An Interlude

I am currently in a boring phase of TBS. The classes are dull, the events are difficult and unglamorous, and we haven’t really learned anything new in a while. The only really exciting recent event was night land navigation. It is much like day land navigation – spiderwebs, thick underbrush, water hazards, and lots of bugs – only you can’t see. So you fall into rivers and small lakes, you trip over logs, and you eat spiders more frequently than normal. That is all very unpleasant. But happily that night beautiful, starry and filled with moonlight, reminding me that though I chiefly joined the Marine Corps to learn discipline and virtue (so they would “make a man out of me”), I find here at TBS more spiritual lessons as well. Due in part to the harsh training environment, I encounter beauty in ways that normal-life distractions have so far denied me.

An example of this occurred last week, during a day Land Navigation Event. It was six hours long because it involved greater distances and more boxes to find than we had previously seen. I worked under an iron sky, in a soaking, miserable rain. After finding my last box, I had a little time to spare, so I began a relatively leisurely stroll to the Command Post. I was picking my way down a muddy tank trail when suddenly, for no discernable reason, I looked up. There, as if it had materialized out of nowhere, stood a dignified and comely four-point buck, gazing at me curiously from a distance of several meters. Unable to stop myself, I spoke: “You are beautiful.” It was a strangely solemn moment. We looked at each other for several still moments before he turned and bounded away with unhurried grace.

That is but one of the moments here in Quantico where I am overwhelmed by beauty. I will leave the barracks at sunset, for instance, and see the sky awash with copper-gold clouds, clear and glimmering. Or I will stop outside after a cell phone call to notice the distinct, intense and luminous array of stars above me. Or I will encounter a buck in the forest, strangely both familiar and majestic. These events gather themselves in my memory as a collage of light and smell and sound, and become a personal retreat from the immediate, rigorous, disciplined, and stressful concerns of military life. They are more than a retreat; they are a backdrop, and provide an overarching spiritual structure to my military experiences. They are necessary leisure, even if they only occur in an eternal instant. Each of them is the separate sensation of something endlessly beautiful running through you, uncapturable and barely observable; the infintessimal point at which you touch the divine.

Beauty, therefore, is not necessarily a property of visible things. “Beauty” describes the effect of things to raise our consciousness to a more metaphysical level. Essentially, a thing is beautiful that offers more clear evidence of God’s grace and perfect creation: a person, a painting, a building, a flower, a mountain. I am beginning to understand this, and take hope from it. My journey in the Marine Corps is yielding richer fruit than I could have imagined.

Falling apart (and picking myself up again)

I write this evening with a sad, tired smile on my face. It has been a hellish week. I am comfortable now, sitting glumly in my favorite little internet cafe, while outside it is raining as it only can in Virginia – heavy, painful drops that turn puddles into rapids and roads into rivers. There are serious tornado warnings for Northern Virginia, including the area I am in; evidently Hurricane Ivan sent us some exciting weather. The savage noise of the rain and all the sounds which accompany it – the frantic whipping of windshield wipers, the wet flop of feet scurrying over pavement, the incessant roar of water cascading off of roofs – leave a feeling of crumbling, as if somehow the world is disintegrating. Every thump my wheels make as I drive leaves me wondering if the air has left the tires, every turn of the wheel seems painfully close to a skid, everytime I step outside I grow more bedraggled and wet.

I finished my tour as Student Company Commander today. As part of our training, we undertake leadership billets within the company for two weeks at a time. These billets require us to take responsibility for our peers and for the training schedule. It means spending a lot of free time coordinating events with various staff members, keeping an exact count of the Marines in the company, and – what is hardest of all – ordering my peers to do things they don’t enjoy, like cleaning stairwells. It is fun to be in charge, and fun to deal with the challenges of leadership, but it is also draining – I feel completely exhausted. I am also relieved; now I can focus back on the technical training aspect of TBS.

This past week we continued patrolling exercises. These mean 12-page orders, overlays of pre-planned artillery targets, preliminary “warning orders” to divide the responsibilities among different patrol members, a detailed terrain model, and then finally the exhausting conduct of the patrol itself. Twice. Once during the day, and an abbreviated version during the night which culminates in an ambush. It was also physically demanding, coming as it did on the heels of Land Navigation 4 – by the end of the first patrol, my legs were losing their ability to balance properly and I was panting with every step. It was not only a lesson in patrolling, but also a lesson in endurance.

Yet these kinds of extreme situations are nourishment to me, and I imagine to every Marine. The suffering is the price we pay for all the fun we have: the helicopter insert and extract, the many rounds of ammunition we fire, and the opportunity to simulate actual assaults on our fellow lieutenants. The helicopter ride alone made up for most of the pain. The essential fact, I think is that combat is fun. I suppose that is a shocking thing to write, but under consideration it makes sense. Why is competition (especially in sports) such a universal pleasure? Because humans enjoy fighting, after a fashion. It forces us to strive greatly, to use our bodies and minds to solve puzzles, and (if done correctly) yields us the victory. The stark physical and mental difficulty of planning and conducting a patrol resolves the simple pleasures of doing things well and winning into great clarity. I am beginning to discover how much I love my job.

I realize now, with great satisfaction, that I could complete another six hour land navigation session tomorrow morning at 7. There is one scheduled, as remediation for those who failed the earlier event. Fortunately, I am not in that group. But I know I could do it (as I have for the past two weekends). It seems, after 12 weeks of TBS, we are learning how far our real physical limits are from where we thought they were. Just when we think we have reached the end of our our strength, and we can’t walk any more miles or carry any more weight, we simply focus on the ground and do it. It honestly seems like a bonus to have the entire weekend off.

After the recent birth of a baby daughter, which he nearly missed after being in the field with us, my Platoon Commander told us, “the Marine Corps is a big green machine, and it will keep going with you until you jump off or it spits you out in 20 or 30 years. It never stops.” This is why people join the Marines: to be part of an endeavor greater than themselves. It is equally well expressed by a 1980s recruiting poster for the Marines, showing a column of vehicles moving down a road, with the headline “The Marines need a few good men…to keep ’em rolling.” The Corps takes good men and makes them professional warriors, it executes our nation’s policy with military force when necessary, and it does these things without demanding excess money or complaining about tough tasks. The formula for this is a continuous tempo of operations, the basic and universally understood imperative to pick up and keep going even when tired. Recovery will come, but it won’t come in luxury – your body will heal in the classroom, and your mind will rest in the field.