Hear them, listen to the voices: These are the Marines, the hard men who fight our wars, unscripted and always honest.
Except, of course, when we lie.
Half a dozen wars ago, in France, on June 2 of 1918, Marine gunnery sergeant Dan Daly stepped out in front of the 4th Brigade of Marines, mustered for another bloody frontal assault on the massed machine guns of the Germans that had been murderously sweeping the wheat fields at Belleau Wood. Death awaited. And the men, understandably, seemed reluctant to resume the attack. But old gunnies like Daly aren’t notable for coddling the troops, for issuing polite invitations, and Dan was having none of it. Nor was he much for inflated oratory or patriotic flourish. Instead, in what some remember as a profane, contemptuous snarl, and loudly, Gunnery Sergeant Daly demanded of his hesitant Marines: “Come on, you sons of bitches! Do you want to live forever?”
Is that why we fight? Because we’re cussed at and shamed into it? Was that what motivated the men of the 4th Brigade in 1918 who went into the deadly wheat field? Do today’s Marines who take out combat patrols in Anbar Province and hunt the Taliban somewhere west of the Khyber have the same motivations as Dan Daly’s men? Or the Marines who once waded the bloody lagoon for General Howland M. “Howlin’ Mad” Smith at Tarawa, scaled Mount Suribachi, defied the Japanese at Wake Island, fought the Chinese in the snows of North Korea, and fought and died on the Perfume River at Hue and in a thousand other bloody places?
The Marines in this book answer those questions; each in his own way attempts to say why we are drawn to the guns.
Dan Daly had his methods: Curse the sons of bitches and lead them into the field. The men were impressed, by the man if not by his shouting, knowing Daly as a legend, with two Medals of Honor already. But was Daly’s leadership and their own training all it took for Marines to get up and run at the machine guns of Belleau Wood? It became a question I kept asking.
General Jim Jones, tall and tough, a former commandant and more recently NATO commander, has a mantra: “Sergeants run the Marine Corps,” he told me once on a rainswept drive from Quantico to the Pentagon. Jones wasn’t just blowing smoke, keeping up noncom morale when he said that. He was attempting to tell me what he believed differentiates the Marine Corps from other military arms. Without its seemingly inexhaustible supply of good, tough sergeants, the Marine Corps would be nothing more than a smaller version of the army. Most Marines, officers or enlisted, would agree. They’ve had their own Dan Dalys. We all have.
I found mine, thirty-three years after Daly, in a North Korean winter on a snowy ridgeline, the senior NCOs of Dog Company, a couple of blue-collar Marine lifers, hard men from the South Pacific and up through the ranks, one hard-earned noncommissioned stripe after another, who tutored me about war, not off their college diplomas but out of their own vast experience of service and combat, and incidentally about life, women, and other fascinating matters. These were the professionals; I was the amateur learning from them, not in any classroom but in a quite deadly field.
Stoneking, the platoon sergeant, was a big, rawboned Oklahoman maybe twenty-eight or twenty-nine, who drove a bootlegger’s truck back home and was married to an attractive brunette WAVE who sent him erotic photos of herself. He had been a Marine eight or nine years, had fought the Japanese, and was in the bad Korea fighting. The men knew that if it came to that, he would (against the rules) strip his blouse and fight another enlisted man who was giving him angst. Stoneking was a cold, distant man with little regard for me or for most people (I don’t believe he really gave a shit about anyone), although for forty-six consecutive nights that winter he and I slept head to toe in our sleeping bags in a stinking, six-by-eight-foot bunker with a log-and-sandbagged roof so low it had to be crawled into and out of. That miserable hole was where we lived like animals and where from Stoneking I began to learn what it was to be and to lead Marines. Once when I’d been in a shooting and crawled back late that night into our bunker to tell about it, Stoneking wasn’t much impressed. “So you got yourself into a firefight,” he remarked, and rolled against the dirt wall to get back to sleep. “Yeah,” I said deflated, and got into my own sleeping bag. A pivotal event in my young life meant nothing to a hard case like Stoney.
The right guide, our platoon’s ranking number three, was the more affable Sergeant Wooten.
We weren’t supposed to keep diaries (in case we were captured or the damned things were found on our bodies) but I wanted one day to work on newspapers and write about people and things, so, to keep a record and get around the diary rule, I wrote long letters home to family and girlfriends for them to save. The mail back then wasn’t censored. Wooten might occasionally have composed a postcard, and little more, but he enjoyed watching me scribble away, marveled at my industry. “You are a cack-ter, suh.” Cack-ter being his pronunciation of “character,” in Wooten’s mind a compliment. He was leagues less surly than Stoney, so I occasionally lured him into deep, Socratic conversation.
“It ain’t much of a war, Lieutenant,” Wooten would concede, having listened to me blather on, and then patiently explaining his own philosophy to a young replacement officer, “but it’s the only war we got.” He had other, maturely and placidly thought out commentaries on life and the fates, remarking with sly, rural witticisms on the nightly firefights and their bloody casualty rolls, “Sometimes you eat the bear / sometimes the bear eats you.” Or declaring as an unexpected salvo of enemy shells slammed into the ridgeline, scattering the men in dusty, ear-splitting, and too-often lethal chaos, sending us diving into holes amid incongruous laughter, “There ain’t been such excitement since the pigs ate my little brother.”
You rarely heard a line like that back in Brooklyn.
I ended up loving these men, as chill, as caustic, or as odd as they may first have seemed when I got to the war, an innocent who had never heard the bullets sing, had never fought, who yet, by the fluke of education and rank, was now anointed the commanding officer of hardened veterans of such eminence and stature. Maybe I could better explain about such men and why Marines fight and generally fight so well if only I were able to tell you fully and precisely about combat as my old-timers knew it, and how it really was. And how I would have to learn it.
It’s difficult unless you’ve been there.
War is a strange country, violent and often beautiful at the same time, with its own folklore and recorded history, its heroes and villains. It is as well a profession, strange and sad, poorly paid but highly specialized. Cruel, too. War is very cruel. And surprising, in that it can be incredibly thrilling and rewarding, though not for everyone. There is a sort of complicated ritual to it, a freemasonry, a violent priesthood. Only fighting men are qualified to exchange the secret fraternal handshake, the mythic nod and wink of understanding.
Not all men are meant to fight in wars and fewer still do it well. Others, revolted by its horrors, its sorrows and pity, yet hold dear its memories, the camaraderie, its occasional joys. I have even heard men admit, without shame and rather proudly, “I love this shit,” speaking candidly about war and their strange passion for it. There are such Marines, plenty of them, men hooked on combat. They love it the way men love a woman in a relationship they suspect will end badly. Others are honest enough to admit they hate and fear it but go anyway. Their reasons may be strangely inspiring, or murky, puzzling.
A few Marines can’t or won’t go to the battle, and they don’t last long, not in the infantry, not in the line outfits. They are transferred out to someplace less. They may still be fine men but they are no longer Marines.
I never knew better, truer men than in the rifle company ranks in which I served, bold and resourceful Americans, beautiful men in a violent life. What each of them was and did later at home and at peace, having let slip the leash of discipline, I can’t always say. But in combat such men, even the rogues and rare scoundrels, were magnificent, hard men living in risky places. In this book, I write about some of them. Forget my commentary; hear the Marines, listen to their voices.
The third platoon’s right guide, Sergeant Wooten, that salty career man, was a crafty rifleman who knew a little about demolitions. He once volunteered in North Korea to blow a Fox Company Marine’s body out of the ice of a frozen mountain stream; using too heavy a charge, he got the guy out, but in two pieces. When he came back to us at Dog Company he looked terrible, like a man after an all-night drunk. “You okay, Wooten?” “No, sir, I ain’t. After I got that boy out that way, I threw up on the spot.” A three-striper who had fought the damned Japanese for three years, all across the Pacific, Wooten took a drink. He’d been up and down the noncommissioned ranks, as high as gunnery sergeant and then broken back to buck sergeant, a lean, leathery, drawling rustic maybe fifteen years older than I was and lots wiser. Sometimes Wooten lost patience with those who were critical of the Korean War we were then fighting. He was pretty much enjoying himself and thought those people ought to shut the hell up and cut the bitching. As, giving me that flat-mouthed grin of his, Wooten declared with professional regret: “It’s the only war we got.” Copyright © 2007 by James Brady. All rights reserved.
The late James Brady commanded a Marine Corps rifle platoon during the Korean War and was awarded the Bronze Star for valor. He captured these experiences in his books The Scariest Place in the World, The Marine, his New York Times bestselling novels Warning of War and The Marines of Autumn, and in his highly praised memoir, The Coldest War. For more than two decades, he wrote the "In Step With" column for Parade magazine.