ON JUNE 12, 1999, in Dartmouth’s Baker Library, I raised my right hand to take the oath of office as a Marine Corps second lieutenant. “I do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.”
My mother pinned the gold bars on my epaulets, and my father presented me with the Mameluke sword. I knew from my summer at Quantico that the sword was a reminder of Lieutenant Presley O’Ban-non’s expedition against the Barbary pirates in 1805. But I had no idea what it meant to be a Marine. Wearing my dress blues for the first time, I felt like an impostor in a Halloween costume.
After OCS graduation, I could have walked away from the Marines with no obligation. The Marine Corps liked the program because it attracted people who might not sign up for four years otherwise. Candidates liked it because we could return to school for a year and debate whether we wanted to go back to the Marines for a longer stay. For me, it was no decision at all. OCS had planted the hook. I hadn’t suffered through ten weeks at Quantico for nothing.
My classmates would soon be marching off to their graduate schools and consulting jobs, but our paths had not yet diverged. We still lived in the same world. Walking together out into the sunlight on the Hanover green, I felt the first twinge of impending separation. I had already noticed a subtle change in my worldview. My tolerance for abstract theories and academic posturing had evaporated. Instead of classes in philosophy and classical languages, I gravitated toward national security and current events. When the Marines went into Kosovo, Macedonia, and Liberia, I followed their progress every day. The world’s problems felt closer and more personal.
I had orders to check into TBS on a Sunday in November 1999. On the way down to Quantico from my parents’ house in Baltimore, I detoured off the highway in Rosslyn, Virginia. It was a spontaneous decision. High on a hill above the Potomac stood the Marine Corps War Memorial. My last visit had been as a child, and I wanted to see it again.
The night was starry and cold, and Washington’s monuments glowed across the river. Floodlights bathed the statue. An American flag flapped above five faceless Marines and a Navy corpsman, modeled on Joe Rosenthal’s Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of the flag-raising on Iwo Jima in 1945. The anonymity of the statue appealed to me. Six men. No names, ranks, or distinguishing features. They were Marines.
As I circled the memorial, I read the roll of battles burnished in gold on the granite base. Revolutionary War, when a newspaper ad had sought “a few good men” for the new Marine Corps. Spanish War, when correspondent Richard Harding Davis had reported, “The Marines have landed and have the situation well in hand.” Belleau Wood, where, in 1918, First Sergeant Dan Daly had led his men over the top, yelling, “Come on, you sons of bitches. Do you want to live forever?” Iwo Jima, where nearly 6,000 Marines had died and 17,000 had been wounded capturing an island one-eighth the size of Washington, D.C. Admiral Chester Nimitz had had the last word on that campaign: “Uncommon valor was a common virtue.” Korea’s Chosin Reservoir, where the First Marine Division had fought its way out of a Chinese trap in weather so cold that gasoline froze. Lebanon, where an early shot in the terror war had been fired on October 23, 1983. A truck bomb had ripped through the Marine barracks, killing 241 Americans.
The carved band of campaign names stirred me. But it wasn’t the past that gave me pause. It wasn’t the names already engraved. It was all the blank space next to them for battles still unfought. I looked at the expanse of smooth black stone flecked with gold and tried to imagine the names to come. On that quiet night in 1999, it seemed inconceivable that I might be part of them.
The TBS campus, called Camp Barrett, looks more like a dilapidated community college than the cradle of the Marine officer corps. On that first Monday morning, I watched lieutenants hurrying back and forth between classes. They carried brief bags and plastic coffee mugs, like graduate students. Camp Barrett’s dozen anonymous buildings include two barracks, several classrooms, a pool, a theater, and an armory, all surrounded by flat expanses of grass that double as playing fields when not being used as helicopter landing zones.
The compound’s only distinctive feature is Iron Mike, a bronze statue of a Marine holding a rifle in his right hand and waving on unseen men with his left. The name is a misnomer because the figure is actually Lieutenant Colonel William Leftwich. In 1970, Colonel Leftwich had commanded the First Reconnaissance Battalion in Vietnam. We new lieutenants knew nothing of First Recon, except that it boasted the best unit insignia in the whole Marine Corps: a skull and crossbones superimposed on the blue diamond of the First Marine Division, surrounded by the words “Swift, Silent, Deadly.”
Colonel Leftwich had ridden along on every emergency extraction of his reconnaissance teams. These were the most dangerous missions of all — teams calling for emergency extract had usually been compromised and suffered casualties and were being chased by larger enemy forces. After rescuing a team called “Rush Act” on a stormy day, the helicopter carrying Leftwich and his Marines had flown into a mountain-side, killing everyone aboard.
It was next to Iron Mike that our class assembled that morning. I stood by the statue, conscious again that I was being intentionally steeped in the history of the Corps and its heroes. Around me stretched the six platoons of Alpha Company, 224 newly commissioned second lieutenants. A lanky guy with a wry smile stood next to me, and I turned to introduce myself.
He took my hand, saying, “Jim Beal. Tennessee.”
I couldn’t know that morning how much Jim and I would share in the coming two years. I knew only that his laid-back confidence was reassuring, another indicator that TBS would be different from Officer Candidates School. Jim’s barracks room was next to mine. Platoons of forty lieutenants were divided into squads of thirteen or fourteen, and the squads were further divided into fire teams of four or five. Jim and I were half our fire team. We would spend the next six months at Camp Barrett, learning all the basic skills we would need as Marine officers. The Corps’s mantra is “Every Marine a rifleman.” Its corollary is “Every Marine officer a rifle platoon commander.” In the Marine Corps, jet pilots, clerks, and truck drivers are all infantrymen first. TBS would teach us those basic infantry skills, plus all the rules, regulations, and administrative requirements that are part of a peacetime military. The greatest topic of conversation at TBS was MOS selection. Military occupational specialties are the specific jobs in the Corps — aviator, artillery, logistics, tanks, infantry, and others — and they’re competitive. We would be assigned to the various specialties according to class rank. The most coveted of them was infantry.
President Harry Truman once said that the Marines had a propaganda machine second only to Stalin’s. He was right. My impression of the Corps, even as a newly commissioned officer, was one of a lean, mean fighting force, all teeth and no tail. I was shocked when my platoon commander, Captain McHugh, told his assembled lieutenants that only 10 percent of us would be infantry officers. The rest would go to the other combat arms — artillery, amphibious assault vehicles, and tanks — or to support jobs such as supply, administration, and even financial management.
McHugh urged us to keep an open mind and learn about each job before deciding which to compete for. I nodded but knew that only one thing would satisfy me: infantry officer. I wanted the purity of a man with a weapon traveling great distances on foot, navigating, stalking, calculating, using personal skill. I couldn’t let a jet or a tank get in the way, and I certainly wasn’t going to sit behind a desk. I wanted to be tested, to see if I had what it takes. The Marine Corps had recently unveiled a recruiting campaign using the motto “Nobody likes to fight, but somebody has to know how.” It was dropped because Marines did like to fight and aspiring Marine officers wanted to fight.
The grunt life was untainted. I sensed a continuity with other infantrymen stretching back to Thermopylae. Weapons and tactics may have changed, but they were only accouterments. The men stayed the same. In a time of satellites and missile strikes, the part of me that felt I’d been born too late was drawn to the infantry, where courage still counts. Being a Marine was not about money for graduate school or learning a skill; it was a rite of passage in a society becoming so soft and homogenized that the very concept was often sneered at.
During our first week at TBS, Captain McHugh asked us to prepare a list of our MOS choices from first to twenty-fourth. He said he would use the lists while evaluating us over the coming months and would do his best, while remembering the paramount “needs of the service,” to assign us to one of our top three choices. I turned in a paper listing my top three choices as infantry, infantry, and infantry.
“Lieutenant Fick.” The captain had scanned through the sheets and called me to the front of the room. He sounded pained. “Don’t be a smart-ass. Put down three choices.”
“All I want is to be an infantry officer, sir.”
“We don’t always get what we want, Lieutenant. Half the men in this class want to be grunts. The Marine Corps will put you where the Marine Corps needs you. The only way to have your pick of jobs is to graduate first in your class. Do you think you can graduate at the top of this class?”
Remembering my struggle just to graduate at all from OCS, let alone at the top, I chose amphibious assault vehicles and tanks as my second and third choices.
I loved TBS as much as I had hated OCS. Jim joked that the acronym stood for “The Bleeding Sphincter,” but the pace was high, the material was clearly relevant, and we were finally being trained instead of screened. We spent our first month on the rifle range, learning to shoot the M-16 and the Beretta 9 mm pistol. Some of my classmates had been hunters since they’d learned to walk, but I had fired a gun only two or three times in my life. The Marine Corps is a gun club, the infantry most of all, and I realized I was starting with a deficit. I had three weeks to pay attention and learn how to shoot. On the last morning, Qualification Day, we would shoot for score, and the score would determine what shooting badge we wore on our uniforms. Those who barely qualified would be Marksmen, above them were Sharpshooters, and the best riflemen would be Experts.
“It’s like condoms,” Jim explained. “Large, extra-large, and extra-extra-large.”
I laughed, but in my mind no self-respecting infantry officer could stand in front of his first platoon with anything less than an Expert shooting badge.
The Marines’ known-distance shooting course features slow and rapid shots at human-size targets from two hundred, three hundred, and five hundred yards. Slow shots work out to about one round per minute from the sitting, kneeling, and standing positions. Rapid shots emphasize firing, re-aiming, and firing again — ten rounds in a minute. We aimed through “iron sights,” not scopes, and learned that good shooting is a matter of discipline. There is no Zen involved, and hardly any luck. Do what you are told, and you will hit the target.
The Corps teaches three fundamentals of marksmanship: sight picture, bone support, and natural point of aim. Sight picture is lining up the rifle’s front and rear sights with the target — a simple enough proposition. Bone support means resting the rifle on the steadiest surface available: bone. Muscles and tendons waver and shake, but bone resting on earth is like a tripod for a camera. The third element, natural point of aim, is the most important. With each of the shooter’s breaths, the rifle muzzle rises. It settles with exhalation back to a natural resting point between breaths — the natural point of aim. Make the bull’s-eye your natural point of aim, squeeze the trigger near the bottom of your breath, and you’ll hit the target.
For two weeks, we ran through the fundamentals, arriving at the range in the predawn darkness and staying until midafternoon. I learned that consistency is key, and I was maniacal about it: same (light) breakfast each morning, same layers of clothing, same method of cleaning my rifle at the end of each day. The weather was gorgeous, cool mornings giving way to warm sun with almost no wind. It was perfect shooting weather.
We began firing for score in the third week, but only Thursday would count. There were 300 possible points on the course, and I needed 220 to qualify as an Expert. On Monday, I shot 180. Tuesday, 210. Wednesday, 220. Hovering at the cusp, I went to bed Wednesday night thinking about consistency. I had to replicate everything perfectly. The only element out of my control was the weather.
I woke at 0400 on Thursday and pulled open the blinds on my only window. Rain streaked the glass, and naked trees danced in the wind. A cold December morning. Damn. We drew our weapons from the armory and formed up in the parking lot outside Graves Hall for the three-mile hike to the range. Less than an hour after crawling out of my warm bed, I was chugging up the aptly named Cardiac Hill, a steep climb from a creek bed made more difficult by the mud, my heavy pack, and a line of vomiting lieutenants whose breakfasts had been heartier than mine.
It was still dark when we reached the range. I could barely make out the red wind flags through two hundred yards of blowing mist. They snapped parallel to the ground, the strongest wind I had ever shot in. I sat on my ammo can in the dark, shivering and waiting for enough light to start. I thought about the fundamentals as I rubbed a clear spot on the frosty ground at the two-hundred-yard line. Sight picture, bone support, natural point of aim. Do what you’ve been taught, and you’ll hit the target.
Chills shook my body. I had a sweater and jacket in my pack but fought the urge to put them on. Consistency. I hadn’t worn a jacket on the warm days earlier in the week. That extra millimeter of fabric on my arm now would have an outsize effect on the little black disk five football fields away. I willed myself warm.
“With a magazine of ten rounds, load!” The range master’s voice echoed through the fog from his perch in the tower above and behind us.
“Make ready!” I racked my charging handle to the rear and chambered a round.
“Shooters, you may fire when your targets appear.”
I settled my breathing, letting the muzzle rise and fall naturally. I centered the rifle’s front sight post in the aperture of the rear sight and put it on the black target. I pulled my elbows in tight to my body, squirming in the mud to make one connection between rifle, bone, and dirt. Breathing naturally, I made little adjustments until every exhalation put the target in the center of my sights. Then I squeezed the trigger.
Wide to the right. I dialed in a click of windage to correct for the gusts and fired again.
Wide to the right.
Relax. Easy breaths. Back to the basics. Ignore the distractions. No cold, no rain, no wind. Do what they taught you. Line it up. Good support. Easy trigger pull.
My next twenty shots were all in the black. Shooting was mechanical, rote. The key, as we’d heard so many times, was practicing the stroke and making it instinct. The only skill involved was learning the lessons of those who’d gone before. By the time I walked off the five-hundred-yard line, I had shot a 231.
Learning institutional lessons is the overarching theme of the classes at TBS. Our instructors were fond of pointing at the pile of tactics manuals on each of our desks and saying, “These books are written in the blood of lieutenants and captains who went before you. Learn from their mistakes; don’t repeat them.” The Marine Corps adheres to a crawl-walk-run philosophy, so we spent much of our time in the classroom before going out to the woods to practice what we’d learned. In the beginning, that learning was formulaic, just like OCS.
We learned the six troop-leading procedures by the acronym BAMCIS. Begin planning. Arrange for reconnaissance. Make reconnaissance. Complete the plan. Issue the order. Supervise. We used METT-T to estimate a tactical situation in order to complete the plan: mission, enemy, terrain, troops and fire support available, time. Most of all, we began to issue orders. Not yelled commands in mid-assault, but multipage written orders built around the five-paragraph format called SMEAC: situation, mission, execution, administration and logistics, command and signal. We wrote dozens of them.
Instruction at TBS goes far beyond rote memorization, growing into some amalgamation of chess, history, boxing, and game theory. We studied the fog and friction of war, how the simplest things become difficult. During our written test on the subject, the instructors cranked Metallica at full volume, hurled tennis balls at our heads, and sprayed our faces with water pistols. The lesson was focus: ignore the distractions and do your job.
We learned about warfare’s dynamism. We wouldn’t be fighting wax men in castles. In our instructors’ words, “The enemy has a vote, too.” When confronting an opposing will, we fight people who are also fighting us. They will learn as we learn. Their tactics will evolve as ours do. The key consideration in any tactical move is “to turn the map around.” Look at your own situation from the enemy’s perspective. What are your vulnerabilities? Where will he hit you, and what can you do to defeat him?
Speed, we were taught, is a weapon. Be aggressive. Keep the tempo high. The Marine Corps’s hallmark is maneuver warfare, slipping around the enemy’s hard surfaces and into his open gaps. Never attack into the teeth of the guns. We learned that indecision is a decision, that inaction has a cost all its own. Good commanders act and create opportunities. Great commanders ruthlessly exploit those opportunities and throw the enemy into disarray.
The focus on commanders recognized that war is a human enterprise. Even in the twenty-first century, wars are fought by people, not machines. Commanders must command from where they can influence the action. Marine officers, we were told, lead from the front. They thrive on chaos. We learned that the Corps relies on mission-type orders: “Tell me what to do, not how to do it.” Decentralize command and allow subordinates to operate freely within the framework of the commander’s intent. Train them as a team. Develop trust, loyalty, initiative.
This is the art of war. Some of the terms were new, but the principles had been recorded by Thucydides, Sun Tzu, and Clausewitz. We wanted to get out in the woods and apply them.