The Greatest Good

Blood was always on our hands: we were licensed to it. Wounding and killing seemed ephemeral pains, so very brief and sore was life with us…. We lived for the day and died for it.

– T.E. Lawrence

Sadiqiyah, Al Anbar Province, Iraq                                                              18 Nov 2006

On a bright autumn morning in the seedy Euphrates river town of Sadiqiyah, a bridge that had been barred from local use for two years was finally re-opened to the public. Instantly a human wave of shouting children boiled out from storefronts and alleyways, tearing at wire obstacles, engineer stakes and military road signs in a frenzy of looting. Interspersed throughout the throng of screaming children were knots of swarthy, suspicious men. Unwilling to fire on the men amongst unarmed and seemingly harmless kids, Marines in my nearby observation post stood silently next to an automatic grenade launcher, vainly peering through clouds of dust at the partially obscured span.

Marines peer out from behind ballistic glass in an observation position on the 611 Bridge, just 2 weeks before it was demilitarized. November 5, 2006

As quickly as the melee had started it was over. The last small boy disappeared into a filthy house dragging a U.S. military road sign warning residents not to stop near the bridge or they would be shot. All was quiet, except for a trickle of civilian traffic that was just beginning to enjoy its new-found freedom of movement.

The quiet was shattered within three hours when two military vehicles were blown up by IEDs emplaced on or underneath the bridge. Marines in the nearby observation posts reacted with rage and guilt, condemning themselves for failing to spot and engage the IED emplacers within the crowd of thieving children earlier that morning.

As the platoon commander responsible for the security of the bridge, I had failed. The crowd of kids had certainly screened the movement of the suspicious men in the morning, but with our inflexible rules of engagement, suspicion will not justify engagement.

Later, I had unknowingly driven by one of the IEDs underneath the bridge while setting a vehicle blocking position to the west. As circumstances changed and it became necessary to shift positions with another Humvee, I was driving back towards the hidden IED when the oncoming vehicle disappeared in a sheet of flame and oily black smoke. I could hear the blood rushing in my ears for about three heartbeats until the Humvee emerged from the cloud of smoke in slow motion, damaged but driveable.

The concussion of the blast seemed to jar loose a moral inhibitor in my brain. Returning to the observation post I grimly requested for a sniper team to be sent to me that night. My instructions to them left no question as to engagement criteria: It was clear that the insurgents predicted our western morality and covered their hostile actions with traditionally innocent trappings; therefore, any IED emplacement activity around the bridge -regardless of the age or sex of the individual – was to be prosecuted by the snipers. I determined not to risk any more Marine lives based on an inherited moral quagmire.

That night the sniper team inserted into a house that had good observation of the bridge. Early the next morning, I was rattled out of meaningless thoughts by a sharp crackle of gunfire to the north. Rushing to the radio I was just in time to catch the sniper team leader’s matter of fact report that he had engaged and killed a young boy for dropping a black bag next to the road underneath the bridge.

A brief flash of horror ran through me at the brutal consequence of my orders. With an effort I buried my initial reaction, chastised myself angrily at this lapse of self-control, and callously joked with the snipers upon their return to the post that the child only counted as half a kill. Partly this was a brusque comment intended to validate the Marines’ actions in their own minds and so save them any moral anguish about taking the life of a child. But partly it was to further deaden me to any semblance of normal emotional responses. By continued force of effort, I had come to a point where I had less emotional turmoil with the death of a child than I did when I authorized Marines to shoot the wild dogs around our position – because at least the dogs were innocent.

What has happened to me?

I fear that this war has cost me my soul. Not because of the violence that I have witnessed: for violence deadens but does not destroy. Nor for a loss of innocence: my innocence vanished years ago apart from any field of battle. But my soul flinches and withdraws from the evil that I am forced to embrace for the sake of my Marines. Every good and noble trait within me is a weakness. Kindness, compassion, gentleness, generosity – each of these has been exploited for the benefit of the enemy. Over the course of weeks and months I have gradually suppressed my better instincts: buried them beneath layers of cold, dark calculation and mechanical decisions.

Because I have not the predator’s nature inside of me, I must stifle my naturally pacific disposition with forced cruelty. Things that once meant something to me in a former life now factor only as parts of an equation, calculated without emotion to produce the greatest good to my platoon: Women and children, the infirm or the elderly – what are these, but artificial indications of weakness classified by a Judeo-Christian ethical system? Women are not weak but strong, if they can exploit our Western sensibilities and prohibitions in order to successfully smuggle weapons. Unquestioning, misdirected eight-year olds make superb IED emplacers.

The impossibly wide ethical spectrum in the United States has narrowed into a line of razor sharpness in the stinking filth of Iraq. On one side of the line is life and on the other is death. Black and white. Right is life and death is wrong.

The greatest good is that which keeps the most number of my Marines alive and still accomplishes the mission. Every infantry Marine instinctively knows about this iron law of combat. Every grunt strives desperately to keep himself and his buddies squarely in the thin margin of light and life.

Darkness surrounds us. It stalks each patrol; it whispers in the eddying smoke from each explosion; it laughs with the snap of a sniper’s bullet. What would happen if a shade of gray was introduced between black and white in this monochromatic world? Gray is more dark than light. Murky, unresolved questions about right and wrong would blend the lines between life and death: confuse, trip up and snare the Marines. Gray would abruptly lead to black. Equivocation is as deadly as the darkness, but with added mental torment.

I have seen the mental anguish inflicted upon young Marines by their leaders’ refusal to sweep away the gray haze of moral relativity and replace it with arbitrary black and white. Eighteen year olds were never intended to be arbiters of life and death – to make them so is intolerably cruel. Further, I have seen Marines excoriated and hung out to dry by their leaders for making instantaneous decisions between right and wrong in combat, when afterwards the rear echelon officers inserted an arm chair filter of gray. I have looked into the hollow eyes of boys who have realized, in a glaring instant of awful truth, that they have taken an innocent life and their world will never be the same.     

My responsibility as an officer is to ruthlessly eliminate any shades of gray from entering into the black and white worlds of my Marines. But even savage, war-torn Iraq is not a black and white world: God created shades and shadows, temperature and degree. The only possible way to eliminate the gray is by artificial decree – by forcing a man to believe that the gray that he sees is really black or white. How is this done in a rifle platoon in combat? It is done by me – the officer – who embodies the sanction or censure of the U.S. Government to my men.

What relief – when a Marine is in doubt – to obey a lawful order that cuts direct to the heart of any situation, regardless of how ambiguous or uncertain the situation may be. The balance of black and white remains and with it the Marines’ mental stability and moral certainty is safeguarded. But at what cost to the officer? It dehumanizes me, strips me of feeling, emotion, and isolates me from the rest of my men who operate placidly in worlds of stark contrast. To save my Marines I must sacrifice my conscience.

I live in a shadow world of gray. As events or situations transpire in the haze of combat, I instantly judge, catalogue, and relegate to black or white each potential threat or each possible good. How arrogant! For a man to take the intricate world as created by God and parcel it into artificial realms of right and wrong must surely compromise his morality. To keep my men moral I consciously become immoral. Does God understand and will He forgive? I don’t know. I don’t think so. I don’t feel like I can be forgiven for some of the decisions that I have made over here….


Author’s Note: I wrote this piece immediately after making a difficult decision in Iraq. I think the raw emotional response of a 26-year old officer has some value, in the sense that it can provide some perspective on the burden of command in modern combat. As written, the piece ends on a bitter, angst-ridden note. I stopped talking to God for the final two months of this deployment, so angry was I at the terrible decisions that I felt He should have protected me from.

Time and much introspective thought have softened my initial response. If there were difficult decisions of life and death to be made in this war – and there were, almost daily – who better to make them than a man grounded in Faith and instructed on the selective application of force? I am content to leave circumstance to Providence and rest secure in the knowledge that my decisions were always judicious and made with a desire to achieve the greatest good.  

About Nate

A 2003 graduate of the Virginia Military Institute and former Marine infantry officer, Nate is the Chief Operating Officer of Hire Heroes USA, a nonprofit organization that helps veterans get jobs. He holds a Master's in Public Administration from the University of Georgia. Nate lives with his wife and dog in Alpharetta, Georgia.
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4 Responses to The Greatest Good

  1. Carol Smith says:

    So many thoughts, so many feelings, too personal to write here, except for my love. It takes courage to share such a personal cost of the war. And five years removed, I trust that the Lord has been able to remind you of his unfailing mercy and love. He forgives all of our sins and binds up our wounds. He knows our frame and remembers that we are but dust.

    • Carol Smith says:

      The above response was written to the portion I received in my inbox which was just the writing from 2006. Your note provides a welcome context, but still lots to ponder.

  2. Johnna King says:

    My husband is a platoon commander currently in Helmand Province. After seeing some photos of death, I was shocked at what he has probably seen. No one can understand what war is like until you experience it first hand. I appreciate your blogs in that I can better understand my husband’s situation and help him transition home (God-willing). Thank you for the transparency, it does not go unnoticed.

  3. Pingback: Combat Loss and PTSD – Part 3: Learning to Kill | The Soldier's Load

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