Being a Marine Taught Me How to Kill, But Not How to Handle Death
Searching for the Spiritual in the Midst of Combat
Warriors deal with death. They take life away from others. This is normally the role of God. Asking young warriors to take on that role without adequate psychological and spiritual preparation can lead to damaging consequences. It can also lead to killing and the infliction of pain in excess of what is required to accomplish the mission. If warriors are returned home having had better psychological and spiritual preparation, they will integrate into civilian life faster and they and their families will suffer less. But the more blurred the boundary is between the world where they are acting in the role of God and the world where they are acting in an ordinary societal role, the more problematical the reintegration becomes.
The sun had struggled all day behind monsoon clouds before finally being extinguished by the turning earth and the dark wet ridges of the Annamese Cordillera. It was February 1969, in Quang Tri province, Vietnam. Zoomer lay above my hole in monsoon-night blackness on the slick clay of Mutter’s Ridge, the dark jungle-covered ridge paralleling Vietnam’s demilitarized zone where the Third Marine Division and the North Vietnamese Army had struggled together for two years. A bullet had gone through Zoomer’s chest, tearing a large hole out of his back. We kept him on his side, curled against the cold drizzle, so the one good lung wouldn’t fill up with blood. We were surrounded and there was no hope of evacuation, even in daylight. The choppers couldn’t find us in the fog-shrouded mountains.
I heard Zoomer all night, panting as if he were running the 400, one lung doing for two and a body in shock. In and out. In, the fog, the sighing sound of monsoon wind through the jungle. Out, the hot painful breath. Zoomer had to go all night. If he slept, he’d die. So no morphine. Pain was the key to life.
To help him stay awake, and to calm my own fear, I’d crawl over to him to whisper stories.
I grew up in Oregon, where as a teenager I worked with my grandfather Axel on his fishing boat at the mouth of the Columbia River. One night in June 1959 a dull thunk startled us into alertness as a heavy body slammed into the four-football-fields-long gill net. The body’s weight made the cork line, which floated on the surface and from which the net hung like a curtain, sink beneath the cold salt water. We approached the large gap in the cork line quietly, me steering the 30-foot fishing boat in the dark, Grandpa Axel in the bow with the rifle, worried that it was a sea lion. A sea lion could destroy the net, which next to the boat itself was Grandpa’s most valuable investment. My spine prickled when I saw the plated body of a seven-foot green sturgeon slowly undulating, eerie and ghostlike, beneath the dark water.
It took everything both of us had to haul the sturgeon into the boat, several hundred pounds at nine cents a pound and not much tearing of the net. Grandpa Axel was pleased. He and I heaved the sturgeon into the built-in fish box that temporarily held the salmon until we could put back in to Scandinavian Station. That was where we unloaded and weighed our catch, bobbing on the swell beneath the crane that hoisted the fish boxes up to the waiting ice, Grandpa impatient to get back to fishing, me happy to be idle.
That night when we hauled in the sturgeon, we still had plenty of room in the fish box, so we continued fishing. The sturgeon lay there, alive, its wet scales reflecting starlight. It seemed an ancient thing from before the dinosaurs, breathing there, too primitive and rugged to die quickly like the more complex and finely tuned salmon. I kept going over to watch it.
“I was afraid I would die. I held the lives of others in my hands. I had entered the temple of Mars, where not only were humans sacrificed, including me, but I was also the priest.”
In—Spiritus. Out—Sanctus. Those were the words that came to me as I watched its gills pumping the alien air. In comes the spirit, out goes something holy, life perhaps, but I realized then that the “in” and the “out” are somehow the same thing and everything is touched by the holy when in the presence of death.
I watched Zoomer pumping air, hanging on to life with that same primitive doggedness of the sturgeon for all that night and most of the next day before the fog lifted enough to get in a medevac bird. Others died, like the salmon, but Zoomer kept pumping, enduring the shelling with the rest of us, waiting for the fog to clear, waiting for the helicopter that would take him home. It came. As the fog closed in again, just minutes after the helicopter got Zoomer out alive, I realized that the mystery of life and death had once again played out before me and that once again I was in a sacred space and, other than in my role as a walking weapons guidance system for the United States of America, totally unprepared to be there. The Marine Corps taught me how to kill but it didn’t teach me how to deal with killing.
I first became conscious of this wartime sacred space, this temple of Mars, several months before Zoomer won that race with death. It was Christmastime 1968. I was the commander of a Marine rifle platoon. A rifle platoon at full strength consisted of 43 Marines, but that winter we struggled against malaria, jungle rot, dysentery, and the North Vietnamese Army to keep our strength above 30. Although I could radio in my position down to six grid points, I no longer knew where the hell I was spiritually. That more innocent, and certainly more spiritually connected, 14-year-old on his grandfather’s fishing boat hadn’t yet had his instinctive links to the spiritual world sawed away by eight years of high school and college and, finally, severed by military training.
Our company of three platoons had just secured the top of a mountain for a new artillery firebase, high in the cordillera where Laos met the old demilitarized zone that divided North Vietnam from South Vietnam. We were far from help and, after attrition from disease and firefights, my platoon was down to 25. After nearly a month of continual moving through the jungle, eating only canned food, without the ability to wash properly or change clothes, some of the Marines were so covered with ringworm and jungle rot that they worked naked to lessen the discomfort. Rain and swirling fog delayed the hoped-for move of the artillery battery. Then, after only two of the normal complement of six 105 mm howitzers had arrived, and a limited amount of ammunition, the rest of the regiment got into a fierce fight in the lowlands about 30 kilometers to our east and needed every-Marine, weapon, and helicopter they could get. The regimental commander took a calculated risk and ordered my single under-manned platoon and some volunteers to stay behind to guard the howitzers and their crews and sent the rest of the company to reinforce the lowlands operation.
I was left in charge of the firebase. I alone would make all the decisions and count my mistakes with lives and pain. With the regiment stretched and the weather bad, there would be virtually no chance of reinforcements or resupply if the NVA attacked, for we were well inside the enemy’s traditional operating area and well outside our own. If I blew it, or our luck was bad, we’d probably be overrun before help could reach us. I was afraid I would die. I held the lives of others in my hands. I had entered the temple of Mars, where not only were humans sacrificed, including me, but I was also the priest. This priest, however, had only been to a seminary called the Basic School where he learned the ritual moves but none of the meaning.
We patrolled hard and ceaselessly in terrain so steep and difficult we often had to use ropes to get up and down the cliffs. On the radio we pretended to be a company so the enemy wouldn’t know how vulnerable we were to attack. At night no one slept longer than an hour at a time. We placed our nighttime listening posts far from the lines, well down the southern approach on a hill so steep I could stand facing it and touch dirt by putting my hand straight out in front of me. The north side was a 1,600-foot cliff. Given the difficulty of getting back to the lines at night, we all knew our listening posts would probably be sacrificed to warn the rest of us.
One night, small teams of NVA soldiers tried infiltrating past our listening posts to probe our main defenses for weak points and determine the layout of our lines. One of those teams blundered right into a listening post and the three Marines called in fire from the two 60mm mortars that had been left to us by the company commander. On the second volley one round fell short, wounding all three kids in the listening post. Nine Marines and a Navy corpsman volunteered to go get them, six to carry the wounded and four to fight. I waited by the radio, sick with dread, as the rescue team stumbled through the dark jungle dragging the wounded back up the muddy slopes. One of the wounded Marines kept screaming obscenities until someone gagged him with a sock. When they were safely inside the lines I saw bits of his brain spattered on the inside of his jungle hat. If we were lucky enough to get them all out alive, I knew at least one kid would never function normally again.
We did get the wounded out alive because of the heroism of a helicopter crew from Marine Air Group 39 who flew through the mountains in total darkness as we guided them in over the radio by the sound of their engines and blades. They burst into sight only feet from us, barely avoiding crashing, our enlisted forward air controller, whom we called FAC-man, screaming
“I needed help with the existential terror of my own death and responsibility for the death of others, enemies and friends, not Southern Comfort. I needed a spiritual guide.”
The bird left us in the dark and we immediately sent out new listening posts. The next morning the ceaseless patrolling continued, as did the fog, both from the monsoon and from the endless ache for sleep. I, however, was dealing with a lot more than lack of sleep. I had come upon, for the first time and, sadly, not even close to the last time, the terrible feeling of responsibility and guilt for the death and wounds of my men. The mortars, like everything else on the hill, were under my command. When I examined the mortars the next morning, I discovered one of them had a slightly loose tripod leg that I should have discovered in my routine weapons inspections beforehand. It had probably shifted after the recoil of the first round, causing the next round to fall short. In combat, inattention to details can kill people.
No other birds got in after that brave medical evacuation because the monsoon had shut down all flying in the mountains. Two days before Christmas the fog lifted just enough to allow a single chopper to work its way up to us, a dangerous journey, squeezing beneath the cloud ceiling just a few feet above the jungle-covered ridges. Along with food, water, mail, and ammunition came the battalion chaplain.
He had brought with him several bottles of Southern Comfort and some new dirty jokes. I accepted the Southern Comfort, thanked him, laughed at the jokes, and had a drink with him. Merry Christmas.
Inside I was seething. I thought I’d gone a little nuts. How could I be angry with a guy who had just put his life at risk to cheer me up? And didn’t the Southern Comfort feel good on that rain-raked mountaintop? Years later I understood. I was engaged in killing and maybe being killed. I felt responsible for the lives and deaths of my companions. I was struggling with a situation approaching the sacred in its terror and contact with the infinite, and he was trying to numb me to it. I needed help with the existential terror of my own death and responsibility for the death of others, enemies and friends, not Southern Comfort. I needed a spiritual guide.
Many will argue that there is nothing remotely spiritual in combat. Consider this. Mystical or religious experiences have four common components: constant awareness of one’s own inevitable death, total focus on the present moment, the valuing of other people’s lives above one’s own, and being part of a larger religious community such as the Sangha, ummah, or church. All four of these exist in combat. The big difference is that the mystic sees heaven and the warrior sees hell. Whether combat is the dark side of the same vision, or only something equivalent in intensity, I simply don’t know. I do know that at age 15 I had a mystical experience that scared the hell out of me and both it and combat put me into a different relationship with ordinary life and eternity. Most of us, including me, would prefer to think of a sacred space as some light-filled wondrous place where we can feel good and find a way to shore up our psyches against death. We don’t want to think that something as ugly and brutal as combat could be involved in any way with the spiritual. However, would any practicing Christian say that Calvary Hill was not a sacred space? Witness the demons of Tibetan Buddhism, ritual torture practiced by certain Native American tribes, the darker side of voodoo, or the cruel martyrdom of saints of all religions. Ritual torture or martyrdom can be either meaningless and terrible suffering or a profound religious experience, depending upon what the sufferer brings to the situation. The horror remains the same.
Combat is precisely such a situation.
Our young warriors are raised in possibly the only culture on the planet that thinks death is an option. Given this, it is no surprise that not only they but many of their ostensible religious guides, like the chaplain with the booze, enter the temple of Mars unprepared. Not only is such comfort too often delusional; it tends to numb one to spiritual reality and growth. Far worse, it has serious psychological and behavioral consequences.
To avoid, or at least mitigate, these consequences, warriors have to be able to bring meaning to this chaotic experience, i.e., an understanding of their situation at a deeper level than proficiency in killing. It can help get them through combat with their sanity relatively intact. It can help keep them from doing more harm than they need to do. It is also a critical component in their ability to adjust when they return home. This “adjustment” is akin to asking Saint John of the Cross to be happy flipping burgers at McDonald’s after he’s left the monastery. When one includes drug and alcohol overdoses, single-person car crashes, fights in bars, and a whole host of other self-destructive behaviors in addition to so-called normal suicides, the number of veterans who have killed themselves at home after the war was over is disturbingly large—and largely ignored.
You can’t force consciousness or spiritual maturity. Teenage warriors like to fight, drink, screw, and rock and roll. You can, however, put people in situations where consciousness and spiritual maturity can grow rapidly, if those people know what to look for. It’s called initiation.
From What It Is Like to Go to War. Used with permission of Grove. Copyright © 2018 by Karl Marlantes.