Failure and Learning

I write this post in the absolute center of all civilization: The Airport. How different from the schedule-dominated life of the Marine Corps; how different from the mud and sweat of field exercises! The transition is not so much difficult – it is enjoyable to sit among a variety of people, casually listening to music from my headphones – but ironic. It is hard to take this life seriously after having spent time in the field. If I stop to consider, I am surprised that a bunch of 18-24 year old young adults can switch so easily from discipline, effort, and alertness of Marine training to the superficial complexity and savvy of a trend-driven society. There’s a Hemingway-esque romance about it, as if I have a superior perch from which to observe the ‘normal’ world.

Last week was a tough one, training-wise. We completed our 10-mile forced march (in the rain, which is hard on both one’s feet and one’s motivation) as well as FEX II, an acronym that stands for Field EXercise II. This was our first chance to lead and conduct platoon-level operations, with the added concepts of automatic weapons, support-by-fire positions, obstacle plans, offensive tactics (like envelopment), and prepared defensive positions. Like everything else involved in the infantry, it is mentally very challenging. How should you divide your manpower? How should you weight your main effort, or main attack? How can you best use your support-by-fire assets? What is your engineering/obstacle plan? What codes and signals do you use to coordinate the movement of 40-odd people through thick underbrush without bunching your attack up and risking friendly-fire casualties? How do you motivate everybody to dig waist-deep into rock-hard soil? We spent those two days experimenting with different kinds of attacks, trying to properly position grenade launchers and machine guns, attempting to set up barbed-wire obstacles, and hacking ourselves into defensive positions. At night, we sat up behind our machine-guns, alert for attacks. We didn’t sleep. And we struggled to succeed.

I hope I have convinced you that the stereotype of a “dumb grunt” is completely untrue. Besides the grueling physical activity required, infantry operations require a firm grasp of technical data (such as weapon ranges and effects, ideal obstacle configurations, and fire support concepts) as well as creativity to make a plan that uses the assets available in a cohesive, mutually-supporting manner. Only thus is the mission accomplished correctly, which is to say as expeditiously as possible, with the fewest lives lost. It is one of the most mentally difficult things I have ever done – it ranks up there with grappling with the ideas of Plato, Kant, and some very abstract Theology. And speaking of lives lost, there is an additional wrinkle: if you are “dumb” and make a mistake, your people die, and it is your fault. Then you might go to jail, because their lives were your responsiblity. And that makes the exercise even harder. The infantry is quite a bit more intellectually demanding and emotionally stressful than civilian jobs, as my non-military peers tell it. “Dumb grunt” is a grossly ironic title.

We didn’t do very well this week, and that’s what made it so rough. No matter what “bad things” happen out there – if you cut your hands, bash your face against your rifle, twist your ankle, and develop a nasty gastrointestinal disorder – if your operations are successful and your mission accomplished, then you have a great time. If, on the other hand, everything goes right except your attacks (or your defense), then the field sucks. I have thus learned that personal comfort is perhaps the least important thing about Field Ops. I would trade even my own health and wholeness for just a little more success. But hopefully by the next exercise, I will be more combat-effective, and a better asset to my platoon.

For now, though, we got a good lecture on our mistakes and attitude (lazy and sullen) from our platoon commander, who imparted this bit of wisdom that I think worth passing on. Always ask yourself these four questions: what am I doing? why am I doing it? what is it good for? and how do I know? If by the answers to these questions you discover you are doing something wrong (like eating chow in the field while everybody else is working hungry), then stop. I firmly believe that most of our personal failings are due to the fact that we make easy, wrong choices instead of more difficult, less pleasant, right choices. It seems so obvious to me now that each wrong choice I make out there renders my team less effective, and in this business of warfighting and killing, that is inexcusable. More generally, though, wrong choices affect my goodness throughout my life. I think that being a good person is the greatest task we have in this life, for it affects our relationships, our success, our health, and most importantly our happiness. And in my platoon commander’s angry questions I found a way to do better.

Incidentally, it is very eerie in the field at night. I mentioned earlier our nighttime 9-mile forced march, which took place under a beautiful silvery moon. But though we had similar conditions this past week, the effect was strange and silent as we settled into defensive positions. Stranger still, it got almost imperceptibly darker, and shortly I began to hear the faint sound of rushing water. Everything was so still and alone I remember wondering quite seriously whether I was imagining things or not – the silvery light seemed once so permanent that I literally couldn’t believe it was gone, then the rushing water – though I had just noticed it – seemed to have gone on since the beginning of time. If that sounds melodramatic, I promise you it seemed both natural and quite disturbing in the profound solitude of that night. When it finally began to rain, it seemed the strangest thing yet – the whole experience was decidely surreal. It seems even more so now that I am surrounded by the light and structure of civilization.

Between the hike and the FEX this week I feel pretty drained. But I am on my way to a wedding! It is exciting to travel, and I can’t wait to see my old friends. A little vacation to normalcy will (I hope) return me to training next week eager to go back to the field–and do a little better than last time.

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