Tuesday, June 30, 2009

An exhale...

COME, said my Soul,
Such verses for my Body let us write, (for we are one,)
That should I after death invisibly return,
Or, long, long hence, in other spheres,
There to some group of mates the chants resuming,
(Tallying Earth's soil, trees, winds, tumultuous waves,)
Ever with pleas'd smile I may keep on,
Ever and ever yet the verses owning - as, first, I here and now,
Signing for Soul and Body, set to them my name,


Sunday, June 28, 2009

The High Energy Physics of Warfighting: Infantry Officer’s Course, Gravity and other things.

Tonight I listened to a presentation on the universe and the way of things by Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s own legendary space exploration project manager, Tony Spear. He discussed the Mars Pathfinder Mission. Einstein. Darwin. Newton. Curiosity. Gravity. Human consciousness. Systems engineering and String Theory. Literally the “ups and downs” of things. We listened, awe struck, to explanations of those far away cosmic lights we so often gaze, half drunk, half amazed. It was a magical evening – the rare sort where different people gathered from different backgrounds to meet a differential calculus that left us agreeing: oh my, how small we are. And how much the very same.

As a final question, one astute listener asked of the electrical engineer: Why does the science of man evolve so wonderfully, and the morality of man so malevolently? The audience paused. And listened. Tony reminded us we are humans, mere mortals, composed of DNA and matter and particles tied to a universe and a universe beyond our own universe and that perhaps our violent nature, though chemical and natural, could be overcome by altruism, education, and science. And, as a group I think, we breathed that wonderful sort of exhale we remembered breathing as young students some time ago who sat before the rare professor that affected us so deeply. And we paused, reflected, learned, and walked off, better.

After the talk, I had the chance to speak with Tony Spear. We discussed important things like robotics, good family, the future of warfighting, fine scotch and curvy women. His mind worked much faster than mine, so I emphasized the fine scotch, and poured him another. In between his captivating thoughts on mathematics and the cosmos, we discussed the human element of combat, the nature of man, and moral philosophy. A two-piece band spun Woody Herman’s “Four Brothers” from the outside patio. And the universe around us chaotically expanded and violently contracted while we drank, and laughed and learned. And my mind went to where it always goes when Jameson grabs a hold of my heart…the Marine Corps.

As the band played, and the cocktails flowed, I related to Tony what I felt where the limitations of technology on the modern day battlefield. A complex computer system can hover at 15,000 feet and capture images of men and donkeys crossing the Syrian border into Iraq near the Sinjar Mountains…but only a trained sergeant behind a long scope in an uncomfortable hide site can observe those same men and report the human element. That they have sweat coming from their brow, not a physical sweat, but a nervous sweat. That their movements are erratic, unnatural, and anxious. The computer in the rover at 15,000 feet has told the commander that two men are crossing the border at 2 in the morning. The sergeant in the hide site has told that same commander that two men have crossed the border, and are “suspicious”…they’re marked…15 minutes later a CAAT team intercepts those men 4 miles outside of Sinjar City. They’re carrying weapons, maps, and Al Qaeda propaganda. The limits of science, for now anyway, are apparent: it takes a human process to identify a human process.

And so I think this much is true: one day we might just have an algorithm that will train a computer system to think like a fighter pilot, or a ship’s navigator…but until that day comes, we need the well-trained human fighter pilot in the dog fight, the human ship’s navigator in the sea’s violent storm…because combat, on land and sea, is a complex sequence of human emotions and human processes, the likes of which no super-computer can negotiate. And this is a part of the complex physics of warfare.

Second Lieutenants are taught these physics - the science, art and dynamic of war - deep in the hills of Quantico, Virginia: how to accomplish my mission, and survive. The Greeks called the method to accomplishing a goal techne, literally craftsmanship. The Marines call it knowing your stuff. Whatever you call it, this is how they distinguish themselves from the Army’s infantry schools: adherence to a flexible doctrine of speed and violence centered on Maneuver, not attrition.

The Infantry Officer Course is the world’s foremost graduate school of this form of combat: Maneuver Warfare. Headquartered in an unornamented brick building, discretely located beyond the larger halls of the Basic Officer Course, most basic students pass by the hall with a quiet reverence for the training that takes place here. The walls are made of concrete blocks, painted hospital white and filled with pictures of past graduates, heroes, reminding students of those who came before them. Quite literally the God’s and Generals of the infantry. Leave your Oprah culture sensitivities, self-help literature and coffee cups whose lids warn its contents are “hot” at the door - this is the church of violence.

Before students enter the hall for their indoctrination brief they pass a very appropriate adage written in ominous black script: Those are best who survive the severest of schools. In that hall, and in the forests beyond, the handpicked warrior cadre bring a human dimension to Thucydides’ meditation, and dedicate more than three months to imbue them with three simple tenets and instill in them an overarching warrior ethos: Shoot. Move. Communicate. All the rest is taking care of your Marines.

All the rest, students learn, is a matter of internalizing a violently seductive and explicitly necessary warrior ethos, an Elegant violence, while maintaining a moral commitment to mutually competing events, and emotions.

The Marine Corps infantry is tribal. It has to be. Tempering the violence, while maintaining aggressiveness means the junior commander must be grounded by an unteachable moral commitment that is exhausting, unrelenting, and absolutely imperative to his tribe. This is elegant violence. Between firing machine guns, guiding fire from close air support and hiking miles with a hundred pounds of gear in exhausting terrain, conversations among students turn to just this, the conversations of “all the rest.” All these things, and a million things in between, are what students learn at the graduate school of combat leadership. Nothing you’d ever see on Oprah, but that you always wish you would…here students become their own self-help mechanism. And there is something very pure about all this, conversations held behind camouflaged faces stuffed with Copenhagen in dirty utilities, starving, half way through the most tiring event of their life. This is the sort of informal curriculum offered by the graduate school of combat leadership.

But “all of rest” is only able to take place because of the school’s foundation of formal instruction. It is their common language, such a thing is a requirement for all professionals. The students at IOC quickly realize that every religion has a church, every church a tribe, every tribe a holy book – the religion was America, no one doubted that, but the church was violence, the tribe, the infantry, the scripture, maneuver, and their sacred trust was to the men whom they would soon serve. In an age when one so easily suffocates among the inane, the hyper-sensitive, the pessimistic, the cynical-self-loathing and weak-spirited critics, worshiping such things breathes life and adventure into their restless hearts.

This holy book, the professional literature behind the infantry skills and warrior tribalism taught at IOC, is Marine Corps Doctrine Publication 1, Warfighting. It teaches Maneuver, the lifeblood of the naval infantry: How friction, uncertainty, danger, fatigue, fear, complexity, disorder and violence can be overcome by fluidity, boldness, communication, initiative, responsiveness, creativity, and strong will. The application of our strength, it reads, against a selected enemy’s weakness in order to maximize advantage – this is the aim. To this end the maneuverist requires both speed and surprise.

MCDP-1 is very clear about this. The only problem is that in today’s counter-insurgency fight we require more than a science – more than even an art and a dynamic. We require more than “speed” in operation and more than “surprise” in the attack. The junior commander on today’s battlefield requires an understanding of physics. Fusion of art, science and dynamic is just this sort of physics and this is what is required - a complete incorporation of the principles of high energy physics: a theory of everything.

OIF I was a fantastic example of the art, science and dynamic of war unfolding to completion – and victoriously. Even OIF II, highlighted by sustained kinetic fights on the streets of Fallujah and the cemeteries of Najaf, carries a more conventional legacy. Counter-insurgency however, which has defined OIF III, and OIF IV, is less about killing the enemy, and more about, as historian Max Boot has said, identifying the enemy. The tactical complexities that the Marines of the Anbar daily find themselves in is one that transforms from ‘potential energy’ to fully kinetic to potential and back again within seconds. This situation requires more than artful leadership, scientific execution and dynamic planning by platoon commanders. This counter insurgency fight requires combat physicists who maintain the legacy of the artists and scientists of wars past who taught, rightfully so, that the 2-dimensional battlefield was now a 3-dimensional battlespace but who also implement and improve on tactics that reflect an appreciation for the contemporary counter insurgency paradigm, one that requires a 4-dimensional approach. Simply put, high energy physics is the new techne.

The “high energy physics” approach to battle would amend MCDP-1 to reflect such changes…because it not only applies to the counter-insurgency fight, but also to more conventional situations. The amendments, best highlighted in terms of the Six Warfighting Functions (Maneuver, Intelligence, Logistics, Command and Control, Fires, and Force Protection), would include the use of some real world physics: the theory of time/space, the use of mathematical models to reconstruct and predict the enemy’s planning cycle, and the application of velocity in combat, to name a few.

Take maneuver. As taught we fight in a left/right, up/down, front/back battlespace. Three dimensions. The reality is that we fight in a 4D battlespace. This is the understanding that the 3-D world unfolds within the framework of TIME. It is not enough to think about the enemy in a 3-D context, as we do, we have to arrive at our assumptions of his movement and his will in terms of the expiration of current time and the value he assigns to soon-to-come time. The counter-insurgency fight is a struggle against this time…the enemy’s time must become your time. Now you have the initiative. Each patrol, each checkpoint, each raid is more so a factor of the enemy’s own planning cycle, his own appreciation and measure of time. The science of war as applied from MCDP-1 teaches us a 3-D approach to warfare, the physics of warfare teaches a 4-D approach that is vital to success of small unit operations in theatre.

And intelligence? Intel literally drives the small unit leader’s operations in the world of counter-insurgency. MCDP-1 does not disagree, but teaches the value of intelligence is in our planning, incorporated to build OUR greater tactical and operational picture. A “high energy physics” approach favors intelligence that takes real form, as a scientific model or a tactical barometer or a re-usable equation – a mechanism used to predict the not-so unpredictable decision making cycles and planning processes of the enemy, thereby building THEIR greater tactical and operational picture for us by reconstructing the enemy’s intent allowing us to construct our plan accordingly. A “high energy physics” approach then, favors the design of an algorithm which puts us at the center of their planning meetings, not our own, which are usually really long and kind of boring anyway.

As for ‘command and control’, MCDP-1 preaches the importance of speed. Speed is certainly an essential element of warfighting and in a more kinetic, conventional fight, perhaps speed is decisive. But in a counter-insurgency fight speed can be dangerous. Speed here requires direction. Speed with direction is velocity. “Combat Velocity” is the speed of your decision making cycle, or the speed of your maneuver, or the speed of an infinitesimal amount of factors unfolding at an unprocessable rate layered by the direction of your order, or the direction of your squad’s position, or the direction you give the uncontrollable factor of time that is threatening to consume your initiative, and your 3-dimensional posture in an intolerant 4-dimensional moment in TIME. Combat velocity recognizes that counter-insurgency fast becomes the ‘combat infinity’ and can only be leveraged to a position of advantage if the speed of the environment and the speed of your decision making cycle is given an appropriate direction. Speed is no longer enough. Despite the chaos of the combat infinity, the small unit commander can affect any situation by bringing a degree of order in the form of combat velocity: facilitating speed and giving direction.

And of course there are “fires” – which are now kinetic (indirect or air support) and non-kinetic (psychological operations, media, etc) but all still a matter a physics: force (or desired effects) still equals mass X acceleration. Think about it. In a kinetic and non-kinetic world, “high energy physics” is changing how we should be interpreting the teachings of our holy book. Even the “logistics” warfighting function requires a look from a physics perspective…if you’ve ever tried to get a supply clerk to move quickly or watched a request chit meander up and around the chain of command, you’re familiar with a very Newtonian reality: an object at rest will remain at rest unless acted on by an external force, usually this looks a lot like the boot of a motivated staff non-commissioned officer on the behind of a not-so-motivated lance corporal.

A “high energy physics” approach to Maneuver Warfare is, ultimately, a fusion of the art, science, and dynamic of maneuver warfare beyond the kinetic and conventional world of small unit operation taught in MCDP-1. Since the Marine Corps is fundamentally an organization of mutually supporting small units with a rich history in unconventional small wars, it is time to amend our holy book – if such a thing can be done – to reflect what physics has always been telling us all along…that time is everything, that speed is nothing without direction, and that while we will never be able to define ‘infinity’ we can approach an understanding of it…oh yeah, and that the answers to all of these questions will never be found on Oprah, in a self-help book, or in an aimless and drunk harangue from a grumpy and cynical undergraduate, but rather in those conversations of “all the rest” in the infantry officer’s Church of Violence and soon empirically, in those faraway and unforgiving streets where the only peace was yesterday.

And I think men of science like Tony Spear would relate well to this view of things…that the world we know is ever-changing, and dynamic, and violent and requires men who stand before such change and demand missions to mars and close air support. Because at the end of the day such things as Einstein, Darwin, Nimitz, Halsey, Newton, Curiosity, Gravity, Courage, Human consciousness, Systems engineering, a fine Fleet, String Theory and Maneuver Warfare share one thing in common to both physicist and warrior…they are quite literally the “ups and downs” of things, and deserve a moment’s thought and well-deserved exhale. And while even Tony Spear could not answer why we evolve so wonderfully in our science and so slowly in our morality, he certainly affirmed the importance of the education of both scientist and warrior. And the physics we share.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

A classic moment in broadcasting...

Every man has experienced the breaking point.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Fighting Fires, revisited.

I originally wrote “Fighting Fires” in map pen on the back of a patrol order I had given to my squad leaders on the afternoon of 26 October 2006. It was later posted online for the three people that read my column. I also read it to my platoon as a response to their friends and family who would lecture them on the rights and wrongs of Iraq…”just tell them you fight fires.” I thought this would be an appropriate follow-on piece to last week’s 58 Words.

My intent with last week’s article was not to say, (as an American) “here’s what happened in Iraq and why it was right,” but rather (as a Marine) “what happened in Iraq, happened…things are going well, it should be talked about more, I’m happy.”

While it is quite appropriate (and important) that the citizen-reader voice his or her opinion on Iraq (a costly issue both in lives and treasure), I don’t think it is appropriate for an active duty Marine Corps officer (like me), to do the same. And so last week I removed myself from the follow-on debate on my Naval Institute posting.

The truth is I find great strength in maintaining my bearing as a political agnostic. At least as long as my affinity for Jameson and spontaneous travel are being bank rolled by a paycheck from the Department of the Navy anyway.

Simply put, my duty is to my mission (whatever, wherever and whenever that may be) and my Marines. Period. End of story. So while I won’t comment directly on the after-math of 58 Words, I will share with you something I believed back as a bright-eyed Lieutenant and still believe as I write this as a balding Captain: the men and women of the armed services fight fires…always have, always will. This is a story about Iraq, violence, politics, fires, and going at it with your boots on…

When five firefighters from the San Jacinto Ranger Station were overwhelmed by flames in the Esperanza fires on the 26th of October the first report I heard was that “five firefighters have just died trying to protect an abandoned house.” How sad, I thought. What a shame. How terrible those five men gave their lives for a deserted piece of property.

Later that afternoon an ambitious news team climbed to a canyon bluff overlooking the fire. The footage they captured made my heart stop. The inferno was fierce, violent, and just plain frightening. It consumed acres of arid land in minutes, leaping entire roads, and canyons slowing for a moment, only to catch the wind like a ginger sail and gain speed again towards the next home or terrain feature. There was a certain rhythm to the blaze – the kind of violent rhythm familiar to many Marines – it was the rhythm of chaos and fear. As I watched this footage, paralyzed by the sheer force of what I saw, I realized something about the men who laced up their boots that morning to meet this chaos, something very powerful, and strangely calming:

The men of Engine 57 did not die protecting an abandoned house, they died fighting fires.

This is a very important distinction I think, and it has everything to do with the men and women who put it on the line everyday in Iraq and Afghanistan. On the one hand, yes, the firefighters were in vicinity of an abandoned home when they fell; so in a sense, they died protecting a deserted home. But there’s an important distinction here – they did not die for the home. The home was simply the front line, the line of departure from which these men decided to fight the blaze. That house was the fault line, a professional chasm which divided those who did not have the training, material, and duty to fight fires, and those who did. That day violence put down the five brave men who did.

It’s hard for some Americans to deal with the notion that people in these positions (police officers, firefighters, and military personnel) know exactly what they are putting on the line and the sacrifice that daily hangs in the balance in the routine execution of their duties.

Maybe it’s because some Americans tend to view these things through a complex social lens of politics, materialism, religion, and determinism. Maybe it’s because they heard the same news report I did that morning and didn’t tune in for the footage of the actual fire. Or maybe they saw the footage and still saw it as hollow.

Whatever the case, when the list of dead and wounded come in each day from the front lines of our Long War, these same Americans think what I did when I heard the first the reports of the San Jacinto firemen: How sad. What a shame. How terrible that they gave their lives in such a way, for such a thing, in such a place.

The story of the men of Engine 57 is a reminder to all of us that these men, like those firefighters, were in the offense when they fell, facing head on hundreds of degrees of violence, and chaos, and madness. They died while faithfully executing the duties to which they had so meticulously trained. They died with their boots laced, and their eyes forward. They died on duty.

As reports come in of our protectors killed in action across the world we owe it to their memory to acknowledge perhaps the darkest of truths and the greatest of hopes: That fires and wars will always rage but, as Thucydides wrote, that there are men who see this violence and yet still go out to meet it, is our greatest hope. Hope grows from this dark truth, right from the dark soil of our own human condition: some will only ever see an abandon home in Esperanza, or an impossible democracy in Iraq, while others will see in this very same instance a front line for fighting fires.

Many kinds of people fight fires too…everyday. No doctor, nurse or corpsman, for example, can stop in the middle of a surgery to question the morality of a “just war”. Just as we cannot lay down our rifle during a gun fight. Their morality is that patient beneath their steady hand, and trained eye. Their morality is to heal, not to question why there is healing to be done. A Marine’s is to seek battle, not to ask why there are battles to be had.

And there is something pure in all of this, in fighting fires. There is something pure about a 19 year old with a colt rifle, a dip of Copenhagen, and a raw sense of courage. It’s every bit as pure as our apolitical resignation to our duty as killer and healer, each with an end to our means. Each with doubts and fears and questions, but each with, above all else, a common understanding that beneath these uniforms there lies a heart that cares for something and someone other than themselves.

This is the way our protectors would want to be remembered – it’s the way I would want to be remembered – not piteously, that we were killed by a roadside bomb or a well placed sniper round, not gloriously, as Hollywood depicts, but honestly and without sadness…that we fell in the line of duty with every expectation of our own fate, our boots laced and our eyes forward doing what it was we trained to do all along,

Fight fires.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

58 Words.

In the Tuesday May 26th edition of the Wall Street Journal Iraq was mentioned only once. Precisely fifty-eight words on page A13. Below the fold. Only five dozen words and a few inches of column space that day on Trade Minister Falah al-Sudani’s resignation amidst allegations of corruption. On the Journal’s front page, news of Pyongyang’s pomposity, an article on “The Culture of Bling” (lamenting that hard times have hobbled Hip-Hop artists’ ability to buy diamonds and gold), and a center-page expose on our own crack-down on corporate bribes, corruption and scandal. This front page layout confirmed what I already knew: the North Koreans are unpredictable, “The Culture of Bling” is ridiculous, and corruption in government is not limited to Baghdad. And just fifty-eight words on Iraq.

All of this struck me as interesting (and sad and shameful) because there is actually a wealth of good news to report from Iraq these days and the American public isn’t hearing these stories. Instead of “good news from the front”, the stories that received the ink and press real estate that day in the Journal (and every other paper of record for that matter) were features on American Idol, drug abuse in baseball, and another plunge on Wall Street.

These days, fifty-eight words on a corrupt Iraqi Trade Minister. Just 18 months ago, 5800 words on civil war, death, chaos, ethno-sectarian violence and the aimless Iraq war that would have no chance for victory. Pundits would daily pound soft fists on keyboards in passionate defense of why America would lose in Iraq. And at times they were right. We did enter the war with bad intelligence. The Bush Administration did choose to focus on WMD. The Pentagon did not predict the effects of a post-invasion peace, a disbanded army, home-grown violence or Al Qaeda infiltration. The State Department did not have the answer to the challenges of Kirkuk, the rough tides of ancient tribal politics, or introducing democracy to the non-secular Islamic masses. And the Bush Administration never seemed to deliver a clear message to the American public. Things were bad. They often are in war. But things got better…and the stories stopped.

What happened in Iraq since 2005 and why is no one writing about it?

What happened was a lot of things all at once. Al Qaeda over-played their hand, destroyed the Askariya Shrine, revealed a truly corrupt and bankrupt ethos, and alienated Sunni sympathizers; Sunni and Shiite battled each other in the streets of Baghdad, tired, and sought détente; SOCOM relentlessly pursued high value collaborators and enemy leadership; the Sons of Iraq patrolled their neighborhoods and pushed AQI to the seams, Marines and Soldiers walked the earth during the Surge; security tightened; violence dropped by 80%; the Iraqi army grew and was trained; local governments moved forward; the population eased; 300 new businesses started in the first half of 2008 alone; schools re-opened; oil revenue grew; refugees moved home and literally scores of other pivotal factors and turning points of personality, social condition, money-politics, tribal diplomacy, a lot of time, a little luck, and a inestimable degree of hard work and sacrifice by thousands upon thousands of U.S. servicemen and women, happened.

As for why no one is writing about Iraq these days, I see two reasons: 1.) Journalists aren’t historians and 2.) Integrity is lost in the main stream media.

To start, journalists are professionals trained in the art of capturing a single moment. They lack the historian’s eye trained to capture and make sense of a series of moments. Where the pundits, politicians and journalists have always found the chaos of war anomalous, historians have always understood it as the way of things. Historians understand that beneath the fabric of that chaos are the factors and conditions that will determine outcome, or in some cases, have determined outcome.

Historians will write their judgments of Iraq once they gain the perspective they require to complete their complex calculus. Journalists don’t have that kind of time. The Iraq story is less-violent, less-messy, and less-provocative than it was last year. It’s altogether less-interesting. And so they turn to more marketable stories of American Idol pageantry, Michael Vick’s dog fighting ring, and greedy Wall Street tycoons drying off from their morning shower with piles of your 401k money.

And while this is all very frustrating, I get it. Totally understandable. Cash, violence, and live entertainment…what can I say, I’m a Marine, it sounds like a good night of liberty. But then there’s this lack of integrity thing, which is a little harder to stomach.

If journalism was in fact a business first, it would make sense to me that they write whatever it takes to sell papers (about things like drugs, violence and bankers showering with money, for example). But I don’t think journalism is about business first. I think journalism is about discovery first. It’s about honest and fair reporting. It’s about digging up stories, holding people accountable and other things I can’t remember.

I do remember what Bob Woodward told me when I met him back in 2003 as a Midshipman in Admiral Crowe’s National Security Studies class at Annapolis. He told me that a free press is the bedrock of any free nation and that journalists should aspire to be the watch dogs of this country. I also remember thinking he had a nicely cut grey suit, great hair and that he must have had plenty of pretty girls chase after him in his day.

But the steel-eyed and measured approach of an iconic Woodward is lost to a bumbling and soft new age. And what we have is a story in Iraq that isn’t over being lived, but finished being told. While it is true we are morally, fiscally, spiritually, politically (and really in all ways) exhausted with Iraq, there is still reporting to be done. Integrity includes “finish what you started,” “dance with the girl ya brung”, or any related measure of sound southern wisdom. Americans are still fighting this war. Still losing sons and daughters. We still have a great stake in how this story ends and deserve to hear how it unfolds.

And then I wonder if editors across the nation missed a chance to write 5800 words on the great progress in Iraq? Or if the Wall Street Journal got it right in what their fifty-eight words implied and only a few short years ago I would have never believed:

Today a member of the Government of Iraq (an internationally recognized government most said could never exist) broke the law (a law that was ratified by a democratically elected Iraqi Congress in an open election) and will be tried before his fellow citizens (with due process and the full rights of the accused) and if found guilty (in an independent Iraqi court), will be held accountable for his offense.

Now that I read it this way, fifty-eight words was just enough.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Mountains of Hope. A book review, of sorts.

Last night I watched a documentary on Robert Kennedy. It was a good film screened with an unexpected personal consequence: softness. I can’t explain it exactly. I just started acting all emotional and sensitive. I was feeling all touchy and weird and squishy – like I needed to drive to the nearest grocery store and put all of the shopping carts back, kiss a kitten, or start recycling. I’m a Marine, and feelings like this just aren’t good for business.

I needed something that would shake this new-found compassion out of me. I headed for my scotch cabinet, had a liberal pouring to match my liberal pourings and picked up a book on global espionage and retired CIA agent Bob Baer's expedition throughout Southwest Asia in the mid-1990s. Something like this usually does the trick, lots of girls, lots of guns. Lots of other things. But somewhere between tales of isolated Russian outposts and rouge Taliban fighters, Baer revealed a unique place far and away in the world – the Soghdiana. It was an unpredictably beautiful tale (damn). And I was stuck. And I did what comes natural…nothing. And kept on reading. And kept on drinking. And kept on reading. And drinking…

Baer’s story describes the inhabiting tribe, the Yaghnobi, as unique in that they are predominantly Muslim but instead of praying toward Mecca they pray facing the highest peak, which they consider the jumping off point to heaven. Cradled by some of the most remarkable mountains in the world, theirs must seem a true kingdom of heaven.

The Yaghnobi believe that they've been sheltered from three millennia of strife, famine, war and disease by the glaciers and mountains that surround them. And so far their tribe's traditions have survived despite global revolutions of industry, technology and information and even the implacable tides of war.

By Western standards, the Yaghnobi are primitive. They have no monuments commemorating the discovery of new worlds, no memorials to those who have inspired change through art or music, no shrines to generals or deities. The Yaghnobi don't even have running water or electricity – to say nothing of education or modern medicine. This strikes me as tragic.

After some thought, and some time (at this moment) spent away from the din of hands-free cell phones, octuplets, and apart from the new world reality of Al Sadr's militias and Zimbabwe’s 2,000 percent inflation rate, I admit with a healthy respect – it must be nice to have such a pleasingly simple world view.

In the West we celebrate an individual’s pluck and a society's evolution: exploration, social and economic progress, personal liberties, collective freedoms, creative genius, risk taking, courage and creativity of all kinds.

In the West we look at the Yaghnobis' mountain peak and wonder “what lies beyond?” That's always been our perspective—to look beyond. This must be the perspective of a people constantly on guard, constantly at war. In the complexity of our “mountain” we have forged a distinct national character.

The Yaghnobi see the very same mountain peak and ask what lies within. Theirs is the perspective of a people removed from history's revolutions and war's tides. In the simplicity of their mountain-perspective they've forged a remarkable cultural oasis.

I celebrate the varied cultural threads of our national fabric, which is, by the Framers' design, complex. This complexity—this elegant untidiness—is what Whitman so aptly referred to as America’s "athletic democracy." Our society has been deeply enriched by many diverse cultures, but remains, at its core, Western.

Ours is a unique Republic firmly rooted in the rule of law, individual liberties, an independent judiciary, a representative legislature, secularism, the free market and also (let's be honest), Reality TV, Monday Night Football and a good cup of Starbucks coffee. As such, I think there's an important lesson to be learned from the Yaghnobi.

Every day we all struggle to climb our own personal mountain. We struggle with what best course to take in life — things like how best to support our children and ageing parents, pay off our credit cards, keep our marriages or relationships intact and our jobs in place…and other things like how to be decent people and happy.

As Marines, it's not only combat itself we struggle with, but also the choices we're forced to make in life’s battle. This Fight (capital F) binds. These are our mountains. We've been bred as warriors to relish that life is a struggle and that mountains were not made to be prayed to or sat before – but that mountains were made to be climbed.

The Yaghnobis' world suggests different; that we may be able to succeed without so much struggle — or that we might at least benefit by taking the occasional pause. Of course this requires that we redefine what we mean by "succeed." We’ll never get very far when their “pause” means our “regret” and their “exhale” means our “weakness.”

No matter the definition, I think that what we are to learn from the Yaghnobi relates to our identity and how we lead our lives. We are to learn that adding some “pause” to our diet will boost the individual and collective “hunger” we so celebrate, not curb it. We are to learn that if, from time to time, we take a break between mountains to ask questions of each other and ourselves, we might just discover an even greater strength that lies within…something I think the politicians on both aisles-sides are sorting out as we speak…that no matter if ours is a mountain of hope or a mountain of bullshit, or, quite frankly, a mountain of both – that the mountain is ours for the climbing. And a great mountain is best climbed after a greater pause.

April is Over.

Coming home from Iraq took 26 hours and 13 minutes. Actually it took 110 hours and 22 minutes but that includes C17 flights, bus rides, tent dwelling, and the semi-conscious two step that is the hallmark of military travel. Our flight plan was an absolute nightmare and had me convinced one of us had probably slept with the DoD travel rep's sister. How else can one explain being routed from Iraq to Kuwait, Kuwait to Germany, Germany to Iceland, Iceland to Canada, Canada to Chicago, and Chicago to Riverside? Clearly someone was screwing us for past wrong screwings. Redeployment is military speak for the process of going from point A to point B via points C, D, and E.

We arrived on base at 230 am on a Monday morning. We turned in our weapons and were greated in darkness with some signs, dozens of adorable midgets running to the arms of their fathers, and a big cake that read: Congratulations! But was spelled wrong. The crowd dispersed in minutes leaving behind myself, tossed signs, and a misspelled cake. I didn't have the heart to call my folks to warn them of the early pick-up, though I know they wouldn't have minded, so I grabbed a case of beer and went into my office. I opened my laptop, saw that I had 647 emails, closed my laptop, went into the passageway, sat on my sea bag and cracked opened an ice cold beer. Dark became light and sober became drunk. Coming home is an anti-climax. But no one cares, because we're home.

Soon enough I was back in the arms of my mom and sister and happy and on my way to a breakfast of waffles and mimosas.

I meant to sit down once home and write a thoughtful piece on Iraq. This is why that entry never happened. We'll start where any good story does, after a couple rounds of champagne and orange juice...

After coming home we were all granted 96 hours of liberty. I don't remember much from this time, but do recall that at one point I was finger painting a spaceship on my wall in a pair of tight blue underwear. I was immediately sent on a sight survey to set-up some training that is coming up in June. It was in Hawaii, so I didn't mind. Here I spent a week learning how to organize and coordinate a complex training package. I was also robbed by a blonde Nebraskan co-ed and got a sun burn. My flight landed on a Thursday night. I unpacked from the Hawaii trip and repacked for the next two weeks. I slept for 48 minutes. My head was swollen so I dunked it in a sink of ice, shaved, drank a coffee, and drove to work. I sat in on a few meetings, met with my team leaders, and laughed with friends. Next I drove to Los Angeles and checked in at the Chateau Marmont. I ran upstairs, poured myself a couple ounces of Jameson to calm my exhausted nerves, took it into the shower and thanked God I had made it this far...a driver picked a few of us up and made our way via surface streets to a medley of great hip hop to the Staples Center for the Brittney Spears concert. More on that later. We came back to the Chateau. This time I drank to quiet my head-ache. I ordered a fruit plate and watched an old Gregory Peck film. I left the hotel at 5 am and drove to the San Diego Airport. I went immediately to the bar, ordered two double Bloody Marys and boarded a 11 hour flight to Germany. I sat between Geoff and a plumb man who ran a gay travel agency in the Bay Area. I think I still have his card if anyone is interested in a gay cruise down the Danube. We got into Oslo later that day. I checked in the hotel, poured myself a drink and thought about writing a thoughtful entry on Iraq. Instead I went to a Scottish restaurant and ordered Italian. I'm writing now from my bed in an Oslo hotel room. My underwear is too tight. I smell like coach. I can't figure out how to work the shower and am too embarrassed to call and ask.

For the next two weeks I'll be attending the Norwegian Winter Warfare Course where we'll do all the things I avoided doing while growing up on the beach in San Diego like skiing, hiking, being cold or doing anything really that involves any degree of discomfort over any period of time. And so there it is, a brief explanation of why you and the five other people that read this column haven't heard from me in awhile...until that time comes, I hope you find yourself warmer than me, and in more comfortable underwear. And when I come home I'll write that piece on Iraq...but for now, April is over.

Spoons and Cigarettes.

I sat down tonight for a meal served to me with an ice cream scooper. I shared a table with assorted undesirables of the rigid 2nd Marines and Al Asad food services – a Lance Corporal who chewed with his mouth open, an obese and political KBR worker, a squinty Captain who wanted to exchange TBS stories, an evangelical Navy Lieutenant Commander who thought I needed some saving and a delicate little laundry worker from Nepal who shoveled sloppy selections into his mouth with two dirty hands, giggling, amused at my obvious unease.

It was the perfect storm of bad manners, bad food, bad politics, and bad memories. It didn’t take long before I couldn’t take it anymore and excused myself for a cigarette. I don’t smoke, but I’ve found the theater of my rubbing my hands over my eyes, patting my shirt pockets for a fresh pack and excusing myself for a smoke is believable enough to sell an exit and more polite than the alternative of plunging a plastic spoon down my throat in protest of this sort of social misery.

I smiled. They smiled back. I feigned exit, entered an adjacent room, sat down and watched the news. Five minutes later I got up and went looking for that plastic spoon...

It’s exasperating. This week we were bombarded with news of dangerous North Korean bravado, failures at Doha, Austrian incest, Mexican melt-down, Chinese cyber-espionage, doom and gloom speculations on Afghanistan, daily Geithner bashing and the requisite chronicles of celebrity tragedy. Moderators of seriously named programs ask less than serious questions of even less serious guests, interrupting to answer themselves. It’s a serious waste of our time.
This sort of coverage ensures we’ll all begin (and end) each day just as miserably as everyone we’ve just seen reported on. It’s enough to drive anyone to pass on the cream and bring on the Kailua with a first cup of morning coffee. And second. And third. And...f*ck it, just hand me the bottle.

Sure, the media’s responsible for reporting news with the integrity and accountability of WorldCom. But we’re responsible for watching, approving, and demanding more blood tomorrow. And let’s not forget those that create the events that lead to such awful news to begin with; they deserve blame for, well, making news so awful to begin with...
Dangerous North Koreans threaten pan-Asia (and the rest of us for that matter), not Japanese. Backwards Arab petrolcrats (and even further backwards Arab fundamentalists) undermine the Arab-block’s relevancy in the next century, not the West. Sexual criminals don’t deserve an hour on Dr. Phil to lament their “condition”, or explain their own “tragic history”. They deserve equal protection under the law, due process, and, if proven guilty, a very, very long prison sentence.

But it’s not that networks report such horrible things that bother me (horrible things happen in the world, I want to know). What bothers me is the manner in which they report them. It’s a noisy and casual, amateurish and ambivalent sort of reporting. What bothers me even more is the manner in which some watch and bemoan and whine and criticize and then carry on complacently, just happy none of it is happening to them. Though what bothers me most of all is the arrogance and hopeless attitudes of that self-absorbed, defeatist, fragile lot that acts as if we are the first to see crime, war, poverty, violence, financial ruin, terrorism, famine, failed states, disease, or genocide; these that forget their own grandparents endured a stock market crash, unemployment, a two-front war, neglected poor, greedy elite, and the same left-right politics just two generations ago. To say nothing of the fact that, during the prohibition years anyway, they were expected to endure such things sober (and in black and white).

It’s an odd time we’re in – a reality-based moment defined by the hyper-sensitive, hyper-connected, hyper-emotional, and hyper-aware. We have more resources for learning than ever before and less desire to access them. More opinions and less questions. WE TALK TO EACH OTHER NOW MORE THAN EVER, WITH SO MUCH LESS TO SAY.

We’re quick to volunteer from the comfort of our home, eagerly participating in yesterday’s Earth Night to “make a difference”, but so less eager to use that same hour to volunteer locally, or help our own kids with their homework. When our economy soars, we’re fast to absorb a mortgage we can’t afford. When it tanks and we lose our home, it’s someone else’s fault. We join hundreds of thousands to protest the G20, but won’t admit (or don’t understand) that free trade lowers prices and creates jobs, jobs makes wages, wages buy food and medicine and some guy in Kuala Lumpur earned a wage that fed his family for making that stupid hat you’re wearing while you protest the job he made it at. And we’re hungry for “developing” headlines around the world. Suspicions become convictions and assumptions become facts, all instantly – and between text messages – and without any sort of analysis, critical thought, or investigation. Our i-world gives us the ability to know most everything about anything, anywhere and at any time, but the inclination to medicate, press play and worry about it tomorrow.

Yes, it’s an odd time indeed. But there is a solution to all this, in the short term anyway: always have a way to kill yourself, or be excused. For this, I’d recommend the plastic spoon, and pack of cigarettes…

Green. Yellow. Red.

“Green-Yellow-Red” is among the many idiot-resistant conventions in the Marine Corps. It’s used all the time (tactically and otherwise) as a quick barometer: “yes, maybe, no way-Jose”. After an infantry squad culminates on an objective, a rifleman who’s out of ammo would be “red.” In AIRBORNE operations, a jumper will be “green” before exit. In flight operations, if air is “yellow” it might be a lower visibility day (if air is “red” it might be a golf day). In the Base Combat Group’s admin office, an inappropriate pass by a male Corporal to a female Corporal, would be “red.” A dude-to-dude “good game” pat on the ass after a long ops-intel brief would be green (a squeeze, or cupped hand on the cheek, red); close talkers, always yellow.

Keep your eye on the close talkers...

I like this system in the Marine Corps. Everyone has a pretty good feel for it, I think. Lets everyone know where you stand. We’re either jumping out of the airplane, or we’re not, or maybe we will or maybe we won’t. Who knows? Who cares? The colors do the thinking for me. I’m just going to stand here...

The idea of using the ‘green-yellow-red’ metric outside of the Marine Corps and as an instrument of social science is not my own (most good ideas aren’t); the credit belongs to a legendary intelligence officer (anonymously cited here as he is a man of great influence, respect and class and this column is one of little of all those things) who brought up a series of topics over a series of meals and cigars and marathon debates across a series of seas and oceans and deserts with a central question: can you or can’t you?

What started as coffee time chit-chat evolved into great speech-making. Alliances were formed quickly in ante-bellum fashion along the most interesting, revealing and divisive man-question of them all: Who would you rather be – Indiana Jones, or James Bond? Lines were drawn, promises made, and friendships won and lost over matters as important as: Can a grown man eat an ice cream cone? (No.) What is the maximum age a man can no longer wear a professional sports jersey in public? (16.) What is the maximum age a guy can have a roommate? (30.) Bond is cooler than Jones, Pitt hotter than Cruise, Mario Armando Lavandeira Jr. uglier than them all, et al.

We passionately made our cases and did not advance to another topic until the majority decided: “you can” or “you can’t.” We fought like zealous members of Congress arguing over the stimulus package, only less paid and more sober.

Many of these deliberations ended concretely. Others, we found, required a conditional solution: If you are taking your son to a baseball game, then you can wear the jersey of another grown man. If you are older than 30 but living in a really expensive place in say Manhattan, San Francisco, London, or Tokyo, then you can have a roommate...It’s never ok to eat ice cream on a cone.

A man’s decision making is guided by these two questions:
1. Will doing this make me look like a pussy?
2. Will doing this make me feel like a jerk?

The desired end-state with both is the same:
To behave like a real man, without acting like a real a-s-s-hole.

And so tonight in the Company Office (and by the coffee maker, and in the chow hall and on the way back from the chow hall) I brain-stormed these sort of questions with my fellow Officers and Staff NCO’s here at the Battalion. We were a pretty good sample of “the American man” and arrived at many conclusions. Some green. Some red. Others conditionally, yellow...

NOTE: If you are now or have ever been a member of the military, or have ever played competitive sports, you get a pass on something that would otherwise be red; you get an “extra life.” If you are the author of this article and get to make up the rules as you go along, you get two extra lives.

The design of tonight’s great debate was in the conventional “case-judgment-explanation” format. And the results went something like this...

- Driving a Miata, a Beetle or a SmartCar. RED. The Beetle has a flower holder. The Miata was described in a 1993 Car & Driver as being “the most adorable sports car on the road.” The SmartCar, seriously? Can you even fit in that thing?

- Waxing your back. GREEN. Got some hair on your chest, she’ll call you a man. Got a lot of hair on your back, she’ll call you grandpa.

- Waxing your chest. RED. ***Extra Life*** (1stsgt). If you’re an athlete and it makes sense, good to go. Here I’d add - if not, trimming’s good, but as a general rule of thumb: a man should let a woman be the soft, pretty one in the relationship.

- Eating an ice cream cone. RED. I almost used one of my extra lives here, though most men agree: We can’t take you seriously while you’re smiling (everyone does when they eat ice cream), licking frozen cream while holding a cone. Think of some of the more rugged men in contemporary American culture. Take, Clint Eastwood. Now put a big smile on his face, an ice cream cone in his hand, maybe he’s licking that little bit that just dripped on his thumb. See what I mean. Ever seen a head of state eat an ice cream cone? How about a General or the CEO of a Fortune 500 company? Or a police officer or a fire fighter? Kinda takes away the mystique.

- Romantic comedies. RED. ***Extra Life*** (the author) I’m not gonna lie, it’s a guilty pleasure...

- 80s love ballads. YELLOW. The Richard Marx Camp, RED. BUT, if you’re a bad-ass 80s rock and roll band, bring on the love ballad interlude.

- American Idol. RED. ***Extra Life*** (capt armas) And after spending the last five years in Iraq, you can love American Idol too...

- The popped collar. RED. Unless you’re sailing and it’s keeping the sun off your neck, put your collar down bro.

- The names “Elvio”, “Edrie” or “Ponce”. RED. Most states allow one legal name change, get one.

- Hacky Sack. RED. One of those rare times when you look like a p***y and an a**hole. I don’t care how much fun it is, grab a Frisbee, or a baseball glove, or a football. A bunch of guys standing around kicking a Hacky Sack...I can’t deal...

- Cosmos. RED. It’s pink. You’ve got other options, how about the vodka-cran? Anything?

- Knowing anything about Hollywood gossip you didn’t hear from your wife, girlfriend or your mother. RED. It is okay that we like to know what’s going on, just better we hear it from them.

- Untucked shiny dress shirts. RED. The untucked shirt in a casual setting, fine. Harrison Ford (Indiana Jones himself) reminds us this much is true. But the wear of the shiny, appallingly patterned, untucked dress shirt has got to stop. What’ll be man’s next fashion misstep? Leaving our flies down? Maybe socks, no shoes? Hey buddy, you look like a goofball. You’re drinking a twenty dollar martini, your beautiful date’s wearing an $800 Dona Karan dress, tuck in your shirt.

- Using the elliptical machine. YELLOW. Admittedly you don’t feel very masculine using it, but when your knees are broke down from the previous day’s workout, it’s a great low-impact option. Just don’t make it an everyday event.

- Wine tasting. GREEN. Here’s a chance to get outside your comfort zone, drink at a more adult pace, and learn something. We’re all very impressed you can tell me what’s in your Coors Light, or how a Guinness is made – but there’s nothing better than matching a great wine with a great meal – or better yet, a great memory.

- Cuddling. GREEN. Everyone agreed, you have to do it. It’s one of those intimacy things that women need, and men should provide. Though be warned, cuddling is like Iraq. No exit strategy and you’re stuck in bed when you don’t want to be anymore. Your foot starts falling asleep, your mind wanders, and then you get in trouble for not paying attention.

- Small dogs. RED. ***Extra Life*** (the author) Everyone was against the small dog. I seem to be the only guy that thinks having a chill, fat, black pug named Little Buddha as my drinking buddy would be awesome.

- Writing XOXO or LOL in an email. RED. Leave the cute shorthand for her. I’ve written them before, we all have, and I’m not sure if X or O is hug or kiss, but I do remember what my lawyer told me a few years ago: don’t say or write anything you wouldn’t want to read credited to you on the front page of the New York Times. XOXO or LOL, no, I just could not handle that.

- Rollerblading. RED. ***Extra Life*** (capt abell) “I know what you’re thinking, but rollerblading is actually a really, really good cardio workout. It’s a great way to get outdoors and get your heart-rate up. Just make sure to wear all of the appropriate protective equipment: knee and elbow pads, helmet, eye protection, I even wear wrist guards, just in case. I’ve actually joined an under-40 men’s rollerblading club. It’s pretty sweet.”

- Ordering a latte. YELLOW. Our Battalion Judge thinks ordering a latte is RED. “Just say it out loud the next time you’re in a long line at a coffee shop between two gorgeous women and tell me you don’t feel just a little awkward.” Our Air O’s response was right on the mark: “No way man, there’s no way it’s red. The only thing better than a good latte is a perfect cappuccino, and do you know how hard those things are to find? The latte is GREEN.”

- Choreographed dances. RED. I once saw a group of guys at Texas A&M do a rehearsed line dance. They were authentic cowboys, drank Shiner Bock beer, and tipped there hat when they introduced themselves to a girl. All very cool for a kid from southern California. But rehearsing moves to Justin Timberlake’s “What Goes Around Comes Around”, let’s use the rehearsal time to work on our manners fellas.

- Leather man-sandals with the back. RED. You’re not in the Roman Legion. If you want backs on your leather sandals, get a pair of shoes.

- Jean shorts. RED. I liked Charles in Charge, Magnum P.I., MacGyver and Married with Children as much as the next guy. But those shows are dead now. And so are the jean shorts we used to watch them in.

- Jager shots past 25. RED. It’s not that shooting Jager makes you act like an a-hole (it does), it just that ordering them (and going through the whole look around make everyone else take them with you) makes you look like an asshole. You’re a grown man now. If you want to get hammered drunk, take your time, do it deliberately, and without all the noise.

- Wearing a scarf. RED. ***(Extra Life)*** (capt meno) “Some guys use scarves to stay warm – that’s cool and all – I like my scarves to express who I am, on the inside. I use them to spice up an outfit. It just gives me that extra “pow”, chicks dig it, and sometimes when we’re dancing they hold one side in each hand as I run my hands through their hair like in some really cool 80s movie.”

- Gamers. RED. ***(Extra Life)*** (msgt pine) “Depends on the game...”

- Sudoku. GREEN. If you ever been stuck in Kuwait or any airport anywhere...

- Ordering any of the following shots: The Orgasm. The Sex on the Beach. The Blowjob. RED. You want a shot? Be a man. Go tequila. Go Jack Daniels. Leave the Buttery Nipples for the bachelorette party.

- Male cheerleaders. YELLOW. They seem to be a really important part of the whole thing there, but this is a close one. Is it me, or would this just a hard thing to tell your son?

- Tofu. RED. Only if it’s by accident, or you didn’t know it was tofu when you ate it.

- Duvet Covers. YELLOW. We weren’t sure what this was, and we probably all have them, but it just sounded ridiculous and we all laughed when it was said.

- Being a vegan. RED. Though Benjamin Zephaniah’s latest collection of 22 poems dedicated to “the caring, dedicated vegans who will not stand for any exploitation whatever the species” was heart-warming, I’m just not ready to come over.

And more RED. Maroon 5. Telling a fraternity story at a dinner party. Talking with your mouth full. Not observing the one-urinal away rule. Mouth breathing. Talking on your cell phone while in a bathroom stall taking a #2 or at a grocery store check-out counter or pretty much anywhere I can hear everything you’re saying and had a reasonable expectation of not having to; texting while in the middle of a conversation; vanity plates; watches that are too small; musicals; working out with a mouth piece; watches that are too big; ice skating (unless you’re bad and trying to get laid, or good and used to play hockey); using the flight attendant call button; capri pants; tongue rings; tapered jeans; painted nails; rings on your thumbs; spandex; colored contacts; Rep Jane Harmon on “how to win in Afghanistan”. And knowing all the words to Grease. RED. RED. FIRE ENGINE, RED!

And there’s more – more green, more red, always more yellow – but that’s for you to decide. Me, I’m happy chilling with Little Buddha, half-drunk on good wine, licking ice cream off my hand, watching Love Actually.

I guess every man has his extra lives for the same reason: to let him enjoy a guilty smile while Mr. Tough-guy gets a breather. Just don't rest too long, shiny shirt guy is always on offense.

Quarter-Life Crisis.

I’M HAVING A QUARTER-LIFE CRISIS. I’m not alone here. I think most guys between the ages of 25 and 35 experience this gloomy condition at some point. It starts slowly, evolves desolately and ends universally – killing our boyhood spirit like some sort of attitude cancer. It’s not bad – it’s the way of things – but it is a crisis. And there’s no avoiding it. No self-help book. No 12 step plan. No ‘fall back, I’ll catch you.’ Nothing. Just the process of growing up, falling down, growing up some more and those misunderstood moments of masculine menstruation that throw us for a loop along the way. It’s all a part of the very THEATRICAL process of BECOMING A MAN: waking up one morning realizing it’s time to stop pushing our own ego and start pulling our own weight.

A man’s quarter-life crisis is best understood as a period of grumpiness and change: an up-the-nose eight ball of stress chased with a sinister cocktail of financial uncertainty, moral chaos, professional hesitation, romantic pandemonium, self-suspicion, and social diffidence. Men don’t like change. We especially don’t like our revolutions up-the-nose. But I’ll get to all that in a minute.

The quarter-life crisis is, basically, the uneasy process by which a man realizes that his adult life is going one way, his childhood dreams another. We’ll never play shortstop for the Yankees, bass for Jack White, pen the great American novel, or drive one of those NASA dune buggies on the Moon. It’s enough to leave even the best of us just a little disappointed.

The quarter-life crisis shapes men differently. Some emerge half-broken, half-confused or just plain huffy. We know these men as the majority. Others emerge as optimistic and energetic as they were before their crisis began. We know these men as the unemployed…

The truth is that most men emerge finding themselves settling in on a classical temperament: enough patience to survive a weekend with our wife’s parents but enough edginess to throw a tantrum at our son’s little league game. We seem to find ourselves become a little more like, well, like our fathers.

The quarter-life crisis transforms us from the young, bright-eyed boys we once were, to the grown-up, steel-eyed men we all said we’d never become. Things just…change. We get lines on our face. Hair starts to grow out of our ears. We hurt longer after workouts. We take naps and read. We boast about things like our lawn and getting good gas mileage. Last night we tried our hand at a nice casserole. Delicious! We know the number of calories in the beer we drink and might stay in on Friday night because we’re tired; it was a long week at work, after all. But hey, let’s hit the old golf ball around on Sunday. We might or might not be married. It doesn’t matter. One way or another we’re making some poor girl’s life harder than was advertised. We are young men in motion, making a complete mess – menstruating all over the place.

At the end of it all we garner a cheerlessly realistic sort of collective wisdom: the Yankees have a short stop, Jack White a bassist, NASA all the astronauts they need, Playboy’s going out of business and male enhancement pills don’t work as advertised. Mom lied – we can’t be anyone we want to be when we grow up.

The quarter-life crisis is characterized by this sort of untidy friction along the classical fault line of ‘boy’ becomes ‘man’ – that irreverent moment in time and space where our wonderfully intact (and inflated) egos collapse like an old Vegas card house dynamited in slow motion. Over and over and over again…

Ladies, want to know if the man you love is in the throes of his very own quarter-life crisis? Look for sudden outbursts of unpredictable agitation. Yesterday at the gym, a guy cut in front of me on the cable machine. I imagined myself grabbing his hand and running it through the pulleys as I finished my last set…10 minutes later, on the bike, a really heart-warming USO commercial came on and I teared up like a girl watching The Notebook. By the way, having seen The Notebook, like I have at least 5 or 6 times now, is also an indication of your man’s delicate emotional state…

Everything bothers a guy in quarter-life crisis. Real stuff bothers us, like having our rules of engagement posted on open source internet for our computer literate enemy to study and use to their advantage JUST AS unreal stuff bothers us, like knowing that 80% of Americans know that TV broadcasts are scheduled to switch from analog to digital in 2009, but that 77% don’t know John Roberts is the chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. We could read an old speech by Robert Kennedy for some insight into the nature of the contemporary American experiment, but get all the perspective we think we need by listening to Kanye West’s Jesus Walks on our IPOD. Our mothers tell us we’re being a little grumpy. George Carlin reminds us we’re just pissed off, which is ok, just so we keep laughing. At you. At him and her. And that thing over there. And most of all at ourselves…We become a walking Larry David episode. Everything becomes disconcerting. Our tolerance for the idiot lowers; our temperance for the ignorant thins – along with our hair and our patience. And it’s all a part of the process.

WHEN IT COMES TO EMOTIONAL MATTERS the bulk of research is dedicated to women who, it seems to me, have the ability to transcend moodiness into the sphere of crazy, and yet somehow still maintain a grip on everyday reality. They seem to roll well with nature’s hormonal punches. They have their ups and downs. And find girlfriends on reverse cycles. When times are bad, up-cycle forces down-cycle into a pair of heels; off they go to a nightclub, step onto the dance floor (hand-in-hand) forming an impenetrable estrogen defense, a phalanx of feminine hip-hop motion. They drink Cosmos we buy them, and flirt with someone else. They pile into a cab, watch Sex in the City, fall asleep with their make-up on and hug it out in the morning. I love you. No, I love you. Seriously girl, I love you…Wow, do I feel better. I love you…

Men handle down-times differently. We couldn’t tell you if another guy’s in a bad mood. Maybe he’s pissed off at something? Good, I’m pissed too. We don’t ask what’s wrong – we don’t care – but if you must force your misery on us, we welcome it…we’re just happy to know there’s a chance your problem’s worse than ours. We’ll say something comforting like ‘dude, you’re acting like a chick’ or maybe ‘I’m sorry man, were you saying something?’ Or, ‘so, then you wouldn’t mind if I called her, would you?’ And if you’re looking for a hug – ask my roommate Geoff, he gets real touchy-feely after a couple of beers.

And a man’s quarter-life grumpiness includes more complex hazards than getting felt up by Geoff. We find ourselves navigating an unfamiliar landscape of sensitivities and emotions. We’d rather just have a cold beer and watch an old John Ford film. Things such as our emotional IQ (the ability to love, be loved, accept and provide intimacy), our spiritual IQ (the ability to identify and communicate with a higher energy in man and nature, a God), and our moral center (the non-negotiable, though often tested and sometimes compromised moral imperative of our own sense of honor and character) prove tricky challenges for young men battling the quarter-life’s obstacle course. All this, and did I mention you won’t be playing for the Yankees this spring?

IT ALL BEGINS with the son's burden of his father's expectations. This is a heavy weight for a young man to carry. As a man reaches his quarter-life, he either sinks beneath this pressure (and drinks a lot) or somehow manages to leverage it to his advantage and pass it to his own sons (and they drink a lot). It’s a noble burden. Some guys shake it and make it, some don’t. And that’s where it all starts. AYE, TO BE KING. But the extent to which the quarter-life crisis affects a man has only a little to do with all that and a lot more to do with his personality type.

History gives us some insight into the matter. Abraham Lincoln was grumpy. Back then they called grumpy people "melancholy." In Joshua Wolf Shenk’s Lincoln's Melancholy, the president's life is explored through his manly grouchiness. Shenk argues it’s what fueled his greatness. The popular opinion of the 19th Century was that melancholy was a strong personality type. Grumps were considered thoughtful and sincere. They were respected for being so troubled by the madness of the world that surrounded them. Nowadays that personality type is treated as a psychosomatic problem and you’re medicated. Bad for the understanding of our own quarter-life crisis – good for the women we live with. Bad for the advancement of art, politics and culture – good for decorum in elementary school classrooms.

And some men are Lincoln at heart. Lucky are those miserable bastards that trudge forward beneath life’s darkest clouds. At least they always know to dress for rain. But most of us are generally a glad, thankful lot, only recently menstruating, and in need of a little understanding. What’s the solution for quarter-life grumps like us? Guys who don’t wear heels (there was that one time in Guam), hate Sex in the City (ok, the movie wasn’t that bad), and don’t want to hug it out (though I hear there’s a sergeant in the Company who gives a great post-patrol back massage: no terps, no happy endings). What makes this quarter-life tonic – one part fear, one part aggravation, one part disappointment – easier going down? Who’s to say?

And we’re men, so who’s to care?

And so we don’t care. And we go through life having other people explain our downs away. When we're boys and we get grumpy it's rationalized, "boys will be boys." When we're teens, it's excused. When we're in our early 20s it’s altogether overlooked (mostly because we're too drunk to know the difference). When we're in our late 20s and early 30s the elaborate architecture of our ego collapses and we plunge into our quarter-life crisis. By our late 30s we recover and amass huge sums of debt predicated on the understanding that everything from the big house to the wife’s new Jimmy Choo shoes are an “investment”. In middle age the things that used to make us happy, make us grumpy – a bottle of Scotch and the History Channel our only refuge. Then, with all its misplaced glory, comes the renaissance of the mid-life crisis; and we resurrect our adolescent ego and try all over again. This fails (of course) and the wife makes us turn in the Harley for a hybrid. By this time our own son’s in his quarter-life crisis and we find some fatherly comfort knowing we’ve been in his shoes. And one day, by some unknown providence, we become sagacious and celebrated and drunk (again). We wear bad sweaters and remember that laughing feels better than being pissed off. We hold court at family functions and only pass on advice if it was spoken by Don Corleone or sung by Frank Sinatra. And life starts to make sense…

WHICH MAKES ME THINK, maybe it’s only by seeing the quarter-life crisis as one in a series of many crises that a young man can assemble the sort of courage required for life’s all too brief journey. I suppose those hallmark quarter-life moments of becoming a man – things like shaving, getting thrown out at 2nd base by your first girlfriend, combat, various professional and personal failures, and spending way too much money in bad Baltimore strip clubs as an undergraduate – are all just learning points meant to teach us what the Ancient Greeks, Mario Puzo and our dad were trying to teach us all along: that challenge, let-down, loss, failure, pain, and women who take your money and leave you unsatisfied, are not exclusive to a man’s quarter-life, but inclusive to his complete evolution. And while we men don’t care for our life’s change to be the up-the-nose revolutionary sort, we should be willing to take such change in stride, and such crisis with a good laugh, and preferably in a bad sweater, drunk, and surrounded by family and friends that love us despite it all.

Everything's GREAT.

We all know someone who’s always doing “great!” Work is great! 780 “friends” on FaceBook, great! Sex life is great. Financial outlook, great! How about that great DJ last night! This top and those shoes, so great! Reality television, self-help books, coffee with flavored syrups, Zoloft, text messages, and Lil John’s latest, Crunk Rock, all great! So much great! Great-Great-Great!

Am I missing something? When did EVERYTHING become great?!! I’m on “great” over-load. When did “great” become standard? Am I wrong thinking “hard”, “difficult”, “confusing”, “sad”, or at best “unfair”, the norm? “Great”, I thought, that wonderful moment here and there; “great” that infrequent yet magnificent sparkle that marked a memory or two along life’s short, hard course...that feeling you got when life's tide shifted in your favor, if only for a minute, and made pushing on the ocean just a little bit easier...

Remember? Great is special…

Every time I hear someone tell me they’re doing great I want to ask them, “Really? Are you really great?" If they’re great, what’s better than great? If they tell me they’re doing “good” does that really mean they’re doing badly? What’s worse than bad? Has “bad” become the end of the rope? Hope not.

As for these "I'm great" people, it’s not that their positive attitude is a problem – an affirmative attitude is a decisive weapon in an intolerant world – it’s just that their excessive use of the word “great” is becoming unreasonable and I think we might be getting a little soft. I think feeling “great” all the time helps us rationalize what the Greeks wrote about in detail: Life’s a bitch.
Deal with it.

It’s not that there aren’t great things in this world, there are – strappy heels and thigh-highs, anything by Ed Vedder, and a Jameson at the end of a long day, to name a few – it’s just that there so many not-great things – poverty, Beltway traffic, the WNBA, or anything by Noam Chomsky – that I think we need to rediscover life’s pure equilibrium: not-bad, not-great, hopefully pretty darn good, probably pretty darn tough...some have forgotten this much.

I was having drinks one afternoon with a close friend. He was losing lots of money at work. I was dealing with the standard mess emblematic of my personal life. Conversation about the recent suicide of a friend, the development of cancer in another and the divorce of a third carried out to streaming images of violence in Israel, apocalypse in Darfur, and Wall Street burning before our eyes from the TV above the bar. The situation, for a lot of us the world over at that moment in time it seemed, was pretty grim and we two were dealing with it all as best we could, with honest conversation, genuine fellowship, realistic expectations, and lots and lots of hard alcohol…

There was a girl sitting next to us. She was in her early 20’s. She was all that is California: blonde and tan and tone and blue-eyed and eager. And busy on her phone. She’d type, send, take a sip of her pink confection and flip her sandal on her big toe. Seconds later a reply. She’d read it, laugh, put her drink down, and write back. By now (and without knowing it) we were staring. She looked up, caught our eye and smiled. “Hey guys,” she said. “Hey”, we replied in monotone and dazed unison. “What’s up?” she asked. “Nothing,” we said. “What’s up with you?” I asked. “SO well,” (actually not even answering the question) “everything is just so-so GREAT! How about you two, isn’t everything just so great for you guys?!” she asked with a naïve, rhetorical, and altogether presumptuous casualness that diminished her outward hotness almost immediately. “Yeah,” we said as we looked up towards the images of our world burning live time before us and then at each other and the reality of our own personal disasters and replied, “everything is just great.” But it wasn’t…it was not great…and she didn’t get it. It was all over her head. Or under ours. Or neither, or both…or whatever...

And "great" confusion isn’t just a problem with the local hots at the local bars...everyone gets it wrong. The media missed “great” this week altogether…

The Iraqi national election was great. More than 65% of eligible voters turned out in Ninewa and Saladin Provinces, more than half country-wide; when I stood on an elementary school’s rooftop in Haditha in a nervous security posture in 2005 at the first national election, that number stood at 2% countrywide. Just now we weren’t allowed to drive, fly, or operate at all – this was Iraq’s show. The principle operations nerve center was guarded with a triple duty here on base, and the polls opened. And we held our breath. At the end of the day more than 14,400 Iraqi citizens ran for less than 500 positions and opinions were voiced freely, conferred legitimately, and positions of power exchanged bloodlessly. As the sun set, we all lowered our heads at a dinner of celebratory steak and lobster and admitted, “Hey, they pulled it off, good for them, after all of this…what a great day.”

What a great day indeed…and all after our own new President assumed command after a bloodless exchange of power of our own.

But that day I read more about Iceland and their new Premier’s taste in women (which is actually pretty hot) and the Super Bowl (which is a great win for a great blue collar town) than I did about this historic (and peaceful and unthinkable) day for democracy. Those were the “great” stories of the past few news cycles…and the “not-great” stories called my attention to the Nikkei dropping 120 points (uh huh), Michael Phelps and a hash pipe (surprise) and that a man is selling “867-5309” (which is actually pretty glorious); never mind authentic “not-great” stories like Al Qaeda abductions in Pakistan, our own stimulus in-fighting, or the Jonas Brothers “virgin” testimony on YouTube…to borrow the words of my roommate who walked in on me just yesterday cleaning my rifle while dancing and singing out-loud to the new Pink LP So What: “What the holy-hell is going on here!!!”

Not everything “great” is necessarily “great” – things like the Great Depression, Great White Sharks, and Six Flags Great Adventure were all pretty shitty – which makes me think “great” is all a matter of perspective. The “hot” flipping her sandal was doing “great”! She has no job, takes 9 hours at Mira Costa Community College, a rock-star metabolism, her own “daddy” stimulus package, a reading list that goes as far as “The Secret” and implants that reinforce summer vacation plans and her ego. If you’re the hot and taken care of, why wouldn’t you be great? Now, integrate the perspective of an Aeschylus, Euripides or Aristophanes with say the understanding of a Hemmingway, Nabokov or Fitzgerald, and I’d say we have perspective. A reminder that everything isn’t so great. As it should be...most things stand as both bad and good. Great and awful.

Take the 20th Century. Bundle it up. Get your tissues, a few diet cokes, a pack of Marlboro Lights, and ask yourself, was it a great century?

That hot 20-something sandle-flipper might argue it was the worst of all centuries! Hitler’s Holocaust, Stalin’s Gulag, two (some might argue three) world wars, millions upon millions dead, a global depression, African genocide, Islamism and the rise of her own evil influence; it was indeed a century of great-awful…a century of pushing on the ocean.

But was it not also the century of incredible leaps in science and technology - a century that cured such terrible disease, and gave man's imagination, design? Was it not a century of ground-breaking art, music and film? Was it not a century anchored by woman's suffrage, a Civil Rights movement, and the defeat of Imperialism, Hitlerism, and Stalinism the world over? For the first time we drove and flew, we sailed faster, dove to incredible depths, and sent man to space to climb the face of our own night's white mountain face. And we advanced. We got smarter and healthier, more wealthy.

It was a century of complex and competing self and national desires; it was a century in which the words of Alexander Solzhenitsyn hold perhaps most true: it was a time in the West to defend not so much human rights as human obligations. And defend we did. Or so we tried. Though not without error or loss, it was a century of progress. And all at a cost - both great and awful.

All else being equal, it's a wonder still everyone does not share this exact same empty feeling as they look back upon our own history: that we are man alone, pushing on the ocean.

It's a wonder so many people agree: Everything's just great! When the truth is, everything is what it is...

Fallujah Good.

Halsey never forgave himself for missing Midway. Not that he had much of a choice – he was sent back to Pearl to recover from a skin infection. He also missed Coral Sea. But it was the ghost of Spruance (whom he appointed to command in his absence) and a victory at Midway that haunted him into his final days. Warfighters call this a “warrior’s guilt” – a terminal and melancholy condition of the human heart.

By all accounts Midway shouldn’t have affected him like it did. Count his leadership at the Marshalls, Gilberts, Wake, and Marcus Islands. His operational calculus at Rabaul and an early jump at Leyte probably saved a hundred days of Pacific bloodshed. Midshipmen pouring over the sea battle histories of Morison, Thomas, and McBride love Halsey because of the warrior culture he cultivated. His swagger. We’re lectured on his failures – he bit on Ozawa’s pump fake at San Bernadino, Kurita backdoored him and slammed an exposed Kinkaid, he lost the Hornet, Princeton, Gambier Bay and Chicago when perhaps he could have prevented such a thing and as a Midshipman himself was repeatedly reprimanded for whiskey drinking in Bancroft Hall – but we weren’t studying Admiral Halsey as a tactical or strategic wizard (and who were we to snub our nose at a little Bancroft Hall mischief), we were studying him as an exceptionally aggressive leader of ships of war and the sailors that so bravely fought them. His shortcomings made him more believable. You could almost feel him among us in that same class room, a hundred years before….half asleep and hungover.

So while missing Midway shouldn’t have gotten to Halsey, it did. And that’s part of the awfulness and mystery of a warrior’s guilt – it’s a deeply personal disease. Those demons aren’t supposed to make sense to anyone but the warrior himself.

Fallujah was my Midway. Reporting to my infantry battalion on the heels of their homecoming from Operation AL FAJR, the sack of Fallujah and the most intense and horrifying urban combat since Hue City, I stood in awe of what I heard. I was surrounded by my heroes. While they fought that November battle in far away Anbar, I listened to their combat reports on an old radio freezing my ass off in a dug out machine gun position in the hills of Quantico. Winter came, I graduated from my advanced training and 3/1 came home to their wives, children, and the new Marines just assigned their post. They buried their dead, and licked their wounds. Then we began to sharpen our spears together, making ready for our next deployment. We were all convinced we’d missed “the big one”, and we had. Haditha and Saddamiyah were complex, dangerous and rewarding tours but the Battle of Fallujah was a watershed moment in Marine Corps history, and it was one that I had missed.

I have come to appreciate Halsey’s remorse.

No one ever took the time to explain the battle of Fallujah to us. We heard some stories of course – “last deployment” story telling is a less than subtle technique of most salty Marines intent on reminding the new joins that they are just that – but the accounts were incomplete nonetheless.

In time, the tales were given a proper context once we had done our own time down range, but even still there were missing pieces to this battlefield story. All battlefield stories seem to be a kaleidoscope puzzle of the human condition.

And then I saw Fallujah Good, a captivating touchstone of what a Marine feels, thinks, sees, and does when faced with the darkness of war. Fallujah Good is a one man play about the five months of low intensity counter insurgency operations 3/1 conducted in Ash Shahabi, a working class insurgent crossroad with deep Baathist ties, and the final twelve day action of their historic autumn battle.

Playwright Adam Mathes was a platoon commander with Kilo Company’s “Spartans” during AL FAJR, and an Executive Officer in Haditha and Saddamiyah. His one man play tells a Marine’s story more completely than I’ve ever heard it told. And story-telling is hard to do.
I cannot accurately tell you in words, for example, the waterfall of emotions you feel while you walk your three hundredth patrol or come under fire. I cannot best write this boredom or fatigue, excitement or fear. I’m not that talented of a writer. And that’s the problem. The men that experience such a thing aren’t usually the best communicators. And so these stories are told as best as they can be in pictures, film, or by the words of outsiders, looking in. Much is lost in this translation and this loss accounts for the real story. Aeschylus was right, the first casualty of war is truth. Mathes, however, uses his experience as Marine Infantry Officer, and his rich education in theatre and Shakespeare, to salvage what one truth can emanate from such a place, that levity carries the darkness, and communicates this feeling through art.

As human beings we require art to tell our story, to ease the sadness of our defeats or celebrate the joy of our victories. Art is everything. The Iraq experience has not been communicated properly, in part, because it is such a divisive political issue, and in part because so few of the warrior’s that have walked the streets of a Ramadi or Haditha can tell it in such a way; which is precisely why Mathes’ work is so significant to our contemporary understanding of this conflict. It is a politically agnostic piece that resigns itself to the horrors of war, yet celebrates the resilient soul of the brave Americans that wage it. And as we have oft been reminded, we do not make the policy, we enforce it.

Mathes’ play unfolds along a critical dimension: it translates to a non-Marine Corps audience without losing the potency of Marine idioms. Here, director Denver Vaughn triumphs, his work resonating with the largely co-ed University of California undergraduate audience I watched it with. I think this is because when Mathes writes, language matters. Every word mattered. And when Benjamin Mathes, the sparkling young brother-actor and protagonist, stood on that small stage and carried his words, the language was given life. And we had tears and laughter. We had art.

Fallujah Good had an authentic verbal and non-verbal language to it; maybe it helped that the actor was the playwright’s own brother, and so he was able to project the emotion he felt while his own blood was away in such a place, the emotion only a loved one could. Whatever the case, Benjamin Mathes captured the truths of “Marine speak” (sayings such as the Spartan refrain, “Trample the weak, hurl the dead”, TTFP: “take the fucking pain”, or “don’t fuck it up”), the prevalence of Copenhagen snuff, and the timeless bravado that is as much a part of our infantry tribe as anything else.

But there was something more, a certain prevailing emotional language that captured the cautious optimism of a man away at war. With this most important sentiment the audience was left with a feeling I think most Iraq veterans had to develop in those long Anbar months: hope.
I suppose if we had more art that made us feel this way, perhaps old vets could sleep a little bit longer and everyone else less prone to judge, more to understand. Perhaps art like this will help a warrior’s guilt become not quite so terminal. Old Bull Halsey would have liked that.

breaking up has got me down.

Iraq was so busy this time three years ago I couldn’t see straight. Things are different now. They’re better – much, much better – and so unlike anything we expected back then. Work comes less frequently, and when it does, now with an integrated Iraqi presence. Security has improved, and not superficially so. Iraq’s native sons now shoulder much of the load. They patrol, and investigate and actively hunt Al Qaedists. There’s a palpable optimism in the streets of the villages we observe – optimism absent in these same souls only a few years ago. It’s remarkable. How come I don’t feel remarkable?

Iraq is breaking up with me – and breaking up has got me down.

The Status of Forces Agreement has codified the split. Three years ago it seemed as though Iraq couldn’t go on without me. Now she’s in charge (by virtue of plebiscite, self-determination, and the fact that lots of military lawyers told me so) and things will never be the same. What’ll I do without an Iraq to visit every 7 to 10 months? What will she do without 120,000 me’s? I know, she’ll be fine and really I’m very proud of her. But that doesn’t take away the hurt. She’s moving on, and damn if she doesn’t look good as she walks away.

While this isn't the bad, self-loathing, listen to the same Damien Rice song on repeat while reading her old emails, stuffing my face with high fructose corn syrups and saturated fats, wondering “what happened?” kind of break-up, it’s a break-up nonetheless. And breaking up really sucks.

Breaking-up is best understood in Calvin and Hobbes terms: short, long and longest. In the short term, a good break-up is best categorized by how civil the two can be towards each other. In the long term, a good break-up is best categorized by how little (or how much) regret survives (regret as either a question of “was it best he leave?” or “should I have even dated him at all?”). And in the longest term, a good break-up is best categorized by what you learned from your partner while you were together.

I met with a Kurdish Major a few weeks ago. We talked and drank chai. He had a pencil-thin mustache pasted to his upper lip with hair gel. He warned that if my platoon wanted to go here or there, he’d come and assume command. To which I told him that we’d be going neither here nor there. To which he told me that was fine because no matter the case he and his men detested Arabs and took care of them in short order. My Marines were surprised by the Kurd’s intensity. My Arab linguist was surprised that when the Kurd said "short order" he looked right at him. And the Kurd, I think, was surprised I kept staring at his mustache. It was a short term consequence of the break-up. All very civil.

The long term question of regret remains to be seen. It’s been a rough affair form the start. We entered the relationship with bad intel and without the benefit of all the facts (story of my life), got in over our heads (who doesn’t), things got a little out of control (who said love is easy) and got bad before they got better (they always do). And then, after some big fights (Fallujah, Najaf), and some self-improvement (The Awakening, The Sons of Iraq, The Surge, SOCOM raids, and a Chuck Norris USO tour) things got better. Al Qaeda infiltrated and were killed by the thousands. Iraqi nationalism defeated Islamic radicalism. Free elections occurred, oil revenues poured in, and schools were built. Commerce spread. Security forces grew, trained and succeeded in the field. And a brave, young democratic Iraq stood up to no applause in a region of kleptocracies.

Still, what of Baghdad’s corruption? What of Tehran’s short-game? And Washington’s hand? Good questions all. The long term question of whether Iraq will regret breaking up with us remains to be seen. The question of whether Iraq will regret having dated us at all is, in light of a sans-Saddam landscape alone, decidedly unlikely. Still, when it comes to long term success or long term regret in both love and war, my absolute law of be-lief holds: be yourself, be aggressive, be careful.

Then there’s the longest term – those lessons we learn along the way. Those things we’re supposed to recall, reflect on, and revise. What could we do better next time? Or not at all? What have our leaders learned of the projection of power? Or it’s delicate balance? Our citizens of war’s scope? Our soldiers of its cost? The longest term is relevant if and only if these very difficult questions are asked, answered, and remembered. These become the hard learned take-aways, the essential waypoints for a dynamic Republic.

Personally I’ve learned much from Iraq. I’ve learned that war is not company softball – not everybody gets to play just because they’re on the team. I’ve learned that the Marine Corps preserves democracy, it does not practice it. I’ve learned football analogies explain most everything and all care packages will almost always contain bubble gum, hand sanitizer, and old magazines. I’ve learned to take your job seriously, not yourself. I’ve learned Copenhagen is best kept in your sleeve, tin to skin and someone who calls you “big guy”, “champ”, “chief” or “boss” is almost always a jerk-off. I’ve learned more I’m sure, but I can’t remember them now.

I do remember a break-up’s bad feeling gets better. Short term anxiety turns to long term understanding, long term understanding to longest term wisdom. At least it supposed to and that sounds nice, but it really doesn’t help the fact that right now Iraq is breaking up with me and I didn't even see it coming. My roommate (who's looking over my shoulder as I write this) reminds me the first thing any man does when he gets dumped is immediately establish his awesomeness elsewhere. And I remind him that while this classically takes the form of a night of bad casual sex or a bad night attempting the same, we all end up at home, alone, drunk and on her FaceBook page. In this case, I think we’ll both just end up in Afghanistan.

And that’d be just fine by us.

Lady Killer.

Patrolling Iraq's Route Lincoln, the major east-west highway between Baghdad and Ramadi, is no picnic. Still, many Marines experience more anxiety walking up to a beautiful woman at Hollywood's Sky Lounge than they do approaching a potential suicide bomber on Lincoln's 84 Easting checkpoint. Both present the Marine with a dodgy, unpredictable hard-liner; at least on Lincoln there's a defense. Armored vehicles and vests, heavy-caliber machine guns, good comm and close air support. On Lincoln a fella’s got a chance. The Sky Lounge is a suicide mission.

Approaching women is a scary business. In the world of boy-meets-girl there's no armor, no weapon, no comm and – unless you can convince a friend it's in his best interest to be your wing – no back-up. What makes the one so much more terrifying than the other? What makes the Marine so good at the application of violence, so bad at the application of romance?

It has nothing to do with our bad haircuts, or foul language (though I can’t say it helps) and everything to do with basic training.

A Marine’s professional education begins with a moral cage rattling. Boot camp introduces the recruit to the basic principles of war as captured in the maneuverist’s great tome, Warfighting: that war is an act of violence shaped by human emotions; an extreme trial of moral and physical strength and stamina; that it is the greatest horror to humanity – a messy, violent, chaotic and fluid phenomenon requiring flexibility, boldness, speed, focus, courage, and risk. The recruit is taught to operate in constant states of disorder. He learns to control his emotions and that success (and survival) hinges on the interplay of initiative and response.

From this is born the mind of a professional warrior. Route Lincoln? No problem.
Now take a Marine’s education in women. Shoot, take any man’s education in women. It’s the perfect storm of goofy pop-culture influence, outdated (but admittedly classic and awesome) fatherly techniques, hit and miss tactics, and an overwhelming sexual anxiety pitted against the hormonal WMD that is our male body. Throw in teen-pregnancy, sexually transmitted disease, some Too-Short lyrics, a Judeo-Christian ethic and a broken home and we’re talking about some seriously stressful times.

From this is born the mind of a wandering idiot. Sky Lounge? No thank you.

What’s worse is on top of all this we’re socially conditioned to believe that success with women is providence-based: “How’d it go man? Did you get lucky?”

That can’t be as good as it gets...

I think if we apply the same principles of training for war to the practice of attracting women, the aggressive insurgent killers of today might just become the lady killers of tomorrow.

The only disparity between the Marine patrolling the mean streets of Fallujah and the Marine cruising the frosty bars of Newport Beach is confidence. Confidence is taught every day on the parade decks of Parris Island, the shooting ranges of Camp Pendleton and in the flight simulators of Pensacola. The Marine Corps successfully instills self-confidence everyday through aggressive and realistic training and sends Marines to battle with a certain expectation of violence, danger and self-sacrifice; and, more positively, with a dominant expectation of victory. Confidence is what makes a Marine so successful in battle. The problem with girls is simple: No training. No confidence. No girlfriend.

And that's no way to live.

Training to pick up girls must be no different than training to pick off an enemy skirmisher. From the first approach to the break-up, no aspect of a man’s execution should be left to chance. There are already enough factors outside of our control.

Love, like war, is an experience shaped by human emotions…an extreme trial of moral strength and stamina. Of course it’s not the greatest horror, but rather the greatest happiness to humanity – but certainly not free from hard work. Find me a true relationship without the need for flexibility, boldness, focus, courage and risk. To get there – to get just the chance to fall in love – you have to engage. You must attract and be attracted. Those few moments of attraction – and we only have a few moments to attract her – will determine our success and a success – in a simple approach or a complex love – hinges on our ability to control our emotions, operate in a state of disorder, exercise a certain boldness and seize the initiative.

Success hinges on conditioning. Training. Self-confidence. And probably a better haircut.

The truth is, the things that make us so great in battle (self-confidence, a strong heart and a little luck) also make us great in love. Training ourselves to be as good in love as we are in war matters, because, at the end of the day, I think we'd all prefer make our luck, than get lucky.