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.