combat writing badge C O M B A T
the Literary Expression of Battlefield Touchstones
ISSN 1542-1546 Volume 03 Number 04 Fall ©Oct 2005

Bugle and Bell
musings on the soul of war

Saints have no moderation, nor do poets, just exuberance.
by Anne Sexton ["The Saints Come Marching In"]

Sumo Theologica
the Marine Corps Builds Zen

We read in the First Book of Kings:

      "At the mountain of God, Horeb, Elijah came to a cave where he took shelter. Then the Lord said to him, Go outside and stand on the mountain before the Lord; the Lord will be passing by.'
      "A strong and heavy wind was rending the mountains and crushing rocks before the Lord — but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake — but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake there was fire — but the Lord was not in the fire. After the fire there was a tiny whispering sound.
      "When he heard this, Elijah hid his face in his cloak and went and stood at the entrance of the cave."

When men aspire to military service and the possibility of war that this carries, they are perhaps responding to a call of courage — in much the same way that Elijah sought to respond to a call from God. That which is sought is that which impels the search.

There may be a hint of envy motivating those who would presume to test and find their courage. Society brandishes before us all manner of pseudo-courage and rewards its practitioners handsomely. The stuntman, Evel Knieval, received all sorts of acclaim for his bone-crushing attempts to leap his motorcycle over barrels, lined-up cars ... and even the Snake River Canyon. Dale Earnhart achieved adulation and eventual martyrdom as The Intimidator in stock car racing. National Football League quarterbacks risk their bodies and six-figure incomes every time that a burly linebacker attempts to blindside them. And parent-mocking and tradition-breaking rock stars parade triumphantly through the bedrooms of groupies en route to the bank. The trouble is that admission to these professions is denied to all but the few who can afford the preparation, or the bad karma, or the airplane ticket to Pamplona to run with the bulls.

However, the military will take almost anybody. For example, they took me.

When I reported as a replacement to my first assignment in Viet Nam, several members of the Marine Corps platoon of which I was a member picked up on some similarities in the backgrounds of the men therein. And, taking an informal survey, they discovered that forty-three out of the forty-five of us came from broken homes ... that is to say, we were raised by women.

Women back then did not race stock cars, participate in contact sports, nor run with the bulls. I, for one, presumed that I lacked an at-hand role model who might have taught me manly courage by example. And the recruiting slogan, The Marine Corps builds men — body, mind, and spirit, certainly was one motivation for me to endure the degradations of boot camp and to expose my skinny young ass to terminal expressions of harm's way. My patriotism – if any – was way on the back burner while I cooked up images of myself rescuing POWs and brushing confetti off my uniform during the victory parade. Not to mention the possibility of receiving the orgasmic gratitude of the girl(s) back home ....

Somehow, it just did not occur to me at the time that the mother who raised my brother and me — after she was divorced from a physically abusive and unfaithful husband when I was five ... though she was temporarily paralyzed from polio when I was eight and Craig was six ... during efforts by which she earned a bachelor's degree Phi Kappa Phi after learning to walk again through painful rehabilitation ... then while she earned a master's degree despite working full-time ... when she took us camping from Michigan to California and back three times while we were growing up ... and via the passion through which she won various trophies for her performances in amateur theater — that, maybe ... just maybe, this woman just might have had something to teach me about courage – what we ever so brave men like to call balls – if I had only thought to look right in front of my filial face, instead of searching for it in some far-off crusade alongside other men who had been similarly reared by equally lion-hearted women.

When men are in the throes of dying in combat, their last thoughts and words often concern one woman or another — their mother, their wife, perhaps the Blessed Virgin Mary .... Whether a man, in what he perceives to be his last moments, thinks of a woman because she is a source of courage or because she is a source of tenderness for him is irrelevant. Both courage and tenderness emanate from the same inner source ... whether for a man or a woman, whether in war or in peace, whether in death or in life. A soldier who throws himself on a grenade in order to save the lives of his buddies does so because he cares for them.

Relationships of care sustain the ability to fight. The U.S. Army Special Forces were often formally initiated into the communities of the Montagnard peoples with whom they served – as advisors and advisees in Viet Nam – and, to this day, Special Forces veterans work to lessen the persecution of these mountain people and to relocate them when feasible to the United States. The term blood brothers has both literal and figurative meanings.

Trite though it may seem ... love indeed makes the world go 'round. Bravery and respect alike are but attributes of it. This truth is too important to attribute, as when gilding the lily. The real thing does not require bravado. Bravery and bravado are two very different things ... having a heart on is not the same thing as having a hard-on. That is not to say that bravery and bravado are opposites. Lust is love having an identity crisis.

Courage can, in some ways, be equated with confidence. And the word confidence is a combination of the Latin words: with and faith. To proceed confidently is to proceed with faith. One therefore trusts, to some degree, oneself, and others, and the Presence in the universe. Love is not so much a matter of making something, or of perfecting a technique, as it is a matter of letting go of barriers to trust. To Be All You Can Be is primarily a matter of trusting yourself to be you, to be all you — warts, wrinkles, and all. It is less important to be a Ranger or a recon Marine than it is to not be a stranger to yourself.

And the self that's your essence and existence is who you are, thanks be to God – as well as to Fort Benning and Camp Pendleton – though, one can have it both ways. Just because there's ability, there's no skill without training and practice; so enlightenment must never downplay the importance of excellence.

Saint Paul, in his First Letter to the Corinthians, has said:

      "Earnestly desire the best gifts. And yet I show you a more excellent way."
And thereafter follows Chapter 13 and its enthronement of love.

A present-day man of incredible courage is the Dalai Lama of Tibet. From exile, he leads and inspires his countrymen, who have been held hostage by the rapacious and materialistic Chinese overlords for over a half century. And upon what faith does this holy man / wholly man draw in order to not give in to despair?

      "My religion is very simple," says the Dalai Lama. "My religion is kindness."

An act of courage is a poetic action. It transcends practicality and efficiency and self-sacrifice. The bravado of today's suicide bombers is not bravery, because there is nothing poetic about destruction for the sake of destruction. The poetic action heartens rather than disheartens.

Poetry is a kind of word-play. Courage is a kind of action-play. Ironically, the heart of a courageous man encompasses within it the heart of a child.

F. Scott Fitzgerald has said, "Show me a hero and I will write you a tragedy." What Fitzgerald has overlooked, however, is that perhaps the greatest impediment to heroism's opposite – cowardice – is that cowardice is not fun ... that is to say, the opposite of courage is not the opposite of tragedy.

Native Americans of the plains, in their wars of yesteryear, made a kind of game out of close combat. The World Book Encyclopedia relates of them that:

      "... it was considered braver to touch a live enemy and get away than to kill the enemy. This act was called counting coup. Warriors carried a coup stick into battle and tried to touch an enemy with it .... Warriors who counted coup wore eagle feathers as a sign of their courage."

Combat certainly isn't fun per se, but there is a dance with death quality to it. Granted, the dance eventually resembles the punitive marathon dances of the Depression Era, when the competing participants no longer remember why they dance, but just keep performing the steps, while desperately leaning against one another, with a grim determination.

There is a misconception that martial courage depends upon a lack of sensitivity. The movie, Braveheart, rightly refers to warrior-poets.

If a combatant, or former combatant, is not frequently observed to be manifesting tears, it is not necessarily because he is insensitive or indifferent — playing the role of the stereotypic stoic. There is a kind of contemplative suffering — just as there is a kind of contemplative joy. Contemplation in religion is meditation without words. The contemplative does not analyze that which he or she contemplates; he or she identifies with that which is being contemplated. Or, as in the Zen practices of the Sumo wrestlers, who are the spiritual heirs of the Samurai warriors ... one simply learns to BE. C-rations are fine, if that's all you have, but a tea ceremony celebrates the dance — by keeping time and step with meaning.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a survivor of polio like my now-deceased mother, said,

      "Human kindness has never weakened the stamina or softened the fiber of a free people. A nation does not have to be cruel to be tough."
No one should have to fear being thought a sissy. As with gay-bashers and other macho bullies, the ones pointing the fingers are those doubting and loathing their own manhood — it's a disease that rejects the only medicine that will cure it.

Oz didn't give anything to the Lion that he didn't already have .... Fear is the flip side of courage in a package deal — if no yin, then no yang. That which is sought is that which impels the search.

Semper Fidelis — thanks, Mom. Om mani padme hum — the jewel is in the lotus, n'est ce pas?

"Poetry is more necessary to a people than industry itself, for while industry gives men the means of subsistence, poetry gives them the desire and courage for living."
by Jose Marti

contributed by B. Keith Cossey

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C O M B A T, the Literary Expression of Battlefield Touchstones