I have not written anything besides letters/e-mails to friends and family for a few years now so my prose will undoubtedly be bad for a while.
I turned 30 in Afghanistan this past May, so I guess it’s time to start my ministry.
I have absolutely no desire to be a professional in any particular profession. Being a soldier suits that desire, or rather lack thereof, perfectly, for the time being.
There’s an amateurish aspect to soldiering today, or I should say there’s a non-teachable, non-commercial, not-for-sale, non-certifiable aspect that is nonetheless apparent and very real and decisive to advancement, which I love.
The distinction, in Army lingo, is between the field soldier and the garrison soldier. The greatest compliment a Joe (read: junior enlisted, grunt) can give to another soldier, but which he will never say to that soldier’s face, is that he is a field soldier.
I lucked out on my first duty assignment, in that I was grouped with probably the most competent field soldiers out of my entire brigade. Most of it happened by chance, or rather due to the utter lack of organization in the Army at even the most junior levels of leadership, for which I am forever grateful in this case.
I entered the Army as a “smart guy.” I scored a 98 on my ASVAB. Considering the test is geared towards 18 year-olds and I was 26 with a Bachelor’s Degree and a semester of Law School under my belt, this isn’t that outstanding of an accomplishment. Nonetheless, you are judged in the Army to some extent as to what your overall score and sub-scores were on this test. So, I’m a “smart guy.”
Being a “smart guy,” I should have ended up shuffling around command headquarters somewhere, kissing ass and biding my time until I was eligible for promotion. This happened to other “smart guys” that I knew. They signed up for the Infantry, like me, but they have yet to fire a weapon in anger, to walk a patrol, or to leave the wire for any significant amount of time. And this was the plan when I arrived at Ft. Lewis and was assigned to my battalion, I was told that because I was a “smart guy,” Sergeant Major would want me working for him. (Note: a Command Sergeant Major commands a battalion of roughly 1000 soldiers, a battalion is 4 companies at 200-250 a piece)
I arrived at my unit on a Friday night. By some stroke of luck, Sergeant Major was on leave and wouldn’t be back until the following Friday, so “temporarily,” rather than be placed into my “smart guy” spot, I was pushed out to “the line,” and assigned to Alpha Company, basically so they could babysit me until Sergeant Major returned, I was told.
Thanks to the overwhelming disregard Alpha Company had for newcomers at the time, I ended becoming a permanent part of their unit. I think they forgot I existed for a few weeks. I have to add here that when I first arrived at Alpha Company the company First Sergeant was also a “smart guy” type, although he was more than just a smart guy, he was an extremely experienced field soldier as well. As he reviewed my records, he looked to one of the other Sergeants in the office and said (in retrospect very auspiciously, although this is probably my own re-telling) “I think we’ll put you with Second Platoon.” I found out later this was his favorite platoon.
And I instantly discovered that Second Platoon was the most experienced Platoon in the Company, probably the brigade, and possibly on the entire post. They had been “in contact,” i.e. under effective enemy fire, for over 150 days the previous summer when they were in Afghanistan. They talked about killing a lot, and tactics, ambushes, weapons… I thought I was in with a bunch of brutes, and for the most part I was right, albeit brutes of the necessary and lovable type.
To put their experience in perspective, consider your so-called “elite” units in the Army today, i.e. Special Forces, Ranger Battalion, Airborne, etc… Many if not all of these units only deploy for 6 months at a time nowadays. Point being, 2nd Platoon had been in country and under fire, fighting every day, sometimes for 12-18 hours, for more days than any of these formations had actually spent outside the U.S., and against seasoned fighters to boot, and in the heart of Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, which is Zhari/Panjwai District in Kandahar Province. We’re not talking 60 year-old white-beards here, or Pakistani teenagers whose idea of Summer Bible Camp includes toting an AK and burying low-quality bombs, we’re talking effective fighting cells, bomb-makers, tacticians and strategists, the ambitious, ideological and hungry-type, who are defending a piece of land because of the symbolic value attached to it, which in my reading is the oldest motivation for warfare and probably the most instinctual.
But I digress. As a “smart guy,” I instantly started getting the standard questions that infantry soldiers ask all “smart guys,” as in, “If you could have picked any job you want, why did you join the Infantry?” Of course I had no good answer then, and still don’t and probably never will. Instead, I made it clear that as a “smart guy,” I was smart enough to know that I didn’t know everything.
So in a few weeks, after pushing a broom, cleaning toilets, cutting grass and volunteering for every detail possible, I became known more as “quiet, humble, hard-working guy,” which suited me just fine then and now. The unit was already preparing to deploy again, and I had a lot to learn if I wanted to stay alive for this. This was my “smart guy” analysis at the time. I knew that I had good teachers on hand and it was best to be quiet and listen and get it out my head that smarts counted for anything. In reality, they didn’t and don’t. My ability to perform well on standardized tests has nothing to do with intelligence or competence, it’s just another “trick” I can turn if I want a carrot or am trying to avoid a stick, and no indication of knowledge. True wisdom is knowing when to shut the fuck up.
To top off this little rant on Infantry and Intelligence, I have to say that there is a misconception regarding us grunts. Most of us aren’t stupid at all. The amount of knowledge that an Infantry soldier is imbued with in Basic Training at least equals any degree program offered at Cornfield University, U.S.A. (in volume at least, in terms of literature) and is far more demanding in terms of recall and memorization.
A leader in an Infantry Unit is expected not only to be familiar with tactics and operational procedures, but to execute specifically mandated actions, recall formulas, theorems, proofs, specifications, etc… all under fire, duress, while injured, dehydrated, malnourished, and sleep-deprived. Imagine taking your GRE, SAT or LSAT while someone is standing outside screaming and breaking windows. I know this seems utterly ridiculous, but you get the idea. Just add STRESS. Lot’s of it. And then ask yourself how good your memory would be in that situation. Could you gather your thoughts? Could you even approach rational thought or would you enter fight/flight mode indiscriminately and simply allow instinct to take control? It’s all very Kipling-esque, but when everyone around you is losing their head (sometimes literally) could you keep yours together?
All of this is to say, of course, that I am proud of being an Infantrymen and I suppose it’s so ingrained in my being for now it’s only right that my first attempt at some kind of autobio include my thoughts on it. And no, I am not 18, stupid, a criminal, or unable to find gainful employment. I do not enjoy MMA, the Super Bowl, porn, lifting weights or fighting for the sake of a fight. In fact, I would say I despise those things. I also don’t believe in any kind of American chauvinism abroad, I don’t believe that we enjoy a flawless political system or society.
I think the reason I wanted to do what I’ve done was because right now, as I write, there are teenagers who know more about themselves than Congressmen, Professors, or countless other Professionals, because they have willfully tested their mind and mettle against death, against their own body and psyche in an elemental way, and against society most of all, and by doing so they have followed the dictum, “Know Thyself,” in much more profound ways than most can imagine. I think I wanted to know if I could do it or not, more than anything, I was curious.