The Crucible of Culture

It is often easy to blame the failures of a prior generation for the errors of the current one – to visit, as it were, the sins of the son upon the father. I for one do not subscribe to this belief, for reasons that go far beyond the simple realization that – being now a father – one day I may be the target of such blame. No, I am too well acquainted with my own nature to shake a fist at the past.

Marines sprint for cover in Sadiqiyah, Iraq. August 1, 2006

Marines sprint for cover in Sadiqiyah, Iraq. August 1, 2006

When on voyages to the darker side of my psyche and to the far side of the world, I realized that man truly is a creature suspended halfway between heaven and earth.  In moments of extreme danger, stress, or other hardship it is most often the animal side of man’s brain that takes over: a faster-than-light rewind to the exact moment in pre-history when some prosimian ancestor hurled a rock or stabbed a stick in anger at his neighbor. This deeply ingrained, so-called “lizard brain” instinct is how I saved my body (while my upbringing is how I saved my mind and my soul) from the ravages of war.

The irony of introspection is that it is so often circular; that is, one might find oneself yearning for a snowdrift in July or daydreaming of humidity in January. As a child, when I roamed the backwoods of Wisconsin, I fantasized about storming Anzio with Audie Murphy and Iwo Jima with John Wayne – fighting Italian fascisti and Japanese fanatics side by side with the giants of the silver screen. Later, when I encountered the real monster – the mind-numbing terror and immobilizing pandemonium of the battlefield that had once seemed so exhilarating and heroic from the artful remove of celluloid – I wanted nothing more than to be back in those Midwestern woods, storming imaginary trenches with broomstick weapons and hurling “explosive” tennis balls at men made of shadow and thought.

Not that my monster was remotely equivalent to the relentless hell of Mount Suribachi or Anzio Beach. My generation of Marines stands in awe of the giants that went before us, the men who survived World War II, Korea, Vietnam: men like E.B Sledge, William Manchester, John Basilone, and Chesty Puller. So it came as a complete shock when, upon our return from the “Sandbox”, these grizzled old grunts bought us rounds of drinks, toasted our intestinal fortitude, and told us that they would rather re-fight their own wars than face the present conflict. It is odd company indeed, the Greatest Generation and the Playstation Generation, each having more in common with each other – the 90 year olds and the 19 year olds – than with our nonveteran peers.

Why would the icons of our youth say such things? Who in their right mind could possibly compare the apocalyptic hells of Hue City, the Bulge, and the Chosin Reservoir with the guerilla level, counter-insurgency, grid-based, hide-and-go-kill-yourself, warfare in which I and my comrades have engaged in Iraq and Afghanistan? The casualties for the entire eleven year war against terror – for all its relative ferocity and brutality – barely add up to those suffered in one great battle of the Second World War, in one counterattack in Korea, or in a few weeks of jungle-fighting in Vietnam. So why do those veterans offer such heartfelt gratitude and respect to the veterans of today?

In response to that question, I have heard overly complicated answers ranging from the strategic to the psychological and overly simple ones positing public perception based on media coverage and the distance of individuals from events. For me, the best answer lies somewhere in between: With the exception of some of the Vietnam veterans, all of our forebears fought uniformed combatants; we did not.


Iraqis next to shops used to conceal roadside bombs and weapons along Route Michigan, between Fallujah and Ramadi. September 17, 2006

Iraqis next to shops used to conceal roadside bombs and weapons along Route Michigan, between Fallujah and Ramadi. September 17, 2006


It seems almost trivial to name a few absent, colored threads as the distinguishing feature of an entire conflict. Yet it is so. The purpose of this tactic among our enemies was two-fold. First, it made “positive ID” (the accurate identification of a combatant prior to firing on him, as stipulated by the Rules of Engagement) nearly impossible. Second, by carrying on a war dressed as civilians, the Taliban, Al-Qaeda, and other Iraqi and Afghani insurgents psychologically connected themselves to the civilian populace, in both the minds of the locals and, more importantly, in the mind of the world at large. This created the perception of a Muslim versus American conflict rather than the reality of a struggle between a medieval authoritarian theocracy and a modern republican democracy.

On a public relations level this was obviously disastrous for the United States. All a half-way intelligent insurgent cell-leader in, say, Ramadi or Tikrit would have to do after an engagement with American military service members would be to remove the AK-47s and RPGs from his dead fighters’ hands, take pictures, and send the photos to Al Jazeera. Then slap on a caption – or even just the inference – that these were “innocent civilians massacred by U.S. forces” and the semi-literate masses accepted it as gospel while the photo was bounced around the world via CNN or the BBC.

Perhaps this is what our figurative fathers and grandfathers of the 1940s, 50s, and 60s mean: that World War II was the golden age of pro-war propaganda, Korea was largely forgotten, and while Vietnam blew the metaphorical scales off the public’s eyes, it did not do so nearly as effectively as Iraq and Afghanistan have done with the current generation. Today, it seems distant consolation to  hear the vaguely patronizing “but we support the troops” hastily tacked on to the end of blistering anti-war exposes by men and women with guilty consciences – some of them the same people who spat “baby killer” at the Vietnam generation of veterans.

Some years ago Al Jazeera released (and was quickly copied by other news networks) footage of the aftermath of a firefight in Iraq. To the public eye the scene was horrifying and heartbreaking; several small children lay lifeless, bloody and broken in a small village square. The initial story was that this was the collateral damage of a ruthless raid by U.S. Marines: kids gunned down for getting in the way. The truth eventually came out, after one in-depth investigation by a persistent BBC reporter, and Al Jazeera had to recant the story and admit that at least some of the footage had been doctored and staged and that the children had in fact been massacred by the Al Qaeda cell that controlled the village.

This is not to say that the “Western way of war” – call it American – which attempts to reconcile the importance of human life with a simultaneous overpowering of the enemy by shock and awe, has not resulted in scattered brutalities. My Lai in Vietnam is one glaring example and Haditha in Western Iraq is another – although on far shakier grounds. In the latter incident, Marines were attacked on the outskirts of the town with IEDs and small arms fire. One of their buddies was killed, and the unit as a group seems to have snapped. They went on a bloody rampage across the town, killing dozens of civilians; anyone they thought might have been involved; whole families.

In a less conspicuously evil way, but far sadder in my opinion, are the tragic cases of mistaken identity between enemy and innocent – caused by the lack of a standard, uniformed enemy – that lead to tragic deaths. One Marine I knew, on his first deployment, opened fire on a vehicle that was charging headlong thru a blockaded checkpoint, acting for all intents and purposes like a suicide vehicle. He aimed at the cab of the oncoming vehicle after firing warning shots to the side and killed one of the three occupants instantly. Only later did it emerge that the individual he had killed was a pregnant woman en route to the hospital. The fact that the Marine was well within his rights and the rules of engagement in what he did offered small consolation to him and none to the family of the dead woman.

A Voodoo turret gunner scans for threats near the Mudiq mosque. August 14, 2006

A Voodoo turret gunner scans for threats near the Mudiq mosque. August 14, 2006

On my own first combat tour a similar incident occurred. Our company’s mobile element, “Voodoo Mobile,” of which I was an anointed member ( I spent the better part of two tours in various roles there, usually in the machine gun turret), was working its way down a main supply route back to the Company Command Post through the town of Mudiq. Our lead gunner was standing in his turret, waving his red ‘standoff’ flag in order to warn vehicles to pull off the road, stop moving, and allow the military vehicles to pass. Suddenly a dusty sedan packed with “MAMs” (military-aged males) burst out of an alley and came barreling straight at the convoy.

"MAMs" in a side road off of Route Michigan watch a Marine convoy pass by. The young men were mostly out of work and therefore angry and easy converts to the insurgency.

“MAMs” in a side road off of Route Michigan watch a Marine convoy pass by. The young men were mostly out of work and therefore angry and easy converts to the insurgency.

Moving remarkably fast for one relatively untrained in the arts of the machine gun, the Marine traversed his weapon and fired a burst through the windshield of the sedan, severing at the shoulder the arm of the front passenger. The vehicle shuddered to a stop and shouting men burst out of the doors. A crowd began to form. The Iraqi driver was beside himself with grief; the passenger, we found out later, was his thirteen year old son. The boy bled to death on the spot.

Killing remains a constant reminder of the greatest, gravest, and most grotesque duty of man to his state, his family, and himself. But in my experience only the last two have any real bearing on the matter when the proverbial shit hits the fan; in the end, one kills because he wishes to protect either himself or his family, which on the battlefield includes his brothers in arms.

An incongruity in the ordeal of war is that killing can almost always be justified as self-defense, regardless of the scenario. The insurgent with his IED and the Marine with his sniper rifle approach their task with the same level of pragmatism: “I must do this or he will destroy me and all that I hold dear.” So at a basic human level – that of conscience – men at war are remarkably identical. It is only when we add civilized layers, when we observe their complexities and cultures, that any difference can be noted.

Think again of the evolutionary model. Deep within us is that cold reptilian brain, the primordial fish that calculates for survival. This is in essence man at war – kill or be killed. Add another layer and we come to the amphibian, creeping across a strange and unknown planet; this is our childhood, where the frame work for all experience is laid, our ethical model is formed, our moral fiber woven. Then comes the prosimian grandfather of us all and the dawn of social interaction; we become aware of the world around us as young adults. Finally, homosapiens – or as the literal Latin translation runs, “wise man.” Culture is born.

A Marine Corps Line Charge - a thousand pounds of high explosive designed to clear vehicle lanes through minefields - detonates on an IED-strewn street in Karabilah, Iraq during Operation SPEAR. June 17, 2005

A Marine Corps Line Charge – a thousand pounds of high explosive designed to clear vehicle lanes through minefields – detonates on an IED-strewn street in Karabilah, Iraq during Operation SPEAR. June 17, 2005

WAR is in essence the crucible of culture. It asks man’s most burning question: is my culture more violent, more clever and subtle, more inspiring to its members, more relentless and determined, than yours?  Let’s kill each other and find out. If the perception exists today of World War II and Korea – perhaps less so Vietnam – somehow being more elevated or respectable conflicts than the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is because the cultural norms of the West were observed on those battlefields: national armies met en masse in great shocking collisions, wearing identifiable uniforms and (for the most part) observing international conventions of conduct.

Germany and Japan retain a lasting stigma in the history books for their treatment of, on Germany’s part, everyone who was not Aryan, and in Japan’s case, all of its POWs. And well they should bear a stigma, just as Franklin Roosevelt’s administration should be remembered for its panicked dislocation and forced internment of Japanese Americans after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Today’s wars, by contrast, are marked with televised beheadings, mutilations, brainwashed pre-teens blowing themselves up on the evening news; a no holds barred and no quarter given knock-down drag-out brawl with an enemy no one can see. No wonder our grandfathers remember their wars with relative fondness.

This is a guest column by Chris Lyon, a former Marine machine gunner in Company K, 3rd Battalion 2nd Marines.

The Author in Iraq
The Author in Iraq


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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3 Responses to The Crucible of Culture

  1. Steve says:

    Thanks for this, Chris. Well-written and lucid.

  2. Elizabeth Lenore Lyon says:

    Thank you, Chris.

  3. Tom McDonald says:

    I really enjoyed reading this, very well written Chris, Thank you.

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