How do I Talk to my “Boots” About Politics? Retaking the American Narrative in the Marine Corps

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U.S. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates talks to Marines deployed to Camp Leatherneck located on Field Operating Base Bastion, Afghanistan, during a recent trip the southwest Asia May 7, 2009. DOD photo by Air Force Master Sgt. Jerry Morrison(RELEASED)

This is a guest post from Peter Lucier.

Peter Lucier is a Marine veteran (2008-2013) and student at Montana State University. He writes as a member of the Council of Former Enlisted for The Best Defense blog, and is the editor of the soon to be launched Return to Base (rtbmag.com) You can follow him on Twitter @peterlucier

In the empty deserts of Afghanistan, near the Pakistani border, as the shadows of the mountains grew longer, and the cold of night began to creep, we’d put out the trash fires we’d started with cans of JP-8, carried on the sides of the LAV’s. We would fire up some UGR’s, and a box of coffee and hot chocolate, and figure out the post schedule for the night. I was a smart ass boot lance corporal, but out there, when it was just the twenty or so of us, sipping bad coffee and eating worse food, my platoon commander might indulge me in some political debate.

The question isn’t what can government do, to alleviate problems, he’d say, but what should government be in the business of doing. And if it’s not listed in the Constitution, we probably shouldn’t be doing it, regardless of the good it might do. And I’d misquote Toby Ziegler back at him, that government can be a place where we come together, and no one gets left behind. For seven months off and on, we’d chide or joke each other. This kind of deployment political talk is a funny thing. On the one hand, it’s lighthearted. Out there, in the middle of nowhere, with only each other, political differences on domestic issues seemed so far away as to be laughable, and laugh we did. Everything was a punchline, everything was funny. Whatever differences we had didn’t matter. On the other hand, we were all men who might be dead tomorrow. And the import of matters of principle could not be higher.

Most importantly though, was that he as an officer, and I was enlisted. When you are deployed, in combat, certain distinctions are erased, certain formalities forgone, and there is an intimacy that transgresses rank. When you come back, boots might be jealous of the way a lance calls a corporal or sergeant by the first name, or rolls his eyes at a command, and gets away with it. But at the same time, rank is never more important than when deployed. The incredible burden he must have carried, with our lives in his young hands, is still, to me, unimaginable. We joked. We laughed. But he always ate last. He never, ever bummed tobacco off of the junior enlisted, but did provide us with quite a bit. He led. He commanded. There were hard and difficult things we had to do while deployed, and the structure, discipline, and legacy of the Marine Corps was what allowed twenty or so men, all under the age of thirty, to accomplish what we had to. We all knew our place. He was an officer. I was enlisted.

I remember another Marine, the point man for our section. He was incredibly talented, and only nineteen years old. Raised in the Wisconsin woods, he fearlessly walked in front of our section, our team leader close behind, picking out safe paths for the rest of us to walk. And he hated the locals. Hated them. I can’t blame him for the worldview he took. He was dodging bombs with his feet every day, so much more exposed than the rest of us, who walked in his footsteps.

Angry Staff Officer wrote a fantastic piece about reclaiming the American narrative of multiculturalism, self-published on his blog recently. He wrote the piece based on a conversation he had with a young NCO, who claimed multiculturalism was destroying America.

I see my own juniors, who I led after I got back from Afghanistan, now posting on social media things I disagree with. I wish I had spent more time talking to them about politics, at least as much as I had spent talking to them about tactics. I was responsible for their moral and professional development, as much as I was responsible for their training and tactical employment. And when the military is pretty much the only trusted public institution left in America, and veterans words carry so much weight, as we saw at the conventions, reclaiming what I and others believe to be the American narrative could not be more important.

But then I think about that point man, who had an incredibly dangerous job to do, and I think about our platoon commander, and the incredible weight he carried through our work-up and deployment. I think about the cavernous distance between my platoon commander and I, that not even combat could disrupt. That point man may have held political beliefs I find abhorrent. But he kept me safe. It is not overstatement to say that he is the reason I am alive, and that I owe him my life. We are going to see each other again this fall for a reunion, and I hope I have the balls to tell him that, although I’ll probably chicken out, and we’ll just laugh and joke, just like we used to on those nights, in the shadows of the Afghan mountains, with all the fervor and intensity of men who might die tomorrow, but also the blithe uncaring of men for whom politics doesn’t matter.

And that might be the most pernicious thing of all, the thing that worries me the most. When we use our veterans, or our generals, to talk politics, and we make reclaiming the American narrative a mission of our senior NCO’s and officers, when the only institution trusted by the American public is the military, we rob the ability of those still out there, in the shadows of the mountains, to laugh about the craziness of the world, and go to sleep at night, guarding each other zealously, ready to go out on a dangerous mission the next day, confidently walking in each other’s footsteps, no matter what they think about Cheeto Jesus and Putin.


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