combat writing badge C O M B A T
the Literary Expression of Battlefield Touchstones
ISSN 1542-1546 Volume 01 Number 01 Winter ©Jan 2003

Beyond the Tumpline

The idealist walks on tiptoe, the materialist on his heels.
by Malcolm De Chazal, Sens Plastique (1946).

A Zen koan asks: What is the sound of one hand clapping? For troops on the march, it reverberates as: What is the sound of one foot slapping? ... your left; your left; your left, right, left. Pick 'em up, an' put 'em down; shuffle like that, outta town. Your left; your left; your left, right, left.

Vietnam-era Jungle Boots We get into line, to follow the leader, and we march. We don't walk or stroll or saunter. We march, in cadence at 120-steps a minute, along the defined route, until we're told to halt. We don't chatter or rubberneck; and we don't fall-out of the column when we're tired or thirsty. We're not doing it for fun, or for our health. Our exercise outfits are fatigues, our trainers are combat boots, and our personal coaches are drill sergeants. This full-equipment forced march is, in fact, our job ... and some of us are very good at it.

Forget about fair. Fairness doesn't matter. War isn't fair. Love isn't fair. Business isn't fair. Athletics isn't fair. Disease isn't fair. Survival isn't fair. I should get out my bayonet and carve the slogan into my forehead: forget about fair. Life isn't fair! Just check-out the people around you if you don't believe it. Some of them get there with less effort. Some get there by riding on the truck for the lame and lazy. And some of them run circles around everybody else, just for the fun of it. Forget about fair. Fair might be paradise, or it might be just a better day, or maybe even just a different day. Perhaps the muscular burn or the bleeding blisters would be more tolerable at another time and place; but it doesn't matter ... because this unfair reality is what's happening now.

Marching is a form of Soto Zen; and a forced march is as nonsensical as any esoteric koan deliberately devised to frustrate reason and develop intuition. Zen, which is a mode of Mahayana Buddhism, advocates enlightenment through intuitive meditation. Instruction consists in confronting assumptions. It consists more of re-learning, rather than unlearning, the intricate patterns of life. It's not about learning to walk all over again, but about noticing every aspect of walking ... from flexor extension to vestibular balance, from agile gait to reciprocal counterbalance. Practitioners of Soto Zen perform their meditations while walking in a closed courtyard at a set interval and pace with other monks. Just like a formation of marching soldiers, the repetition of routine movements becomes automatic, and the concatenated monks concentrate on their za-zen insights.

Inasmuch as the modern military has evolved from indentured servitude, through professionalism, and back into wage-slavery, a conventional mix of wunderkinds and goldbricks comprise the average unit. The days when only the cream of the crop served in elite organizations are gone, if they ever existed beyond some patriotic delusion. Consequently, a mental survey of the troops will unveil as many members fantasizing about murderous sedition as about off-duty adventures. The only reason that such interior amusements matter is that the individual is bored by routine. As they pass through the brassy sun-lit hash-marks scoring progressive changes, they're only conscious of having earned salt-rimed patches as merit badges for contracting aches and pains. They're thinking about their sore feet, their tight boot laces, and their dehydrated bodies. They want to take a break, so that they can shift their burdens and flex their muscles, so that they can dry their socks and wet their whistles. They want this part to be over, so their skin won't cook and their lungs won't steam. They want something new or different.

The modern military hasn't used corporal correction for a long time, but the Zen master uses it to remind the novice not to drift or dream. If the premise of developing a warrior spirit is a fundamental component of military service, then the sergeant is the Zen roshi, and the zen-do is anywhere that training occurs. With a pride of young lions on the prowl, there's bound to be some confusion between strength and endurance. Toughness is the ability to take punishment, from fatigue duty to combat duty, and keep going. The art of survival is a little skill and alot of will ... as long as you don't quit, an exploitable opportunity will probably present itself. Work mostly consists of repetitious acts. Repetition promotes boredom, which inattention causes mistakes that, in a battlefield scenario, can get the wrong people killed. The prime objective of any routine is complete awareness.

Recon is slow and steady. The team is methodically focused on each step of the procedure, on every actual step placed on the untested ground. A recon is composed of the same deliberate movements repeated thousands of times ... this step, this shift, this scan, this time, each time, again and again. There is enormous attention to detail because everyone is acutely conscious that the next step may be their last. The sensitivity and vulnerability inherent in the squad or team is displaced by a false sense of power with larger units. Because an unruly gaggle of footsloggers has trouble getting out of its own way, it mistakenly believes itself to be invulnerable. Reinforced elements that blithely march themselves into a mind-numbing routine are especially susceptible. Marchers must keep step, keep pace, keep direction, keep up ... walk right through the exhaustion and straight into automation. It becomes follow the leader into a trap.

Soldiers are not robots; and anyone who underestimates the value of a living, breathing, fighting man has abandoned the best weapon in the arsenal: brainpower. Drill is designed to imbue a combatant with learned responses, and to additionally instill intuitive reactions. Whenever a combatant has to rationalize their options, they risk the loss of precious lives and irretrievable time, and could lose the instantaneous opportunity while deciding the best course to follow. Pushing the envelope of skill can take training beyond the frostline and timberline; but going beyond the tumpline entails getting into the ambit zone. The concentrated zone of focus centers the individual upon their goal, but keeps them cognizant of their surroundings. A fighter who's not conscious of being flanked is inviting disaster. The center of this zone has been called a still-point, because the world seems to change speed in that modality. It gives one the impression of expanded potential and unlimited time. This distortion of reality can get you killed just as easily as somnambulism! To be effective, the still-point cannot zone-out and disconnect from actuality; but should zone-in upon a total awareness of reality.

Humping the ruck is more than masochism. The punishment has a socially valued purpose, and the personal achievement is a private triumph. Nobody gets a medal for not quitting when the going gets rough. All that anyone ever gets is personal satisfaction. For those who think that existence is a race to the grave, with the winner getting the fanciest obituary, the idea of self-actualization is undoubtedly alien. On the road march of life, whether through viscid mires or trackless minefields, we conform to the order of the day, and measure ourselves by our past mistakes or achievements. Marching in step may not be a form of sweat equity from which walkers will eventually cash their accrued dividends or recoup their investments, but it probably isn't a labor of love that's done for its own sake either. Walking gives us the chance to stretch our minds while we're stretching our legs; because za-zen meditation is possible anywhere at anytime. The satori insight will not be mistaken for an endorphin rush because the achieved awareness is enduring. After enlightenment, life is just like before, except there's less resistance.

He who tiptoes is unsteady; he who spraddles his stride has difficulty walking.
by Lao-Tzu, aphorism 24, Tao-te-Ching.

by Bock Pauldron
... who is a Vietnam War veteran, a social worker, and freelance writer; with works in professional journals and literary magazines.