Military Memoirs Offer Unfiltered View of Iraq War

House to House Cover

A new crop of memoirs from soldiers in Iraq highlights stories from the front lines, the complications of leadership, and the terrible choices that war presents.

What's striking, says Washington Post military correspondent Thomas Ricks, is that some of the most compelling stories are coming from soldiers in the lower ranks, not the generals — whose books he calls "snoozers."

Ricks, who has written his own book about the Iraq war, Fiasco, offers his reviews of some of the latest titles.

"The books by the young enlisted, the young officers, are revealing. They're honest, they're tough," Ricks tells NPR's Steve Inskeep. "They're real page-turners."

'Beyond Redemption' in 'House to House'

David Bellavia's House to House is an intense portrayal of combat, Ricks says, and one of the most powerful representations of fighting he has read.

Just pages into the book, the story finds Bellavia in combat, where he kills a man on a rooftop. The story continues with high-energy action, and Ricks says the feel of House to House is similar to that of Blackhawk Down.

One of the themes in Bellavia's book is his combat skill.

"He is extremely good at combat, but he feels beyond redemption," Ricks says. "At one point, in house-to-house fighting in Fallujah, he asked himself, 'Am I in hell?' And the answer really is, 'Yes, you are.'"

'Choices Between Bad and Worse'

Nathaniel Fick's One Bullet Away is in part a meditation on leadership, good and bad, says Ricks. As a young Marine platoon leader just out of Dartmouth College, Fick joins the Marines out of patriotism.

He describes a situation in which confused orders cause his team to shoot up some children in Iraq. Fick tries to order a medevac on a doctor's request, but his commander denies the request.

Ricks says Fick's book also highlights good leadership. In Afghanistan, Fick finds the top Marine commander in that country camped out in a foxhole with troops while on his nightly perimeter check.

In a series of tough decisions, Fick learns that "war is not choices between good and bad. War is choices between bad and worse."

'Eternal Verities' of Military Life

Ricks calls Kayla Williams' Love My Rifle More Than You a striking work; it is also one of the few memoirs written by a female soldier.

Williams is "mentally quite tough," Ricks says, "but she brings a different perspective to war than male soldiers do."

Williams recounts sitting on a hilltop with her fellow soldiers, bored out of their minds. The men in the group say they've scrounged together $87 and a bag of M&Ms for her if she'll take off her shirt. Williams is heartbroken by the incident, Ricks says.

Common to all these memoirs is a focus on what Ricks calls "the eternal verities of military life:" food, showers and bad officers — the same day-to-day problems soldiers have always faced.

Excerpt: 'House to House'

House to House

by David Bellavia

Hardcover, 321 pages

List Price: $26.00

Note: There is content in this excerpt some readers may find offensive.

CHAPTER ONE

In the S***

November 2, 2004
Diyala Province
Our last mission before Fallujah

Seven months later, by the light of a full moon, we wade through chest-high sewage. We inch along, arms above our heads to hold our weapons out of the muck. The sludge that bathes us is exquisitely rank. Gnats swarm. Mosquitoes feast and flies crawl. If my first day in the army had been like this, I'd have gone AWOL.

Behind me, I can sense my men are pissed off. We have a mission, but some of them question it. What's beyond question is the fact that I've made them come out here in the middle of the night to wade through a trench of human excrement. I glance behind me just in time to see Piotr Sucholas nearly take a header into the filth. John Ruiz slops an arm out of the sewage and catches Sucholas before he goes under. The two of them spit funk out of their mouths, then make eye contact with me for a nanosecond.

Part of me feels guilty for their plight. Knowing they're angry with me makes it even worse. Call that my human side. At the same, the professional in me, the NCO side of my brain, gives exactly two-fifths of a f*** about how my men feel. This inner conflict doesn't usually last. The NCO in me beats the ever-loving s***out of my human side. The mission is what counts.

But tonight I just can't seem to help myself.

Voice barely a whisper, I ask, "Hey, you guys alright?"

Ruiz and Sucholas nod. So does Hugh Hall who is next to Ruiz.

"Pull your nuts out. You might just die at the end of this bitch."

They stare at me without expression, streaks of s***water running down their faces. Sucholas spits again, but does so quietly. They get the point.

The fact that my men don't say a word in response shows discipline. They are angry and miserable, but they don't display it. We both play the game, soldiers and NCOs. I'm proud of their discipline, yet at the same time I am hyperalert for the first one to break the rules.

I have pushed my squad so hard in the ten months we've been in Iraq, the men must despise me. Back at base, there is a long-standing rumor of a sock full of five-dollar bills the platoon has collected, a little wager over which of their three leading sergeants will get fragged first: Fitts, Cantrell, or me.

We push along the trench. We have almost two more kilometers to go. The moonlight leads the way; it is so bright, we don't bother with our night-vision goggles. We slop our way slowly toward a large pipe that crosses the sewer trench right at head level. It is old and rusted and looks unstable. I turn around and motion to Staff Sergeant Mike Smith. Smitty edges past me in the trench and swings a leg up onto the pipe.

A metallic groan echoes through the night. Smitty tries to shift his weight and the pipe whines in protest. It starts to buckle, and a good-sized chunk falls off, leaving a gaping hole in one side. The palm groves around us are full of chained watchdogs — the hajji version of an ADT security system. They hear the noise and bark viciously in response. The barking grows frantic. Smitty eases off the broken pipe. We can't get over it, and now we risk detection, thanks to the dogs. The whole squad freezes. I grow tense. The mission is on the line here.

We are after Ayub Ali again, the terror-for-hire arms broker who has sewn so much misery in the Diyala Province since the Shia uprising began in April. When we first arrived in country, we had no idea who he was. Gradually, through the summer, we picked up bits of intelligence that suggested there was a network providing weapons and explosives to both the Mahdi militia and the Sunni insurgents. Ayub Ali sits atop this shadowy group.

We've tried to catch him several times already, but his luck ran strong and he evaded us at every turn. The more I learn about him, the more I want him dead. He's no ideologue or jihadist, he's just a criminal selling the tools of death to the highest bidder. He helps blow up women and children for profit. Taking Ali down will save countless innocent lives.

Tonight, we are on a sneak-and-peak mission to find his latest hideout. Intelligence reports suggest Ali has moved into a horse farm in the countryside outside Muqdadiyah. Our job is to get as close as we can, get a good look at the place, and confirm he's there. The s*** trench offered the surest way to approach undetected by those vicious mutts.

Now stuck at the pipe crossing our trench, we face the possibility of blowing the op altogether. In the satellite photos I received before the mission, this pipe could not be seen. Now I have to act like I expected it. We cannot backtrack. If we do, it will be the admission of a mistake, and NCOs never make mistakes. We lie like professionals to protect that image of infallibility because that is what cements us to our men.

If they believe in you and the example you set, these men will do whatever is asked of them. This connection between soldiers is a deep bond. It is the root of what it means to be an infantryman. In this cruel here and now, it is what gives my life value and meaning. That doesn't mean my men won't despise me. The nature of soldiering brings ultra-intensity to every emotion, especially in combat. We love, hate, and respect one another all at the same time, because the alternative is the bland oblivion of death.

I look at the pipe and utter a silent curse. The men are going to have to take a bath. It is the only way to continue the mission.

I had handpicked these men for this mission. I chose Specialist Lance Ohle for his mastery of the SAW light machine gun. In a firefight, Ohle on his SAW is an artist at work. He talks like a gangsta rapper but wears cowboy hats and listens to Metallica. Neither the Army nor any of those other worlds he has occupied has prepared him for this. He moans a protest about the breaststroke confronting us.

"Oh. Oohh."

"Shut the f*** up," Hugh Hall hisses.

Staff Sergeant Mike Smith stands beside me. He's our land navigation guru, though he's usually a Bradley commander, not a dismount. I nod to him and point downward, and he grimaces before taking a deep breath. An instant later, he descends into the sewage and swings around the bottom of the pipe. I hear him break the surface on the other side and exhale. Somebody hands him his weapon.

Sergeant Hall goes next. He doesn't hesitate, and I'm not surprised. I consider him one of the best soldiers in Alpha Company. He dips under the filth and pops back up on the far side of the pipe. The moonlight betrays Hall's misery. He's slick with sewage; the ochre slime drips from his Kevlar. John Ruiz sees his condition but doesn't flinch. He ducks under the pipe and breaks the surface next to Hall a second later.

I'm next. I close my eyes and hold my nose. Down into the filth I go, feeling my way under the pipe. Then I'm out the other side. Misa, Sucholas, and Sergeant Charles Knapp follow me.

We continue along the trench, more concerned about watchdogs than gunfire. Finally, we come to a stretch of palm grove that seems to be free of hajji dogs. We crawl out of the sewage and move through the grove. By now, it is 0300, and the night's chill has set in. Soaked to the bone, we start to shiver. I almost wish I was back in the s*** trench. It was warmer.

We creep to a barn about 350 meters from Ali's main compound. The squad sweeps through it, hoping to find somebody to detain, but it's empty. We maneuver toward the compound. Our job is to get within view of the place, to study its layout and defenses. If possible, battalion wants us to try and flush people from the compound. If they bolt in vehicles, we can call helicopters down to follow them and others will trap them with Bradleys. Taking down these guys on the road while they're inside their cars will be easier than storming a fortified and defended compound.

On our bellies, we snake forward, bodies still shivering from the cold night air. We're just about to reach a good vantage point a hundred meters from the compound when the roar of engines shatters the stillness of the night. The cacophony grows deafening. Around us, the guard dogs howl with rage. I look over my shoulder in time to see a pair of Blackhawk helicopters thunder right over us. They hug the ground, then hover over the compound.

I hear men shouting in Arabic. A shaft of light spears the night, then another. Ali's guards are turning on searchlights. Soon the entire compound is ablaze, and the searchlights probe around us.

The birds have inadvertently compromised our mission. Cursing, we pull back to the barn, then dash into the palm grove. Behind us, the compound is fully alerted now. The guard dogs growl. The searchlights snoop. We cannot stick around. The Blackhawks dip and slide overhead. Their spinning rotors blast the buildings with mini-hurricanes of wind and dust. What was silence is now total chaos.

We hike the four kilometers back to our Brads without a word between us. This had been a perfect op until it was ruined by miscommunication with a pair of helo pilots. Stinking, frustrated, and ill-tempered, we mount up into our vehicles. We know this was our last shot at finding Ali. This mission is our swan song in the province.

Our unit is set to head out to Fallujah, a city of about 350,000 in the restive Anbar Province, along the Euphrates River. Fallujah has been under total insurgent control since April, when Operation Vigilant Resolve, a Marine offensive planned in response to the ghastly and well-publicized hanging of four U.S. contractors, was canceled for political reasons. The jarheads just loved that. All they wanted to do was finish the insurgents off once and for all. Marines. They may all be double-barreled and single-helixed. They may just be the worst historical revisionists of all time. But at their core they are fiercely proud and spoil for an unfair fight. God love 'em all.

In two days, Diyala's miseries will be behind us — the IEDs on the local highway, the Mahdi militia around Muqdadiyah, and the house-to-house firefights downtown. We can't yet know how much we'll miss them. We are leaving the good life, and heading into the mother of all city battles.

I lean back against the Bradley's bulkhead, my uniform still wet. My boys shiver violently from the cold. A few wipe their faces with rags. Piotr Sucholas, my new Bravo Team Leader, sits next me, weapon between his legs, barrel touching the Brad's floorboards. I half expect for him to start riffing on the evils of President Bush again. Sucholas is our platoon liberal. He fell in love with Michael Moore after watching a bootlegged DVD of Fahrenheit 9/11. Fortunately, his flaky suspicions that President Bush is out to conquer the world don't have the least effect on his willingness to do battle. When the shooting starts, he thinks only of killing the other guys and saving his men. That's why I love Piotr Sucholas.

Now he sits quietly next to me. The news that we are going to Fallujah has made everyone introspective. Sucholas has ice water for blood. In a fight, he is utterly calm, but even he is uneasy at the thought of what we will soon face.

The Brads carry us back to base. We pile out and head for our isolated, three-story barracks building. From where we live, it's a twenty-five minute walk just to reach a telephone. The battalion operations center is over a kilometer away. Even the former Iraqi Army morgue that serves as our chow hall is half a kilometer from us.

Our uniforms are filthy. Cleaning them is no easy chore. We have a couple of Iraqi washing machines, but we currently don't have electricity in our building. We'll have to do our wash by hand. Fitts and I order the men to round up as many spray bottles of Simple Green cleaner as they can find. We have no running water either, so the shower room on the first floor of our barracks serves mainly as a storage area.

In the darkness, we peel off our filthy uniforms and get to work. Soon, we're all freezing cold and shaking uncontrollably as we scrub our uniforms and wash them with bottled water. When they're as clean as we can manage, we take bottled-water showers and lather up with the leftover Simple Green. The muck of the sewage trench dribbles off us as the frigid water hits our bodies. It takes us until dawn to smell semihuman again.

Once my squad is squared away, I collapse into my cot in hopes of a quick catnap. Sleep does not come easily, despite my fatigue. My mind refuses to shut off.

Fallujah.

When I first learned we will be redeployed to Fallujah, I pumped my fist and shouted with excitement. Finally. We'd been stuck in the backwater of the war, chasing s***heads like Ayub Ali across palm and dale without luck. We'd missed out on the Battle of Najaf in August that wiped hundreds of Mahdi militiamen and crippled al-Sadr's street army — at least for the moment. Perhaps now we'll have a chance to take part in something truly decisive. My adrenaline is already flowing.

From House to House by John Bellavia with John R. Bruning. Copyright © 2007 by David Bellavia. Reprinted by permission of Free Press, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

Excerpt: 'American Soldier'

American Soldier Cover

American Soldier

by Tommy Franks

Paperback, 624 pages

List Price: $16.95

Make 'em a Hand

Austin, Texas
August 1963

Everybody who's been a freshman at a big school has probably had a similar experience. During my first few days at the University of Texas I felt isolated, even though I was surrounded by twenty thousand students. The campus occupied a big hunk of downtown Austin. There were wide lawns, a maze of classroom buildings, a football stadium that could seat the population of Midland, and the University Tower looming over the whole place. During registration that muggy week in August 1963, with kids hurrying every which way to get signed up for classes, I might have been one of those ants boiling out of the dirt on my folks' farm back in Wynnewood.

My goal in college was to become a chemical engineer. I liked high school science well enough, and had earned good grades. But those first days on campus, I couldn't even read the map to locate my classrooms.

Soon enough, though, I did find a new home — in the Delta Upsilon fraternity house. The DU house was a four-story cube of blue aluminum and glass overlooking a circular drive on Leon Street.

When I walked up that drive wearing my Madras sport coat and a starched white shirt during Rush Week, the house looked like something out of a sci-fi movie.

Pretty cool, I thought.

Known for its high academic standards, Delta Upsilon was also the fraternity of Darrell Royal, the legendary Longhorn football coach. DU's reputation as a party house was also a definite attraction.

I got along fine with the brothers and moved into the house as a pledge that September.

There were no telephones in the rooms, but each floor had a phone bank. For an eighteen-year-old freshman away from home for the first time, these nicotine-yellow phones were a real temptation. It was great fun to lounge around the hall day or night in T-shirt and shorts, burning up the phone lines with girls and other guys I'd met on campus. Shooting the breeze about the next party or the football schedule was a lot better than diagramming sentences for English Comp or memorizing the Periodic Table of Elements. Odd as it sounds now, my poor study habits probably began while I was yakking away on the second-floor phones in the DU house.

One of the projects my pledge class took on was building a beer garden on the sloping backyard behind the house. It was here that I really got to know Mike Corley, Jimmy Sewell, Terry Marlatt, and Jack Slayton. Though we were from different parts of Texas, we shared a common interest in girls and parties; the job was a shared labor of love.

It was no mean feat of amateur engineering either. We had to dig into the hillside with picks and shovels to level out a dirt platform for the cinderblock-and-brick floor. And, because of the angle of the slope, we sweated through some heavy calculations to determine the correct height of the upright beams holding the lattice roof. Luckily, I could go to the trusty phones and call my dad in Midland whenever we had a problem.

The beauty of this beer garden was its ridge-top location. We would sit back in the shade drinking and watch the cars on the street below. And the garden also overlooked two girls' dorms, so we had an ideal place to scout the local talent. This was a helluva lot better than studying.

I remember a fall afternoon that first semester when Jimmy Sewell, Terry Marlatt, and I were treating some of the older brothers to a cold case of Lone Star.

One of the guys, who was taking geology, offered a recitation of Moh's mineral hardness scale, which began with "Talc, Gypsum, Calcite, Fluorite ... " and ended up with " ... Topaz, Corundum, and Diamond." By Longhorn tradition, he'd memorized the sequence using a time-honored technique: TGCFAOQTCD, which also stood for "Texas Girls Can Flirt And Other Quaint Things Can Do." But he replaced "Flirt" with a more suggestive "F" word. I was learning the ways of the world.

The subject briefly shifted from girls to cars, always of interest to young Texans.

"That big Olds has definitely got glass-pack pipes," Jimmy said, tilting his bottle at a blue 88.

"Does not," I argued. "That's a stock sedan straight from the dealer. Probably belongs to some preacher."

Accurately judging the features of cars was a highly regarded skill among DU brothers. But so was assessing the charms of strolling co-eds.

"The one in the pleated skirt is really stacked," Phil Ruzicka announced.

He nodded at two girls walking on the sidewalk below.

"Probably falsies," Terry countered.

"I can state for a fact that they're not," Phil said, sipping beer.

We hooted our appreciation and respect. Phil was a well-experienced junior. I watched the other girl, a curvy blond with a ponytail and a cashmere sweater set done up with a little gold chain at the neck. Her name was Janet, and I'd invited her to a fraternity party on Friday night. I planned to make my move after we'd all had a couple beers.

One of the important lessons I was learning at the University of Texas was that the Sexual Revolution wasn't just something you read about in Playboy. During my last two years at Lee High in Midland, Shell Dougherty and I had gone steady. Now I was discovering the freedom of dating two or three different girls a week, away from their — and my own — parents' supervision. College turned out to be a whole lot more interesting than I ever imagined.

Girls weren't the only temptation. Too many weeknights when I should have been studying, we'd pile a bunch of guys into Terry Marlatt's parents' sedan — three of them hiding in the trunk with a load of six-packs — and head off to the drive-in to watch a movie. If we weren't off to the movies, we could always drive over for a cheeseburger at Dirty's, then cruise up and down Austin's main drag, Guadalupe Street — pronounced Guada-loop in Texas Anglo fashion.

But college wasn't nonstop hedonism. We all took President John Kennedy's assassination very hard. The university cancelled classes that Friday afternoon, and I joined about five thousand other silent, teary-eyed students jammed into the Union, watching Walter Cronkite on the big black-and-white TV. This was a sad day for Texas. President Kennedy had inspired my generation. We could all recite that part of his inauguration speech: "Ask not what your country can do for you . . ." Now the President was dead. Everybody I knew got drunk that night.

American Soldier copyright (c) 2005 by Tommy R. Franks. Reprinted with permission by Harper Paperbacks, HarperCollins Publishers. All rights reserved.

Excerpt: 'Love My Rifle More Than You'

Love My Rifle More Than You Cover

Love My Rifle More Than You

by Kayla Williams and Michael Staub

paperback, 288 pages

List Price: $14.95

Note: This excerpt contains language and content that some readers may find offensive.

Queen for a Year

Queen for a Year: 1 a: any American female stationed overseas in a predominantly male military environment. b: a female soldier who becomes stuck-up during her deployment due to an exponential increase in male attention — used disparagingly.

... A woman at war: you're automatically a desirable commodity, and a scarce one at that. We call it "Queen for a Year." Even the unattractive girls start to act stuck-up. It's impossible not to notice.

"Queen for a Year." You won't find the phrase in the dictionary or any compilation of military terms. But say it among soldiers, and they'll know immediately what you mean. That's what we've called American women at war since nurses traveled to Vietnam in the sixties.

There's also this "deployment scale" for hotness. Let me explain. On a scale of ten, say she's a five. You know — average looks, maybe a little mousy, nothing special. But okay. Not a girl who gets second glances in civilian life. But in the Army, while we're deployed? Easily an eight. One hot babe. On average every girl probably gets three extra points on a ten-point scale. Useful.

After you're in-country for a few months, all the girls begin to look good — or at least better. It changes — how should I say this? — the dynamics of being deployed.

You could get things easier, and you could get out of things easier. For a girl there were lots of little things you could do to make your load while deployed a whole lot lighter. You could use your femaleness to great advantage. You could do less work, get more assistance, and receive more special favors. Getting supplies? Working on the trucks? It could be a cinch — if you wanted it to be. It didn't take much. A little went a long way. Some of us worked it to the bone. Who says the life of the Army girl has to be cruel? Lots of girls succumbed to temptation. The younger girls were the most susceptible. Many thrived and fed on the male attention they were getting for the first time in their lives.

I did my personal best to resist. So did my friends and the girls I respected. (That's why I respected them.) But many girls became full-fledged Queens for a Year. We saw it. And the guys talked.

The guys loved to talk. It didn't even especially matter what girls did or did not do. By the time it circled back to us (and in Iraq, everything that went around came around extra-fast), it might as well have been true.

"I watched her doing PT today. She was doing dips. She wants it!"

"I saw her in line for chow — she was wearing a tight brown T-shirt. She's looking for some action!"

Creepy.

And the locals? Even worse than Joes. At least some American guys have learned some subtlety about staring at our t***. They'd look out of the corner of their eyes. Or when we were looking away. Either Iraqi guys didn't care or didn't have the practice.

They just blatantly and openly stared at our t***. All the time.

Apparently Iraqis asked our guys if we were prostitutes.

Employed by the U.S. military to service the troops in the same way the Russian army managed sex for its soldiers in Kosovo. I didn't want anyone to think we were the U.S. equivalent of that! None of this means that life in the Army while deployed to a combat zone has to be celibate. "What goes TDY stays TDY." It's a longstanding military tradition. License to do as we please while on "temporary duty" — that is, while away from our permanent post. And it stays TDY when we return home.

Sex is not specifically prohibited for deployed soldiers. It's just implied that it is not allowed. Yet the PX in Iraq sells condoms.

The general attitude is: "Don't get caught." The one rule is: "Be discreet." Probably most of the single girls do it. Most of the single guys, too, if they ever get the chance. It becomes a simple matter of supply and demand.

And even though it's not okay, it's true — if a girl was indiscreet, if she got caught, or people knew, everyone lost respect for her. Like she was some slut. It was different, of course, for the guys. Somehow everyone got it that getting laid was okay for the guys.

So get real. The Army is not a monastery. More like a fraternity.

Or a massive frat party. With weapons. With girls there for the taking — at least some of the time.

The guys are there for the taking too. And we took. I took.

But mostly I chose to be a bitch. I was nowhere as young as most of the other girls over there. Nowhere as innocent — at all.

I'd hung around guys almost all my life; my punk rock scene in high school was overwhelmingly male. I'd dealt with sex from a young age. I'd been married.

In Iraq I felt I could deal with being Queen for a Year. But it still got to me. It still got me angry. Sometimes. I remember walking through the chow hall (once it was built) at the airfield was like running a gauntlet of eyes. Guys stared and stared and stared. Sometimes it felt like I was some f****** zoo animal. Guys hitting on us or saying inappropriate things — just constant.

Then sometimes I got in the mood. I'd enter the chow hall with a swing to my step. Check me out. Look. Don't touch. So occasionally it went to my head.

The girls joked, too. Some guys we met in Iraq were no prime specimens themselves. Funny nose, bad posture, bad teeth, whatever.

But they also looked better. Always. So it worked both ways.

Location, location, location. It played with all our minds.

It was like a separate bloodless war within the larger deadly one.

From Love My Rifle More Than You: Young and Female in the U.S. Army by Kayla Williams with Michael E. Staub. Copyright (c) 2005 by Kayla Williams and Michael E. Staub. Used by permission of W.W. Nortion & Company, Inc.

Excerpt: 'One Bullet Away'

Cover: 'One Bullet Away'

One Bullet Away

by Nathaniel Fick

paperback, 372 pages

List Price: $14.95

Note: This excerpt contains language and content that some readers may find offensive.

Chapter 1

Fifteen of us climbed aboard the ancient white school bus. Wire mesh covered its windows and four black words ran along its sides: UNITED STATES MARINE CORPS.

Dressed casually in shorts and sandals, we spread out and sat alone with our bags. Some sipped coffee from paper cups, and a few unfolded newspapers they had brought. I found a seat near the back as the bus started with a roar and a cloud of smoke blew through the open windows.

A second lieutenant, looking crisp in his gabardine and khaki uniform, sat in the front row. He had just graduated from Officer Candidates School, and would escort us on the hour's drive to the Marine Corps base in Quantico, Virginia. Shortly after we pulled away from the recruiting office, he stood in the aisle and turned to face us. I expected a welcome, a joke, some commiseration.

"Honor, courage, and commitment are the Marines' core values," the lieutenant shouted over the engine. He sounded scripted, but also sincere. "If you can't be honest at OCS, how can the Corps trust you to lead men in combat?"

Combat. I glanced around the bus's gunmetal interior, surprised to see people reading or pretending to sleep. No one answered the lieutenant's question. He stood there in the aisle, glaring at us, and I sat up a little straighter. The lieutenant was my age, but he looked different. Shorter hair, of course, and broader shoulders. It was more than that. He had an edge, something in his jaw or his brow that made me self-conscious.

I turned toward the window to avoid his gaze. Families drove next to us, on their way to the lake or the beach. Kids wearing headphones gawked, surely wondering what losers were riding a school bus in the summertime. A girl in an open Jeep stood and started to raise her shirt before being pulled back down by a laughing friend. They waved and accelerated past. I thought of my friends, spending their summer vacations in New York and San Francisco, working in air-conditioned office towers and partying at night. Staring through the wire mesh at the bright day, I thought this must be what it's like on the ride to Sing Sing. I wondered why I was on that bus. I went to Dartmouth intending to go to med school. Failing a chemistry class had inspired my love of history, and I ended up majoring in the classics. By the summer of 1998, my classmates were signing six-figure contracts as consultants and investment bankers. I didn't understand what we, at age twenty-two, could possibly be consulted about. Others headed off to law school or medical school for a few more years of reading instead of living. None of it appealed to me. I wanted to go on a great adventure, to prove myself, to serve my country. I wanted to do something so hard that no one could ever talk shit to me. In Athens or Sparta, my decision would have been easy. I felt as if I had been born too late. There was no longer a place in the world for a young man who wanted to wear armor and slay dragons.

Dartmouth encouraged deviation from the trampled path, but only to join organizations like the Peace Corps or Teach for America. I wanted something more transformative. Something that might kill me — or leave me better, stronger, more capable. I wanted to be a warrior.

My family had only a short martial tradition. My maternal grandfather, like many in his generation, had served in World War II. He was a Navy officer in the South Pacific, and his ship, the escort carrier Natoma Bay, fought at New Guinea, Leyte Gulf, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa, often supporting Marine invasion forces ashore. At 0635 on June 7, 1945, so the family story went, only two months before the end of the war, a Japanese kamikaze crashed into the Natoma Bay's flight deck. The explosion tore a hole in the steel twelve feet wide and twenty feet long. Shrapnel peppered my grandfather's body. My mother remembers watching him pick pieces of metal from his skin twenty years later. He had some of that shrapnel melted into a lucky horseshoe, which was shown to me with great reverence when I was a child.

My father enlisted in the Army in 1968. When most of his basic training class went to Vietnam, he received orders to the Army Security Agency. He spent a year in Bad Aibling, Germany, eavesdropping on Eastern bloc radio transmissions and waiting for the Soviets to roll through the Fulda Gap. He completed OCS just as President Richard Nixon began drawing down the military, and took advantage of an early out to go to law school. But my dad was proud to have been a soldier.

The Army sent me a letter during my junior year at Dartmouth, promising to pay for graduate school. The Navy and Air Force did the same, promising skills and special training. The Marine Corps promised nothing. Whereas the other services listed their benefits, the Corps asked, "Do you have what it takes?" If I was going to serve in the military, I would be a Marine.

A few months before, I'd seen a poster in the dining hall advertising a talk by Tom Ricks. Then the Wall Street Journal's Pentagon correspondent, Ricks had recently written a book about the Marines. I sat up most of one night reading it. I arrived early to get a good seat and listened as Ricks explained the Corps's culture and the state of civil-military relations in the United States. His review of the Marines, or at least my interpretation of it, was glowing. The Marine Corps was a last bastion of honor in society, a place where young Americans learned to work as a team, to trust one another and themselves, and to sacrifice for a principle. Hearing it from a recruiter, I would have been skeptical. But here was a journalist, an impartial observer.

The crowd was the usual mix of students, faculty, and retired alumni. After the talk, a young professor stood. "How can you support the presence of ROTC at a place like Dartmouth?" she asked. "It will militarize the campus and threaten our culture of tolerance."

"Wrong," replied Ricks. "It will liberalize the military." He explained that in a democracy, the military should be representative of the people. It should reflect the best of American society, not stand apart from it.

Ricks used words such as "duty" and "honor" without cynicism, something I'd not often heard at Dartmouth.

His answer clinched my decision to apply for a slot at Marine OCS during the summer between my junior and senior years of college. I would have laughed at the idea of joining the Corps on a bet or because of a movie, but my own choice was almost equally capricious. Although I had reached the decision largely on my own, Tom Ricks, in an hour-long talk on a cold night at Dartmouth, finally convinced me to be a Marine.

But even joining the Marines didn't seem as crazy as it had to my parents' generation. This was 1998, not 1968. The United States was cashing in its post–cold war peace dividend. Scholars talked about "the end of history," free markets spreading prosperity throughout the world, and the death of ideology. I would be joining a peacetime military. At least that's the rationale I used when I broke the news to my parents. They were surprised but supportive. "The Marines," my dad said, "will teach you everything I love you too much to teach you." The Marine Corps base in Quantico straddles Interstate 95, sprawling across thousands of acres of pine forest and swamp thirty miles south of Washington. Our bus rumbled through the gate, and we drove past rows of peeling warehouses and brick buildings identified only by numbered signs. They looked like the remnants of some dead industry, like the boarded-up mills on the riverbanks of a New Hampshire town.

"Christ, man, where're the ovens? This place looks like Dachau." Only a few forced laughs met this quip from someone near the back of the bus.

We drove farther and farther onto the base — along the edge of a swamp, through miles of trees, far enough to feel as if they could kill us here and no one would ever know. That, of course, was the desired effect.

When the air brakes finally hissed and the door swung open, we sat in the middle of a blacktop parade deck the size of three football fields.

Austere brick barracks surrounded it. A sign at the blacktop's edge read UNITED STATES MARINE CORPS OFFICER CANDIDATES SCHOOL — DUCTUS EXEMPLO. I recognized the motto from Latin class: "Leadership by Example."

I hoped a drill instructor in a Smokey Bear hat would storm onto the bus and order us off to stand on yellow footprints. Pop culture has immortalized the arrival of enlistedMarine recruits at Parris Island, South Carolina. But this was OCS, and the lack of theatrics disappointed me.

A fresh-faced Marine with a clipboard took the roll by Social Security number and then handed a pencil to each of us, saying we had a lot of paperwork to fill out.

For two days, we shuffled from line to line for haircuts, gear issue, and a battery of physical tests. Candidates who had returned after being dropped from previous OCS classes explained this routine: the schedule was designed to minimize the number of us who flunked out for high blood pressure. On day three, with physical evaluations completed, the hammer would fall.

We slept in squad bays with fifty bunks per room. There, on the evenings before OCS really started, I got my first lesson in esprit de corps. OCS is competitive. Since the peacetime Marine Corps needs a fixed number of officers, a certain number of candidates are earmarked to graduate while the rest are destined to fail. I thought this put us in competition with one another, but the candidates who had been dropped before, or who had served as enlisted Marines, shared their knowledge with the rest of us.

The Corps is a naval service, with nautical vocabulary. Doors are hatches, walls are bulkheads, and floors are decks. Signs at Quantico, miles from the sea, read WELCOME ABOARD. They also taught us the more arcane language of the Marines. Running shoes were called go-fasters. Our flashlights, worn on the hip at OCS, were moonbeams. When we looked confused, one of the prior-service Marines laughed. Just wait till you get to the Fleet, he told us. Three different pieces of equipment were known as a "donkey dick" — a radio antenna, a brush for cleaning mortar tubes, and a funnel for fueling Humvees.

In the beginning, my strongest impression of Quantico, apart from its isolation, was its timelessness. Looking around the squad bay, I could imagine Franklin Roosevelt in the White House. No plastic, no advertising, no bright colors. Just two-high metal racks, as our bunks were called, a green linoleum floor, brick walls, and bare bulbs overhead. The only decoration was a sign of two-foot-high letters stenciled along an entire wall: HONOR, COURAGE, COMMITMENT. I already had the feeling that the Marines were a world apart, that what we did at OCS would be separate from the rest of my life.

When another candidate dragged a wooden footlocker next to mine and sat down, I was glad of the company.

"I'm Dave Adams." He stuck out his hand.

Dave was a football player at William and Mary. His brother had gone to Dartmouth. His easy smile made me like him right away.

"So what do you think?" I tried to ask the question with less trepidation than I felt.

Dave smiled and said, "I think we're in for a shitty summer. But I've wanted to be a Marine since I was a kid. What's that saying? 'Pain is temporary. Pride is forever.'"

"I saw a bumper sticker in the parking lot that said 'Nobody ever drowned in sweat.'" I was nervous. Not scared or intimidated — that would come later — but apprehensive. The Marine transformation is one of American life's storied tests. I knew its reputation was earned.

We had the barest taste of it at the supply warehouse on the morning of the ominous third day. All the candidates lined up and moved from bin to bin, selecting green camouflage blouses and trousers, nylon belts with two olive-drab canteens attached, and odd items such as bug spray labeled "Repellent, Arthropod." Two young Marines in the warehouse took advantage of the chance to hassle a group of future officers.

"Get at parade rest!"

It was an alien command. I clasped my hands in front of me and tried to look respectful.

"You gonna gaff us off? Get at the position of attention."

The candidates around me stood a little straighter, with their hands at their sides. The two Marines told us there were only two ways to stand at OCS: parade rest — feet shoulder-width apart, hands clasped in the small of the back, eyes straight ahead; and at attention — heels together, back straight, hands at your sides with thumbs along the trouser seams.

Later, we assembled for lunch in a Word War II–era Quonset hut. Baking in this sun-beaten aluminum oven, we munched processed meat sandwiches and apples — a prepared lunch the Marines called a "boxed nasty" — as the school's commanding officer (CO) outlined his expectations of us. The colonel's lantern jaw, craggy nose, and graying hair were straight from a recruiting commercial. He looked as if he could wrestle any of us to the floor, and authority ran deep in his voice.

"We seek to identify in each candidate those qualities of intellect, human understanding, and moral character that enable a person to inspire and to control a group of people successfully: leaders," he said. "A candidate's presence under pressure is a key indicator of leadership potential. In trying to identify Marine leaders who may someday face combat, we want to see who can think and function under stress. Stress at OCS is created in many ways, as you will see."

When the colonel concluded, he called forward the school's staff, introducing each Marine. All had served as drill instructors. At OCS, though, they were called "sergeant instructors," and we would address them by that title, their rank, and their name. The staff marched smartly down the aisle and stood at attention before us. Khaki uniforms with splashes of colored ribbons, eyes focused over our heads on the back wall of the room, no smiles. They were sergeants, staff sergeants, and gunnery sergeants, mostly men with ten to twenty years in the Corps. I saw scars and biceps and tattoos. With introductions complete, the colonel turned to the staff and uttered ten words that ended our civilian lives: "Take charge and carry out the plan of the day."

Tables turned over, chairs clattered to the floor, and I forgot all about the half-eaten apple in my hand. The staff charged us. We ran out the back door of the Quonset hut. I wanted to keep running, to disappear into the woods, make my way out to the highway, and hitchhike home. But pride trumps most other impulses in young men, and I fell into a ragged formation with my new platoon-mates.

"Stop eyeballing the freakin' area, maggot." My eyes were locked to the front. I didn't think he was talking to me. Warm, wet breath on my cheeks. If not me, then someone right next to me.

"Lock your body!"

Spittle across my eyes and lips. The Marine strutted up and down our crooked ranks. He spoke to the group, but in a way that made it personal for each of us.

"If you so much as breathe, I'll hear it and rip your freakin' windpipe out. Now grab your freakin' trash and move with purpose. Pretend for me that you want to be here."

We shouldered our bags. Candidates with foresight had brought hiking packs. They stood comfortably, looking ready to strike out down the Appalachian Trail. The truly lost labored with their leather brief bags and suitcases. I fell somewhere in between, striving mightily to be inconspicuous with an oversize duffel bag.

I snuck a look at the instructor's nametag. Olds. Three stripes on his shoulder. Sergeant Olds. He was yelling, veins popping, eyes bulging. His arms waved from broad shoulders that tapered to his waist with all the menacing grace of a wasp. I looked at Sergeant Instructor Sergeant Olds, sensing he had just become a fixture in my life.

"Don't eyeball me, candidate. Do you want to ask me out on a date? You look like you want to ask me out."

"No, Sergeant Instructor Sergeant Olds."

"Go ahead, candidate. Keep whispering. And keep looking deep into my eyes." His voice dropped to a whisper, and he moved in close. I watched a vein throbbing in his temple and struggled not to make eye contact. "I dare you to ask me out. Your chucklehead classmates here might get a laugh out of it, but I swear it'll be the last thing you ever do."

This is theater, right? I had seen Full Metal Jacket. It's all a joke. But it didn't feel like a joke. When Olds spoke to me, icy adrenaline washed through my chest. My legs shook. The worst part was that Olds knew he'd gotten to me. He would, I feared, increase the pressure.

For now, Olds pivoted on a spit-shined heel and struck out across the parade deck. Lacking better options, we followed him. Large raindrops splotched the dark asphalt. The splotches grew bigger and closer together until they finally merged into a single, dark stain. I dragged my duffel bag along the pavement, struggling to keep its strap from biting into my shoulder. The bag had felt lighter when I'd hefted it the night before. I had packed only the required list: three sets of civilian clothes, running shoes, a toiletry kit, and the combat boots mailed weeks before so I could break them in. I folded the clothes crisply, careful to crease each trouser leg and keep the shirt fronts smooth.

Sergeant Olds had opened a gap of fifty yards between himself and the straggling platoon. He stood facing us with his hands on his hips. "Dump your trash. I want to see who's trying to sneak naked pictures of his boyfriend into my squad bay."

I hesitated, unsure whether he actually meant for us to dump our belongings onto the puddled pavement. Steam rose as the rain hit the ground.

"What are we, deaf? I said dump your trash. Do it now. Move!"

I unzipped my bag and placed the boots on the blacktop. Then I stacked my clothes on them and put the toiletry bag on top to deflect the rain. Olds's attention landed on my carefully constructed pile. He kicked it over and put a boot print on the chest of my neatly ironed shirt.

"What's in here?" He grabbed my toiletry bag. "Drugs? Booze? Maybe a tube of K-Y jelly and a big cucumber?"

One by one, my toothbrush, toothpaste, razor, and shaving cream fell to the ground.

"You must have hidden it pretty well, candidate," Olds growled. "But I'll find it. Oh, yeah, I'll find it. And when I do, I'll run your ass out of my Marine Corps before you can even call your congressman."

Olds moved on to his next victim, and I hesitantly began to piece my life back together, wondering again why I was at OCS. Next to me, Dave caught my eye with a smile and mouthed, "Semper fi."

From One Bullet Away by Nathaniel Fick, Copyright (c) 2005 by Nathaniel Fick. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company. All Rights Reserved

Books Featured In This Story

House to House

An Epic Memoir of War

by David Bellavia and John R., Jr. Bruning

Hardcover, 321 pages | purchase

Purchase Featured Book

Title
House to House
Subtitle
An Epic Memoir of War
Author
David Bellavia and John R., Jr. Bruning

Your purchase helps support NPR Programming. How?

One Bullet Away

The Making of a Marine Officer

by Nathaniel Fick

Paperback, 369 pages | purchase

Purchase Featured Book

Title
One Bullet Away
Subtitle
The Making of a Marine Officer
Author
Nathaniel Fick

Your purchase helps support NPR Programming. How?

Love My Rifle More Than You

Young And Female in the U.S. Army

by Kayla Williams and Michael E. Staub

Paperback, 292 pages | purchase

Purchase Featured Book

Title
Love My Rifle More Than You
Subtitle
Young And Female in the U.S. Army
Author
Kayla Williams and Michael E. Staub

Your purchase helps support NPR Programming. How?

American Soldier

by Tommy Franks and Malcolm McConnell

Paperback, 606 pages | purchase

Purchase Featured Book

Title
American Soldier
Author
Tommy Franks and Malcolm McConnell

Your purchase helps support NPR Programming. How?

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.