My first and only war tour took place in in 2010. I was a US Marine lieutenant then, a signals intelligence officer tasked with leading a platoon-size element of 80 to 90 men, spread across an area of operations the size of my home state of Connecticut, in the interception and exploitation of enemy communications. That was the official job description, anyway. The year-long reality consisted of a tangle of rearguard management and frontline supervision.
Years before Helmand province, Afghanistan, however, there was Twentynine Palms, California. From the summer of 2006 to the summer of 2007, I was trained as a lance corporal in my military occupational specialty of tactical data systems administration (a specialty I would later jettison after earning my officer commission in 2008). My schoolhouse was the Marine Corps Communication-Electronics School, which was abbreviated as MCCES, pronounced “mick-sess”. For many, the wider location became “Twentynine Stumps” or “the Stumps”. But for me it just became “the Palms”.
Our time at the Palms was preceded by three weeks of marine combat training at Camp Geiger, North Carolina, and, before that, 12 weeks of Marine basic training at Parris Island, South Carolina. The progression from Parris Island to Geiger to the Palms signalled, on the face of it, a slow return from barbaric intrigue to the tedium of civilisation. Boot camp was everything you might have gathered from films you’ve seen. There were the recruits on the deck, scrubbing away with their scuzz brushes, like confused termites labouring about impenetrable wood. There were the recruits being called up to the quarterdeck, push-upping or crunching to untold woofs from the mad hats. There were the orders for recruits to hit recruits. There was the rifle drill position that was called the “fag wrist” and the bayonet training that sounded off with “Kill kill kill haji!” (The last bayonet charge occurred during the Korean war.) There was the platoon sergeant who would abruptly emerge in the squad bay frothing, unhinged, and maybe drunk, flipping over everything within spitting distance, propelling recruits to vault off their racks before the whirlwind struck, all while he ranted about every person who had ever wronged him.
So not long after my boot-camp graduation, there was also something appropriate about watching junior enlisted men assemble at a weapons expo to get the autograph of the actor of Full Metal Jacket fame. He looked frail and friendly, not at all the drill instructor for whom he had become known. Apart from the obvious irony of active-duty personnel fetishising Stanley Kubrick’s anti-war film – at a weapons expo, no less – the way the Marines lined up for his signature, like excited schoolboys amid the merchandise, struck me as at odds with the myth of the solemn war-fighter set apart from the puerile hustle of American life. I hadn’t abased myself, on my knees, scrubbing toilets at the level and in constant sight of my drill instructor’s crotch just to join a club. That would have been, in the words of Ermey’s Gunnery Sergeant Hartman, “Mickey Mouse shit”.
If boot camp had given me a keen awareness of my country’s violence and the overcompensating sentiment that went with it, my experience in school at Twentynine Palms took longer to register. For a while, all I retained was unrelated impressions: a sulphuric stench that would come with the rain, something of which, years later, I would get a second whiff during the wet sand season in Afghanistan, or the sight of meth-heads and tweakers (that’s what we called them) on the public bus I’d take to Walmart where I’d buy items like cheap portable irons or rechargeable Bluetooth headphones. They were alive with death, and their deathliness had an aggression to it, one that burned with a spirited rage.
When I think back to their torn visages and beady eyes, I can’t help but wonder how much of my paranoid apprehension of the locals was shaped by private insecurities. Professional-class rearing fused with entry-level military training had made me a nervous wreck. Whether I was outside the gate in the Mojave desert surrounded by what I imagined to be menacing junkies, or outside the wire in Helmand surrounded by what I knew to be poppy farmers, my head was on a swivel, and the countenances of outsiders all took on the same cast. Writing this now, I’m embarrassed by the comparison. There is something ludicrous about relating foot patrols in a combat zone to Bluetooth shopping a few miles beyond a stateside base. But there was a way in which I had been conditioned, before and during my military years, to be suspicious of the outside, wherever that outside might be.
When I returned to the Palms for pre-deployment training in 2009, this time as an officer, I was briefed on how best to avoid killing “scrappers” during live-fire exercises. These most dauntless of addicts, along with equally desperate immigrants, would trespass on small arms, artillery and missile impact areas to scrounge for shell casings and other scrap metal they hoped to cash in at recycling centres or hawk on the black market. During the summer, some would expire from thirst. During the winter, some of their already frail bodies would freeze to death. Some would self-detonate with what they had found. Some were chased down, cuffed, and sent to prison, sometimes for years. Some were deported.
I didn’t think much of any of this at the time, during either my hurried excursion in 2009 or my extended stay in 2006 and 2007. This was how it was, this is how it had been for a while. Other people around me thought of the region’s lumpenproletariat as lazy and undisciplined, the sort that warranted whatever came their way. In a word made popular during basic training in South Carolina, they were nasty. That they had managed to find themselves in such a grotesquely helpless state made them all the nastier. I’d like to think the cause of my indifference lay elsewhere. In retrospect, I wasn’t so much contemptuous as I was afraid, afraid of what their bare existence said about me and my place in the world. The thought that I had been living at the expense of others had crossed my mind more than once, but to see that cost in the flesh was too much to bear, and so I didn’t think about it.
Occasionally I’d hear stories about Marines who were assaulted by resentful townies or desperate transients. The “town”, as a unified organism, was presented as hostile. I recall the station or unit commands issuing warnings and advisories of their own. Avoid X, Y, or Z bar. Do your Q, R, or S activities on base. W area is off-limits during T hours. Perhaps the superciliousness of some of my peers was related to this underlying fear. We were all eager to prove our toughness, yet anxious about having had it easier than the people we saw ourselves being superior to in strength, courage and integrity. That is to say, we were soft, and those we considered losers were hard.
At one level, our lack of interest in these people’s plight was to be expected. We didn’t sign up to help the stray or downtrodden. But according to the agitprop or many of our own self-rationalisations, this was precisely what we had volunteered for: we were supposed to be nation builders, culturally sensitive agents of humanitarian intervention, winners of hearts and minds. That we were nothing of the sort, even in relation to our compatriots, did not bode well.
Meanwhile, Marines were being discharged dishonourably or on bad conduct. New arrivals each week contained a trickle of female Marines, who promptly became the quarry of at least half the battalion, and their faces tended to undergo a jaded metamorphosis as the weeks progressed. In short, we (and by “we” I mostly mean the men) were acting like a privileged caste. Surrounded by a desert of suffering, we nourished our emotional lives by inflicting suffering on those we cherished or said we cherished. If we weren’t the ones doing the direct inflicting, we at least took our entertainment from the spectacle of other people’s affliction.
Pain is weakness leaving the body. Most had internalised this boot-camp mantra, and all had endured some form of arduous labour, torment or sacrifice in the service. The Marines I served with at the Palms hailed from a vast range of backgrounds, although few came from the upper reaches of society. In civilian life, many occupied lower rungs, and many found themselves in similarly oppressive situations on base (especially the women). But in relation to the area addicts and immigrants, we enjoyed our privilege and whatever semblance of narcissistic happiness or gratification it afforded. The political economy of the Palms was treating us better than it was treating them.
Then we went to Afghanistan. On that front, I would prefer not to have to say anything at all. The commodification of America’s wars tends to know no bounds. It also happens to be unavoidable for those of us who have taken part in them. I can’t really speak about my past or my politics without risking encouraging, or benefiting from, America’s cheap yet profitable obsession with war.
What I will say is that the explosions were regular and the combat was minimal. I was more a spectator than a participant. No matter how close I got, I was always at a remove. I never pulled the trigger, not even in the foot patrol that resulted in my Combat Action Ribbon. Everyone on that patrol was awarded the CAR. Rounds were fired by us and at us, and at one point we were forced to sprint and hit the prone behind some shrubbery. But after the initial fire had subsided and we had been ensconced long enough to feel comfortable, we took photographs of one another with someone’s mobile phone, waiting for the air strike that never came. I still have the photograph of me in the prone, which I later posted on Facebook for the likes. It’s still on Facebook with the likes. A peasant walked toward us from the village we had been gunning down, and I was worried he might be strapped. I tried to be a good officer by ensuring that the farmer was forced to lift up his shawl before approaching us any further. The man casually lifted, and I was ashamed the moment he did. He went about his day and we went back to base.
We tried our best to follow in the steps of the men ahead of us, just as we had done on the way out, to minimise the chance of triggering a mine, but we were too thirsty and exhausted at that point to do it right. We were greeted by vehicles and cold bottled water not far beyond the base entrance, and we doused one another as we hopped on the truck beds and let ourselves be escorted back to the headquarter unit’s guarded Shangri-La, where everyone boasted through the evening.
How the heroin trade explains the US-UK failure in Afghanistan
During my most frank interludes in Afghanistan, I’d refer to the grotesque mess as the amusement-park ride. There was little amusement for the inhabitants of the villages we were levelling or the tenders of the opium fields we were burning. There wasn’t much amusement for the Marines being hit the hardest either, although they had a tendency to surprise when it came to their capacity to be amused. But for so many, myself included, the point, or one point anyway, was to be amused. The culture has deemed it OK to note that Marines have fun lighting shit on fire, blowing shit up and dodging death. But when you, and especially as a current or former member of the armed services, move from this basic empirical observation to the question of whether the larger enterprise is just and necessary, you violate a taboo.
The list of questions never asked is almost infinite: what were the mercenaries I kept meeting truly there for? What about those contractors, specifically in the intel world, who foisted a never-ending line of gadgetries on my men to be field-tested and then shipped off to the global marketplace? Why did the gear never work? Why was it so unwieldy? Why did it slow down ops, and why did no one seem to care that it usually had to be escorted by those with the appropriate clearance, which meant putting my guys at risk from point A to point B and back again? Why so much acceptance in the face of ambitious captains who wanted to be majors, ambitious majors who wanted to be lieutenant colonels, ambitious lieutenant colonels who wanted to be full birds, ambitious full birds who wanted to be generals, and ambitious generals who wanted an extra star, all putting other lives on the line to make it happen?
Then one time I watched a group of Marines obliterate the corner of a remote hamlet with the totality of their arsenal, from the M4 carbine to the M249 light machine gun to the M240 machine gun to the MK19 grenade launcher to the AT4 recoilless smooth-bore weapon to the FGM-148 Javelin missile to the BGM-71 TOW missile. They’d lost friends, they were bitter, and they had come to see their surroundings not only as hostile, as was already the case back in Twentynine Palms, but as damnable. They were heading home soon and had some underutilised weapon systems to play with. I took pictures along with everyone else. I told myself there was something I didn’t know that justified the carnage I was consuming.
Then there was the time, while pissing on a small outpost before heading off to the next base on a convoy, that I spotted a detainee crouched in a makeshift wooden box not much larger than his crouch. I found the sight wretched enough to jot it down in a notebook, but nothing more. Or the time I was asked to make sure another detainee sharing a back seat with me in an armoured vehicle wasn’t allowed to pull his shawl above his forearms, for fear he would find a way to remove the zip ties from his wrists. I watched the kid, a teenager really, shiver for 15 minutes – it was wintertime in Helmand, and at an altitude of well over 3,000ft, the temperature was near 0C – before relenting and allowing him to cover up. He looked too much like my Marines.
Fifteen minutes was a long time to discover the humanity of someone sitting a couple feet to my left. Then again, I had spent over 25 years lapping up a political culture that had erased everything that made him human, so maybe it was more startling that it took only 15. That other provisional detainee cage would likely have failed detainee-treatment regulations at a battalion or regimental base. The razing of that community was easier to accept because we were more than a mile from the shells’ impact. So many of the field and general officers at division-level headquarters were able to keep congratulating themselves for a job well done because they relied on secondary or tertiary reports from company officers looking to keep their jobs or advance their careers. And if their superiors ever bothered to visit the front, they did so under curated conditions.
The locals and vagabonds skirting around my schoolhouse in the southern California desert were almost always, for me and my peers, over there. They were the immiserated background, and the only time we allowed them to come to the fore was when we skittishly passed them while going about our mundane chores – either that, or when they became a problem. When they scuffled with a member of our tribe at a bar or on the street out of resentment, or when they slinked through the perimeter of our impact zones in anguished search of some means of subsistence, they were liable to enter our sights. Some at that point were then chased, rounded up, and maybe even put away.
That we never thought it was our responsibility to help them somehow, to serve and protect them, as it were, seems reasonable. It wasn’t our job. However, according to the prognosticators of the postmodern military, working as trustworthy, socially responsible facilitators of a diverse and healthy civil society was exactly our job: had told me so in the Counterinsurgency Field Manual, David Kilcullen told me the same thing in The Accidental Guerrilla, as did David Galula in Counterinsurgency Warfare. And everyone serious agreed with the Davids.
I’ll never forget the exhilaration in a battalion briefing room as forward-deployed Drug Enforcement Administration operatives crowed about their latest opium raid and burning of poppy fields. And it took a while for these memories to hark back to triumphant newspaper headlines or TV news segments of police swoops on Mojave meth labs. The juxtaposition of the Palms and Helmand is not a perfect fit. Discerning the continuities at all is not something that came easily to me. Too many received wisdoms got in the way. I had been trained my entire life not to connect what, in the course of I am now so insistent must connect. The gated perimeters, violent diversions and rent faces in the background are not just over there, in the theatre of war. They have come home, or were part of our home to begin with, exported and imported a thousand times over, across the earth. They are borderless, even ubiquitous.
Looking over my old emails to family and friends from Afghanistan, I am struck by how little distance I’ve travelled in terms of what I understand. I am still inundated by a torrent of ghastly revelations I can neither fully contain nor channel. I still find available mediums of communication offensive to the task of honest speech. I still intuit something emancipatory about this paralysis. I still adore my Marines just as much as I am beset by our shared past. So much of my daily routine I continue to think of as an act of moral quarantine: still stuck in the Afghan muck, I obsess over my bit in the killing and beseech others to join me in the obsession. Most of all, I still understand my misadventure, as I did in my most candid and tortured dispatches, more as a lesson about the meaning of the United States than a lesson about “war”.
I now think of the society I came from and the war to which I went as part of the same grotesque amusement-park ride. If I have discovered anything since my homecoming, it is that my home has lost its peaceful veneer. An American who leaves for war never leaves America. The war is the society and the society is the war, and one who sees that war sees America.
This is what becoming radicalised has meant for me, and it has been jolting. Not long after my discharge in 2011, while I was struggling with severe panic attacks and depression, close friends convinced me to try psychedelics. I found it healing at first, but the last trip landed me in an emergency room. Everyone had become a demon and I was the only human left in their company. From time to time, the psychosis reverberates. I have trouble with elevators and subways, especially when I’m intoxicated, it’s off-hours, and I’m approaching absolute aloneness. I originally attributed the contours of the bad trip to a gnawing sense of guilt. Another telling would have underlined the psychic costs of being shaken into seeing the killing fields behind the facade, even as everyone around you just kept seeing the facade. Such an isolating awakening can trigger, even without the self-reproach, an alienation akin to biblical doom.
I have tried my best to keep the treasured ones close, although I have lost a few along the way, and others have threatened to break with me. These have included fellow veterans. One fought in Israel’s Lebanon war in 2006. The other served as one of my most able linguists in Afghanistan. The latter is a Purple Heart recipient from a subsequent deployment. I’ve had exchanges with each that imply recognition of the porousness of propaganda. The linguist, for example, admits the war in Afghanistan has been a disaster and there is no hopeful path forward. But both, despite their time spent on the edge of the abyss, remain beholden to a colonial logic. For them the US and Israel are flawed but necessary bulwarks against barbarism. For me the empire is rooted in the barbarism it pretends to oppose.
It is exhausting having to declaim the same talking points over and over again: that the majority of the US official adversaries were once clients and allies. That almost every intervention comes with an assessment from the government acknowledging the failure of the mission. That investigative reporters and historians almost always unearth internal documents betraying motives that not only run counter to public rationales but undermine all claims to humanitarian intent. That the US supplies the world with a preponderance of its weapons and fuels a plurality of its animosities. That the US is the only power to have ever dropped the bomb, that it did so twice, and that it did so not to end a world war (a war that was about to end anyway) but to launch what became a half-century-long cold war on superior footing. While not alone as a global malefactor, the US is the world leader in conventional foreign invasions since 1945, with 12; has engineered at least 38 coups or regime changes since the Spanish-American war of 1898; and has offered direct military support and training to dozens of governments with no regard for human rights. The US incarcerates the most people today, both in absolute and relative terms. It has incarcerated the most people for at least 30-odd years, and it either led the world in its incarceration rate or trailed closely behind the Soviet Union and South Africa for the preceding decades. As early as 1976, one study described America’s rate as the “highest in the world and still rising”. By any standard, the US empire ranks among the world’s most formidable producers of violence, and one would be hard-pressed to defend such all-consuming production on liberal democratic grounds.
Unlearning the myth of American innocence
En route to Afghanistan, I read the American political theorist Michael Walzer. Back then, I was still a reluctant believer in the gospel of American righteousness, and when Walzer wrote that the global fight against terrorism was “not backward looking and retributive, but forward looking and preventive”, that was enough to keep me faithful. Walzer had come after a more vulgar procession of neoconservative evangelists like Bill Kristol and Robert Kagan. These were the men who had ushered me to the right as an idealistic high school student, and I became quite the campus missionary when, weeks into my freshman year of college, the two towers fell. I became an opinion columnist and an op-ed editor for the school newspaper, where I penned romantic paeans to the democratising missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. One of my final contributions was a sombre explanation of why I felt obligated to follow in my grandfather’s footsteps and don the uniform. But by the third month of my deployment, even the subtle apologetics of Walzer struck me as dangerously absurd. If only Walzer and others could see what I saw. If only those who saw it with me could really see it.
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