Anyone who looks with anguish on evils so great must acknowledge the tragedy of it all; and if anyone experiences them without anguish, his condition is even more tragic, since he remains serene by losing his humanity.
— AUGUSTINE OF HIPPO
I STROLL IN THE SUMMER SUNLIGHT at a lakeside family reunion. Young cousins splash in the water, while adults laugh over drinks. In the distance, a band plays. I approach people to join the conversations, but no one can see or hear me. I am invisible to them. Looking down at myself in confusion, I see that I wear desert camouflage and carry a rifle slung across my chest. Blood soaks my clothes.
For months after coming home, this dream woke me. Not every night, only a dozen times in all, but often enough to make sleep an act of will. Sometimes I got up and took a walk. Sometimes I did pushups on my bedroom floor until I collapsed in exhaustion. Mostly, though, I stared at the ceiling and tried to think of something, anything, else.
The homecoming story is a cliché. From the moment we arrived in Kuwait, I felt that I knew what would happen next. One Marine in a different battalion cracked almost immediately and shot another Marine in the chest during a touch football game. We took off from Kuwait City aboard a commercial airliner. The passengers cheered as the wheels left the ground. My seat was clean, the food delicious, and the stewardesses pretty. Some people talked, most slept, and I stared out the window. The pyramids at Giza slid past in the morning light. In Frankfurt, I stood at the terminal door for twenty minutes, just marveling at the green grass. We entered American airspace north of Syracuse, New York, on Tuesday, June 3, 2003, at two P.M. The pilot said, “Welcome home,” and we cheered again.
When we landed at the Air Force base in Riverside, California, I walked down the stairs to the tarmac. There were the grills where the Red Cross had cooked hamburgers for us, the hangar where we’d slept on the floor, and the television still blaring at the rows of empty chairs where we’d watched the space shuttle burn up. Outside, headlights moved on the freeway. A Tuesday evening commute. Nothing had changed.
The delusion persisted through our bus ride back to Camp Pendleton and the midnight reunion with our families on a basketball court behind the battalion’s offices. I locked my weapons in the armory but kept the holster on my thigh to hide a bloodstain from the boy at Qalat Sukkar. People waved signs and cheered, and we played the returning heroes. Sergeant Patrick stood quietly, apart from the crowd, dressed in starched cammies and wearing boots for the first time in two months. He wore them, despite the pain, because he thought it was right to greet the platoon while wearing his proper uniform. We all hugged him, along with our mothers and fathers and wives and girlfriends, because he was family.
I felt lonely that night in the hotel room — no radios hissing, no stars overhead, no Marines standing watch beside me. I slept in two-hour chunks. Before dawn, I woke up and took my second shower of the night, just because I could. A dark brown face stared back from the bathroom mirror. I saw lines on my forehead I hadn’t noticed before. The horseshoe still hung around my neck on its loop of parachute cord. I slipped it up and over my head for the first time since Christmas.
Delusions of normalcy continued as I settled back into my daily routine. I stopped for coffee on the way to work. I got stuck in traffic and went to the grocery store to refill my refrigerator. Life’s simple conveniences kept me so grateful that I hardly thought about the war. The return felt seamless. Sometimes I imagined that the four-month interlude had been a dream I could just forget.
But bit by bit, little things dragged me back. On a Saturday afternoon, a Marine friend who had not been in Iraq invited me to go skeet shooting with him at Camp Pendleton’s range. I accepted reflexively, thinking nothing of it. I noticed him looking at me as we drove up the freeway. Finally, he spoke.
“What the hell are you doing?”
I was swerving randomly under overpasses. In Iraq, that made it harder for people above to drop hand grenades into the Humvee.
“Sorry. I wasn’t paying attention.”
When we got to the range, I stood on the firing line with a shotgun and a bag of shells. Suddenly, I had no interest in shooting skeet. I had last fired a gun shortly before midnight on April 1, on the highway north of Al Hayy.
I sized people up on the street, looking head to toe for the telltale bulge of a pistol or a bomb. Not having a tourniquet and IV bag nearby made me vaguely uncomfortable. I ate up every scrap of news about the men still fighting but preferred not to talk about it. I cried sometimes for no reason at all. When a driver cut me off in a merge lane, I visualized, without emotion, pulling his head back and cutting his throat with my car key. On the Fourth of July, a firecracker sent me diving behind a car door, reaching for a pistol that wasn’t there. I felt older than my father. And I had the dream.
I thought I was losing my mind. The only way I knew I was still sane was that I thought I might be going crazy. Surely, that awareness meant I was sane. Crazy people think they’re sane. Only sane people can think they’re crazy. I was reduced to taking comfort in a tautology.
After three years as a platoon commander, I was promoted to captain and chosen to become the commanding officer of the Basic Reconnaissance Course. There are a limited number of operational jobs in the Marine Corps, so my two combat deployments guaranteed me a tour behind a desk instead of an immediate return to Afghanistan or Iraq. When I’d started OCS in 1998, I’d considered making the Marines my career. After Afghanistan, the possibility had remained, only slightly diminished. After Iraq, I knew I had to leave.
Most people in my life acted as if getting out was a natural choice for me. When I’d accepted my commission, friends and relatives had asked questions such as “Last time we talked, you were at Dartmouth. What happened?” or “Do Marines get paid?” An acquaintance felt the need to console my parents, saying, “You must be so disappointed.” These people now thought that I was correcting an earlier mistake, or perhaps that I’d satisfied my adolescent bravado. They thought that the job’s practical hardships had driven me out — long deployments, frequent moves, low pay, and danger. But they were wrong. For me, the intangible honor and pride of being a Marine officer outweighed all the adversity.
Some of my buddies in the Corps understood that the decision was more personal. They knew that I chafed under a hierarchy that sometimes valued polished boots more than tactical competence in its leaders. They figured that we had done in four years what a previous generation of Marines had done in twenty, or maybe never. Promotion, as an officer, means more paperwork and less time with the troops. They knew that I had joined the Marines to hold a sword, not a pencil. They were right, but the real reason was even deeper.
I left the Corps because I had become a reluctant warrior. Many Marines reminded me of gladiators. They had that mysterious quality that allows some men to strap on greaves and a breastplate and wade into the gore. I respected, admired, and emulated them, but I could never be like them. I could kill when killing was called for, and I got hooked on the rush of combat as much as any man did. But I couldn’t make the conscious choice to put myself in that position again and again throughout my professional life. Great Marine commanders, like all great warriors, are able to kill that which they love most — their men. It’s a fundamental law of warfare. Twice I had cheated it. I couldn’t tempt fate again.
The battalion traditionally held a sendoff ceremony called a “Hail & Farewell” for its departing officers. Major Benelli scheduled mine for a Friday afternoon when he knew I wouldn’t be in town. It was a snub, but not one that stung, since my allegiance wasn’t to the battalion; it was to the platoon.
Recon platoons are steeped in tradition, and one of the finest is the paddle party. Mine was held at Mike Wynn’s house on a Friday night in August. The whole platoon was there. They put me in a chair in the center of the room and gathered around. The ceremony’s roots stretch back to Viking warships. According to tradition, when a warrior left the crew to settle down and start a family, his comrades presented him with his oar as a symbol of the contribution he had made and of their own collective weakening after his departure.
The youngest Marine, Lance Corporal Christeson, held the paddle first. Gunny Wynn and I had recommended him for combat meritorious promotion from private first class to lance corporal, one of the first since the Vietnam War. The paddle passed from his hands through the whole platoon, moving in order of seniority, with each man telling a story as he held it. “Lower, Christeson. You’re shooting too high.” Rushing to the landing zone at Bridgeport. Task Force Sword. Ambush Alley. Espera and the ever-present cigar. Lasers in Muwaffiqiya. Horsehead. Sydney. Boat raids. “Take the shot.” The paddle passed from Gunny Wynn, the senior Marine in the platoon, to Sergeant Patrick, the man who had made it. Patrick turned the paddle around, showing it to me for the first time.
He had carved it from a four-foot block of cherry. Green, tan, and black parachute cord wrapped the handle. My captain’s bars, jump wings, and ribbons adorned the blade. On the back, Rudy had inked First Recon’s insignia and attached a photo of the platoon in the Kuwaiti desert on the eve of the war.
I reached out to touch it and sensed another crease in history. When my hand closed around the parachute cord, my command of the platoon ended. In their words, I was promoted from captain to mister. In mine, the most meaningful year of my life was over.
A few mornings later, I drove to work for my last day. It was a foggy, cool Southern California morning. In the parking lot, I saw my replacement, a red-haired captain named Brent Morel. We had gone to lunch together the day before and sat for two hours as I tried to put the platoon into words — Colbert’s cool demeanor, Rudy’s enthusiasm, Jacks’s mastery of the Mark-19, Patrick’s southern aphorisms. The war in Iraq hadn’t ended, and I wanted Morel to know the men when he took them back for their second tour.
He looked up from the waterproof bag he was sealing. “Hi, Nate. We’re heading down to the beach for a fin.”
“Whole platoon. Wanna come?” It was a gracious offer, but I couldn’t accept it.
“They’re yours now, man. Have a good one.”
In the office, I collected all my gear, cleaning each piece and stuffing it into my rucksack to return to the supply warehouse. I held my rifle, thinking of Al Gharraf and the dead fedayeen. Putting my hand around the grip of my pistol, I was back at the bridge in Muwaffiqiya with tracers slicing through the dark. Brown bloodstains still mottled my flight gloves, but I shoved them into the ruck. I tried for a moment to beat Iraq’s dust from its canvas but gave up. This pack would probably be retired anyway. A piece of shrapnel had torn through its outer pockets and ripped away all the snaps.
At the warehouse, I waited in a line of Marines turning in their gear. Some were heading to new assignments, others getting out. All were quiet. Near the opposite doorway stood a group of second lieutenants, new guys with fresh haircuts. They joked and laughed, pretending not to see us. I wanted to gather them up and tell them what my father had told me as a new Marine: “Stand tall, but come home physically and psychologically intact.” I knew they would clasp their hands behind them, listen respectfully, and then laugh behind the back of the crazy captain who’d forgotten that Marine lieutenants are invincible. So I walked to my car and drove home instead. They would figure it out for themselves.
A few months later, I was working in Washington, D.C., and the platoon was back in Iraq. I drove down to Virginia Beach on a Thursday morning in April to pin a Bronze Star on Shawn Patrick’s chest. He had recovered from his wound and was an instructor at the Amphibious Reconnaissance School, training new recon Marines. As I passed Quantico on I-95, I listened to the national security advisor testifying before the 9/11 Commission. The symbolism struck me — passing the place where I had begun my Marine Corps career, listening to a debate over the event that had launched me into two years of combat, traveling to a ceremony to close a chapter of the story.
The phone rang. It was Cara Wynn, Mike’s wife. She was breathless, speaking so fast that I could barely understand her.
“The platoon was ambushed in Fallujah. A bunch of guys were hit and flown to Germany. That’s all I know right now.”
While on patrol, Bravo Company had hit a sophisticated combined-arms ambush. A group of insurgents had opened fire on the convoy from behind a berm next to the road. An RPG had exploded inside the lead Humvee. One Marine had lost both his hands, and four others had been wounded. The platoon had attacked the ambushers’ position, killing dozens of them.
In Virginia Beach, Sergeant Patrick stood unblinking as his commanding officer read the Bronze Star citation:
For professional achievement in the superior performance of his duties while serving in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom as Reconnaissance Team Leader, Team Two, Second Platoon, Bravo Company, First Reconnaissance Battalion, First Marine Division, from March, 2003 to May, 2003. On the night of April 1, while entering the town of Muwaffiqiya, Iraq, Sergeant Patrick was shot in an enemy ambush. While under hostile fire from three directions, he applied a tourniquet to his wound, resumed firing, and directed his team’s fire onto enemy targets, inflicting massive damage on the enemy forces. Sergeant Patrick remained in the kill zone and continued leading the Marines in his team until the enemy had been annihilated and his fellow Marines were out of harm’s way. Sergeant Patrick’s exceptional professional ability, initiative, and loyal dedication to duty reflect great credit upon himself and are in keeping with the highest traditions of the Marine Corps and the United States Naval Service.
We went to dinner afterward to celebrate, but we worried about our friends seven thousand miles away and wished we could be with them.
On my drive back to Washington, Cara called again. “Nate, I have some bad news.”
I pulled over to the side of the road, waiting as if watching someone wind up, in slow motion, to punch me.
“Captain Morel’s dead.”
Brent had been shot in the chest while leading the platoon’s counterattack. The Marines who fought to save him said that he had survived the golden hour. They recalled that when he died, aboard the casevac helicopter, he was so pale that his red hair had turned gray.
The new World War II Memorial in Washington had opened to visitors before its formal dedication. Still in shock over Brent’s death, I drove into the city under a full moon to see it. I needed a physical connection to sacrifice. Floodlights bathed the circle of granite slabs in a warm yellow glow, much less harsh than the stark white of the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument. Elms towered just beyond the circle of light.
I walked clockwise around the central fountain, reading words carved in stone and letters left behind by family and friends. Three times I ducked into shadows to hide my tears. The names and faces were different, but these were the same men. At one end of the memorial stands a wall of gold stars — four thousand of them. Each star represents one hundred Americans killed in World War II. I stood and counted eight of those four thousand stars, a minuscule slice of the wall’s upper left corner. That was Afghanistan and Iraq combined. All the firefights, bombs, rockets, and helicopter crashes. Brent and Horsehead. All the heroism, blood, fear, humor, and boredom. Eight fucking stars.
I drifted after leaving the Corps. At age twenty-six, I feared I had already lived the best years of my life. Never again would I enjoy the sense of purpose and belonging that I had felt in the Marines. Also, I realized that combat had nearly unhinged me. Despite my loving family, supportive friends, and good education, the war flooded into every part of my life, carrying me along toward an unknown fate. If it could do that to me, what about my Marines? What about the guys without families, whose friends didn’t try to understand, who got out of the Corps without the prospects I had? I worried that they had survived the war only to be killed in its wake.
After channeling all my energy into applying to graduate school, I got a phone call from an admissions officer: “Mr. Fick, we read your application and liked it very much. But a member of our committee read Evan Wright’s story about your platoon in Rolling Stone. You’re quoted as saying, ‘The bad news is, we won’t get much sleep tonight; the good news is, we get to kill people.’” She paused, as if waiting for me to disavow the quote. I was silent, and she went on. “We have a retired Army officer on our staff, and he warned me that there are people who enjoy killing, and they aren’t nice to be around. Could you please explain your quote for me?”
“No, I cannot.”
“Well, do you really feel that way?” Her tone was earnest, almost pleading.
“You mean, will I climb your clock tower and pick people off with a hunting rifle?”
It was her turn to be silent.
“No, I will not. Do I feel compelled to explain myself to you? I don’t.”
I was frustrated as much by respect and attempts at understanding as by unfeeling ignorance. The worst were blanket accolades and thanks from people “for what you guys did over there.” Thanks for what, I wanted to ask — shooting kids, cowering in terror behind a berm, dropping artillery on people’s homes? There wasn’t any pride simply in being there. The pride was in our good decisions, in the things we did right. I hoped that I’d done more right than wrong, hoped that I hadn’t been cavalier with people’s lives. I was learning to accept that sometimes the only way to fight evil is with another evil, however good its aim.
In June, one year after coming home from Iraq, I dragged a childhood friend to the Civil War battlefield at Antietam in western Maryland. I wanted to walk the ground. Among the split-rail fences and restored cannons, I saw RPGs and fedayeen. Where would I have put my machine guns to defend the Cornfield? How would Hitman Two have assaulted the Bloody Lane?
The sun was warm on my arms, and bees buzzed through the tall grass as we meandered toward Burnside Bridge. There, on the afternoon of America’s bloodiest day, troops made three unsuccessful attempts to cross Antietam Creek under withering fire. We stood at the center of the span with our hands on the stones.
“Was it a waste?” I asked.
“No,” she replied. “They won, and Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. They freed the slaves, the way you freed the Afghans.”
I didn’t answer.
“Think about the women under the Taliban and the poor Iraqis under Saddam,” she continued, seizing a chance to change the subject. “You helped do so much good for so many people. Why can’t you take comfort in that?”
Staring down at the water, I measured my words, running through a justification I’d given myself a thousand times before. The good was abstract. The good didn’t feel as good as the bad felt bad. It wasn’t the good that kept me up at night.
“You sound so unprincipled,” she said, shaking her head. “Why can’t you find peace in what you and your men sacrificed so much to do? Why can’t you be proud?”
I took sixty-five men to war and brought sixty-five home. I gave them everything I had. Together, we passed the test. Fear didn’t beat us. I hope life improves for the people of Afghanistan and Iraq, but that’s not why we did it. We fought for each other.
I am proud.