Jason Arment

The Toxic Culture of Marines

"Fight with Cudgels" by Francisco Goya

There is no questioning the cohesiveness of Marines in battle, but what happens after returning home? For those not following the contrived narrative, as Jason Arment discovers, the esprit de corps falls apart. 

 

Being a veteran is a funny thing sometimes. Maybe not “ha ha” funny, but the sardonic kind of funny. Because although one might think that when after the wars were over Marines who served together would be supportive and encouraging of each other, this is oftentimes not the case.

When Echo rotated back from Iraq, the one thing command stressed more than anything was that we were all fine, none of us had killed anyone, so there was no way any of us had PTSD. On top of that, we were told that if we did go to the medical wing of Twentynine Palms, and if we were indeed physically injured, that there was a great chance that we would be held there—maybe indefinitely.

Many Marines balked at this, deciding they were fine. They didn’t go to see the Battalion Surgeon to get an MRI for their back, or to catalog their many aches and pains, and I’d guess that nobody even dared suggest that they might have PTSD. Doing so would have put them at odds with the narrative command was trying to shove down everyone’s throats, a narrative that included trying to invalidate the service of every Marine except those of the unit’s highest echelon.

When we finally rotated back to Des Moines, Iowa—our permanent duty station since we were reservists—life, and our contracts, went on. Marines had varying life experiences. For instance, I’ve never gotten drunk and hit any of my partners, nor has my inebriation ever caused any of them to fear for their safety. But that wasn’t the case for many Marines. I’d listen to them talk at drill about how they’d gotten smashed and started breaking furniture and doors until their girlfriend left, threatening to call the police if they followed. Rarely would a Marine come out and say, “I get drunk and beat my significant other,” but when a couple gets drunk and starts brawling at the Marine Corps Ball, you know it’s on like Donkey Kong in private.

When all of this was happening around me, I didn’t really understand. Even though I’d been told by many that “Marines eat their wounded,” I guess I just didn’t get it. So when my longtime friend and often-time superior and I started having serious back problems, no longer physically able to perform the long “humps”—forced marches in full pack, body armor, while carrying weapon systems—I had to send tattletale reports up to the Battalions Inspector General on multiple occasions simply because command couldn’t understand that we were hurt. And not just, “I have a headache,” but rather, “The VA says I won’t be able to walk if I don’t stop.”

This was all kinds of ironic considering that our First Sergeant at the time kept parading around telling everyone he was going to be a doctor someday, while at the same time telling the new joins, fresh out of boot camp, that he’d “been there” for Black Hawk Down (a lie which would have been a felony under current Stolen Valor law, and might have been then). Maybe irony is the wrong word; our culture has cheapened the word irony to the point where it is nearly synonymous with coincidence, so I hesitate to call anything ironic. But, if it was indeed irony, then it is the kind found in Ivan Turgenev’s Sketches from a Hunter’s Album, back when land-owning Russian gentry would make their blind peasants stand watch over empty fields, or put illiterate bullies in charge of entire villages.

I didn’t really see it as anything back then, instead feeling only rage and hopelessness. I’m sure command wasn’t too appreciative of all the thunder I called down on them as a lowly Corporal in the Marine Corps. And now, as a simple civilian with no official government duties to discharge, I am still dealing with the toxic culture my former command manifested. Marines I used to serve with insult me for my creative work, tell me that I’m “playing the victim” when I talk about the tribulations that veterans go through. They don’t care that some of our brothers post regularly on social media about how they can’t sleep—an hour or two a night is the most rest they get—they’re lonely and depressed.

In fact, it’s not just me they are willing to insult. Recently, a Marine from my former unit decided to insult not just me but a Desert Storm vet—a man who fought in the biggest and fastest tank battle in USMC history, the Reveille Engagement—without pausing to think. I’d love to blame this attitude on the bottom-feeding conservatism prevalent in our country, but the insult came from an insurance-selling liberal. I guess my former brother in arms thinks I’m claiming victim status by daring to press pen to paper about my experiences; it’s hard for me to know, especially since much of my creative work comes off super angry, not cloying or tearful. And even when I do inflect an evenhanded tone of reflection that is sorrowful, it’s not like I’m asking anyone for a handout or to feel sorry for me.

But that doesn’t matter to most of the Marines I served with, or at least that’s how it feels. They know everything. And as much as I’d like to blame it on the way the Midwest tends to cultivate an attitude of arrogant solipsism, that doesn’t really fly considering how many open-minded people dwell in the hinterland.

When I talk to older veterans of other wars about it, they know what I’m talking about. We’ll trade stories of how everyone is always “all right,” no matter how many times they get arrested, or how many weeks their wives disappear with the kids, or how many sadly desperate posts appear on their social media. The toxic culture of Marines is strong, and without the esprit de corps coupled with the common purpose of trying to make it through Iraq, and then to the end of our contracts (ever signed a seven-year contract?), aggression is all that’s left.

So, tiny men with smaller minds lash out at each other and the world. People who were once proud Marines are now craven, bent and twisted by racism and bitterness, to the point where I don’t even recognize them anymore. But maybe that isn’t true—when I talk to my old squad they remember these men as if they’d always been that way.

I will say that, as far as I know, none of my old squad mates have made the commitment to suicide. I can’t say that none of them have beat their significant others, though. And I can’t say that some Marines from my old unit haven’t gone to jail for rape, drugs, theft, and God only knows what else. What I do know is that the Marines who used to comprise Echo 2/24 like to sit around and tell each other how none of them were shit, didn’t see shit, and how it was all a waste of time. When I bring up how the Forward Operating Base, three kilometers down the Main Supply Route from us, repelled suicide bombers storming the gates, people’s eyes glaze over. When I mention how Marines in our Battalion died screaming as they burned to death in their Humvee, people just don’t care. They have an agenda to push, and no one hesitates to sully the memory of fallen Marines to do so.

Echo’s legacy may be written by me, but the real mark left behind is a culture of malice and petty vengeance for imagined wrongs.

It makes me sick, and ashamed to bear the title of Marine—former Marine.

 

Jason Arment

Jason Arment served in Operation Iraqi Freedom as a Machine Gunner in the USMC. He's earned an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. His work has appeared in Narrative Magazine, Lunch Ticket, Chautauqua, Hippocampus, The Burrow Press Review, Dirty Chai, and War, Literature & the Arts: An International Journal of the Humanities; anthologized in Proud to Be: Writing by American Warriors Volume 2 & 4; and is forthcoming in Gulf Coast, The Florida Review, and Phoebe. Jason lives in Denver.

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