Sunday, February 26, 2006

A Week with the Far Right

Last week was, umm, interesting. On the weekend, I went to Camp Lejeune, North Carolina to see a Marine friend who had just returned from a year in Iraq. Later in the week, I attended the monthly meeting of the Potomac Arms Collectors Association.

My friends are on both sides of the deep political divide that is early twenty-first century America. This particular week, I caught up with those on the far, far right. Christian, xenophobic, nationalist, steadfast, unwavering, gallant. Like us all, both good and bad, right and wrong.

Mark was my childhood friend. I have known him for (gasp!) 31 years. He joined the Marines when I joined the Navy and we even billeted together twice on the USS Blue Ridge during the formerly annual Team Spirit amphibious exercises off Korea. He stayed in Korea and works for the Army as a civil servant and serves in the Marine Reserves. I have taken my family to visit his in Korea and we get together whenever we can. He was called to active duty last year and went to Iraq as an advisor to an Iraqi battalion. Last weekend, he came back to the US to drop his combat gear before heading home to Seoul. I drove to Camp Lejeune to see him.

Mark had told me by email a week in advance that he thought he would arrive at Lejeune on a certain Friday at 3:30 PM. I know how the military works (slowly!), so I arrived in the area about 6:30 PM, checked into a hotel and waited. Mark called my cell phone at 1:30 AM, showed up by taxi at 2:00 AM and we talked for a couple of hours.

Mark was clearly processing a tremendous affront to his sensibilities. He shot no one and was not shot. Still, his vehicle (an aging Panhard armored car, not a HMMWV) was hit twice by improvised explosive devices and he spent some time sheltering from mortar fire. The thing that bothered him most, though, was the mortuary duty for his Marines and Iraqi colleagues.

He had to be on base and ready to go at 7, so we called it quits at 4 and I drive him back to his barracks. Camp Lejeune is big and I put 35 miles on my car getting there and back from a hotel that was only two miles outside the gate.

I slept in Sunday morning, knowing he would be working all day. Patience was the name of the game. There is no rushing a bureaucracy that size. I did some writing on a paper that day and just waited. He called at 4 PM to tell me he had a meeting at 5:00 and would call me when it was over. No problem. At 6:30 he knocked on the hotel room door. It was easier to get a cab than to wait in line for the only available pay phone.

That evening, we ate sushi ("bait" as Mark calls it) and then met some of his Marine buddies at SywanykS Scarlet and gold Traditions nightclub, owned by a retired Marine Sergeant Major with the unlikely name of Ihor Sywanyk. That place is both amazing and disgusting at the same time. SywanykS is a two-story bar with a dance floor, but every available piece of wall and ceiling is crammed with Marine (and some Navy) paraphernalia, including weaponry. Rifles, pistols, knives, uniforms, rank insignia, letters of historical significance, recruiting and movie posters and, naturally, flags. There were even crew-served weapons like a World War II 30-calibre machine gun and a couple of bazookas. Dates ranged from the earliest days of the Marines to the present, more than two centuries of military history. The disgusting part was the clientele. Not the Marines! The women.

There is a well understood corner of psychology which explains why wars and other lengthy military deployments foster infidelity. Most of the women in SywanykS were married (occasionally serially) to several Marines. The politically incorrect term has been, for millennia, "camp followers". I swear I recognized at least one from a bar in the Philippines twenty years ago. It certainly would not have been out of the question. In short, I had forgotten just how broken the marriage and social situation is in the service and the Marines of Camp Lejeune brought it home to me. I sat there and quietly drank my beer while Mark spoke with old friends, drank, danced a bit and generally reveled in being out of Iraq. He ate some meat which wasn't goat and basked in the normalcy of it all. We were, of course, up late.

Mark crashed in my hotel room, but was wide awake at 6 AM due to jet lag. He asked whether I wanted to get breakfast or sleep another 20 minutes :) I said I wanted to sleep, so he proceeded to talk to me until I hit the shower. I read some passages from Lawrence of Arabia's Seven Pillars of Wisdom about Iraq and the Arabs. He agreed with Lawrence's sentiments and mentioned that Seven Pillars was recommended reading for all Marine officers headed for Iraq. Unfortunately, he hadn't found the time to read it. He regrets it now. It really is a timeless appraisal of the Middle East, in spite of its colonial tone and rough descriptions of its inhabitants (such as calling the Syrians an "apelike people", although Mark and his Marines used harsher language than that).

Naturally, conversation at breakfast turned to U.S. foreign policy in the region. I was against the war and still am. I grow more convinced on a daily basis that the invasion and, indeed, the policy of proactive regime change is contrary to the United States' strategic interests. Mark, of course, staunchly defended our need to be there. As I presented him not with my arguments, but with Lawrence's, I saw an interesting reaction. He recognized the fundamental truth of the matter, that the culture of the region (the dominant memes, in the language of this blog) ensured that the only two things could happen; a strong leader would arise or the country would break up in sectarian violence. Jeffersonian democracy, with its reliance on an informed public and the rule of law, would not take root in a country ruled by tribal allegiances. And yet, he dared not admit to himself that his sacrifice and the more complete sacrifices of his colleagues were destined to be in vain. He recognized, but dare not admit, that the U.S. is likely to leave Iraq one day to its own devices without the hope of leaving a stable, democratic ally in its place.

"But", Mark said, "they really are bad guys and we are killing them."

"Of course they are.", I replied, "You are still cleaning up the mess left from the invasion. Saddam opened his prisons. Al Qaeda and others came in. And now we are making more of them every day, with the occupation, the publication of prison abuses, and the failure to do anything with the Guantanamo detainees. Do you think you can kill them all? Do you think you can stamp out an idea with force?".

"If you think violence never solves anything, ask the Carthaginians." Mark quoted Robert Heinlein.

Ah, but Alexander the Great showed us how to win an empire without genocide, didn't he? We do not have the guts or the reason, really, to just kill them all. Still, it was interesting to hear that the concept had indeed been discussed by Marine officers. That, to me, is an indication that our more soft strategy is not being as effective as they would like. It is also, academically, a nice illustration of meme iteration; some things go out of fashion, but the root ideas stay around.

Mark left breakfast troubled, which is why I did not discuss this state of affairs with him before his return. Combat requires focus, not armchair quarterbacking, no matter how accurate.

Mark is slowly making his way home to Korea, with planned stops in Ohio and Kansas City. God Speed, my friend. You are my brother in arms, my brother in blood and I am with you always. I thank you for your sacrifice and wish I could have been there with you to carry out our country's so very flawed policies. I raise a glass to you when I wish to raise a sword and shout, "Follow me!"

The contradiction is not lost on me. I disagree with the war, but want to go. It is my calling, my first and perhaps only true profession. As recently as nine months ago, the Chief Medical Officer at Fort Lee issued a letter saying that I was too broken to return to service. If he hadn't, or if I could have found a way to get a waiver, I would be there now. Do I miss the loneliness, the privations, the work. the uniform, the mission? No. I miss the brotherhood and feel that there is where I belong. I am damned to a hell of my own creation for failing to live up to requirements of health which keep me here, providing for my family, in the comfort of my own home, raising my children and living with my wonderful wife. There are times when I hate the comfort I have acquired and count myself less of a man for having achieved it.

I try to ignore these feelings. If we are to learn to live together in peace, to fix our planet's ecological and economic ills, we can no longer afford to listen to the stirrings of our animal emotions.

Back in the Great State of Northern Virginia, I received an invitation to attend a monthly meeting of the Potomac Arms Collectors Association, to be held at the headquarters of the National Rifle Association. My friend Chris proffered the invitation, a staunch Catholic, life member of the NRA, Army Reserve Lieutenant Colonel and career civil servant at the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency. He was my roommate at the Virginia Military Institute. Chris collects and restores Springfield '03 rifles and is an avid shooter.

The gun club meeting was about as you'd expect. There was not a single member or guest who was anything other than a white male. Many routinely capped their sentences with an "Amen". About half were carrying a concealed, loaded pistol. The average age was old and the meeting paused several times for adjustments due to a member's lack of hearing, seeing or ability to hold water. That is not to say that there were no young members; in fact there were several. The young ones could shoot, but simply not yet afford the expensive toys.

The guest speaker was Martin K.A. Morgan, Director of Research for the New Orleans-based National D-Day Museum. He presented a fascinating (if esoteric) piece of research regarding the Medal of Honor winner Tony Stein. Stein's citation included the odd statement that he was, "armed with a personally improvised aircraft-type weapon". Morgan was intrigued and spent his time as a Hurricane Katrina evacuee in the National Archives attempting to discover what this weapon was. It turned out to be an ANM2 30-calibre machine gun, apparently "liberated" by the Marines from a downed Navy A-24 Dauntless aircraft. Stein's battalion had modified six of these things to provide extra firepower during the assault on Iwo Jima. Quite a story. The History Channel is apparently going to air his full story at the behest of Dr. Morgan sometime this year.

OK, so far, so good. Interesting research. A good story. Fat, old white men. Free food.

Then came show-n-tell ;)

Five tables had been arranged between speaker and audience. Upon them had been laid an assortment of weapons, mostly rifles, business end toward the speaker. Most dated from the World Wars and the fascination seemed to stem from their history. Weapons which had been used in combat, especially by themselves, their forebears or at least someone known to history were most highly prized.

There were Thompson machine guns, lots of Springfields and M1 Garands, variants from Russia, Finland, France, single-shot "get-a-guns" intended to be dropped to the French partisans, etc, etc, etc. Fifty people and more than that number of weapons.

Chris tells me that every collector was there for the feeling when they presented something which made another collector insanely jealous. I saw it happen once or twice. It wasn't pretty.

It really was like the show and tell session in an elementary school. These grown men would show off their wares. They would quote knowledge of a particular weapon's manufacturing, test and acceptance marks, serial numbers, known and suspected history. They would recount their efforts on e-bay to acquire missing parts. The one question which was always asked, sometimes in unbelieving tones, was "Have you shot it?"

The end of the meeting included a discussion of logistics for their upcoming gun show. There were tense questions regarding insurance and shocked expressions of pain when it became clear that not even dealers could carry concealed during the show. Ammunition could not be immediately accessible either, after a loaded .308 rifle was accidently discharged at a Fredericksburg gun show in January. Not unexpectedly, the opinion of the crowd was that the gun owner had been set up and falsely arrested.

Chris didn't want to go out to dinner or get a beer afterward. He needed his sleep. He was, after all, getting old.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous8:31 AM

    First time reading your blog.......engaging article with accurate observations. Thanks.