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Guest Post: U.S. Marines, the Forever Tribe by Stan Coerr

Friday, January 30th, 2015

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]

We at ZP would like to thank Colonel Stan Coerr for his permission to reprint this essay, written on the eve of  his retirement last July, after a quarter century of of military service in the Marine Corps Reserve and on active duty.

Stan Coerr is the author of Rubicon: the Poetry of War and is a retired Colonel in the Marine Corps Reserve and works in the federal civil service.   He holds degrees from Duke, Harvard and the Naval War College, has been a fellow at MIT and Stanford, and was recently accepted to begin work on a doctorate at Oxford.  He is finishing a book on his time in Iraq, and his next book will be on the life and work of Dr. Bernard Fall.

The U.S. Marines, America’s Forever Tribe

by Stan Coerr

Today is my last day in the uniform of the United States Marines.

I write this not as a farewell. Rather, this is a reflection on this tribe of which I am a part, and which is inside me forever.

What I remember of twenty- five years inside this brotherhood are vignettes: stories that indicate who we are and why we devote our lives to an organization such as this.

Some happened to me; others I read or saw. All describe who we are as Marines.

——————

What everyone looking in from the outside must realize is that Marines are instant brothers, no matter the situation, no matter whether they have met before that moment.

The Marines are a tribe.

We have our own language, culture, mores and idiomatic shorthand communication.

We have our own distinctive clothing. We cut our hair in a distinctive way.

We paint our bodies with unique tribal markings.

We undergo rites of passage to turn boys into men, the men we need to further the greater good of us all.

We hand down legends of those who went before, who fell in battle, who did great and heroic things.

We sing songs to celebrate them; we memorize what they did.

——————-
We listen to the wisdom of the tribal elders, and we turn to them for decisions and guidance.

Ken Schwenke and Mike Dossett are 180 degrees out from one another in style, but those of us fortunate enough to be Marine Options at NROTC Duke, a team forty strong in the mid to late 1980s, to this day benefit from the nurturing and guidance and demanding perfection of those two men.

Bob Dobson was an exceptional battalion commander, a very deep thinker and a man who knew how to train Marines.

I was fortunate to work beneath the finest general officers the Marine Corps can produce. I worked for George Trautman when he was both a Lieutenant Colonel and a Lieutenant General, and his relentless, driving intellect and fearsome demand for detail, analysis and good decisions sharpened me in ways I am still discovering.

I was lucky enough to serve beneath Generals Mattis, Conway and Dunford, in both peace and war, and from when they were Colonels to their positions as four-star generals.

The nation is fortunate that men such as these have set us on the course we follow today.

————————
The Marine Corps is people, and it is stories.

——————-

I am marching a platoon down the streets of New Orleans during the Mardi Gras parades in 1989, as leader of the drill team.

I was to the side of the team as they marched, so I was right next to the screaming crowds. Tens of thousands of people lined the streets, screaming and shrieking and cheering.

Marine options in college wear navy uniforms but Marine Corps eagle, globe and anchor insignia.

As we marched through the throngs, one man in the crowd, right next to me, saw my EGA and said simply, in a conversational voice and just to me:

“Get it, Marines.”

Never saw him, never spoke to him.

A brother.

——————–

I check in to Bob Dobson’s rifle battalion in Twentynine Palms, California in 1994.

Then-Colonel Jim Mattis, the Seventh Marines regimental commander, called for me to come see him. I was not only just a brand-new Captain, but I was an aviator in an infantry regiment: I was not a key player.

Colonel Mattis took his phone off the hook, closed his office door and spent over an hour, just with me, telling me his warfighting philosophy, vision, goals and expectations. He told me how he saw us fighting – and where – and how he was getting us ready to do just that.

America knows him as the caricature: Mad Dog Mattis. Those of us who served with him know that he is a gifted, caring, warfighting general, and the finest of tribal elders.

——————
I am watching a film clip from Vietnam.

Jack Laurence of CBS News, a very talented TV reporter and author of the magnificent memoir The Cat From Hue, was out in the jungle with a Marine rifle company.

Somehow a Marine from another unit was separated from his brothers, and this company had found him.

Laurence rolls tape, and approaches the company commander. This man is wearing filthy utilities. He is exhausted and thirty pounds underweight, with a cigarette hanging from the corner of his mouth. A man with things to do and the weight of hundreds of lives on his shoulders. A hard, intense man.

Laurence talks about the lost Marine, and asks: “Will you take care of this man?”

The Captain stares at Laurence as if he is insane, and says, as if it should be obvious: “He’s a Marine.”

Laurence: “What?”

Captain: “He’s a Marine. I’ll take care of him.”

—————–

I am with Paddy Gough in a Cobra over 29 Palms in December 1992.

We are at one hundred feet, flying back from a mission. It is bitter cold on the desert floor, below freezing, and a dark, ugly cloud layer sits low on the sand.

A line of exhausted Marines below us is marching back to their camp after a week of training. They string out like ants, hundreds of them in the cold. They are bent under their equipment: heavy weapons, mortar tubes, ammunition, packs, helmets, flak jackets.

We fly in silence, watching them, until Paddy comes up on the intercom with me, and says quietly:

“This country does not know how lucky we are to have such men.”

—————–

I am a seven-year-old boy, and my father is putting me to sleep.

I am sleeping in a Marine Corps-issue jungle hammock, which of course to a boy is the coolest thing ever.

I need something to read, so he disappears into the study and returns.

He hands me a book I read cover to cover and which I am holding right now: the 1962 Guidebook for Marines.

—————-

I am giving a speech in El Cajon, California in July 2003.

I was one of the first people back from the invasion of Iraq, and I was therefore much in demand from local groups who wanted to hear about this campaign in Mesopotamia.

I was outdoors at a Fourth of July street festival, speaking to a crowd of several hundred people and telling them how magnificent our fighting force was, and what I had seen.

I told these people that their Marines were in the fight in the desert, winning, doing it right for the people back home, representing the best of who we are as a nation.

Standing far to the back of the crowd was a motorcycle gang. Huge, hairy guys, dozens of them, in beards and bandannas and wraparound sunglasses and leather and boots, leaning on their Harleys.

As I came off the stage, they came to me as a group. The first of them grabbed me and I now saw the EGA sewn onto his vest, right next to his Vietnam campaign patch.

He embraced me, tight, and said:

“Right on, brother. Right on.”

——————————–

Karl Marlantes was in the best position imaginable in 1967.

He was on a Rhodes Scholarship, comfortable in Oxford, immune from the Vietnam War and the vagaries of the draft. He was immersed in the world’s premier academic institution on a full ride, the goal of every serious college student.

But Marlantes had been to Marine Corps Officer Candidates School in 1964. He had been inducted into the tribe. And his brothers were at war. He says:

“I couldn’t go to a party without thinking of my Marine friends, terrified in the jungle while I was hanging onto my girlfriend’s warm body with one arm and holding a pint of bitter in the other. The one choice my conscience would not allow was to sit it out in college.

I pulled all my scholarship money from the bank…and Second Lieutenant Karl Marlantes USMCR reported for active duty. “

—————————–

Or from Phillip Caputo in 1961:

“I wanted to find in a commonplace world a chance to live heroically.

Having known nothing but security, comfort and peace, I hungered for danger, challenges and violence.

The Marine Corps was more than a branch of the armed services. It was a society unto itself, demanding total commitment to its doctrines and values. We were novitiates, and the rigorous training , administered by the high priests called drill instructors, was to be our ordeal of initiation.

At the end of the course, the DIs honored our survival by informing us that we had earned the right to be called Marines.”

—————-

I earned that right, as did many of you. As did millions before us, and the millions to follow.

I feel no sadness about taking off the uniform for the last time. The Marine Corps does not care about me….nor should it. The organization will always be there, and it will always hone and harden the finest our country has to offer.

I was only one of many…but at the same time, I was one of the few.

The Marine Corps serves the nation, and those of us who are called serve the Marine Corps.

We serve the unit.

We serve the tribe.

Most of all, we serve our brothers.

Semper Fidelis.

New Article up at Pragati: Lethal Ideas & Insurgent Memories – Review of The Violent Image

Friday, October 25th, 2013

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]


The Violent Image by Neville Bolt 

I have a new book review up at Pragati this morning:

Lethal ideas and insurgent memory 

….One expert who does acknowledge a paradigmatic shift and posits a powerful explanatory model for the behavior of what he terms “the new revolutionaries” is Dr Neville Bolt of the War Studies Department of King’s College, London and author of The Violent Image: Insurgent Propaganda and the New Revolutionaries. Taking a constructivist view of irregular military conflict as the means by which insurgents weave an enduring political narrative of mythic power and shape historical memory, Bolt eschews some cherished strategic tenets of realists and Clausewitzians. The ecology of social media, powered by decentralised, instant communication platforms and the breakdown of formerly autarkic or regulated polities under the corrosive effects of capitalist market expansion, have been, in Bolt’s view, strategic game changers “creating room to maneuver” in a new “cognitive battlespace” for “complex insurgencies”.  Violent “Propaganda of the Deed”, once the nihilistic signature of 19th century Anarchist-terrorist groups like the People’s Will, has reemerged in the 21stcentury’s continuous media attention environment as a critical tool for insurgents to compress time and space through “…a dramatic crisis that must be provoked”.

As a book The Violent Image sits at the very verge of war and politics where ideas become weapons and serve as a catalyst for turning grievance into physical aggression and violence. Running two hundred and sixty-nine heavily footnoted pages and an extensive bibliography that demonstrates Bolt’s impressive depth of research. While Bolt at times slips into academic style, for the most part his prose is clear, forceful and therefore useful and accessible to the practitioner or policy maker. Particularly for the latter, are Bolt’s investigations into violent action by modern terrorists as a metaphor impacting time (thus, decision cycles) across a multiplicity of audiences.  This capacity for harvesting strategic effect from terrorist events was something lacking in the 19th and early 20thcentury followers of Bakunin and Lenin (in his dalliances with terrorism); or in Bolt’s view, the anarchists “failed to evoke a coherent understanding in the population” or a “sustained message”.

Read the rest here.

 

Memorial Day

Monday, May 27th, 2013

I. The 30th day of May, 1868, is designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village, and hamlet churchyard in the land. In this observance no form or ceremony is prescribed, but posts and comrades will in their own way arrange such fitting services and testimonials of respect as circumstances may permit.

We are organized, comrades, as our regulations tell us, for the purpose, among other things, “of preserving and strengthening those kind and fraternal feelings which have bound together the soldiers, sailors, and marines who united to suppress the late rebellion.” What can aid more to assure this result than by cherishing tenderly the memory of our heroic dead, who made their breasts a barricade between our country and its foe? Their soldier lives were the reveille of freedom to a race in chains, and their death a tattoo of rebellious tyranny in arms. We should guard their graves with sacred vigilance. All that the consecrated wealth and taste of the Nation can add to their adornment and security is but a fitting tribute to the memory of her slain defenders. Let no wanton foot tread rudely on such hallowed grounds. Let pleasant paths invite the coming and going of reverent visitors and found mourners. Let no vandalism of avarice of neglect, no ravages of time, testify to the present or to the coming generations that we have forgotten, as a people, the cost of free and undivided republic.

If other eyes grow dull and other hands slack, and other hearts cold in the solemn trust, ours shall keep it well as long as the light and warmth of life remain in us.

Let us, then, at the time appointed, gather around their sacred remains and garland the passionless mounds above them with choicest flowers of springtime; let us raise above them the dear old flag they saved from dishonor; let us in this solemn presence renew our pledges to aid and assist those whom they have left among us as sacred charges upon the Nation’s gratitude, — the soldier’s and sailor’s widow and orphan.

II. It is the purpose of the Commander-in-Chief to inaugurate this observance with the hope it will be kept up from year to year, while a survivor of the war remains to honor the memory of his departed comrades. He earnestly desires the public press to call attention to this Order, and lend its friendly aid in bringing it to the notice of comrades in all parts of the country in time for simultaneous compliance therewith.

III . Department commanders will use every effort to make this order effective.

By order of
JOHN A. LOGAN,
Commander-in-Chief
Grand Army of the Republic
May 5, 1868

Discovering a New Circle of Hell

Monday, March 4th, 2013

There is an understandable buzz when a historical event as well known and deeply investigated as  the Holocaust has suddenly been found to have been underestimated by an order of magnitude.

From The New York Times:

The Holocaust Just Got More Shocking 

….As early as 1933, at the start of Hitler’s reign, the Third Reich established about 110 camps specifically designed to imprison some 10,000 political opponents and others, the researchers found. As Germany invaded and began occupying European neighbors, the use of camps and ghettos was expanded to confine and sometimes kill not only Jews but also homosexuals, Gypsies, Poles, Russians and many other ethnic groups in Eastern Europe. The camps and ghettos varied enormously in their mission, organization and size, depending on the Nazis’ needs, the researchers have found.

The biggest site identified is the infamous Warsaw Ghetto, which held about 500,000 people at its height. But as few as a dozen prisoners worked at one of the smallest camps, the München-Schwabing site in Germany. Small groups of prisoners were sent there from the Dachau concentration camp under armed guard. They were reportedly whipped and ordered to do manual labor at the home of a fervent Nazi patron known as “Sister Pia,” cleaning her house, tending her garden and even building children’s toys for her.

When the research began in 2000, Dr. Megargee said he expected to find perhaps 7,000 Nazi camps and ghettos, based on postwar estimates. But the numbers kept climbing — first to 11,500, then 20,000, then 30,000, and now 42,500.

The numbers astound: 30,000 slave labor camps; 1,150 Jewish ghettos; 980 concentration camps; 1,000 prisoner-of-war camps; 500 brothels filled with sex slaves; and thousands of other camps used for euthanizing the elderly and infirm, performing forced abortions, “Germanizing” prisoners or transporting victims to killing centers.

In Berlin alone, researchers have documented some 3,000 camps and so-called Jew houses, while Hamburg held 1,300 sites.

….The lead editors on the project, Geoffrey Megargee and Martin Dean, estimate that 15 million to 20 million people died or were imprisoned in the sites that they have identified as part of a multivolume encyclopedia

Read the rest here.

Perhaps some of you will recall the controversy in the late 1990’s surrounding the release of Hitler’s Willing Executioners by Daniel Goldhagen where Goldhagen argued that Nazi genocide was only possible with the widespread complicity and often enthusiastic participation of “ordinary Germans” who were not themselves Gestapo agents or Nazi fanatics.  One of the primary charges against Goldhagen by academic historians was his generalizing indictment of a generation of Germans for Nazi policy that was, for all intents and purposes, officially a state secret.  After all, the closest thing to a “public” discussion in the Third Reich of the Final Solution was a terrifying speech by SS-Reichsfuhrer Heinrich Himmler at the Posen Conference to an assembly of Gauleiters  and Reichsleiters who constituted the aristocracy of the Nazi Party.

The sheer geographic density and social ubiquity of the Nazi machinery of repression and genocide documented by researchers severely undermines the critics of Goldhagen. While it is well documented that most Germans, unless they were political opponent or social misfits, did not personally feel the heavy hand of the Gestapo in the way Soviet citizens experienced the NKVD, Germans during the war years irrefutably lived cheek by jowl with the miserably wretched slaves of the Reich.

Some of the shock produced by this investigation is due to an artificial “parsing of genocide” by historians into distinct categories of death-dealing instead of looking at Nazi democide as a whole cloth or continuum.

In the immediate aftermath of the war, there was little interest beyond the Nuremberg  Tribunal in delving into the depths of Nazi crimes. Reconstruction of Europe and “getting on with life” or the exigencies of the Cold War and the ominous threat of the Soviets took far greater precedence. Even among Holocaust survivors themselves, there was initially an effort to “move on” from the unimaginable, or to make a anguished pretense of so doing, as expressed in the critically acclaimed Rod Steiger film, The Pawnbroker. When historians began more serious examinations of Nazi crimes in the 1960’s and 1970’s, there was a tendency to separate the Holocaust from related or similar atrocities due in part to the overriding ideological emphasis the most extreme Nazis placed upon the total and absolute elimination of all Jews – every last one – at all costs,. Even over and above winning the war.

However, that genocidal crusade by the SS against the Jews also facilitated the deaths of millions of others – including the Gypsies (marked for nearly complete extermination), the “useless eaters“, some 700,000 Serbs to please the Ustase puppet regime, political opponents who disappeared into the Night and Fog, and a vast democide of Slavic peoples to feed the Third Reich’s inexhaustible need for slave labor. Albert Speer wrote that Himmler coldly planned a further massive reduction of the Russian and Ukranian populations west of the Urals to build a post-war Nazi racial empire in vanquished Russia.

The scale of murder by totalitarian governments in the 20th century approaches the mythic, a phenomena for which the Holocaust has become a totem.

Sherlock Holmes, Hannibal Lector and Simonides

Sunday, March 3rd, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron — the art of memory, with a sidelong glance at swans, typhoid and theodicy ]
.

Thomas Harris (and by extension Hannibal Lector) has been interested in memory palaces for a long time. We can begin to infer this this because Lector describes his hobby in Red Dragon (1981) and again in Silence of the Lambs (1988):

So — church collapses?

**

As you can tell from that last comment in the Silence of the Lambs quote — to my mind the most brilliant presentation of the problem of theodicy for our day — if there’s a God worth defending, it has to be a God who allows sparrows to fall, typhoid to accompany swans in the vast ecology of existence, churches to collapse on worshipers, and “bad things to happen to good people” from time to time.

And such things, specifically including collapses of religious buildings atop worshipers, do indeed happen in fact as well as fiction.

And they don’t only happen to Christians, either… Bon is the shamanistic religious tradition of Tibet, prior to — and later, somewhat assimilated by — Buddhism

**

The thing is, when I read that Hannibal Lector collected church collapses, it not only made me start to take note of them myself, it also made me think of Simonides. As Frances Yates tells us in her book, The Art of Memory:

At a banquet given by a nobleman of Thessaly named Scopas, the poet Simonides of Ceos chanted a lyric poem in honour of his host but including a passage in praise of Castor and Pollux. Scopas meanly told the poet that he would only pay him halfthe sum agreed upon for the panegyric and that he must obtain the balance from the twin gods to whom he had devoted half the poem. A little later, a message was brought in to Simonides that two young men were waiting outside who wished to see him. He rose from the banquet and went out but could find no one. During his absence the roof of the banqueting hall fell in, crushing Scopas and all the guests to death beneath the ruins; the corpses were so mangled that the relatives who came to take them away for burial were unable to identify them. But Simonides remembered the places at which they had been sitting at the table and was therefore able to indicate to the relatives which were their dead. The invisible callers, Castor and Pollux, had handsomely paid for their share in the panegyric by drawing Simonides away from the banquet just before the crash. And this experience suggested to the poet the principles of the art of memory of which he is said to have been the inventor. Noting that it was through his memory of the places at which the guests had been sitting that he had been able to identify the bodies, he realised that orderly arrangement is essential for good memory.

And by way of reinforcing my Lector-Simonides conjecture, Lector certainly had a remarkable interest in memory, as we learn from his dialogue with Clarice Starling:

“Did you do the drawings on your walls, Doctor?”
“Do you think I called in a decorator?”
“The one over the sink is a European city?”
“It’s Florence. That’s the Palazzo Vecchio and the Duomo, seen from the Belvedere.”
“Did you do it from memory, all the detail?”
“Memory, Officer Starling, is what I have instead of a view.”

A belvedere, from the Italian, is “a structure (as a cupola or a summerhouse) designed to command a view” — and a beautiful view at that. Belvedere is also, ironically, the name of the town in Ohio where Buffalo Bill, Lector’s serial killer ex-patient, lives…

**

So it didn’t surprise me to discover that in Hannibal (1999), the book that follows Silence, this brilliant man who as we have seen collects church collapses and has an exquisite memory in place of a view, is revealed as a practitioner of Simonides’ art:

The memory palace was a mnemonic system well known to ancient scholars and much information was preserved in them through the Dark Ages while Vandals burned the books. Like scholars before him, Dr. Lecter stores an enormous amount of information keyed to objects in his thousand rooms, but unlike the ancients, Dr.Lecter has a second purpose for his palace; sometimes he lives there. He has passed years among its exquisite collections, while his body lay bound on a violent ward with screams buzzing the steel bars like hell’s own harp.

Hannibal Lecter’s palace is vast, even by medieval standards. Translated to the tangible world it would rival the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul for size and complexity.

We catch up to him as the swift slippers of his mind pass from the foyer into the Great Hall of the Seasons. The palace is built according to the rules discovered by Simonides of Ceos and elaborated by Cicero four hundred years later; it is airy, high-ceilinged, furnished with objects and tableaux that are vivid, striking, sometimes shocking and absurd, and often beautiful. The displays are well spaced and well lighted like those of a great museum. But the walls are not the neutral colors of museum walls. Like Giotto, Dr. Lecter has frescoed the walls of his mind.

Brilliant. And a delight, years later, to have my hunch connecting the church collapses and prison cell with only memory for a view with Simonides and the Art of Memory confirmed by the third book and film in the series…

You’ll note, btw, that the Lector (caveat lector) of the first two books has now become Lecter in alignment with the films starring Anthony Hopkins.

**

I love symmetries, so let’s move from the most monstrous criminal mind in literature, to the greatest detective…

Sherlock Holmes — in his latest television incarnation — builds memory palaces of a sort, though I’m not sure Simonides would recognize them.

I’m posting the clip from the series here to honor my son Emlyn, with whom I have been watching the series…

**

And then there’s the Jesuit whose use of the Art is explored in Jonathan Spence‘s The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci:

In 1596 Matteo Ricci taught the Chinese how to build a memory palace. He told them that the size of the palace would depend on how much they wanted to remember: the most ambitious construction would consist of several hundred buildings of all shapes and sizes, “the more there are the better it will be,” said Ricci, thought he added that one did not have to build on a gradiose scale right away. One coul create modest palaces, or one could build less dramatic structures such as a temple compound, a cluster of government offices, a public hostel, or a merchants’s meeting lodge. If one wished to begin on a still smaller scale, then one could erect a simple reception hall, a pavilion, or a studio. And if one wanted an intimate space one could use just the corner of a pavilion, or an altar in a temple, or even such a homely object as a wardrobe or a divan.

You’ll note that in this early example of virtual reality as an pedagogical technology, Ricci doesn’t start with the easy stuff, the single wardrobe or divan — he begins with “the most ambitious construction”…

Enough for now. When I want to talk about in a follow up post is detail… the crucial importance of detail.


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