Experiencing Autumn

Week 16 has passed here at TBS. It contained two of the more important graded events of the course, the Endurance Course (E-Course) on Friday and the Land Navigation Final today (Saturday). Both events were difficult, but I passed each with high scores. I have tonight and Sunday to recover, and prepare for FEX III, which kicks off on Monday. It will be our hardest exercise of TBS. Welcome to the Infantry.

The E-Course is designed to test an officer’s physical stamina and ability in a simulated combat environment. It a series of three events ran in sequence: the Obstacle Course (O-Course), Echo Trail, and the Stamina Course. The O-Course is about 300 meters of low and high obstacles that require climbing over, ducking under, and vaulting. It is a test of upper body strength and upper body stamina. It is completed by climbing a 30-ft rope. Echo Trail is about 2.5 miles, and travels relentless over (it seems) every hill in Quantico. The Stamina course is much like Echo Trail, though it is about 3 miles long and interspersed with higher obstacles every several hundred yards, including a 20-foot Jacob’s ladder and a hundred-yard low-crawl course under barbed wire. With the exception of the O-Course, we must perform the whole thing with about 35 lbs of gear and a rifle. If you complete it in 60 minutes or less, you “max” it (get the highest possible score), if you take over 80 minutes, you fail. Most Marines are gasping for breath by the finish of the O-Course, only two minutes into the event…and the following 6 miles or so bring you to the edge of your endurance. Physically, it is the hardest thing I have ever done.

Final Land Nav is also strenuous, but in a different way. You are given seven hours to complete the event, and most people require that. In the morning, you are released into a 30-square kilometer training area, and you must be back at a pick-up spot (on the perimeter of the area) by a set time that afternoon, or you are disqualified. There are ten boxes for you to find with your compass and your map. These boxes, as before, are little red metal ammunition boxes mounted on posts, with numbers painted on them (so you can identify which ones you found). Despite their color they are hard to see – you have to get within 50 yards or so before they are visible. They are often a kilometer or more away from each other, and the terrain is very hilly, so a lot of hiking is involved. My route today took me over 20,000 meters, which does not account for the distance I covered actually searching for boxes once I found their general locations. A handy conversion website puts that at about twelve and a half miles, which is no small distance, especially off roads and over hills. However, despite the pressure to pass and the constant hiking, I found the experience breathtaking.

Though I was superficially concerned with finding my assigned boxes, my time in that forest felt like a sojourn apart as I wandered and was casually awestruck by the climactic, glorious throes of autumn. I started the day in a twilit wood, its pale-gold leaves faintly luminous in the promise of sunrise. I have no memory of mid-day, for this late in the season the afternoon seems to begin almost immediately, so low through the sky strides the sun. Areas of mostly bare scrub spoke of the coming winter, and the occasional copse still bearing rich greenery recalled the fading summer. At some point I ate lunch at the intersection of two creeks, the veiled land rising in autumn colors about me, and as I did so it started to rain. It was a hurried, spitting, autumn rain, released in fitful bursts from the fast-scudding clouds above. The later hours of the afternoon were dominated by the slanting sunlight dodging down sporadically between clouds. As I emerged from the woods at last, I was struck by fierce slanting sunlight emanating from a rich blue sky.

But the leaves! Though most lay dead on the ground, they defiantly blazed deep russet and red beneath my grateful boots. I crunched steadily through this wreck of foliage, breath misting before me, and everything in sight was fragile and aflame with exquisite and bracing melancholy. The approaching death of winter carried an air of tragedy, as though it were possible to be sad among such beauty, but if it was a contradiction it seemed natural enough. The light, the leaves, the cool clear air, and the solitude made one memory of sadly human glory. It feels as though I spent today wandering, dreamlike..

Of all victims of the Pathetic Fallacy, I am the most willing and gullible. I am often struck by how alive the world seems at times; not so much external to me but in a dynamic relationship–actively interacting. There seems a great communication at work, mediated by God: I feel strongly that I learned something over the course of the day, nothing perhaps that can be tidily comprehended or put down in writing, but something that manifests deeper than my intellect. It will germinate slowly, no doubt, unheeded by my conscious mind, for now I must focus on other things like the upcoming FEX and my required preparations for it. Yet because of my journey today, I bend to work with a lighter heart. I am refreshed.

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.

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.