Book I: Dissolution
My war started May 7, 2016, at the mess night put on by my class at the Marine Corps’ Amphibious Warfare School in Quantico, Virginia.
I got killed.
A mess night, when it’s done right, is a black tie brawl. It’s a Brit thing, very formal-like and proper when it starts, with a table full of wine glasses and funny forks and Mr. Vice proposing toasts and rules like you’ve got to stand up and ask permission to go pee (usually denied). After enough toasts things loosen up a bit, with the aviators doing “carrier landings” by belly flopping on the tables and sliding through the crystal and the infantry getting into fights. At least, that’s how the good ones go.
One of the Corps’ better traditions was that we remembered our dead. The mess set a table apart, with the glasses and silver inverted, for those who had gone before us and never come back. And before the fun began we remembered the battles where they had fought and fallen; Tripoli to Chapultepec to Helmand. A bell rang for each, a Marine officer stood up and called that battle’s name, and we became pretty thoughtful. Another Marine Corps tradition, not one of its better ones in terms of what happens in battles, was to try to pre-plan and rehearse and control everything so there couldn’t be any surprises or mistakes. “Control Freaks R Us” sometimes seemed to be the motto of the officer corps, at least above the company grades. So a couple days before the mess night, the battles to be remembered were each assigned to a captain.
Iwo Jima went to a woman.
We were really steamed. We lost a lot of guys on Iwo, and they were men, not women. Of course, these were the years of “political correctness.” Our colonel was running for general, and he figured he could kiss ass by being “sensitive to issues of race, gender, and class.”
It’s hard to remember that we even had women in a military, it seems so strange now. How could we have been so contemptuous of human experience? Did we think it merely a coincidence that all armies, everywhere, that had actually fought anyone had been made up solely of men? But these were the last days of the U.S.A., and the absurd, the silly, the impossible were in charge and normal people were expected to keep their mouths shut. It was a time, as Roger Kimball said, of “experiments against reality.”
Like a lot of young Marine officers at AWS, I was a reader, especially of what the Germans had written about war. They were the masters, for a century and a half, and we were their willing pupils. I remembered, then and always, an essay written by a German general, Hans von Seekt, the man who rebuilt the German Army after World War I. The title, and the message was Das Wesentliche ist die Tat—The Essential Thing is the Deed. Not the idea, not the desire, not the intention — the deed.
So I did it. The moment came on May 7, during the mess night. The bell tolled our battles: Belleau Wood, Nicaragua, Guadalcanal, Tarawa. Iwo was next. The bell. I was on my feet before she started to move. “Iwo Jima,” I cried in my best parade-ground voice.
Our honor was safe that night.
The next morning, I was toast. The colonel’s clerk was waiting for me when I walked into the building. “The CO wants to see you at once,” he said. I wasn’t surprised. I knew what was coming and I was willing to take it. That’s something else the Germans taught me: Verantwortungsfreudigkeit, the “joy in taking responsibility” that is central to what character means in an officer.
The colonel generally specialized in being nice. But I’d endangered his sacred quest for a promotion, and in the old American military that was the greatest sin a subordinate could commit.
“You have a choice,” he said as I stood at attention in front of his desk. “You can get up in front of the class and apologize to me, to the female captain you insulted last night, to all the women in the corps, and to the class, or you can have your written resignation from the Marine Corps on my desk before the morning is over.”
“No, sir,” I replied.
“What do you mean, ‘No, sir?’ I gave you a choice. Which one will it be?”
“Neither one, sir.” An early lesson I’d learned about war was that if the enemy gave you two options, refuse them both and do something else. “I have nothing to apologize for,” I continued. “No woman has the right to represent any of the Corps’ battles, because those battles were fought and won by men. And people resign when they’ve done something wrong. I haven’t.”
“I’ve already spoken to the Commanding General,” the colonel replied. “He understands, and you’d better understand, what happens if word of what you did gets to Congresswoman Sally Bluhose, Chairperson of the House Armed Services Committee. I’ve been informed several of the female officers here are planning a joint letter to her. If you don’t help us head this off, she’ll have the Commandant up before the whole committee on this with the television cameras rolling.”
“Sir,” I said, “I thought when people became colonels and generals and Commandants, that meant they took on the burden of moral responsibility that comes with the privileges of rank and position. That’s what I’ve always told my sergeants and lieutenants, and when they did what they thought was right I backed them up, even when it caused me some problems with my chain of command. Is what I’ve been telling them true or not?”
“This has nothing to do with truth,” yelled Col. Ryan, who was starting to lose it. “What the hell is truth, anyway? This is about politics and our image and our budget. Congresswoman Bluhose is a leading advocate for women’s rights. She’ll be enraged, and I’ll take it in the shorts from Headquarters, Marine Corps. Don’t you get it?”
“Yes, sir, I think I do get it,” I said. “You, and I guess the CG here at Quantico and the Commandant, want to surrender to Congresswoman Bluhose and what she represents, a Corps and a country that have been emasculated. But the way I see it, and maybe this is Maine talking, if we’re supposed to fight, that means we have to fight for something. What’s the point in fighting for a country like that? Whatever defeats and replaces it could only be an improvement.”
“I don’t give a damn how you see it, captain,” said the colonel, now icy calm again. “You are going to see it the way I see it. Do I get the apology or the resignation?”
“Neither one, sir,” I said again.
“OK, then this is how it will be,” Colonel Ryan declared. “You are no longer a student at this school. As of this minute. Clear out your locker and get out, now. That’s a direct order, and I’ve already cleared it all the way up the chain.” (As if this guy would have farted without clearing it first.) “You’re going to get a fitness report so bad Christ himself would puke on you if he read it. You’re finished. You won’t even come up for major, and you’ll clean heads for the rest of your sorry days in this Corps. Dismissed.”
So that was that. The word spread fast around the school, as it always did. That was a good gut-check for the rest of the class. Most flunked. They parted for me like the sea did for Moses as I wandered around collecting my books and few other belongings. The handful with moral courage shook my hand and wished me well.
One, my friend Jim Sampsonoff, an aviator, said something important. “You’re a casualty in the culture war,” were his words.
“The what?” I replied.
“The culture war,” he said again. “The next real war is going to be here, on our own soil. It’s already begun, though not the shooting part, yet. It’s a war between those of us who still believe in our old Western culture, the culture that grew up over the last 3000 or so years from Jerusalem and Athens, Rome and Constantinople, and the people who are trying to destroy it. It’s the most important war we’ll ever fight, because if we lose our culture, we’ll lose everything else, too.”
“You mean there’s more to it than whether we’re going to have women in the infantry and gays in the barracks?” I asked.
“You bet,” he said. “Look, you’ll be heading back up to Maine sooner or later. Take a detour through Hanover, New Hampshire. That’s where my college is, Dartmouth. Go see my old German professor, now retired, Gottfried Sanft. He’s the greatest of rarities on an Ivy League campus, an educated man. You need to read some books. He’ll tell you which ones.”
I knew my Marine Corps career was over, but I hung on at Quantico until my AWS class graduated, to make my point about not resigning to apologize for my action. They assigned me to supervise cutting brush around the base, a point the brass carefully made to the mighty “Ms.” Bluhose as they ate toads for her. Come summer, I sent in my letter and headed back to Maine.
Was it worth it? Yes. I made early the choice everyone had to make sooner or later, whether to fight for our culture or turn from it and die. As is so often the case in life, what seemed like an ending was really a beginning.
On the way home, I took Jim Sampsonoff’s advice and paid a visit to Professor Sanft.