My youngest brother leaves for basic training in April. I get it. The military fashions itself the last bastion of true manliness, and in a world that feels unstable, it promises four years of a steady job, decent pay, health care and moral high ground over those who didn’t serve. Then, they tell you, at the end of your active service you’ll be left with a marketable set of skills so desirable employers will be lining up outside your door begging for you to take their jobs. You’ll be wanted, a provider.
I’m eleven years older than my brother, who was four when the U.S. invaded Afghanistan. But we grew up in different places, with different people. My biological parents reunited years after they gave me up for adoption. They raised my brother and our siblings in a small, beautiful Massachusetts town. When he and I first met, he’d just ended his junior year in high school. He was quick to smile and humble. He loved his dog. He had two present and loving caretakers who kept him in line. He was a high school quarterback.
That was not my life. As a kid I was quiet — I read books and drew pencil sketches of cartoon characters. But in my teens, when I needed my adoptive father for direction, he wasn’t around; and when he was, I wished he were someone else. I hated my Midwest town. I burned myself with the heated tips of Bic lighters to try and vent my anger out. I drank and snorted myself into blackouts and eventually drunkenly crashed my car into a fire hydrant. I didn’t have a clue what to do with my life. I was a recruiter’s fantasy.
The Marines have “How to Become a Man 101” down to a science. My fellow recruits and I suffered together. We were given a common language that sought to bond us, ensconce us in groupthink and separate us from the outside. We weren’t allowed out in the civilian world without a partner to watch our backs, a “battle buddy.” We were at war even when we were at home. We were never alone. I had more fathers than I knew what to do with. I shaved my head like one of my drill instructor’s and copied from my senior Marines hard turns of phrase that relayed disgust of everything feminine, anything vulnerable. They called our girlfriends Susie Rottencrotch, and told us fictional bull studs back home were having their way with them — women were not to be trusted.
Nights, we’d bring our barracks room chairs out onto the catwalk and listen to our senior Marines tell drunken stories about war. “You’re going to die,” they’d say. “Worse, you’re all f-ckups. You’re going to get us killed.” The next day during training we’d run twice as hard up steep hills through California coastal scrub, scream our war cries until our throats bled, push one another to the point of bodily failure for the slightest nod of praise. Then, at night we’d drink beer until we puked, listen to more war stories, fall asleep and get back to it the next day.
It felt like a home, a place to rally together and stand for something — and against something. The Corps called it brotherhood.
The infantry taught us to use language like “haji” and “raghead” and “target” and “towelhead” to dehumanize not just enemy combatants, but every Iraqi or Arab person we encountered. We screamed “kill” for every repetition of cadence during stretching exercises and calisthenics — “1!” “KILL!” “2!” “KILL!” “3!” KILL!” — to make the thought of killing commonplace. Our senior Marines joked about raping Iraqi women, so we did too. They called Iraqi children terrorists in training, and meant it. So we did too.
I developed ethnocentric thoughts that I shared without shame. I’d only been in the Marines for eight months before my first deployment. But by then I was no longer a quiet, lost, empathetic kid who partied a little too hard and struggled with self-harm but still liked to read Stephen King and Star Wars novels and draw. I was bloodthirsty. I wanted to kill.
I wanted to kill because the military billed its dehumanizing philosophies as wisdom — something special we’d received. When we referred to Iraqi civilians as towelheads or children as terrorists in training, it made us feel like we understood the world for what it really was — like we’d developed a second sight that cut through the politically correct shades of gray that the civilian world is mired in. We knew the outside world would never be able to see that truth. When we raided homes in the middle of the night during our first deployment to Iraq and shoved our rifle stocks into the soft guts of men, doubling them over, we knew in our hearts they were not farmers caught in the crosshairs of a geopolitical struggle, but Al-Qaeda operatives. When we watched American interrogators backhand the faces of restrained detainees over and over, we felt nothing but validation. “You’re the sheepdogs keeping the wolves at bay from the sheep civilians,” said our surrogate fathers. We knew what it took to be real men.
As soon as our four-year enlistment drew to a close, our senior enlisted commanders and officers told us, “You won’t make it in the real world. They won’t understand you. They’re a bunch of Marys who don’t know what it takes to be a man. You’ll be back in a year.”
I’d been taught to devalue the very civilian world where I’d been told endless opportunity awaited. My reintegration did not go smoothly.
I kept my family and friends at arm’s distance and behaved like an animal. I fought civilians in bars. After earning myself a DUI, I woke up in a solitary confinement cell and stared at my reflection in a tiny shatterproof window. I didn’t recognize who I’d become. I felt like I was continuing on with how the Marines had taught me to be a person and a man, but for the first time it felt wrong.
When I got to college I still played the role of the tired, damaged veteran, who was disgusted by civilian frivolity and ignorance, ready to hold my experience over others.
But I eventually realized that’s all it was — all it had been — a role.
I had spent 21 months in Iraq over four years giving into the thought that I would probably die, and then I didn’t. Now I was part of a world I hadn’t planned for; I was living moments I didn’t think I’d have. I didn’t know who I was. And as I was presented with other worldviews, that brittle tower of masculinity I built in the infantry crumbled with me under it. I felt angry and depressed and alone. I realized that while I’d been dehumanizing the Arab world, I’d been dehumanizing myself as well. I had to relearn how to be a human again.
My girlfriend — now my wife — taught me how. She let me talk — a thing so many of my senior Marines had told me never to do with civilians and especially women. Books taught me how. I read great stories and in kind I wrote terrible stories about my own experience. I tried to fictionalize what I’d done because I wasn’t quite ready to acknowledge that I never fulfilled that manly heroic expectation people have of military service. That would come later.
Don’t mistake my honesty for bitterness.
While the Marines might’ve bent me and twisted me, my journey through college and grad school and making a family with my wife and reflecting on who I was and the man I’m becoming — all of it has felt that much more miraculous at every step.
But the military preys on young people, particularly of a certain socioeconomic background. Then the military tells us to be grateful — to take our Post-9/11 GI Bills and grin until our teeth crack when people pass on their awkward, empty thanks. We’re supposed to talk about how we gained direction and purpose and turned into men or functional members of society. We’re never supposed to talk about the things that were taken from us. We’re not supposed to ask how to get those things back.
I went into the military to figure out my place. In turn, the Marines buttressed my weakness and anger with fear and hate, and called it all duty and loyalty.
I don’t want good men like my brother — or lost boys like me — to enter the military without warning about what it could do to them. But it’s hard to feel like there can be any change when you’re up against a literal army bolstered by decades of well-honed rhetoric. The military’s brand of masculinity is potent and isolating, which re-enforces the manly hero tales that have been beamed at the public through the news media and films like American Sniper and The Hurt Locker and Lone Survivor over the past 17 years, if not longer. People watch those movies, and they create a single expectation in their minds. In turn, service members feel increasingly alienated and broad-brushed, which forces them to bury their thoughts even deeper — leaving a larger space for that mythos to fill. In the end, everyone’s a hero and no one can be questioned. It’s that lie that clasps my hand when people thank me for my service without knowing they’re thanking me for detaining kids and shooting dogs and masturbating to stay awake on night post.
In truth, I used to love it when people would shake my hand and buy me beers just because I’d served. It made me feel good, important. But the sheen of it all has quickly worn off. It makes me think: Maybe if veterans tried to actively give up their hero status and broke the command to shut up about their service, we would all have a better sense of how much the military contributes to our idea of what makes a man a man. Maybe in that understanding the kids signing up would have a better idea of what they’re really signing up for. Because right now, we don’t tell them about the troubles they may face and how it could all hurt more than the troubles they already have — that the cure to burning your own flesh and anger isn’t to shoot bullets into someone else’s — and the few veterans who set out to warn them are no match for what they’re fighting against.
When my brother first told me he was planning to enlist, I asked him why.
“It’s something I feel like I have to do,” he said.
Our genetics are strong. We look alike and have similar temperaments. It’s hard for me not to see his choice like a second chance for myself.
But when I told him what I’ve just told you, he said with love, “I’m not you.”
I hope that’s enough.