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Theaters of War: When Performance Becomes Deadly

Lyle Jeremy Rubin on the Military’s Seductive Promises of Excitement and Danger

“Countless coal-black bodies, the men and the animals alike, both infinitesimally small from the sky, the black bodies of men and animal bodies, the body called mine, or man’s, mines, men.”
C.E. Morgan
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All the world’s a stage. But when you’re in uniform, that fact becomes heightened. And when you’re staging for war, it’s the only fact that matters. Military operations require staging areas, and before then, warfighters perform full-dress rehearsals. Military practitioners call their areas of operation theaters of war, and their counterparts bad actors. Up until recently, promotion boards required headshots of each candidate (as it was explained to me, leaders of marines must have good stage presence and look the part).

Military ceremony involves costumes, plotting, mise-en-scène, and monologue or dialogue, and the Marine Corps Birthday Ball would make any theater kid blush. Even combat operations themselves entail a myriad of scripts, from the orders to the debriefings to the radio etiquette. Martial superiors don metaphorical masks of command, just as troops share their etymology with the theater troupe.

In FM 6-0, the Army’s Mission Command field manual, much of this has been laid bare. The tract is padded with dramatic “historical vignettes” and instructions on “the role of the commander,” the “role of liaison,” or “the dual roles of religious leaders.” Military intelligence staff “plays the enemy commander” during rehearsals while a “rehearsal director… assesses and critiques” the rehearsal. The director is advised to work off a “rehearsal script.”

Since the manual’s original publication in 2003, an entire cottage industry of military role-playing has cropped up. Hundreds of millions of dollars are squandered on the recruitment of role players and the construction of mock villages. The villagers hail from the countries the United States and its allies war against, and an NBC report described one such village in the Mojave Desert as elaborate and carefully designed as a Hollywood set. It features more than 500 buildings, signs with Arabic writing hanging on several walls and a central market complete with barrels of fake fruit. From a hilltop control center, training officials can pump smoke and audio into the dwellings to simulate the real thing.

Military ceremony involves costumes, plotting, mise-en-scène, and monologue or dialogue, and the Marine Corps Birthday Ball would make any theater kid blush.

The Hollywood analogy only touches the surface of militarism’s cinematic universe.

Theater and war grew up together. From the Greeks to the Romans to the Elizabethans, they have shared the same heroes and adversaries, the same settings and props. And the tradition carries on with Pentagon-backed television and Langley-advised film. Security-state consulting fees and funding sources now constitute a considerable portion of Hollywood’s annual budget.

At its most shameful, war does more than just entertain, it arouses and titillates. When the Defense Department’s Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms defines assault as “the climax of an attack,” the dramaturgical nod might have been conscious. Its sexual undertones almost certainly were not. If people speak words, it is just as true that words speak to people. Put more sharply, certain words are drawn to certain people, like iron nails to ore.

The words that cling to war and its participants—its performers—gather around the same motif. We all became, at one point or another, fucknuggets or fucksticks. We fucked the shit out of our girls back home and fucked shit up in training or in Afghanistan. When things got fucked, we called it a clusterfuck or a circle jerk. We humped with a load, hoping to get some action. If you were a virginal newbie in the Army, you were a cherry. If the bad guy was wounded and bloody and dying to escape, he was a squirter.

Sometimes warfighters were inserted. Sometimes they withdrew or pulled out. Sometimes they harassed others with their bang-bangs. Sometimes others harassed them with theirs. There were frontal assaults and rearguards, bombshells and cruises and straight shots. Deployed marines destroyed the enemy. Stateside marines destroyed their conquests. If you conquered an Air Force girl, she became a cockpit. Everyone was sucking the big weenie in the suckiness and the suck. Everyone was getting fucked by the green weenie in the suck. It was all fuck-fuck games before the suck and after the suck and during the suck. And everything worth anything was war porn.

Radio Battalion, or RadBn (“RAD-BIN”), was the signals intelligence unit where I would spend the rest of my military tenure, headquartered forty-five minutes up the road from San Diego at the sprawling Camp Pendleton. For the first few months, I served as the “S-4 alpha,” the go-to lingo for the assistant logistics officer. Walton, my OCS buddy and someone who had already established himself as a top lieutenant, told me the odds of staying in the billet for long were 30–70, and to “bloom where I was planted.” So I put in my all as a jock captain’s errand boy, just as I had developed rapport with the enlisted guys in the supply shop.

By late September, a little over two months after I’d become the S-4A, the battalion commander released the officer slate for an upcoming deployment to Afghanistan in February or March of 2010. I had been tapped as the assistant officer in charge (AOIC) for one of the two operational control elements (OCEs). I would be paired with a senior first lieutenant in commanding a small unit in and around the Helmand Province. The length of the pump was uncertain, but we were expected to be there for at least six months. The size of the OCE was also bound to change as needs shifted, but it was clear I’d be leading somewhere between eighty and ninety personnel comprising marines, civilians, and occasional soldiers.

Thirty to forty men—everyone in my OCE was a man—would conduct analysis of leadership and insurgent cells behind ample monitors in a windowless room on a spacious base. The rest would be linguists and collectors (those gathering insurgent signals) spread across an area of operations the size of my home state of Connecticut. The second category would be divided into four- to eight-man teams, and to the extent I would experience anything resembling what most Americans think of when they think of war, I would experience it with or en route to the team marines.

They would be the ones attached to squads or platoons of trigger-pullers, where their intel would sometimes help drive or shape coordinated company, battalion, or even regimental missions. More frequently, though, they would accompany the front-liners on regular foot patrols, eavesdropping and geolocating radio (mostly generic ICOM) chatter while providing indications and warnings: that is, instantaneous heads-up on the location, size, equipment, and intent of those their supported units hoped to close with and destroy.

At its most shameful, war does more than just entertain, it arouses and titillates.

That summer, before being notified of my assignment, I had gotten the hang of rattling off the jargon and doing so with ostensible confidence. I could name the equipment with aplomb and list its specifications and functions without pause. My short stay in the supply shop, where I went out of my way to get to know my marines and them me, seemed to have proved a success. Even the paternalism of that routine phrase—my marines—was starting to make sense at a more affective register.

Over a few months, we had built a mutual respect, one based on professionalism and precision, but also silliness and candor. Whether transferring expensive gear or staging it, we had fun doing what had to be done and bitching about it afterward. Of course, they were the ones tasked with the heavy lifting, and it took me a while to fess up to that and stop joining in each haul. But I guess that was the point.

I was taking ownership of my managerial responsibilities just as much as I was entrusting them with theirs. If they had become my marines, it was only because I had become their lieutenant. And no matter how contrived that sounds now, I really was looking forward to putting it to the test with a new, forward-deployed platoon.

My optimism was nonetheless accompanied by unease. Sure, it appeared I had gained the trust of a few supply marines, and my command appeared to have faith enough in me. But would it be the same with eighty or ninety SIGINTers, many of them of the more critical, unruly variety? How about the handful of thirty- or forty-something civilian linguists, most of whom hailed from Afghanistan or Pakistan and had endured lives far harder than mine?

For all my training I still felt like I hadn’t the slightest clue what my deployment might entail. Others told me I had just been handed the most prized spot for RadBn officers, a position that would bring me as proximate to the action as pog officers can get. Not only that, but one that offered the possibility of a back-to-back deployment, with the chance to fill my senior lieutenant’s shoes, assuming he was sent home at the half-year mark.

But I still couldn’t picture what this meant in practice. I had been selected to take part in one of the more daring rides in the park after more than three years spent studying incomplete sketches of the ride. But the preparatory materials had been redacted, and every other instructor assured me they didn’t come close to capturing what it was I was getting into.

I can scarcely think of an analogy more offensive to the final truth of war, never mind a war of empire. But if there is one thing a good many marines will admit, it is their wish to experience, if not death itself, then brushes with death.

Despite my cavalcading questions about Iraq, Afghanistan, and the wider crimes of the United States, I, too, wanted a little death. Not only that, but I still felt I had a right to it. At least I didn’t dwell on the alternative proposition that I didn’t. That no one had a right to thrill-seek at the expense of others. At the lethal expense of others. And that a society that didn’t just accept such an enterprise but idealized it was a society that had already forfeited any claim to virtue, much less supreme dominion.

If there is one thing a good many marines will admit, it is their wish to experience, if not death itself, then brushes with death.

My pursuit came with an underlying dread. I was overwhelmed by thoughts of my own death or near death, petrified about the prospect of coming home without a leg or half my face, or with a brain injury or mental illness. But such possibilities were often suppressed by ones that felt—and still feel—even more terrifying. I became an expert in an array of possible futures, ranging from getting someone on our side hurt or killed to crapping in my trousers to freezing up during a hairy second. I was racked by fears of humiliation and inadequacy, and the barks of my Officer Candidate School instructors came back with a vengeance.

“Someone lied to you, Rubin!”

“You’re gonna get someone killed, Rubin!” “Something’s gonna happen to you, Rubin!” “You’re weak, Rubin, you’re weak!”

Aside from worrying about any destined incompetence, I perseverated over mere bad luck. Walton had been poised to seize a billet in one of the two OCEs, until a marine in his recon-trained SIGINT platoon, in a freak accident, almost died during a pool exercise. The marine incurred severe and lasting disabilities, and Walton had to remain at Pendleton through the completion of the formal inquiry. Although I had never met this marine, his sudden misfortune disturbed me. For more self-interested reasons, so did the predicament of my OCS buddy, the most squared-away marine I’d ever known. If something so fateful could happen under his watch, it could happen under anybody’s.

Rosen, my Israeli Defense Forces pal, assured me I had everything it took to lead and hold my composure. My parents told me the same, though they had long demonstrated a pattern of wishful thinking, and once they’d realized they couldn’t coax me (or, in my father’s case, berate me) into giving up my harebrained quest to join up, they carried on with convenient self-deceptions: That I’d never get deployed. And if I did get deployed, it wouldn’t be in a combat zone. And if it were in a combat zone, it wouldn’t be anywhere near the actual combat.

Granted, I’d strung my folks along. I never told them straight-up that I wanted to experience the front lines like most other marines I knew. Nor was I on the level about the deployment tempo of Marine units at that point, including the ones where I was likely to be stationed. To do so would have meant confronting the situation I had put loved ones in and the terrible selfishness of my journey.

The pre-deployment training cycle at Pendleton started off slow. The OCE commander, Lieutenant Waldron, a quiet New Zealander American, put me in charge of much of the initial paperwork, medical check-ups or shots, scheduling for the rifle qual, first aid, and other unit-wide requirements. I taught classes on COIN—counterinsurgency theory—and tested the platoon on what they’d learned. They memorized capsule histories of the major ethnic groups in Afghanistan, particularly in the southern portion.

After familiarizing them with the most common insurgent tactics in use at the time, from bait-and-ambush to recycling ambush sites, I had them war game a series of case studies. I assigned news articles and, on a tip from one of my men, organized a unit-wide viewing of a Frontline documentary called “Obama’s War.” Some of the guys groaned—they wanted to break things and get some—but most were respectful and at least appeared to appreciate my earnestness. Besides, a little shit-talking behind my back, I figured, was a small price to pay to feel like I was still doing something defensible.

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Excerpted and adapted from Pain is Weakness Leaving the Body: A Marine’s Unbecoming by Lyle Jeremy Rubin. Copyright © 2022. Available from Bold Type Books, an imprint of Perseus Books, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group.

Lyle Jeremy Rubin
Lyle Jeremy Rubin
Lyle Jeremy Rubin is a veteran of the war in Afghanistan who writes about capitalism and U.S. empire. He has a doctorate in history from the University of Rochester and has contributed to a variety of publications, including the New York Times, the Washington Post, The Guardian, The Nation, Raritan, and n+1. When he is not working or reading, he likes to pay attention to the birds.





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