I love Army breakfasts. During my enlistment, just about every battalion had its own Dining Facility (DFAC). Generally speaking, I ate most of my meals at our battalion’s DFAC, which was conveniently located in the same building as my barracks.
After awhile, it became a fun treat to explore other DFACs across the Brigade, Division, and post – to see how the other side lives. If we were feeling especially adventorous, we might even drive all the way across post to the Air Force side to eat in their DFAC. After finishing a wonderful lunch, I remember standing up with my tray to bring it to the turn-in when my much wiser comrade gently placed his hand on my tray, pressing it back down to the table. “The Air Force waiters come for it. There is no work for you here, brother.”
Maybe it’s cheap nostalgia, but I feel like our DFACs today just aren’t like they used to be. More likely, I’ve become more picky as I’ve gotten older.
At Fort Hood, I’ve searched for a long time to find a great DFAC. While I haven’t tried them all, the one I prefer the most is the OIF (Operation Iraqi Freedom) Memorial Dining Facility. It’s over on the 1st Cavalry Division side of post, and as the name implies, it is in honor of 1st Cavalry Divison soldiers who died serving in Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Inside the main cafeteria, the walls are lined with photos of the fallen. The pictures are mixed; some are official Army photographs displaying stoic faces, others are candid shots from deployment, the soldier usually smiling widely, the picture slightly pixellated.
They completely surround the room, hundreds of them.
As our truck passed a memorial commemorating Iraqi martyrs who died fighting in the Iran-Iraq War, I asked another soldier sitting across from me, “Do you think they’ll ever build a monument to the American soldiers who died here?”
“No,” he said flatly.
Our truck bounced along and our bodies rocked with the rhythm as I watched the wall disappear around a corner.
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Doctrine Man posted the above photo and quote from Black Hawk Down yesterday as part of this weekend’s steady stream of Memorial Day related posts to counteract a supposed disinterested public while also helping us lose ourselves in a “twilight of sentimentality and nostalgia.”
The quote is a variation of the answer to “why we fight” that usually boils down to doing it “for your battle buddies on your left and right.” That is, today, the reason we go to war is simply to protect the ones with whom we’ve gone to war. Put simply, we’re there and doing it because we’re there and doing it.
I’ve always had a hard time swallowing this. Maybe I’m too cynical, but it seems to be a lowest common denominator rationale – there’s no good reason we’re doing this (conquering, for example), so the best we can come up with is this pseudo-spiritual link between the men and women in a given unit. The concept is popular among troops and when uttered, is usually met with nods of gritty determination from exhausted soldiers grasping for a reason to strap on heavy body armor, pick up their rifles, and step out on another ghost patrol.
“Honestly, at this point in the war, is anything really worth someone’s legs or their life or something like that?”
-As quoted in Stars and Stripes (November, 2013)
Earlier today, I read about “Mad Jack” Churchill, a British officer who was known to go into battle with a longbow and sword. It’s an incredible story and the picture is otherworldly. It was this macabre quote of Churchill’s though, that captured my attention: “If it wasn’t for those damn Yanks, we could have kept the war going another ten years.”
This is reminiscent of LTC Kilgore’s famous quip of “Someday this war’s gonna end...“, spoken with the sick sadness of a man lost in war, warning his troops to soak up as much of the grim death before it’s all over.
While Kilgore is fictional, Churchill is not, and there seems to be a “type” that indeed is a ‘war-junkie.’ I’m not sure it’s necessarily for the mechanical aspects of war – the shooting, the bleeding, the death. Rather, it’s the whole experience of the campaign. It’s the sights, sounds, and feelings swirling around for years. It’s life in the emerald city. It’s an endless summer where the only victory is survival.
“The dead only know one thing; it is better to be alive.”
-Joker, Full Metal Jacket
In generations passed, strict dedication to duty might have been enough to sustain the fighting heart. Or perhaps, simply, the casus belli was better, or at least understood. Certainly in a firefight, the only thing that matters are those on your left and right, for they will bring you home (the “warrior,” mind you, is dead). As soon as the first bullet is fired, the world washes away and all are instantly swept to a dark arena where humanity disappears and natural instinct takes over.
My point though, is that in order to get to that arena – that point in time where the only thing that matters are those on the left and right – required a series of decisions made by men and women on and far from the battlefield. It is in those decisions where we should find the answer to “Hey Hoot, why do you do it man?”
Not for fame or reward
Not for place or for rank
Not lured by ambition
Or goaded by necessity
But in simple
Obedience to duty
As they understood it
These men suffered all
Dared all-and died
I’ve heard it said that this generation, more than others, needs to know the “why” more than those of previous generations. I’d say that’s fair and true. “We’re going on this mission because I told you so” might get them out of the wire, but it is unlikely to tame (or unleash) the “beast in the heart of every fighting man.”
Veterans Day is a good day when it comes to military writing. It is a great peg for folks in the sphere to say what they want to say and get it out there to someone who might not normally read military stuff.
Here are some of the more interesting pieces I’ve seen over the past couple of days. I know there are more out there that I haven’t got to. If you have a recommendation, add it to the comments and I’ll add it to the list below.
On Military Service (Rhino Den) – I have a love/hate relationship with Ranger Up. Often, they post very reactionary or inflammatory essays – but it’s always had a “in the barracks” feel to it, which is probably good for people to see. Nick at Ranger Up often writes really, really good stuff, though. This is one of them.
This is an essay I wrote last year while I was in London.
I spent this past Sunday morning standing shoulder to shoulder with thousands of men and women of the armed forces, veterans, family members, and citizens to honor the service and sacrifice of those who had answered the call to arms in wars both past and present. These weren’t my armed forces, or my fellow citizens, though. I was standing in central London, where the British gather yearly on the Sunday nearest Armistice Day (Veterans Day in the US). I served alongside the British in Iraq, and this was an opportunity for me to honor their service as fellow warriors.
As the clock reached the eleventh hour, a cannon fired, accompanied by the first chime of the bell, shaking our bodies and minds into silent obedience, urging our hearts to remember with each successive toll those who will not come home. On cue, the slight drizzle turns into a steady rain. Under a dark London sky, the Royal family and nation’s leaders gather together for a few short moments to recognize and pay tribute to the men and women who have fought and died for the Union Jack. The Queen leads the ceremony by laying a wreath at the Cenotaph, a memorial originally meant to pay tribute to the British who died in the tragically labeled ‘War to end all Wars.’ Then, members of the Royal family lay wreaths, followed by the Prime Minister and other state officials. When all the wreaths have been laid, veterans march to the cheer of their countrymen, render a smart salute upon passing the Cenotaph, and exit the parade ground, having captured for another moment the spirit of military service, but no closer to solving its meaning. The ceremony is both somber and appreciative, beginning with reflection and tears, and ending with catharsis, pride, and applause.
I’m not British, but this ceremony struck me more than any I have participated in back home. I’ve marched in the New York Veterans Day parade, whose main spectators are the families of those marching, November tourists, and people trying to cross the street. Memorial Day is commemorated nationally with mattress sales. Here though, for one moment, people throughout the UK (including all the nation’s leaders) stop to honor those who have fought for them.
But it’s not just Remembrance Sunday that people “do something.” From late October to mid-November, the Royal British Legion sells paper poppies to be worn on the lapels of men and women to show their support. This is the most well-known charity event in the UK, and you would be hard-pressed to find any public figure caught without wearing the small red flower (Harry Potter and company sported them for the release of Deathly Hallows). To me, this is more than a gesture. It is a sign that they actually care. It is a way for a person to not only demonstrate that they have donated money towards veterans, but to tell the world that their veterans matter.
It would be easy to dismiss the poppy as an empty symbol, like we often do with our yellow ribbons, which were slapped to the back of our cars at the turn of the millennium, and have since faded to white. Maybe some people who wear the poppy do it because it is the “right thing to do” but don’t actually care about veterans. Undoubtedly, this will be the case for some. To declare the entire gesture as empty demonstrates a low faith in humanity, though. I’d like to live in a world where people’s expressions can be genuine, so I take the view that what they wear is what they mean. And to be frank, when I see someone wearing a poppy it makes me feel like my service mattered – especially in a country heavily conflicted over its role in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Wearing the poppy is an acknowledgement that taking care of veterans is not a political statement, but a moral responsibility.
Remembrance Sunday is the Super Bowl of veterans’ commemorations. Veterans Day and Memorial day, rolled into one, where heads of state are duty-bound to participate and the country comes together to remember and show its appreciation. As a nation that has asked so much of so few, don’t we owe our veterans the same?
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