Thursday, June 4, 2009

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.

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