World War Us
In May of 1907, a physicist named Ernest Rutherford conducted a series of experiments which led him to a new understanding of the building blocks of matter, namely atoms. Sparing you the exhaustive detail of who did what, and how it all came about, for our purposes we will focus on Rutherford’s surprising calculated conclusion. Rutherford concluded that the size of the nucleus at the center of the atom is roughly 1/100,000 the size of the atom, meaning that the atom itself is mostly empty space. That is a lot of empty space.
To make a rough comparison to something easier to grasp, I calculate that I am about 1/21,000 the size of my house…in cubic space. Presumably, one could stuff about 21,000 of the material that makes up me into my house, if one were to stuff it to its absolute capacity…sort of like a crowded NYC subway car. And even in that arrangement, according to Rutherford’s calculation, the house would be mostly…empty space.
On our level of perception and existence, not a lot happens in that kind of space. We are not getting close enough to one another to conduct the horror opera that we see happening in our daily news. It’s the closeness that brings the danger, and the perception of danger. It’s that perception of danger to some which brings that real danger, because we don’t see one another as a collection of mostly atoms, of empty space. We see one another as encroaching threats.
0311 is the military occupation specialty that designates the Basic Rifleman in the United States Marine Corps. The Marine Corps mission is explained to the Marine in training as, “seek, close with, and destroy.” Find him. Approach him. Kill him. This is a very useful animal to be in the control of a nation. More often than we would ever like to admit, or probably even acknowledge, this is a necessary skill in war, and that period between wars which is essentially…never-ending war. Our nation does this. Other nations do this. At present, no one does it better than the United States. We train people to kill other people, and many of them end up killing other people.
I remember a point in my hand to hand combat instruction where I felt that a “switch was flipped”, as I described it in a letter to my mom, where I explained becoming, or realizing the threshold to being able to take a life. The training involved lots of physical tactics to be mastered that could render your opponent to lifelessness. Oddly enough, the physical training seemed all very theoretical. The vast majority of us live in a moral universe that is mostly polite, respectful space. Killing people, or even animals, is something we just don’t do. Frankly, if I can avoid doing it, I won’t even kill a bug. I’d rather catch and release it if it is in my space. I’d rather step over it if it is in my path.
The real blood and guts of the “switch” that gets flipped is all mental energy. It happens in the mind. Learning a choke hold might as well be basketball, or swimming, or wrestling class, but the ability to kill comes from deciding to.
Going into the Marines, I was only afraid of one thing. I did not want to become “brainwashed”. I liked my brain as it was, and I wanted to be the same person coming out as I was going in. I just wanted the rest of what comes with the experience.
For me, the switch was flipped in one particular way. Prior to our first hand to hand instruction, we received a series of speeches. The last speech was the Marine who would give us our techniques. He was a small man of about 5’7”, and maybe about 160 pounds. He was a little dude. He was a former Recon Ranger. For the uninitiated, he was basically a supercharged version of the 0311.
Recon Rangers go out in small groups, are deployed from underwater in submarines, or from the sky by parachute, or however else a target might think is an impossible insertion. They are inserted behind enemy lines during war, and across borders…during never-ending war. “Swift, silent and deadly”, is one of the many terms that they use to describe their mission.
This particular “Ricky Recon” hand to hand instructor sought first to get into our headspace. He had to “seek, close with, and destroy” that psychological inhibition to taking a life, so that we might survive in a deadly situation…in war. The way he did it was to start with a story about being robbed in the Port Authority in NYC. He was in a bathroom stall, taking a dump. (This is an essential part of flipping the switch). Everything he told us involved processes of the body, fluids, feces, spit, etc. Everything about us, and our personal space, was a set of tools to maintain our survival. Typically, we don’t think about how we love and or value our spit or feces, or blood, or snot, but what he impressed upon us was that these things might save our lives, as they did his.
You see, what happened was…dude was taking a dump. Just then, the stall door burst open upon him. A man stood there with a knife, and demanded his wallet. The instructor expressed understanding of the order that the robber had given, and his willingness to comply, and told him he had to reach into his back pocket for his wallet. He slowly reached down between his spread knees toward the waistband of his pants…, but rather than reach into his pants, he reached into the toilet and grabbed a handful of shit.
Without pausing for a reaction from the 200 or so young Marines in this audience, he described how he he took the shit and threw it into the face of the robber. Then he paused for the reaction. The reaction was what you might expect. It might be what you are having right now. Disgust. The point became the view of that disgust. He explained how the margin of success and failure, survival and death, was overcoming that disgust and leveraging it against his attacker. Again, there was much more detail about snot, spit, foul odors, the sound and feel of cracking bones…all used to great effect.
I felt it. I’ll never forget it. I left that place a different person from the one who entered. Prior to that, I knew I’d never kill anyone. I had no desire to. I left there feeling that I still did not want to, but fully embracing I could if I had to. I wasn’t going to waste a moment worrying about crossing a psychological threshold. I was over it.
From there comes the heavier responsibility of not doing it. That animal existed in my head, and it would require a strong armed, conscious discipline, rather than an unconscious, soft revulsion for the idea.
Today, I am sickened and horrified by the incident involving former Marine Daniel Penny (0311). I hate that he is consistently referred to as “former Marine.” I wonder to myself what that has to do with this tragic incident. The lack of space between me and him makes me uncomfortable. Daniel Penny lacked the discipline to keep the deadly animal in his head from seeking, closing with, and destroying Jordan Neely. When that strangling technique is applied, there is not enough “empty space” to keep the bones in your arms from collapsing the carotid arteries, and depriving blood to your brain, and rendering you unconscious. Or, if that forearm is across your trachea, there is not enough “empty space” to keep the atoms in your arm, from cutting off the atoms in his windpipe and suffocating him. And if that trachea is broken, which is very easily done, you will almost certainly die. Penny had the duty to not do that, to say nothing of the two men who helped hold Jordan Neely down.
I’m beyond saddened by this tragedy. I am sickened by it. I am horrified by what I have in common with Daniel Penny, while holding out hope about having sufficient differences to not be like him. I am mortified by what I have in common with Jordan Neely, (as far as some members of the public might see it), while fully believing that I do not represent any danger to anyone. I was fortunate enough to not have my country go to war while I was active in the US Marines. We have been at war abroad practically every year since. Worse yet, we seem to be at war at home in this never ending perception of danger from one another. I came home to World War Us.
05/14/2023 @ 9:46 am
This leaves me wondering though, how do people who are not trained military make the kill decision, e.g. the 85 year old man who shot a kid ringing his doorbell, or the guy who shot the girls turning around in his driveway? They are not making the kill decision using the same calculus as a soldier. It seems more of an incredibly dialed up get off my lawn response. Soldiers kill like ants do, in collaborative units, acting with a hive mind, on a collective mission. To me, the subway killer dude falls more into the get off my lawn or I’ll kill you camp, same mindset as the old doorbell killer, but using his military training as the weapon. Doorbell killer did not know how to apply a chokehold, or was too weak with age to do so, but had a long gun handy.
Do you ride the subway regularly? I do. There is a subway rider mentality of surrounding yourself with a cone of personal space. It’s how you cope with those who may ‘invade’ your space with disturbing imagery. Personally, I’ve seen masturbators masturbating, peers peeing, drunks drinking, screamers screaming, gropers groping, stinky food eaters eating, etc. Eyes on the floor or in a book or on your phone, while seated next to a seat mate doing same is optimum mental protection. Jordan Neely was doing what some subway riders do, putting his mental illness on display. Daniel Penny told him to get off his lawn, or out of his cone of personal space. He made the same decision as the old doorbell shooter, to my mind anyway.
P.S. am totally with you on avoiding stepping on insects. There’s even an insect relocation cup in house for that purpose. Nobody, not even flies or bees, gets squished here. Yet if it’s a biting insect, and it’s biting me, then squishing is a guarantee, and it feels quite easy to do. For me, there lies the difference.
05/14/2023 @ 4:36 pm
I don’t ride a train regularly. There is no train in Central Ohio. There was a commuter train in Shaker Hts, where I grew up. And, when I lived in Japan, I dealt with their version of personal space. None.
I’m proud of my time in the Marine Corps. It was difficult, and not everyone can do it. That brotherhood has two sides, though. It’s not all slaps on the back, and Semper Fi’s. I feel real shame regarding Daniel Penny. I don’t have the words to express the depth of my shame. I cried as I was writing that post. What he did was so very wrong, and now, the right wing is calling him a hero.
05/14/2023 @ 6:47 pm
The reality of urban life, and the subway in particular, gets distorted by the right into a dangerous and deadly experience, which it isn’t. My mother, from a rural suburb in PA, on visiting me would clutch her purse with one hand, and my arm with the other, every subway ride, every time. As we ascended the subway stairs at the end of a ride, she’d breath an audible sigh. You’ll ride the metro in DC and you’ll see what I mean about the cone of personal space. I’m guessing that you will not clutch your wallet with one hand and your wife’s arm with the other. Sooner or later, you’ll encounter another rider who is being noisily mentally ill, and I’m also guessing you won’t grab that rider in a chokehold.
A former student served in Iraq. He was trained to go house to house, block by block, in search of terrorists/insurgents/enemy combatants and rout them out. He was a highly skilled marksman, and although he did not say, I’m fairly certain he’d killed people. He was also an incredibly kind, soft-hearted, and gifted painter who went on to work at NASA as an in house illustrator after graduation.
I was his senior thesis advisor. His project was a children’s picture book for children of military parents, and was inspired by his son. It was a beautiful and sensitive comparison of things he did when apart from his son that his son in some way did too. Things like when son was eating canned carrots for supper, C was eating canned carrots in the mess hall; both looked disgusted. He once described feeling that he didn’t fit in with artists, or with his military peers. They viewed him as a sensitive artist type, while art students saw him as a hawkish military type. His truth was somewhere in between. Your experience of shame made me wonder if you can relate.
05/14/2023 @ 7:51 pm
I’ll say it like this. There are stories that I don’t tell. I’ll tell a piece of one just as an example.
When I came back to Ohio after having been in the LAPD for 5 years, I returned to OSU for a graduate program in English. Students who knew I was a former cop typically asked me two types of questions. The first was, “what was it like?” That’s difficult to answer. The second was, “tell us a story of something that happened.” Easy to do…then. One particular night, I was sitting with about a dozen or so students in a rented home, about half were men, and half were women. It was after dusk and the light was low as my story began. I started telling it from the movie image running in my head. As I told it, it became so dark that I could not see anyone’s faces. They remained quiet while I was talking, so I was getting zero feedback. The thing of it was, this story involved a car accident, and a missing baby that was later found impaled on a tree branch.
Once the story was finished, someone turned on a floor lamp. At that point, I could see three women were crying. I was shocked, and disturbed by the fact that what I had told them may have scarred them. I decided to never tell a story like that without paying closer attention to whom I am talking, and watching for their reaction so I can know what to leave out…if necessary. I never told that story in full again.
It bothered me that I did not anticipate that. As cops, recounting stories like that was part of the job. We did it for each other, we did it in hospitals, report writing rooms, and court rooms. Sparing shocking details was not part of the process. When the lights came on, it felt as though I had been recklessly driving that car, and my actions had hurt people. They were adults, they asked for a shocking story, and I told it truthfully. I’m ashamed that I did not know that it takes more care to deal with the human psyche than when the lights were going down. It was a searing lesson. There is a lot of shame in that.
05/14/2023 @ 10:51 pm
There’s a respect in which you may have done something good. They should understand what you see. Some will demonize cops and I guarantee you it would never occur to them what cops go through. They should understand the cost.
05/15/2023 @ 5:21 am
Your story is why I’m sure C didn’t get specific about his Iraq experiences. He knew the young artist crowd couldn’t handle. Although he could share with his military peers, they couldn’t understand his sensitive artist side. He felt he didn’t have a tribe, which was his hurt.
College students are younger than they recognize. Asking for a story from actual police is not asking for an entertaining episode of Law and Order. They didn’t know. Their expectation was naive. It’s not your fault for responding with the real. It’s not their fault for asking for something they didn’t know would hurt.
There’s a concept that enlightenment involves enlarging our container to a size that can accommodate both the worst and best of being human, not only accepting, but embracing both beauty and terror. It’s like that Rumi poem about the guest house, where he says to invite in every guest, both wonderful and terrible. Will go get it for you, good to read it again myself….
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.
Be grateful for whatever comes
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
05/14/2023 @ 10:49 am
You are nothing like “the former Marine”.
He was cowardly and stupid.
See what I mean?
05/14/2023 @ 3:36 pm
Know thyself and nothing to excess. Defense may invoke a ‘Flight 93’ posture. Thoughts and prayers to the brotherhood of man. Time for daily bread. Train goes out tomorrow though it may rain.
05/14/2023 @ 4:37 pm
Thank you, AS.
05/14/2023 @ 4:50 pm
You could feel the switch. What you didn’t feel is a switch having to do with people you consider innocent. Training doesn’t make you immoral. Of course the military can put you in positions where each fork in the road has an ethical explanation. That’s what a dilemma is.But you’re not ashamed of that. What you need to know is not that you wonder if you are capable of such a thing. You don’t need to because of how you reacted to it. Shame. Horror. These are not the reactions of someone who could do that.
05/14/2023 @ 5:11 pm
I am so sick of the state of our times, close association or no.
05/14/2023 @ 7:26 pm
It’s both sad and sick. A decline is a depressing thing to watch. So few people think and fewer seem to know how. Maybe it was always this bad.
05/14/2023 @ 5:29 pm
The state of our times:
05/14/2023 @ 7:28 pm
If you think abortion is murder I get it, but if you attack people for being OK with it while not treating miscarriages in your congregation as human deaths, it’s political, not moral.