The Battle of Castle Black

This post makes generous reference of Game of Thrones, s4/ep9 (The Watchers on the Wall). So, if you haven’t seen it, there are spoilers below.

The Battle of Castle Black

I’m a big fan of Game of Thrones. I haven’t read all of the books yet, but the HBO show is my absolute favorite thing on television right now.

This past Sunday’s episode The Watchers on the Wall was especially good. Instead of darting back and forth between different characters and settings, we stayed fixed on The Wall for the entire episode. We wouldn’t be teased by Jon Snow and then whisked away to colorful, sunny Mereen or treacherous King’s Landing for a few moments of differing drama or comic relief only to get sucked back to the North. There was no respite.

The entire episode was grim, ugly death.

While watching, I couldn’t help but wonder what was going on back in those other places and with those other characters, especially given the dramatic ending of the previous episode. The men of the Night’s Watch, underprepared and grossly outnumbered were there in the dark, holding off a massive army many times their size, all to protect the warring and distracted factions far away to the south who were completely oblivious to what was going – in their name – at The Wall.

For the Night’s Watch, the battle is their only reality as they struggle to keep back the horde,  at least for the night. They are not distracted by the trials of captors going on back home – they don’t have that luxury. For them, victory in battle offers no escape.  It simply means preparing for the next watch.

The day after watching that episode, its residue still lingering in my mind, I was struck by how that “stuck” feeling I got while watching it felt similar to what a deployment to Iraq or Afghanistan feels like. When you are there, you are there. There’s this feeling of doing something gravely important but coupled with a dark knowledge that it is completely unimportant and uninteresting to those back home, the feeling that they are completely oblivious to what is happening – in their name.

There’s no escape, either. You fight, sometimes for no other reason than because you are there, spurred on in moments of weakness facing giants by memorized oaths. And when the fight ends and the smoke dissipates, you collect the dead, rebuild the defenses, and prepare for the next battle.

Through the entire episode, my mind kept slipping to King’s Landing and other places, thinking that they need to send troops to counter the invading force. Maybe one day, but I remembered that in Westeros, The Wall is a distraction, a side-show. It is where factions send their trouble-makers and irreconcilables.

There is, of course, a nagging memory of why The Wall exists and why the men of the Night’s Watch are important, but it’s not important enough to warrant straying from the daily drama of trials and intrigue that captures court life in the capitals.

It all seems a little too familiar.

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The Rains of Castamere

"When I go home people'll ask me, 'Hey Hoot, why do you do it man? What, you some kinda war junkie?' You know what I'll say? I won't say a goddamn word. Why? They won't understand. They won't understand why we do it. They won't understand that it's about the men next to you, and that's it. That's all it is." -- Black Hawk Down (2001)
“When I go home people’ll ask me, ‘Hey Hoot, why do you do it man? What, you some kinda war junkie?’ You know what I’ll say? I won’t say a goddamn word. Why? They won’t understand. They won’t understand why we do it. They won’t understand that it’s about the men next to you, and that’s it. That’s all it is.” — Black Hawk Down (2001)

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.

Force protection.

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 Jack_Churchill_leading_training_charge_with_sword.jpg (1003Ă—643)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
Sacrificed 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.”

And it will certainly leave them thinking about what it all meant for the rest of their lives.

Something to think about.

This, incidentally is the 500th post on Carrying the Gun.

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What it’s like when a new Platoon Leader meets his Platoon Sergeant in combat

When I saw this scene, I immediately thought it looked like a new platoon leader meeting his platoon sergeant. Especially in a dire situation, like combat. It is one of the strangest arrangements we have – a young, fresh soldier is placed in charge of a few dozen men, many of whom are older and more experienced.

The tit for tat exchange in the beginning of the scene is similar to what will happen over time in a new platoon leader’s experience. Members of the platoon will test the leader by pushing the limits of what can be said in his presence, the other members of the platoon (in this case, the boat) looking on, waiting for the reaction.

Later in the scene, Theon meets his First Mate – which is really more akin to the platoon sergeant in this case. The bald guy in the beginning is more like the super-aggressive squad leader. The First Mate welcomes Theon, and says “They’re not going to respect you until you prove yourself.”

Here’s the text of the first scene above:

Theon: You’re the crew of the Sea Bitch? I’m your commander. Welcome.

Stop.

STOP!

Your captain commands you to stop!

[laughter]

Rymolf: Where are we headed, captain?

Theon: The Stony Shore. To raid their villages. There’ll be spoils in it for you, and women, if you do your jobs well.

Rymolf: And who decides if we’ve done our jobs well?

Theon: I do. Your captain.

Rymolf: I have been reaving(?) and raping, since before you left Thelon’s balls. Don’t reckon I’ve got much use for ideas on how to do it. Don’t reckon I’ve got much use for a captain at all. I’m thinking I can do the job of captain real well myself. All I need is the ship. You don’t know where I can find myself a ship, would ye?

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