Just Another Soilder

Jason has been reporting in from Iraq again. This guy is a great writer, a sound thinker, and a new online friend. His stories are available through email only so go subscribe at his website. It’s really amazing stuff. Here’s a copy of the note he sent about a week ago…

The Tao of Soldiering

Learn to Suffer

You are not Special

Know your Place

Release your Attachments

Today is the birthday of The Monastic Order of Infantrymen. For those
unfamiliar with MOI, let me explain.

Soldiering is difficult. But for soldiers with the proper attitude,
there can be great fulfillment from this work. To find peace and
contentedness from a job that may seem intuitively chaotic, you simply
have to find the tao of soldiering and embrace it.

For soldiers who are nauseated by terms like ’embrace’, ‘peace’, and
‘contentedness’, and don’t know how to pronounce ‘tao’ (it’s like ‘dow’,
as in Dow Jones, and can be translated loosely to mean ‘the way’) let me
put this in terms a grunt can understand. Being a soldier is to live in
a world of shit. You’re constantly surrounded by assholes, you have to
endure an unending amount of bullshit from your leadership, military
regulations and paperwork, stupid training missions, and in the end of
it all you’ll most likely get shit on by your own government sooner or
later when they fuck up your pay and benefits. And to top it all off,
you might actually have to go into combat at some point which also means
you’ll spend a lot of time in another world of shit (i.e. Iraq) and
possibly get your balls blown off by some insurgent asshole who is too
afraid to fight you face to face so he explodes jury-rigged artillery
rounds next to your Humvee while he’s outside the maximum effective
range of most your weapons systems. Soldiering just plain sucks. From
the pogues who cook my food and do my laundry to the Apache pilots and
the Green Berets who do all the Hollywood stuff, our lives are in a
constant state of suck. But there are soldiers who have found a way to
not only endure it all, but to enjoy it. Contentment, happiness,
fulfillment, rewardingness, peace, meaning, purpose, zen, the way, the
middle path, nirvana, the big nothing, whatever you want to call it,
it’s there if you are unafraid to see it.

Learn to Suffer

Most everything a soldier does entails discomfort. As a soldier, you
will discovery an encyclopedic number of ways to suffer. The suffering
is physical, psychological, and emotional. It can also be financial,
legal, marital, and any other word you can give the ‘-al’ suffix to.
There is nowhere you can go to avoid suffering. There is no reprieve,
no solace. It is unavoidable and inevitable. You can either cry about
it, or you can just learn how to suck it up.

One of the first things an effective soldier learns during Basic
Training is that physical endurance has nothing to do with physical
ability. Your body gives you the illusion that you are only able to do
what is within your physical limitations. Say for example your muscles
are only strong enough to do fifty pushups. This limitation is very
convincing. You believe that you can’t do more than what your muscles
and bones are physically capable of doing. In reality the only
limitation is the will of the soldier. You probably think that if you
lift weights and get stronger muscles, you will be able to do seventy
pushups. This is true, but you aren’t able to do more pushups because
your muscles are stronger, you are able to do more pushups because your
stronger muscles are a convincing illusion to allow yourself the will to
do more. The truth is, with will alone you can do seventy pushups, or
ten thousand for that matter. Accomplishing more than you physically
should be able to is referred to as “using the force.” If the Jedi
metaphor for describing “will” doesn’t work for you, then use the
Christian one. In the New Testament (Matthew 17:20), Jesus said that
with the faith of a mustard seed you can move mountains. So whether
you’re raising an X-Wing fighter out of a swamp or parting the Red Sea,
the concept is the same: you simply need the will.

It is not necessary for the novitiate to buy into any of this. But when
he’s into the twelfth mile of a forced road march carrying nearly his
own body weight in gear, he learns that there is a landscape of pain he
never knew existed. Once you’ve learned that there is no real limit to
what you can endure, you’re on your way to understanding that you can do
just about anything so long as you allow yourself to have the will to do
it. And the easiest way to learn this concept is to suffer and realize
you can endure it, then as you reach a new level of painful experiences,
you are able to begin working on the next level. Eventually you learn
that there is virtually no end to the kinds of pain mortality can make
available to you, and you continue to learn that there is no discomfort
you can not overcome. The process of learning to suffer is always
ongoing. No matter how much you’ve suffered, there is always more to

You are not Special

As Americans and westerners, we value individuality more than just about
anything. Individuality is at the core of our concepts about freedom.
The protection of the individual is vital to a free society. But while
the civilian is the “individual”, the soldier is the “protection”.

As a society, we’ve gotten really good at fostering individual
development. As a soldier, trying to incorporate the idea that
individuality must be discarded is usually a very hard thing to accept
at first. Because of basic psychological self-preservation instincts
and a million beliefs that have been socialized into us from the moment
of our birth, we protect our “ego” more than anything. You are who you
think you are. You spend your life developing an image in your head of
who you are. You have a name, you live in a certain place, you have a
certain profession, you have tastes, opinions, preferences, druthers.
In terms of a capitalistic society, we are nothing more than consumers.
So we define our individuality by what we consume. (Sometimes the
consumer becomes disillusioned by this, so he simply adjusts his tastes
to something that more easily will identify him as an individual. “I’m
not into Metallica anymore, they’re too mainstream. I’m into The Mars
Volta now.”) There are eight million individuals in New York City. I
was one of them. Like in college where the second question asked after
“what’s your name” is “so what’s your major”, in New York City the only
two things anyone wants to know when they first meet you are “so what do
you do” and “where do you live”. I was a paratrooper and a programmer
who lived in Nolita. I doubt there has ever been anyone who could say
that. So I’m an individual, right?

In ten thousand years, no one is going to know who you were. Right now,
while you are living, you don’t even really matter. You live in Ohio,
you work at a hardware store, you drive a Saturn, you have two kids, you
send your mom a Mother’s Day card every year, you have a beautiful
lawn. You’re the CEO of a Fortune 500 company, you have a loft in
Chelsea and a summer home on Fire Island, you come from old money, you
visit your mom every Christmas who lives in the home where you grew up
an only child in New England, you were on the cover of Forbes and Out in
the same month. Does any of this really matter? Someday you’re going
to die and they’ll throw dirt on your grave just like everyone else’s.
Someday the sun will expand and consume every living thing on earth.
Someday the universe will collapse in on itself then explode into a
brand new universe. Even these events don’t really matter, they’re
just things that happen. So whether you prefer creamy or chunky is of
such absurdly little consequence, the near meaninglessness of it is
mind-boggling. Accept that you are of no consequence, that you are
essentially nothing. In a universe of infinite universes that will
ultimately return to the singularity from whence they all came, you are
as inconsequential as my peanut butter preference.

Know your Place

As a corollary to knowing that you are not special, you must also know
your place. Unlike the private kindergarten you attended in Woodstock
where everyone was special and an equal, even Timmy in his wheelchair
and Tyrone the black kid, in the military there is a hierarchy because
it is the easiest way to get things done. I spent an enormous amount of
my military career as a private. I took out the trash and mopped the
floor. Now that I’m a sergeant, I want you to shut the fuck up and
continue sweeping, is that clear? Everyone has a job and a role, and by
staying in your lane, work can be accomplished more efficiently.
Imagine if your car’s fuel injection system decided it wanted to start
managing the anti-lock braking functions? The compartmentalization of
tasks exists so you can be free to concentrate on your own set of
tasks. When I raid a building, I know how I’m going to breech the door,
I know how to clear the rooms, I know how to handle detainees. While
I’m doing this there are Apaches circling overhead. I don’t know how to
do their job, and that’s okay. I need air support and they provide it.
The intelligence guys interrogate the detainees and come up with more
targets for my platoon to raid. Remember, you are Soldier Nobody, not
General Patton. Concentrate on your job and you will be able to perform
it well. As an Infantryman, your job is to shoot people. Don’t worry
about Abu Ghraib, Fallujah, or Michael Moore. If your target is moving,
remember to lead your point of aim a bit.

Release your Attachments

Suffering is caused by attachments. The sooner you accept this, the
sooner you will learn how to overcome suffering. As Americans and
westerners, we love our stuff. How much did you love Christmas as a
kid? I remember thinking that the entire purpose of life was
Christmas. That’s when I got a whole new batch of toys, because as a
kid, all the mattered to me was toys. To this day, I am still in awe at
the fact that the feeling Christmas gave me is one without parallel.
There have only been a handful of experiences in my life that are on par
with how I felt about Christmas as a child. But toys break, they get
lost, and eventually you lose interest in them. As an adult, what is
more of a pain in the ass then your car? Or upkeep of your house? You
can get a lot of satisfaction from stuff, I won’t deny how much I love
going to Barnes & Noble or to the music store. But you don’t get real
happiness from material possessions. And attachments go well beyond the
things you can own. Relationships you have with people can be
attachments. In fact, I dare say that there are more relationships in
the world based on insecurity and attachment than love. And the
ultimate attachment is your own ego. Your sense of ‘self’ is something
you cling to, because as we already discussed, it’s who you think you
are. The linchpin to the the tao of soldiering is freeing yourself from
your attachments. The less you own, the better. The more stuff you own
is more stuff to worry about while you’re deployed. The girl you were
dating isn’t going to wait for you for eighteen months, so just get over
her and move on. Even if you are in a healthy and strong relationship
with your wife, your marriage will not be the same when you get back.
Like the relationship you have with any of your loved ones, it won’t
necessarily go bad, but it will certainly be different when you get
back. There are several guys in my platoon who missed births of their
children. This affects them and I’m sure it affects their wives. And
in turn it will affect their marriage. Crappy marriages don’t handle
this sort of this well and they will end. Good marriages will weather
it, but will evolve into something different. Either way, guys who are
attached to the way things were, will be miserable. And whatever you
thought about yourself, ideas you cling to that you consider part of
your identity, may very well change after you’ve been around some good
‘ole fashion death and destruction. Attachments are bad. The less you
have the better. Real freedom is having no attachments. Only then are
you able to have happiness. When you feel happiness for it’s own sake,
and not because of some external mechanism, you have found the tao.

The Monastic Order of Infantrymen

Infantrymen who have found the tao of soldiering sometimes find
themselves living a near-monastic lifestyle because of it. If you have
no major attachments, specifically no wife, no girlfriend, and no kids,
and have an MOS that is 11-series, 18-series (Army), 03-series
(Marines), or you are a Navy SEAL, you are able to join the Order. To
join, a novitiate must perform an act of initiation involving
humiliation, discomfort, and nudity as perscribed by a member of MOI.
For example, making a snow angel in public while naked. Exceptional
novitiates can be grandfathered in without initiation if three members
of MOI approve. The proper greeting between members is a handshake with
the right hand while grabbing ones own crotch with the left. Members
will refer to each other as “brother”, and the proper way to say
good-bye is, “See you in Valhalla, brother.” Should a member come to
find he has a wife, girlfriend, or child, he is honorably released from
the Order.

I like being a soldier and I love being an infantryman. There are a lot
things that truly suck about being in Iraq, but none of it’s really all
that bad. This is the most interesting and exciting thing I’ve ever
done. War is a horrible thing and I hope that as human culture we can
find a way to completely put an end to it, but I have to admit I like
combat. I’m not sure how this is possible, but it’s how I feel. When
guys discuss when we will be sent home, I get sorta depressed. I don’t
want it to end yet. How often do you get to shoot at terrorists?
(Don’t try to tell me they’re not all terrorists. The guy who fills the
water tanks for our showers had his head cut off last week and his
entire family killed. That qualifies as terrorist in my book.) I love
this job. Anyone who says you won’t find happiness during combat,
doesn’t know how to find happiness. Combat has nothing to do with it.

There are several excellent stories in the works. Now that we have
internet access in our bunker, I have become a network administrator of
sorts and it has become virtually impossible to find uninterrupted
blocks of time to sit down and write. The number of distractions
available to me and the fact that there’s still plenty of crazy shit
taking place in Iraq that I get to be a part of on an almost daily
basis, it makes for a very difficult environment to concentrate on
writing. If you can forgive my sporadic emails, I can promise you some
good stories.

A preview of things to come:

My rejected Calvin Klein fragrance proposal:
“Ambush – for men.”

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