IOC’S MISSION WAS to train the best small-unit infantry leaders in the world. It was a tall order for ten weeks. If we crawled at OCS and walked at TBS, then IOC was a full-out sprint. Classes built on what we’d already learned, adding nuance and complexity. We studied the full spectrum of Marine operations — not only conventional combat but also the countless gradations of peacekeeping and nation-building that had occupied the military since the end of the Gulf War.
It was the summer of 2000, before the October 2000 attack on the USS Cole in Yemen and before 9/11. The U.S. military, from our perspective as fledgling officers, was equipped to fight the Soviets and training to fight another Somalia. But the Marine Corps was innovating. The whole institution was leaning forward, trying to feel out the next fight. The summer’s buzz phrase was “low-intensity conflict.” We learned that the interventions of the 1990s had taught the Marines a lesson: “low-intensity conflict” was not “combat light.” The unspoken assumption among earlier groups of officers was that a platoon that trained to attack a fortified position knew how to hand out MREs. A platoon that ran a good ambush patrol could figure out how to build a school. The IOC staff acknowledged that this was mostly uncharted territory and promised only that we would do our best to prepare for it. Their candor made sense to us. We had grown tired of attacking wooded hilltops. The world, we knew, was more than Quantico-like terrain.
Low-intensity conflict put special demands on young officers and their Marines. We learned about the concept of the “three-block war.” In this model, Marines could be passing out rice in one city block, patrolling to keep the peace in the next, and engaged in a full-scale firefight in the third. Mental flexibility was the key. A second concept we labored over was the “strategic corporal.” Twenty-first-century warfare places massive destructive power in the hands of even the junior-most Marine and then beams his image in real time to living rooms around the world. A single Marine’s actions could have strategic repercussions, good or bad. With no major conflict looming, we trained to do riot control and humanitarian missions and to work with the media.
Infusing all this was a strong dose of moral reflection on the nature of our job. I was learning that most Marines, behind the tough-talking façade, are idealists. Captain Novack, a TV-perfect infantry officer, told us earnestly that our responsibilities as leaders would be three: to be ready when called, to win every time, and to return our Marines to society better than they were when we got them. We learned that moral courage is as important as physical courage. Leaders have an ethical responsibility to serve as buffers, protecting their subordinates, and a moral obligation to act from the courage of their own convictions. The moral courage of their leaders is what separates combat units from armed mobs.
Captain Novack had pinned a quotation on the classroom wall from Steven Pressfield’s Gates of Fire, about the Spartans at Thermopylae:
This, I realized now watching Dienekes rally and tend to his men, was the role of the officer: to prevent those under his command, at all stages of battle — before, during, and after — from becoming “possessed.” To fire their valor when it flagged and rein in their fury when it threatened to take them out of hand. That was Dienekes’ job. That was why he wore the transverse-crested helmet of an officer.
His was not, I could see now, the heroism of an Achilles. He was not a superman who waded invulnerably into the slaughter, single-handedly slaying his foe by myriads. He was just a man doing a job. A job whose primary attribute was self-restraint and self-composure, not for his own sake, but for those he led by his example. A job whose objective could be boiled down to the single understatement, as he did at the Hot Gates on the morning he died, of “performing the commonplace under uncommonplace conditions.”
Novack sometimes interrupted class to point at the paper on the wall. “Gents, it’s all there. We don’t carry swords, but our job’s the same.” I wrote the quote in my notebook to take with me to the Fleet.
Despite the heady classroom sessions, IOC is a war-fighting school. During most of our three months there, we left Camp Barrett on Monday morning and returned on Friday evening, spending our weeks shooting machine guns and mortars, calling in artillery and close air support, and training for urban combat in a mock city of cinderblock buildings called Combat Town. There I learned one of my training’s crucial lessons on a hot July morning.
I was the acting platoon commander, tasked with assaulting a building in the center of town. A rebel warlord and his cadre were holed up inside, and the streets for blocks around teemed with bands of armed supporters. Given ten minutes to plan the mission, I briefed the staff that we would advance methodically from block to block toward the target building, covering the platoon’s movement with mortar fire and support from armored vehicles. It was the kind of incremental approach that had worked so well for me during the night attack at TBS.
Novack threw his clipboard into the dirt, shouting, “Your mindset’s all wrong! No good tactical plan grows from a timid mindset.” He calmed down, and the earnestness returned. He wanted me to learn. “Execute every mission with speed, surprise, and violence of action.”
He explained that Americans, especially young American men, exhibit posturing behavior. Two guys in a bar bump chests, get up in each other’s faces, and yell. If a fight follows, it’s about honor, saving face. That’s posturing. Marines on the battlefield must exhibit predatory behavior. In that bar, a predator would smile politely at his opponent, wait for him to turn around, and then cave in the back of his skull with a barstool.
The new mission plan had us rappelling from helicopters onto the roof of the target building itself. No bluster, no incrementalism. Predators.
Near the end of IOC, our focus shifted to a Marine’s most deadly weapon — his mind. Novack had taught us about the combat mindset, both the tactical need to be a predator and the moral imperative to know where to draw the line. Thus primed, we were deemed ready for a formal introduction to society’s ultimate taboo.
I slid into the classroom early one morning with the other lieutenants, tracking wet boot prints across the floor. Rain drilled against the windows. We were loud and happy to be inside with Styrofoam cups of coffee and cheese danishes instead of getting soaked in Combat Town. A single word in block letters covered the chalkboard: KILLOLOGY.
Spending a morning talking about death and calling it work felt illicit. Around me, the class pretended to banter about baseball scores and weekend adventures, but our eyes kept flickering back to that solitary word on the chalkboard.
The door opened, and Captain Novack led an anonymous man to the podium. “Good morning, gents,” Novack said. “You’ve heard me run my mouth about speed, surprise, and violence of action. Violence of action doesn’t start with weapons and tactics. It starts in your head.” Novack turned to the man by his side. “This is Dr. Clete DiGiovanni. Dr. DiGiovanni — we call him Dr. Death around here — is a psychiatrist. Before he started shrinking heads, he was an officer in the CIA’s Directorate of Operations and the Special Operations Group in Vietnam. He speaks your language.”
Novack started to turn the podium over to Dr. DiGiovanni but leaned back toward the microphone.
“One more thing. Lieutenant Fick, the doctor is a Dartmouth grad, too. You can trade squash tips after class.”
“Good morning, Marines.” Dr. DiGiovanni spoke with solemn control. “My nickname is unfortunate, because my job is to help keep you and your troops alive.”
He defined “killology” as the study of healthy people’s reactions to killing. Its corollaries are the factors that enable killing and the maintenance of psychiatric health during prolonged exposure to mortal danger. DiGiovanni explained that an infantryman’s effectiveness is more fundamental than his ability to shoot a rifle or carry a heavy pack. All else is predicated on psychiatric health. He identified five things an infantry leader can do to help maintain the psychiatric effectiveness of his men in combat: minimize fatigue by sleeping whenever possible, build confidence as a team, encourage communication, use spare time to practice emergency medical training, and do after-action critiques to address the shock of combat and killing.
“And trust me, gentlemen, it will be a shock,” he said.
A slide projector whirred to life, casting a square of blank light on the screen at the front of the room. DiGiovanni explained that the first step toward understanding the topic was exposure to violent death.
“The pictures you are about to see are very graphic. Young infantry officers, like yourselves, in Vietnam.”
The photos were indeed of young men like us, but after suffering horrific trauma to their heads and torsos. I had to squint and tilt my head to separate the victims’ eyes from mouths from cheekbones. High-velocity rifle bullets tear through bone and flesh, destroying all vestiges of animate humanity. I could not help but contextualize the pictures. Platoon commanders, recent graduates of this same school, who shipped off to take their first commands. They woke up one morning, pulled on their boots, ate breakfast, and never guessed that nightfall would find them as exhibit A in the killology curriculum of other lieutenants.
Like most Marine training, hands-on experience followed DiGiovanni’s class. The closest battlefield to Quantico was the Anacostia neighborhood of southeastern Washington, D.C. On Friday night, two other lieutenants and I stood discreetly against the wall in D.C. General Hospital’s emergency room, waiting for the casualties to pour in.
The doctors and nurses welcomed Marine observers on nights filled with drug and gang violence that sometimes spilled into the hospital itself. For us, the program was a chance to see gunshots and stabbings in a sterile place, without the additional stresses of combat, command, and dying friends.
A young surgical resident escorted us. We must have looked bored, hugging the wall and watching a steady stream of sore throats and twisted ankles.
“Don’t worry, guys,” she said. “It’s a hot summer night. After ten or eleven o’clock, the ambulances will be backed up outside. You’ll see plenty.”
She was right. The first trauma patient of the evening was a teenage girl with a dozen knife wounds in her back. Her lungs had been punctured, and she blew little pink bubbles with each faint breath. Next came a guy our age whose legs had been broken by an attacker with a hammer. Bones sticking out of his skin reminded me more of a roast chicken than a human being. Sometime after midnight, we noticed the doctors scrambling to meet a gurney at the door. They hadn’t done this before. We asked what was coming.
“Gunshot to the head.”
The man on the stretcher looked as if he was made of wax. Powder burns surrounded the entry wound — a point-blank shot. It was small caliber, maybe a .22, and there was no exit wound. The bullet had just bounced around inside his skull, turning brain to mush. This was the first dead man I had ever seen, and it was, as Dr. Death had promised, a shock.
We left the following Monday on a major field exercise. I was sitting on my pack at the edge of the landing zone, waiting for a helicopter, when Captain Novack appeared, calling my name and three others. We scrambled over to him, and he led us into the trees, out of sight and hearing of the rest of the class.
“Gents, when you get back over there, tell the class I had to counsel you for failing the last written test.”
I must have looked surprised.
“You didn’t really. I have a secret task for each of you. Your squads will be operating independently out there this week. Starting tomorrow, each of you will become progressively more withdrawn. You’ll be uninvolved, uninterested, and, eventually, uncooperative. The missions culminate on Thursday with a night attack. Confusing as hell. By then, you have to be in full revolt.”
A lieutenant asked Novack why we would be doing this.
“Feigning psychiatric casualties. Giving your buddies a taste of the chaos of not being able to trust one of their own. They’ll think you’re an asshole, but we’ll debrief it Friday afternoon with Dr. Death, and they’ll understand you were playing a role.” He glanced up at the approaching helicopters. “Here come the birds.”
I sat near the door, enjoying the cool slipstream and dreading our plunge back into the steamy woods. Our acting squad leader, VJ George, gave the two-minute warning, and I clicked a magazine into my M-16.
I had first met VJ on the pull-up bars outside Graves Hall during TBS. He had been shirtless, cranking his arms like hydraulic pistons. A lieutenant next to me had turned and whispered, “That guy’s the best athlete in Alpha Company.” Big praise in the Corps. VJ was an unlikely Marine. His parents, Indian immigrants, wanted him to go to med school, and his brother was a Silicon Valley programmer. His main interests were classical music and libertarian economics. VJ had gone to the Naval Academy, where he competed as a powerlifter and developed a distaste for military customs such as short hair and addressing people by rank. After IOC, we were going to the same infantry battalion in California and planned to be roommates.
VJ led us off the landing zone and through our first two days of patrolling. I tried to distance myself slowly from the work of the squad — carrying less of our common load of radio batteries, ammunition, and water; participating only halfheartedly in digging our defensive positions when we stopped; and abstaining from conversations and decision making. On Wednesday, just before sunset, we halted on a hillside above a gravel road. It was a bad position, visible from the road and at the mercy of a commanding ridgeline above. A voice was screaming inside me to move higher on the hill, to get into a defensive position where we would be less visible and more able to control the ground around us.
“So, Nate, I’m planning to stop here for a few hours. What do you think?” VJ crouched next to me, eyes lost beneath the brim of a floppy bush hat.
“Man, I’m asking your opinion.”
He was testing me. The position sucked. He knew it. I knew it. He knew I knew it.
“Whatever. Your call.”
VJ swore under his breath and moved back to the rest of the squad, leaving me sitting alone next to a fallen tree. I could hear them speaking together in low voices. About me. About what an asshole I was. Unreliable. Self-centered. Dead weight. VJ moved the squad to a better position, and I followed silently.
By dawn on the day of the final attack, the distance between me and the rest of the squad had become personal. I could tell they were questioning how they could have misjudged me, concerned that we had orders to the same battalion in the Fleet. The squad took a security halt, dropping quietly to the ground for fifteen minutes to make sure we weren’t being followed, and I refused to go any farther. The other Marines stood to keep moving, but I stayed on my stomach.
“Yo, Nate.” A scuffed boot kicked me gently in the hip.
I looked up but didn’t respond.
“C’mon, man. We’re moving.”
I kept quiet. VJ walked back to me, half-stooped under his heavy pack.
“What the fuck, Nate? Are you sick?” I shook my head. “Then why are you being a bitch? I thought you were a fucking Marine, a fucking infantry officer.”
I no longer cared about Captain Novack or the training. VJ plucked my strings, appealing to my duty and my pride. I couldn’t let my friends down, couldn’t be seen as the weak link, even knowing it would all be cleared up on Friday afternoon. My will collapsed.
“It’s an act. Dr. Death set me up to be a psychiatric casualty. I was supposed to be withdrawn, give you guys a chance to deal with someone losing his shit. I can’t take it anymore.”
They looked as if they didn’t believe me.
“Goddamn it. I’m telling the truth. Give me some of the extra batteries and water. We’ve got a long way to go still.” I opened my pack to fill it with gear. “And VJ, that position yesterday fucking sucked.”
VJ’s smile glowed white from his dirty, black-painted face. “Good to have you back, man.”
But I was less enthusiastic. The more I thought about it, the more unhappy I was with what I’d done. Captain Novack had given me an order. I understood it, acknowledged it, and disobeyed it. In doing so, I chose my short-term emotional comfort over the long-term benefit to my buddies of dealing with a psychiatric casualty in training. We never talked about it again and slid through the debrief with everyone implicitly knowing what not to say. But it gnawed at me. After a full year at Quantico, impulse could still overcome training.
We graduated from IOC on a Friday morning in September. My father came down to Quantico for the ceremonial breakfast, and I was proud to have him sitting there next to me. Camouflage poncho liners covered the tables. We ate steak and eggs, the traditional preinvasion breakfast. In slow succession, each of our twenty-eight men shook Captain Novack’s hand, received his diploma conferring the coveted 0302 MOS — Infantry Officer — and faced the room to deliver a martial quote.
I chose the creed of the Spartan infantry: “When you return from battle, you will either bear your shield or be borne upon it.”
VJ picked a line from former Navy secretary and Marine infantry officer James Webb: “I wouldn’t cross the street to watch Jane Fonda slit her wrists.”
After coffee, Captain Novack rose. He congratulated the class on completing one of the most challenging small-unit leadership courses in the world and passed on some last-minute advice. “Your Marines will expect four things from you: competence, courage, consistency, and compassion.” Taking a notebook from his pocket, he flipped open its spiral-bound cover. “Historically, about four of you will one day be colonels, and point-five will be a general.”
Novack paused, looking to the empty place setting at the head table. Every Marine dining hall keeps an empty place in honor of Marines missing in action. “One of you will die in the line of duty.
“No more blank ammunition, gentlemen,” he continued. “From now on, when this country dials 911, it’s calling you.”