Over the holidays I received a copy of Fives and Twenty-Fives, Michael Pitre's novel about a U.S. Marines road repair unit in Iraq. Secondary to its task of filling potholes, the platoon must first detect and disable improvised explosive devices, or IEDs–that and not get ambushed at any point during the nerve-racking process. I read the book in three sittings. It’s outstanding in every way: compelling, memorable, ambitious in its narrative approach, and written in fine, refreshingly competent prose. More than anything, the book exudes authenticity. Pitre’s mastery of his material shines through, his confidence a function of experience: he joined the Marines in 2002, served two tours in Iraq, and left the Corps in 2010 as a captain.
Reading the growing sub-genre of literature from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars is only my latest cause to thank the stars that I walked away from the military. Just that once, I read the writing on the wall and acted accordingly, leaving the Army in 1993 after my first tour. While I had a strong sense that I was doing the right thing, my decision turned out to be more prescient and fortunate than I could have possibly imagined. Since March, 2003, when President George W. Bush launched an invasion of Iraq in violation of the U.N. Charter’s prohibition on preemptive war and thus in violation of the United States Constitution, my decision has been constantly reaffirmed.
My time in the Army began auspiciously. I was assigned to the 5th Battalion, 14th Infantry Regiment in the 1st Brigade of the 25th Infantry Division at Schofield Barracks, Hawaii. My battalion commander was Lieutenant Colonel James Dubik. Soldiers of a certain generation, especially infantrymen, will immediately recognize his name. Prior to arriving at my battalion in early 1990, while I completed the 16-week Infantry Officer Basic Course at Ft. Benning, Georgia, many of my fellow lieutenants expressed their envy not only at my balmy duty station but with my future commander.
Colonel Dubik’s reputation as a tactician, student of history, and a “soldier’s soldier” who engendered ardent loyalty had spread throughout the Infantry branch. I’d read Plutarch’s Parallel Lives in college and he reminded me of Hannibal: you don’t get native North African soldiers to cross the Alps unless you inspire unwavering esprit de corps. He did.
In my first week on-island, for example, we conducted a 12-mile road march in full kit. Colonel Dubik led the battalion. Occasionally, he’d drop back to give random soldiers an "attaboy", a little dose of pep straight from the top. Then he’d double-time his way up to the front. The rank and file humped twelve miles; our commander probably covered fourteen with all the backtracking. Hannibal didn’t ride a horse or camel, he walked alongside his men–he led them yet was one of them. And there was Dubik, on the ground and seemingly everywhere: exactly where he ought to be. (He later returned to Schofield Barracks as commanding general of the 25th Infantry Division and finished his career as commander of I Corps at Fort Lewis, Washington. Since retiring, he doesn’t work for a leveraged buyout firm or a hedge fund nor does he charge $100k per lecture; as a Senior Fellow at the Institute for the Study of War, Dubik remains dedicated to putting his insights and wisdom in the service of his profession and his country.)
The proudest moment of my military career was when LTC Dubik pinned the Expert Infantryman’s Badge on my chest and then asked me to assist him in presenting the awards to the handful of other soldiers in our battalion who had earned the decoration.
The protagonist of Pitre’s Fives and Twenty-Fives, Lieutenant Donovan, confronts both small, day-to-day absurdities and the big questions looming in the background. After his best NCO, Gunny Sergeant Stout, is killed by an IED, his commander, Major Leighton, delivers a callous speech at the memorial service, saying in effect “soldiers get killed, so get your heads back in the game.”
But LT Donovan’s confrontation with Mr. Moss, a “twentysomething kid” from the State Department, captures the war’s bigger problems and goes down like a scene out of Apocalypse Now. Initially, the platoon must meet up with “the brass buttons” (as the Blackwater-esque contractors call their client), proceed to a pit in the desert where 50-gallon barrels containing hazardous chemicals have been discovered, and load the barrels onto Iraqi trucks. But the barrels turn out to be sitting at the bottom of an empty pool in a once-swank suburb–a very different security situation–and they’re leaking noxious fumes. LT Donovan and one of his men fall to their knees in a paroxysm of coughing, crying, and raised blisters erupting on their exposed skin. When LT Donovan scraps the mission, a different firefight ensues:
We followed him back to the Suburban. He [Mr. Moss] opened the door, and again cold air spilled out, this time pooling around my boots, thick as slush.
Again, Mr. Moss made no move to get out. “So, how long you think this will take?” He looked at his binder, then his watch.
“Mr. Moss, this is not the situation we were briefed to expect. We are not equipped for this.”
He put on his sunglasses. “Well, that’s disappointing.”
“Listen. My Marines will not go into that pool, even with chemical suits and masks. Those are not sealed drums. We cannot properly decontaminate in these conditions.”
Mr. Moss laughed. “Well then, that’s more than disappointing. It means you’ve wasted my time. And you’ve endangered our lives by making us travel these highways. There will be a conversation with the colonel about this.”
“Do what you have to, kid.”
“Ill have to mention you by name. Lieutenant . . . what is it now?”
“Go fuck yourself.” A surprising rage grew inside me. I worked to put it away.
Mr. Moss closed his binder. “Okay, Lieutenant Go-Fuck-Yourself. Why do you think I agreed to come out here? Why do you think the Provincial Reconstruction Office took an interest?
“Honestly, I don’t care.”
“Because this is an opportunity to win the war, just a little. To show the Iraqis that we are here to help. To show them what Americans are all about. Hard work.” He pointed to the Iraqi trucks and the men squatting impatiently in the dirt by the tailgates. “These gentlemen will be offended. Worse, our Iraqi friends will be insulted that they’re not getting these recovered barrels today, as promised.”[*]
It’s Iraq in a microcosm: botched intelligence and nefarious deals in support of corrupt allies (LT Donovan’s interpreter discreetly tells him that the Iraqis on the trucks are bad news, implying that they’ll use the chemicals against American forces or put them in the hands of others who will–all at a tidy profit, of course.)
In an earlier mission involving State Department personnel, LT Donovan’s platoon escorts another hyper-air-conditioned black Chevy Suburban with a million dollars in a suitcase, a bribe to sheikhs west of Ramadi. En route, the Suburban trips an IED and is blown apart; the contractors in their armored compartment up front are fine but the vehicle’s detached back half goes up in a fireball. It’s a case of money to burn–yours and mine, of course.
As it was for Lieutenant Donovan, so too for Lieutenant Walsh, a corrosive brew of small things and one big thing. Two events happened in close succession that completely changed my mind about the Army: a battalion change of command and Operation Desert Storm, now known as the First Gulf War. The former was a temporary condition, disillusioning to be sure but a part of working in any large organization. The latter event, however, undermined essential principles, the fundamental assumptions of my reasons to serve as an officer.
In LTC Dubik we beheld a paragon of martial virtues, a thinking-man’s commander with a Master’s degree in philosophy from Johns Hopkins University. His successor was a good old boy with an undergraduate degree in Phys. Ed. Where Dubik spoke in original sentences of clear, precise English, his successor cobbled together clichés and Army jargon and acronyms.
My first field exercise with my unit, as leader of Bravo Company’s 2nd platoon, was company external evaluations, or EXEVALS. Officers and NCOs from another rifle battalion shadowed our unit, grading us over a week of full-dress operations–reconnaissance, defense, and assault missions. The final exercise was a pre-dawn company assault on a platoon-sized unit dug in atop a steep hill with my platoon as the assault or maneuver element. Our job was to low-crawl up the hill, get inside the trench system, and clear out the enemy. At one-point, with my men arrayed in parallel on either side of me, I felt a soldier at my boot heels. In extremely curt language, I told the faceless form behind me to get up alongside me and join the fight. From out of the near-total darkness, a polite voice informed me that it was Colonel Dubik, that I should pay no attention to him and just carry on.
There he was again, the battalion commander precisely where he ought to be, on his belly right behind his newest lieutenant.
A year later, on a rainy field exercise in the Kahukus training range on Oahu’s north shore, our new battalion commander pulled up in his Humvee as his unit neared the finish of a long road march. Two of his company commanders respectfully razzed the new chief for staying dry in his Humvee, to which the battalion CO bluntly replied, “I don’t need to be marching with you guys, I’ve earned my ride.” Such a situation, let alone the lame retort, would’ve been inconceivable with our previous commander.
It was an incredibly unlucky contrast: I’d been spoiled with LTC Dubik and now I was getting a taste of a consummate careerist officer. Our battalion’s focus shifted from training for combat to supporting other battalions in their training. One deployment after another disappeared as we took on jobs on post that somehow proved we were “team players” (always the cliché.) Morale plummeted. More dangerously, the battalion’s ability to fight began to atrophy. Here’s what makes the careerist infantry officer more reprehensible than his likeminded peers in other branches: he festoons his résumé at the risk of his own soldiers’ lives.
Then, in January 1991, I was sent with two other officers to the Joint Readiness Training Center at Ft. Chaffee, Arkansas. The base functioned as a tactical testing installation for infantry units; battalions arrived, fought a week against a light-infantry/guerrilla enemy, and then fought another week against an opponent with jeeps and light armored vehicles, all the while being evaluated on every aspect of their performance. My fellow lieutenants and I were temporary members of the opposition force, or OPFOR, the soldiers permanently assigned to Ft. Chaffee whose job it was to mimic the Army’s future enemies.
The unit being put through its paces was a battalion of the 82nd Airborne Division. Midway through their evaluation, Operation Desert Shield in faraway Kuwait escalated into Desert Storm. The exercise was canceled. Within 72 hours, that 82nd Airborne battalion, part of America’s Rapid Deployment Force, was whisked back to Ft. Bragg and then overseas, where it was tested for real in Iraq.
I look back and realize that I witnessed one of the opening acts of a tragedy, like those giddy scenes at railway stations across France and Germany in 1914 which Barbara Tuchman memorably portrays in The Guns of August. I see those paratroopers disappear in the night, absorbed into a conflict that, when combined with the second, much longer Iraq war, constitutes an ongoing epoch: from 1991 to the present, America has been ensnared in a web of its own making, a needless bloodletting of American soldiers and national wealth, a folly of such tragic proportion that it recalls the doomed Athenian expedition to Sicily during the Peloponnesian War.
At the time, I had a sense that the war could get ugly in the short-term. The unrelenting CNN coverage highlighted Iraq’s formidable military, at least on paper. The history major in me winced at the irony of the situation: much of Iraq’s capabilities originated from the United States.
But when the news showed reactions at home it was collective amnesia and knee-jerk jingoism. Everyone had forgotten the nearly eight-year-long Iran-Iraq war, in which America had backed Iraq and its president, a man named Saddam Hussein. We had poured billions of dollars worth of funds and materiel into Iraq to assist their war against our enemy, Iran. Recent history had been forgotten; ancient history–that Saddam Hussein had been on American payroll since 1959 when he was involved in the attempted assassination of then-Iraqi leader General Abdul Karim Qassim–may as well have vanished with the Library of Alexandria.
In his speech of January 16th, 1991, President George H. W. Bush described petroleum-rich Kuwait as Iraq’s “small and helpless neighbor.” The word “oil” was never mentioned. The golden aura of that oath “to protect and defend the Constitution” gave way to the grim reality of looking after America’s oil interests. Suddenly I realized that me and my platoon could be sent across the globe to risk our lives to defend an elite coterie’s shares of the ExxonMobil Corporation.
It was time to quit while I was ahead.
In his Oval Office address to the nation on the evening of March 20, 2003, President Bush said: “On my orders, coalition forces have begun striking selected targets of military importance to undermine Saddam Hussein’s ability to wage war.”
To undermine Saddam Hussein’s ability to wage war–he stated at the onset that the war was a preemptive one. Later, America would learn that the justification of this illegal war–intelligence indicating the presence of so-called weapons of mass destruction–was a mirage, perhaps even a deliberate fabrication.
Meanwhile, with each tragic turn of the war and an ever-mounting list of utterly needless American casualties, opportunistic officers nevertheless found ways to groom their careers (and post-military careers), military contractors–most infamously Haliburton and the paramilitary security company Blackwater–found ways to make obscene profits, and the public blithely slapped “Support Our Troops” stickers on their bumpers and went on their way.
Juxtaposing the present-day lives of its characters with their experiences in Iraq, Fives and Twenty-Fives does an excellent job of addressing the uncomfortable, positively dangerous disconnect between the American public and its military, “The Other One Percent,” as our Armed Forces are now called. In his must-read article in The Atlantic, “The Tragedy of the American Military,” James Fallows points out how nearly 10% of the total American population was on active duty at the end of World War II. He’s not arguing for the draft. Like many others, Fallows makes the case that because our all-volunteer military has become “exotic territory to the American public,” the public’s relationship to it has changed:
Through the decade after World War II, when so many American families had at least one member in uniform, political and journalistic references were admiring but not awestruck. Most Americans were familiar enough with the military to respect it while being sharply aware of its shortcomings, as they were with the school system, their religion, and other important and fallible institutions.
Fallows goes on to marshal some astonishing figures:
As a country, America has been at war nonstop for the past 13 years. As a public, it has not. A total of about 2.5 million Americans, roughly three-quarters of 1 percent, served in Iraq or Afghanistan at any point in the post-9/11 years, many of them more than once.
Consequently, all our soldiers are dubbed “heroes” (something with which they are universally uncomfortable) and the military as an institution stands seemingly above reproach. And yet, recent polls show that 60% of Americans feel that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were not worth the human or fiscal price. More tellingly, a 2012 Pew poll found that only a third of those who served in Afghanistan or Iraq thought the wars were worth it.
I was back in Hawaii recently and saw a young man wearing a T-shirt with a crimson taro leaf and gold lightning bolt insignia and “Tropic Lightning”, the nickname of the 25th Infantry Division, in bold letters above it. Aside from his shirt and his age, his telltale haircut marked him as a soldier. As he stood looking out at the brilliant azure of the Pacific, I noticed that his right arm was gone from the elbow down. More visceral than reading any book, I saw the cost of war, trying to imagine what this young man was going through, what he told himself about his sacrifice. Did he think the war was worth it?
To realize he had his arm blown off for absolutely nothing while the men responsible play golf and collect dividends triggered a mix of anger and sadness that made my fists clench and my eyes water. Had it been me I don’t know what I would do. It was one more reason to thank my stars that I read the writing on the wall.
*Fives and Twenty-Fives, Michael Pitre, Bloomsbury USA, New York, 2014. http://www.bloomsbury.com/us/fives-and-twenty-fives-9781620407547/
“The Tragedy of the American Military,” James Fallows, The Atlantic, January/February 2015.