The most common question asked of a service member is, “why did you join?” The most common question asked of a veteran is, “why did you leave? ”The answers vary depending on who’s asking and who’s answering. . . but they don’t vary that much. We all wanted to be a part of something; it ended up not being what we expected. I wanted to be a part of a tribe, a brotherhood of warriors, strong, capable men sharpening each other for the primal purpose of calculated violence against other men.
I signed up for the USMC Infantry in late 2012 ready to join the ranks of the warfighters I grew up reading about in the newspapers left on my family’s kitchen table. I was eager for the trials ahead that would shape me into the archetype of the fighting man. I proceeded to spend the next four years training for fights that would never come. I watched as the people around me, above me, and below me played out military roles like they all had the same script, and I felt the same whirlwind of cynicism, pessimism, and nihilism that plagues the rest of our civilization permeate through the ranks.
It seemed priority was PowerPoints and keeping up appearances of training and motivation, rather than accomplishing the roles and responsibilities of command and leadership. I lost count of how many times my platoon would be sitting around bitching at how much shit we had to do throughout the week, only to wonder what we had actually got done or learned. This wasn’t something that changed with rank or time, but rather amplified when we realized that we had no war coming down the pipe.
The monotony of senior leadership telling us to be ready for the coming war that was right around the corner started to feel like we were being promised an opportunity to burn down the world while our command set us on fire. Marine Corps, thy name is Tantalus. Eventually, I lost sight of what I was there for in the firstplace. I left the military bitter, feeling like I hadn’t accomplished anything other than getting a GI Bill I didn’t care to use. It took me some time, experience, and growing up to realize what my time in had provided me with, and what I was seeking was up to me to manifest into reality.
I had an ITB instructor that kicked off class by asking everyone why they were here—why did they enlist in the Marines. It played out with the usual responses of “serving our nation,” “being a part of the finest fighting force in the world,” or because they wanted to do something different with their lives. After going through all of the answers, the instructor would then lecture that the real reason we were in the military, sitting in that seat, was because we wanted to kill people. Now, this laconic phrase as an answer to the age-old question may be chuckle-inducing to some or even seen as obnoxiously edgy to others, but it does offer a good standard perspective of what draws young bucks into the service. A perspective that may seem obvious to most, as our military carefully manicures its reputation and appearances to convey the image of the disciplined warrior ready for violence.
But what happens once these young men are in uniform and have been through the initial battery of boot camp and school houses? Outside the full commitment of armed conflict, we tend to see the combat mentality break apart from the top down, while the bottom-up try their best to hold it all together. SNCOs try their best to enforce discipline, though most look like they’re going through the motions waiting for their retirement, stoking the Warrior Ethos in their juniors with all the passion and fury of a PCC/PCI checklist. NCO’s try to be the fire-breathers their seniors were, but after command 86’s JP8, ammo, and training spaces, again and again, they too lose sight of the plot. Developing their own check-listed response to stimuli. Oh, the boot fucked up? Better go scream at him. Check the box off. The platoon seems apathetic to training? Time for the NCO’s to have a heart to heart with the boots. Check the box off. Gunny is mad that the platoon did something? Mass punishment, sure. Check the box off. Eventually, they stop caring and count the days down themselves.
Much like the soulless public schools we sprang from, the answers to why we do things returns to “because it’s on the test.” Our desires to be the proverbial badass shifted into the desire for whoever was giving the libo brief to just shut the fuck up and let us go, or tell us that we were about to go do something worth being there in the first place. “Yes, SgtMaj, I know I should not tarnish our branches reputation by getting behind a wheel drunk, BUT CAN I PLEASE GO DIE FOR SOMETHING NOW?”
Experiences may vary, but the Marines in combat units I’m friends with, talked with—or I’ve cast the casual glance at their social media—seem to share the same frustrations as their LARPing brothers in uniform. The ones with combat deployments still felt the constrictions and pessimism of a military not directly focused on war. Sure, scattered units still had deployments to areas in conflict around the world. With the dangers and demands of combat looming in the distance, the Marines of these units had a much sharper sense of purpose and mission focus. That being said, they still generally viewed their military experience entirely as, for lack of a better expression, #GayAF.
I had a friend who, through a chance NJP, ended up walking a different 03 path than me and our mutual buddies. We had run into him in the chow hall one afternoon and he was not long back from a deployment to Afghanistan. After catching up and hearing about his seemingly exciting career doing everything we would sit around wishing we had the chance to do; we conveyed our envy and told him about how shitty our time in was. We felt it amounted to so very little. He shook his head and told us, “It’s not any different. My four years in the Marines all built up to a couple shitty firefights that barely lasted fifteen minutes.” That shattered any notion that an off-chance combat deployment would give us any sense of purpose or fulfillment. That friend ended up killing himself a few years later, his words always stuck with me, and my world view got a shift.
Somewhere out in the ether of the internet, someone is harvesting likes and validation on social media by doing pushups in an amount that wouldn’t be considered a warm-up, on a hungover Monday morning PT session, to honor his memory. Maybe bringing him up in this article is no different, I don’t know. I do know that in a small part thanks to him, I stopped looking for an institution to provide me with what my brethren and I seem to crave so much. Something that got us to sign away chunks of our life on the dotted line to a used car salesman in service Charlies in order to pursue.
It took me some time before I learned that everything I wanted in life wasn’t waiting for me in a government branch or any other business or institution. That I would have to go out and make it for myself. To create my own tribe or gang of like-minded men constantly pushing themselves to be something greater the next day. To start a family and teach them the things lost to the soft comforts and idealistic pursuits of modernity. The very ills that snaked its way into the core of our military and shoved out our warrior mentors, who were either forced out directly or chose to leave rather than watch everything they knew decay in front of them. They knew what was coming.
The writing was on the wall. The GWOT Vets painted it there on their way out the door and tried to point it out to us on our way in. We were illiterate. The Time of the Grunt was being put on a hiatus. The goons will be out of pocket until further notice, sorry. The wars of the future are reserved for the pipe hitters, mercs, and SOF. The rest of us became a standing army. Rome’s legions reduced to dog and pony shows, uniform inspections, and training that amounted to little more than children’s playtime. I decided to walk out the door. I had a calling to be a warrior, something I did not find. Looking at retention rates, suicides, the contempt and vitriol exposed in the community, and the general restlessness felt in everyone I talk to, active duty or veteran, it seems I’m not alone. Separated from the grinding frustrations of the military day-to-day, I now realize all of the problems I faced could have been fixed with a healthy dose of discipline and a shift in mentality, and to then pass that on to the man next to me.
The Brotherhood, mindset, and tribes of our ancestors have been grounded out of civilization. Fortunately, we can bring them back. Carve out a chunk of the world for you and yours. Make yourself better each day. Find some like-minded men and start your own gang. We joined to be a part of a tribe, we left to be a part of one too.