Whenever I let my mind drift into my past life as a soldier, I always find myself back in the dark woods and midnight fields of Fort Benning, both the Georgia and Alabama sides. Maybe it is because I never saw the dusty daylight of Afghanistan or felt the oppressive Iraqi afternoon. I spent my whole career as an officer in the California Army National Guard training for a war I never fought. Three times I was told to pack for Afghanistan, three times I was told to order my affairs and prepare to fulfill my oath to my state and country, and three times I was told at the eleventh hour to stand down and return to my quasi-civilian life. My only deployment was two months securing the California coast from Mexican cartels.
Tonight, I am in Fort Benning. I am the platoon leader. My platoon is filing through our Forward Operating Base’s main Entry Control Point. First squad has already crossed the wire and is spreading out into two fire-team arrowheads, one trailing the other, their squad leader in between. Second squad is crossing now. I’m moving with them. I pass my platoon sergeant. He counts me out and taps his watch. 2330. The ambush is at 0100. We need to pick up the pace. We leave the FOB and enter a tallgrass field, handrailing the road by about fifty meters, heading for the nearby forest. The whole platoon is in the open now. Second squad has dispersed into the same formation as first. Third is doing it now. Fourth, weapons squad, is split, one machine gun team with first squad, the other with third. The weasel—weapons squad leader—is moving with me. He’s quiet. We all are, but he is silence embodied. We drift through the field, every man scanning his sector through his helmet-mounted mono-lens night vision device, like a tribe of nocturnal cyclopes armed with M4 assault rifles, M249 Squad Automatic Weapons, and M240B machine guns.
The moon is new, and the stars are hidden behind rainclouds, leaving the land coated in oil slick night. I flip my night vision down over my left eye and turn it on. It plunges me into an infrared world, transforming the darkness into a grainy jade landscape. Some light reflects off the clouds, light pollution from main post and the civilian city outside the base. In infrared, it blazes. There is no breeze. The air is hot and humid and smells of damp earth. It is not a pleasant smell, not sweet like the farm of my youth, but sickening and foul, the phosphorescent stink of a swamp. A discordant symphony of crickets and bullfrogs and who the hell knows what else forms the background against which our footsteps and rattling equipment and nervous breathing weave a soundscape of impending violence. Not the violence of tonight. That is fake violence, training violence. The impending violence is the violence we are training for, the violence in a distant land against distant people in a not-so distant time.
As the point man enters the forest, it is this future violence that motivates us. This future violence is not blood lust. It is responsibility for our soldiers. It is accountability to our superiors. It is obligation to innocents. It is duty to our country. It is honor before history. It is love, for god, family, and country, in that order. We profess different faiths, but we serve the same god: the god of Equality, Liberty, and Freedom. The American God. He is also the god of power and profit, but we do not think about that, and we question the patriotism of anyone who does. Of course, we are on the side of angels. Of course.
I enter the forest. Half the platoon is ahead, so deep into the darkness they are lost in infrared shadows. They have collapsed into a file, spaced out at five meter intervals. The other half is behind in the open field. I cannot see the point man, but I can see the nearest man, and he can see the next, and he the next, and so on until the point man is seen. And I can feel him. I can feel all of them. And I can feel through them. We are a body. I look at my platoon sergeant, and I do not think “him” or “you”; I think “also me.” We all do. Sleep deprivation helps. Nothing else so efficiently erases the boundaries of self. When needed, we will include other soldiers and allies. But never the enemy. We must not allow that to happen. We can study him, we can respect him, but we cannot identify with him. That would be suicide. Nor should we identify with civilians. We have been trained to analyze civilian populations as terrain features. Civilians are terrain. Like dirt, or rocks, or rivers. Of course, we don’t want anything bad to happen to them, but something might, something might have to, for the sake of other civilians. Of course.
The man in front of me looks back and traces a wide circle above his head. Without thinking, I turn and pass the hand signal down the file. We have reached our Objective Rally Point. The platoon knows how to occupy it, and what they forget the platoon sergeant will remind them of, so I head for the center, running through the mission in my mind, again: leader’s recon, confirm kill zone, adjust if needed, return, deploy left and right security teams, emplace machine gun teams, emplace assault element, emplace claymore, wait; contact, initiate with claymore, mad minute on kill zone, drop to watch and shoot, gun teams cease fire, assault through kill zone, secure objective, conduct sensitive site exploitation, exfil in reverse order. Basic doctrine. Still, it is a good plan. I wish I could execute it, but that is not how we train. In the center, I meet the point man. We conduct a battle handoff. I brief him, he takes over, and I take point. He will execute the mission I planned. I feel a powerful mix of disappointment and relief. I understand the disappointment immediately, but the relief takes years.