Tyler McCarthy served in the Marine Corps from 2010 to 2015, first as rifleman then as a Scout Sniper. He was assigned to 2/9 Weapons Co., deploying twice to Afghanistan and once more to Okinawa. He currently lives in Boston, and is working towards an undergraduate degree in architectural design. Follow Tyler on Twitter.
s we both dragged our bodies over the compound’s rooftop, armor plates scraping the mud brick, my team leader mused that going to war, and thus experiencing combat, is inherently insane. Loading bodies into a gargantuan metal bird, flying thousands of miles to another land simply to walk a certain portion of a certain district every day, attempting to bait a shootout, is absolutely maddening. I was, and still am, inclined to agree with him. As we sat behind the M107 for the umpteenth time that week, and watched the supported unit patrol through the ocean of poppy, the absurdity of the situation at hand was not lost on the two of us. We brushed aside empty Rip-it cans like spent brass, settled in, and looked towards the compound that we received fire from most frequently. We had a fun game that we liked to play with the locals, in which they would shoot at us until we closed the distance with them, followed by their immediate denial of any knowledge of the event, despite freshly-spent 7.62X39mm shells crunching under their sandals.
Waking up before the sun, donning armor and lifting the weapons of your affiliate is a purely human construct, completely unnatural. I might argue that waging combat in such a fashion is only considered artificial simply because animals are unable to construct weaponry. Had they the option, I am certain that each of the fauna of the earth would do the same thing that we do; migrate to exotic lands in an attempt to kill each other. Considering our current living conditions, however, we might as well be animals. As my team leader sets his scope to 500m, the average distance between the closest and furthest places we expect contact, we both consider whether or not it is worth bursting our sunburn blisters in order to scratch our flea bites.
Despite combat’s inherent lunacy, however, mankind continues to participate in it. For thousands of years since its inception, the human race has fought over nearly every piece of land that covers the globe, limited only by whether the terrain could accommodate bipedal movement paired with conditions forgiving enough that the miserable infantryman could reasonably survive there. Though the tactics, weapons, and uniforms have since evolved, the overall idea of warfare has remained unchanged. At it’s essence, despite our being equipped with the latest and greatest technology in the world of warfare, the majority of my combat experience always ended up boiling down to two roving gangs of filthy men trying their best to shoot one another.
The men who meet toe-to-toe in order to face each other are still remarkably similar, at least in character. I am certain that they always have been. Not many men are willing to drop everything and put their life on hold to devote themselves to killing the other side. Today’s infantry Marine has more in common with the average insurgent than he does with the American millennial, the by-product of a society so prosperous that for most, participation in first-person violence is regarded as a thing of the past. For the average infantryman, however, both past and present, it is his daily reality. Both his and his enemy’s intimate knowledge of catastrophic violence, coupled with a disdain for the superficiality of the uninitiated, is their defining feature whether they like it or not. Their knowledge of mankind at its worst draws a permanent line of separation between them and the populace, forming the single greatest divide between themselves and the generation from which they were pulled.
Despite each side’s motivation for clashing, the fact remains that there exists rare breeds of men who will fight the other for any reason. Despite a nearly insurmountable divide in culture and belief system, both belligerents would gladly meet on the field of battle on a daily basis, simply in the hopes of reducing the other’s numbers. Maybe the Marine Corps should add, “Any time and reason” to its oft-quoted “Any clime and place.”
On that particular day, as we sat baking in our armor on a white-hot rooftop in the middle of Helmand Province, both sides wordlessly agreed to face one another, as they had so many times before, and so many times after. As they still do today. Having ceremonially hoisted their kit and picked up their arms, both factions stepped forth from the shadows to meet one another, looking simply to engage in the most primal tradition that mankind has to offer.
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