Monday, September 03, 2007

Conversation with a "dinosaur"

I had an extended conversation the other day with a retired marine, a grizzled old fellow ten years my senior. We see each other occasionally, maybe twice a week, but we aren’t really friends. Actually, I don’t think I COULD be friends with him. His attitude, although fascinating to me, is also very disturbing. I’d forgotten people like him exist.

Usually, we just speak of mundane and comfortable things, like veteran’s benefits or recent dealings with Social Security. We started out that way, but then we got into other slightly more sinister subjects.

Like most marines he’s been married multiple times; lets just say more than five, actually, many more. I asked him about his kids. He hasn’t kept in touch with any of them. He claims its been 20 years since he spoke to his daughter and even longer to his two other children.

“What about grandkids? Do you have any?”

“I have no idea.” He said.

“How can that be? Don’t you want to know?”

“I don’t think about it. They all know where I am. If they want to talk to me, it’s up to them.”

In disbelief I shook my head and commented, “I can’t imagine at least not trying to reach out every so often. I try to send an email to my 26-year-old boy at least once a month. I tell him I’m thinking about him. Even if he doesn’t answer he still knows I love him. ... And I’m going to go visit my two grown girls and my grandson later this month in Texas.”

He shrugged. “MY boy probably hates me, if he even still thinks of me. I treated him like I did all my marines and I was a hardass as a boss. You know, I haven’t been in touch with ANY of my relatives for a long time, over ten years. The only family I have now is the wife I’m married to now.”

Like a lot of older gentlemen over here, his wife is considerably younger than he is. I think she’s 35 years younger.

I smirked. “You ever going to take her to the US?” I asked him, already knowing the answer.

“Hell no!”

“You’re smart,” I said. “She’s a cutey. Some young guy would try to take her away in a heartbeat. You can’t be with her ALL the time, and those young studs would just be lurking for the chance to swoop in.”

I continued my tirade, “And no matter how much the little ladies declare their love for you over here, THAT all changes when some young buck starts to tell ‘em lies over THERE.”

“Yup,” he said matter of factly, “American guys have absolutely no respect for another man’s wife. I’d be crazy to take her back there…

He continued…

...Besides, I spent nearly my entire career over here in the Pacific, and after a while, over here became more home than back there. I really don’t have any reason to go back; not since my mom passed away.”

Nodding, I agreed, “Yeah, I know what you mean. It’s like we don’t have anything in common with civilians back home. It seems like they don’t know what we know, because they haven’t been anywhere or done anything that matters. They are weak willed and just don’t get it. Sometimes I watch the news and just feel sick with disgust.”

His turn to nod, “Yup. We don’t fit in back there. That’s all there is to it.”

Our conversation bounced from one disparate subject to another. As I said, the guy fascinates yet repulses me. His hard heart and innate meanness intrigues me. It brought back memories of other guys I used to know like him all those decades ago when I too was a marine. Believe me, Air Force people and marines are two totally different creatures and whenever I talk to this guy I am reminded of that. He has several purple hearts from combat action during at least two tours in Vietnam and he served in several skirmishes and wars all the way through Desert Storm, more than 24 years in all.

The disgraced senator from Idaho, Larry Craig, came up and we joked about the weak explanations he gave for his encounter with the vice cop in the public toilet stall. My former marine friend explained to me with apparent inside knowledge that when a man bumps another’s foot that he’s letting on that he wants to be the one to “give.”

I laughed, “What! How do you know so much about that stuff? What’s up with that?”

He shrugged without a hint of embarrassment, “I’ve got law enforcement experience after my time in the Corps. We learned all the “tricks” sickos use to troll for public sex. That’s how you catch them. That senator is as guilty as sin.”

I joked, “I guess Craig is a true believer in that old saying, eh? The one that goes it’s better to GIVE than to RECEIVE!”

Some how we started talking again about what a hardass he was as a boss in the Marine Corps. He came up with an example of just how hard his ass truly was,

“…It was legal to wear them but I NEVER let any of my marines wear those sissy ass high gloss patent leather low quarters. They either wore spit shine shoes or they took a lot of shit from me until they did wear them.”

After I graduated bootcamp I used to wear those pansy ass patent leather dress shoes and I told him so, trying to goad him a little…

“You ARE right man. I would have hated having you as a boss. I bought my first pair of Bates Corfram dress shoes as soon as I could. Spit shined shoes look like crap after you try to walk around in them. Besides, I volunteered to be in a color guard when I was stationed at Alameda and we ALL wore the high gloss shoes with our dress blues because they LOOK so good. Damn man, you WERE a hard ass weren’t you? Sure glad you weren’t MY boss!”

“Maybe so, but that was my policy.” He harrumphed.

The last of our longer than usual exchange took place in the parking lot. He stood at the door of his car while I took the rain cover off my scoot. We started talking about Iraq and that’s when he REALLY started to make me feel uneasy.

His eyes became as lifeless as a shark’s as he started to talk,

“I spent a lot of time in that f***ing place and as far as I’m concerned I hate all those bastards. I say kill them all and let God sort ‘em out.”

I watched his face for any clue that he might be half kidding, but no, he was deadly serious. And he went on in the same tone.

“I don’t blame those young marines one bit for killing everyone they see. Sometimes you can only take so much. You take explosions from inside a village; you blow everyone away in the damn village. F**k ‘em all! You lose buddies and all you can think about is getting payback”

That’s the moment I began to see signs of unwarranted anger and I realized his PTSD was kicking in. I’ve seen it dozens of times from other combat vets. Still, I tried to reason with him.

“Dude. You can’t fight an insurgency that way. If we actually do what you’re talking about we lose before we start. You’re not serious right?”

Oh, but he was.

‘Damn,’ I thought, ‘I’m glad this guy is out now. I wonder how many more of these obsolete old dinosaurs still think this way on active duty? Man, I hope not many!’

I tried to deflect his seething anger in another direction.

“You were in-theater for the 1st Gulf War. I still say that Powell and Bush the 1st ended that one about a month too soon. Nothing of this bullshit insurgency would be happening now if ONLY we’d taken Baghdad back then…”

He didn’t let me finish. Looking up he shook his head and interrupted me,

“No, that wasn’t it. The war ended when it did because we had no more ammo to expend. It was ALL used up. We scraped the bottom of the barrel as it was. We had to stop shooting because there was nothing left to shoot.”

He’d mentioned this bit of inside knowledge to me before, but it still evoked a strong reaction nonetheless…

“Oh my God! That just seems so impossible for the mightiest military in history,” I nearly exploded. “We had five freaking months to get the factories churning out bombs and shells, and get the supply pipeline going, so how the hell did we run out?”

“I know, but I’m telling you we had virtually nothing left. We shot our entire load.”

I jammed my hands into my hips and kicked at a pebble in disgust at the thought of it. He continued…

“You know, twice we had the tactical nukes on deck prepped and ready to fire. We all knew if the Iraqi’s used chemicals on us that we had the go ahead to use tactical nukes on them. We were fired up! The whole crew knew we were just waiting for the word. We were PSYCHED! Then we got word that it looked like the Iraqis HAD used chem on us and we were ready to retaliate. But then, goddamn it, the captain came out and gave us the thumbs down sign and told us to put ‘em away. It really pissed us off.”

He’d told me that story before, but I hadn’t noticed so much animation from him the first time he told of the prospect of actually using nuclear weapons for the first time in war since 1945.

Holding his hands a couple feet apart to show the size of a tac-nuke he exclaimed, “Hell yeah! One of those little babies will take out a square mile.”

I grinned awkwardly, and suddenly unaccountably felt embarrassed. I was having a hard time believing a person, much less a group of them, could really be so filled with anticipation at the thought of using nuclear weapons. At that moment an article popped into my mind that my brother had forwarded to me by Robert Kaplan called “Rereading Vietnam.” At the end of the article Kaplan writes:

"…The Iraqis and my own men saw how broken the system was, and some felt it was easier just to kill these guys the moment we apprehended them. After all, it would have saved lives. But," he continued, "I told them, 'oh no. Here is where I have to draw the line.' It was important to have an officer in charge who had studied ethics." The enlisted chief petty officers of his SEAL team—reminiscent of some of Larteguy's centurions for all intents and purposes—were the finest men he had ever commanded. But they required supervision.

A frustrated warrior class, always kept in check by liberal-minded officers, is the sign of a healthy democracy."

Until talking to this crusty old retired warrior the other day I thought Kaplan's comment about needing "liberal-minded officers" to keep frustrated warriors in check was so much baloney. After all, I thought, in this modern “enlightened” age I didn’t think soulless men still served who could possibly think it a good idea to wipe out entire villages for “revenge,” or that the idea of using tactical nukes could be exciting. I HOPE people like that are not the rule!

I suppose I’ve changed my mind. Now I say thank goodness Kaplan's liberal-minded fellows exist, for without them we are no better than the beastly people we seek to defeat. We DO need to come up with a better phrase to describe them though; one that doesn't include the word "liberal." Sheeeesh!

6 comments:

Katana said...

dinosaur or neanderthal?

PhilippinesPhil said...

Kat! You're doing it again. Try to watch that judgmental stuff. Even a research psychologist is supposed to keep a sense of impartiality.

By keeping some personal detachment you can maintain a clear mind while making your observations.

This guy is a product of his experiences, and I happen to know some of them were pretty horrible.

Still, he IS pretty caveman... grin...

Katana said...

Merely pointing out that Dinosaurs are animals. Neanderthals are older forms of human that lived incredibly violent lives.

It's not like I called him a yetti or anything! yeesh!

PhilippinesPhil said...

Okay Kat, you win.

Ed Abbey said...

Interesting commentary. When I meet someone talking like that, I usually clam up and just do the listening.

PhilippinesPhil said...

No offense Ed, but someone like him wouldn't tend to open up to someone like you. I was never in combat but I have other "qualifications" that causes folks like this to tell me "things." It's a blessing and a curse, but I wouldn't have it any other way.