Peter Lucier faithfully and honorably occupied the lowest echelons of the grunt hierarchy from 2008-2013, first as a FAST Marine and then an LAR scout. At Montana State University Lucier relentlessly pursues a degree in political science, focusing on using mathematical models to quantify exactly how much Forest Gump sucks. He also serves as RTB Media's Editorial Director; his views are his own. Follow Peter on Twitter.
he personal line between war and not war is a clear one. On October 15, 2011, I was in a church, dress blues clean and pressed, fresh hair-cut, watching my bride walk down the aisle. The wedding party drove around St. Louis in my father-in-law’s van, slamming Bud Lights between stops at Busch Stadium and Kiener Plaza for pictures. Three weeks later, I was in Camp Dwyer. One of my most vivid Afghan memories is the morning we changed over from cammies, the utility uniforms worn in the states, to FROG gear, the more free moving pants and shirts, designed to be worn with body armor, in country.
It was dark in the hooch. I was the last weapons watch of the night. When woken up by the guard I was to relieve, he told me we were in FROG gear now. I dug the strange uniform out of my sea bag, and unceremoniously put away the cammies I had worn on the flight over. I wouldn’t put them back on for seven months. While deployed, any visitors to our remote patrol base or COP wearing clean cammies instead of the tattered and dust covered FROG suits would seem strange, alien. We were dirty, salty, unshaven, sweat covered in the summer, bundled in mismatched warming layers in the winter. It was a clear demarcation between an us – the grunts on patrol, and them – the fobbits, REMF’s, the ones in the rear, clean and safe, with the gear.
Putting on that FROG gear, trousers and blouses that I would wear for weeks at a time, seemed like as clear a marker as any from the setting three weeks prior, beer, wedding, and a warm St. Louis fall day, to the shit smell inundated, cold, lungs filled with snot, shoulders sore from long patrol world of Afghanistan.
The second section of Rosa Brooks’ book is about precisely these kind of distinctions, and how societies throughout history have tried to mark the line between peace and war. How did we get here? She asks. Chapter 9 talks about how in pre-modern wars, and in newly industrializing countries today, war was put into a “box” with very clear, often ritualistic or religious lines around it. Ritual, ceremony, prayers, and even magic were needed to transgress those lines between peacetime, and war. Men in one tribe abstained from sex for months. Others had dances, or painted their faces. Often these rituals are focused on forgiveness, resolution, and absolution. A common and recurring theme is the toxicity of war. While today we carousel in and out of deployments, chasing the next adrenaline high, and drone strikes happen halfway across the world while most Americans go about their days in blissful ignorance, warriors still perform. We paint our vehicles with fierce animals and use a secret language marked by acronyms, only understood by other veterans. Perhaps, as Brooks says, we “also hope for absolution: that any ruthless or inhuman acts will belong not to [us] but to the animals and spirits whose attributes [we] have temporarily taken on.”
This book is not, however, primarily focused on warrior culture. As the subtitle implies Tales from the Pentagon this is part memoir, part policy illumination, part prescription for what ails us. And what does ail us. Now Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis writes in his blurb for the book, “It’s as if we have been sleepwalking into this new world, and Rosa has turned on a flashlight to show what we are doing, and where we are going.” What is this new world?
In short, endless war, mission creep, and targeted killings in countries across the globe. The military has been at war longer than it ever has, is fulfilling a larger role than it ever has, in more places than it ever has. It is doing so with a huge budget, and only the shaky legal guidance of the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) passed mere weeks after the terrorist attacks of 9/11.
Brooks asks prescient questions, and offers needed guidance. Will violations of sovereignty come back to bite us, as drone technology proliferation makes low-footprint, low cost killing easier and more accessible? What legal standing are we using exactly? One of the most frightening parts of the books looks at killing based on status, a war time distinction, versus activity, a law enforcement distinction. Administrations since 9/11 have used legal language from both frameworks to justify semi-covert actions in countries with which we are not at war. As a lawyer, and policy wonk, Brooks helps us navigate through this complicated landscape clearly, and memorably.
The book ends with policy recommendations, but at its core, to a grunt who fought in the endless wars she describes, the center of the book is, just as Secretary Mattis suggested, illumination. In the first section, Brooks tracks how the CIA and military JSOC operations have blended and reversed traditional roles, the overt has become covert, and the covert semi-overt. The lines, just like those between peace and war, are becoming blurred, messier, harder to navigate.
Putting on my FROG gear made it clear I was “at war.” But the next seven months were a dizzyingly blend of combat operations, COIN style projects, and training and partnership with local forces. What was our role, what was our mission, our goal? It wasn’t clear then, and it still is not clear to me now. And though I took off my FROG gear nearly five years ago, I’m still not sure if, as a country, we are “at war” or not, in places like Libya, Yemen, and Syria. Those magic lines, the box war was put into long ago, are becoming increasingly eroded, and I, like the berserkers who painted their faces, am still searching for salvation, and forgiveness, for acts committed at war. Brooks’ book is truly a torch, shining light into this new, dark, and terrifying world.
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