Books and Battles

By Nathaniel Fick
Sunday, July 17, 2005

During my earliest training as a Marine Corps infantry officer, in 1998, the tactics instructors would point to the piles of manuals on our desks and say, "Memorize them -- they're written in the blood of Marines who went before you." Even in that relatively peaceful year, we sensed that combat lessons were best absorbed vicariously -- better to learn from others' experience than from our own mistakes. Four books helped guide me along the path of becoming a warrior, fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq, and returning home afterward.

I read Steven Pressfield's Gates of Fire in an airport lounge on a Sunday afternoon in 2000, two years after it was first published. I was a newly commissioned second lieutenant returning to Camp Pendleton, Calif., after spending Christmas with my family in Baltimore. Pressfield drew me into his fictional tale of the Spartans' warrior spirit at Thermopylae. Three hundred Spartan infantrymen held off the invading Persians long enough to save Greece and perhaps all of Western civilization.

A military leader's duty to his subordinates, Pressfield writes, is "to fire their valor when it flags and rein in their fury when it threatens to take them out of hand." He is "just a man doing a job. A job whose primary attribute is self-restraint and self-composure, not for his own sake, but for those he leads by his example. A job . . . of 'performing the commonplace under uncommonplace conditions.' " If there's a better description of combat leadership, I've not seen it. I recognized Pressfield's characters in the men I was serving with; weapons and tactics evolve, but the people stay the same. After returning to Pendleton, I gave the 43 Marines in my platoon one week to read Gates of Fire . A few months later, after the publication of Pressfield's next novel, Tides of War , I found nearly every Marine in the platoon reading it on his own.

As part of the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit, we sailed from San Diego on Aug. 13, 2001, for a routine six-month cruise to the Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf. A month later, it was 8:45 a.m. in New York and Washington but 10:45 p.m. in Darwin, on Australia's north coast, where we watched the events of Sept. 11 unfold on a TV behind a bar. Six hours later, our three ships were ordered to "make best possible speed" for the coast of Pakistan. My dad mailed me a Michelin map of Central Asia and T.E. Lawrence's Seven Pillars of Wisdom , which I tucked inside my pack to read in Afghanistan.

Lawrence warns that unconventional warfare isn't only about military might: "Guerrilla war is far more intellectual than a bayonet charge." But he acknowledges that bayonet skills are important, too.

Most of us had never been in combat before. We had joined a peacetime military, thinking we might be called upon to build a school in the Balkans or hand out rice in Africa. We were chastened to learn that our skills didn't rise to the challenge of combat; chaos, fatigue and fear pushed them back to the bedrock of our training.

Lawrence has hard-won, timeless advice about learning to fight: "Nine-tenths of tactics are certain, and taught in books," he writes, "but the irrational tenth is like the kingfisher flashing across the pool and that is the test of generals. It can only be ensured by instinct, sharpened by thought practicing the stroke so often that at the crisis it is as natural as a reflex."

Afghanistan turned out to be, for us, a training ground for the looming war in Iraq, a place to practice our stroke so often that it became a reflex.

A year later, we shot our way from Kuwait to Baghdad in three weeks of constant firefights. Only days after the collapse of Saddam Hussein's regime, I had a memorable conversation with an intelligence officer while sitting in a Baghdad warehouse. The city already seemed to be coming apart around us. "There'll be insurgents," he warned. "They'll use roadside bombs and try to kill the U.N. envoy and the head of the American delegation."

By summer's end, two of his three predictions had come to pass, and I remembered that he'd also recommended a book: Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice , by French Army officer David Galula. It was published long before I was born, in 1964, but its lessons jumped from the yellowed pages with eerie immediacy. Galula sums up the imbalance faced by the United States in Iraq: "Disorder -- the normal state of nature -- is cheap to create and very costly to prevent."

He also identifies the central dilemma facing counter-insurgency forces: "Intelligence is the principal source of information on guerrillas, and intelligence has to come from the population, but the population will not talk unless it feels safe, and it does not feel safe until the insurgent's power has been broken." Breaking that power requires intelligence; hence the Catch-22.

Galula recognizes that citizens will put their money on the winning horse. "The . . . counter-insurgent . . . will not be able to rally the bulk of the population so long as the population is not convinced that the counter-insurgent has the will, the means, and the ability to win. When a man's life is at stake, it takes more than propaganda to budge him."

I spent much of my five years on active duty in combat, but lives are still at stake after the shooting stops. For many combat veterans, including my platoon, homecoming is as dangerous as any firefight. We returned home and battled nightmares, depression and violence. Some of us had to cope with destroyed relationships.

In Odysseus in America: Combat Trauma and the Trials of Homecoming, Jonathan Shay, a psychiatrist at the Boston VA hospital and an adviser on ethics and leadership to the U.S. Army, paints an image of the veteran "clinging to sanity above the sucking whirlpool of rage and grief, fear, guilt, and despair." Shay focuses on the psychological trauma of combat, observing that "what spills blood, spills spirit." His book gave me the tools to help my platoon re-adjust -- and the self-awareness to learn to sleep again.

Most important, Shay recognizes that the challenges and decisions of military service belong not only to those in uniform: "You, the American people, are the ultimate commander of the armed services. Caring about these things and informing yourself . . . are basic to democratic citizenship."

That, too, is the reason for reading these books. The value of learning vicariously goes far beyond the battlefield. ยท

Nathaniel Fick is the author of "One Bullet Away: The Making of a Marine Officer," forthcoming in October.

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