts of interest that necessarily arise when troops are implicated in human rights abuses: these are the “troops” we are supposed to “support”. It is much easier and much preferable to demonize and dehumanize the “other”, who is distant, not to mention different-looking, and preserve the endearing narrative that we like, this narrative of the noble, principled, courageous warrior, than look into what the truth might be, when all the truth can really do is ruin a treasured story and make us feel rotten instead of proud.
This obsessive insistence on the rightness of an uninvestigated narrative provides the cover for many horrible crimes to be carried out with impunity, and whatever your specific role will be within the institution, you will find yourself unable to separate yourself from the worst of what goes on. You are probably too smart for that, for you will understand that this institution, the military, though assuredly very large, is also singular in its purpose, and just as every part of the body differs in its role, its structure and function, they are all ultimately working toward the same end goal. So it is with the military: over a million people doing vastly differentiated specific tasks are all working toward the same end.
Let me clarify that the end goal of the military is not human rights abuses; it is rather more complex than that. But we can reasonably say that the character of the military, as a singular entity, is such that human rights abuses are frequently committed, that they are furthermore the predictable result of policies and protocols (indeed predicted prior to operations’ start), and that as evidence of abuses arise, the evidence is suppressed, when it cannot be suppressed it is as a matter of course denied, blame is shifted, feeble justifications offered, or the incident is paid no attention at all. It is reasonable to infer that the safety of civilians is not a high priority (a violation of international law) in spite of the widely understood problem that “collateral damage” fans the flames of anti-U.S. hatred (wouldn’t you be pissed?). It may be that flame-fanning is an important part of the enterprise of war-making: ensuring people remain angry so the wars remain necessary, the stream of customers for military campaigns keeps steady, and the war business can therefore stay in business. It is easy to drift into speculation here, but the peculiar phenomenon does require some explanation, after all. The fact of these ongoing campaigns being illegal and causing inestimable harm apparently bothers our civil and military leadership not in the least, and the rank and file servicemen beneath them, having no choice, follow along, do their part, and so make possible the whole horrible ghoulish enterprise. I said they have no choice; it’s not entirely true. Their only choice is to refuse cooperation and deal with the consequences, which, I will admit, are probably no fun at all.
I don’t mean to make your decisions of what to do with your future difficult: I believe these decisions are by their nature difficult, and providing information that is typically hidden or suppressed but that is undeniably consequential to such decisions ought to relieve some of the difficulty. If you had certainty, I hope I caused you to second guess that certainty. If, looking back, you think you are too far along in the process not to follow through, that the decision is already made, just remind yourself of the illimitable scope of conceivable consequences the future might have in store. The majority of people that join the military probably come out clean and in-one-piece on the other side, as I did. Some don’t, and imagine their thoughts on the notion of what they would do if they could travel back in time to before they joined, to where you presently are, to before the bet was placed and the roulette wheel spun. This is where I am too right now, where all of us are, in fact, in your circle of family and friends, as we are all stakeholders to varying extents (though none so much as you) in what happens. The worst you are is legally obliged (you’re probably not even that), and you definitely are not yet dead, maimed, traumatized, debilitated, or irreversibly broken in any other one of a dozen or so quintessentially veteran ways. Everyone else’s silence on this subject, which until now included my own, amounts to a collective failure of family and community: whatever your decision winds up being, we should have talked more about it, I think (I will excuse from that broad-brush accusation anyone who did talk to you about it).
There is, finally, the issue of the Marine Corps’ mythologies. I will not say much, as it is the least important of issues to be addressed and besides, I do not remember much of what I was told (I data-dumped most of it). I am sure the corps was made out to be illustrious and I am also sure that all the ugliest aspects of Marine Corps’ history were simply left out. It is tempting to get caught up in mythology. Even the wisest of people are susceptible to it without their realizing. My advice is to keep a sharp and discerning mind and work hard to guard against this form of psycho-emotional manipulation. The stories are offered to convince you to follow the impulsivity of a drugged and seduced heart instead of the shrewd, even-handed judgment of an intelligent mind. I promise you the stories are bullshit; if they are true at all they are only true at most half-way. A quick example, I am sure sooner or later you will be told of the legendary marine Smedley D Butler, recipient of two medals of honor. They probably will not tell you about this: he is also the author of one of the most scathing anti-war manifestos ever published. It is brief, and readable in its entirety here: http://www.lexrex.com/enlightened/articles/warisaracket.htm
I will leave you with just that: a small beginning of an understanding that I have spent a decade gradually assembling out of dozens of books and hundreds of articles that I had to sift through a mountain of ideological garbage to find. I will be happy to share these with you if you are interested, or explain how I came to trust them more than I trust official or mainstream sources (there are, in fact, very good reasons). I will be happy also to correspond with you, answer any questions you have, and provide whatever insights are useful.