A Letter.

by Crane Davis

Correspondence between a Marine who served in Vietnam and a Marine bound for (and now back from) Iraq.

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----- Original Message -----
> From: Michael Philbrick
> To: Crane Davis
> Sent: Sunday, January 29, 2006 7:35 PM
> Subject: Activation and deployment
> Mr. Davis,
> Your daughter mentioned that you would be happy to talk to me about
> your own experiences in the Marine Corps. I would be fascinated to hear any
> advice you have for me in my current situation, in combat, overseas, or any
> wisdom that you feel would be useful to me. We're at 29 Palms, CA right now
> for several months of a great training package designed specifically for
> units heading to Iraq. Our unit is receiving the most training of any
> active or reserve unit to head over to the big sandbox so far. I appreciate any help you
> can give me. Thanks so much and Semper Fi.
> Michael Philbrick
> 1ST PLT, CO A, 1/25


Great to hear from you, even if you are lounging around at 29 Palms <g>. My daughter had mentioned you might be writing, so I've been giving some thought to what I might say. I'm not sure that will make it any more intelligent, but it certainly will be longer.

For background, I was in NROTC at Princeton, graduated in June '67, followed by 5 months of Basic School, then 10 weeks of Vietnamese language school. Arrived in VN as an Infantry 2nd Lt. right after the Tet Offensive and spent the next 20 months (1968-69) with 1st MarDiv as a Platoon Commander, Regt. Civil Affairs officer, Div. Press Officer, etc. Bronze star, Purple Heart … nothing major. Ironically, the area I was in, south of Danang, was basically flat, hot, and sandy … and in the years I was with the 1st Div, more than half our casualties came from booby traps and IED's. So, based on all that … what advice do I have?

Let's start with the fix you're in. You've chosen to be in the Marine infantry. I have no idea why you made that foolish choice. I can only say why I made that foolish choice. How do I know? Because someone made me think about it. At Basic School, there came a day when we had to select an MOS and they asked us to list our top three choices, in order. I wrote down "#1 Artillery, #2 Armor, #3 Infantry." I presented it to my CO, he looked it over, then he said, "This is fine. I'd just like you to go back outside with this list and ask yourself 'why did I join the Marine Corps?' Once you've done that, feel free to come back in and hand me any list you like."

When I came back in, the list was "#1 Infantry, #2 Armor, #3 Artillery." I don't know the numbers for Iraq, but during Vietnam, fewer than one man in ten served in a line infantry unit. It's out there on the bell curve.

I finally realized that I was fascinated with knowing how I would react to being "in the shit." Could I overcome my fear? Could I actually be a leader in that environment? (Actually, I was much more fascinated with military history … with how and why one group defeated another … but I had a strong sense that I would never get a handle on that unless I knew what it was like to actually be in combat. To be "in the shit.") So I signed up for the one job with the one group that would virtually assure that I would wake up one day and find myself "in the shit." And now, whatever your personal reasons, you are waiting to go "into the shit." Nice job, Einstein.

"The Few. The Proud. The Marines." Keep in mind that four out of every five Marines has served very well and faithfully … but in times when there was no shit to get into. You are (as I was) really lucky to be in the right place at the right time. Like it or not, you're that one in five Marines who will actually get to live out your fantasy:  to find out how you behave when all hell breaks lose. If you survive, you will never forget what you learn. It will be with you the rest of your life. And you will have an uncanny ability to recognize it in others.

From everything I've seen, Iraq really is a squad leader's war. Vietnam was actually two wars in one:  a lot of squad sized patrols interrupted by company or battalion sized engagements. Since I spoke Vietnamese, albeit poorly, I made a point of going out on a lot of squad patrols as an observer.

During the hippy dippy 60s, I and a lot of my peers in the officer corps tried to "break through" the division between officers and enlisted men. What a fucking mistake that was. The chain of command is there for very good reasons, developed over centuries of warfare. If officers try to usurp the roles of NCOs, we can do irreparable damage.

Officers are there to perform completely different functions. One of the most important is to be a civilizing influence in the midst of a very uncivilized world. I don't mean this to sound arrogant, but the phrase "officer and a gentleman" is there for very good reasons. When something goes wrong, it is the officer who is responsible; plain and simple. Lieutenant Calley is probably one of the very few names you remember from Vietnam, for very good reason. He allowed My Lai to happen. The massacre was his responsibility and the responsibility of those above him, not below him.

I have always said that I was amazed by the humanity and caring displayed by the average grunt in Vietnam. They did everything possible to avoid harming civilians. At the same time, more than one of my men has told me that I made it very easy for them to do that, because I made it very clear from the outset that I would not tolerate anything less.

There is a one other way of looking at it. One day before I went to Vietnam, I was walking in Quantico and came across a gunnery sergeant talking with a group of privates. The discussion revolved around the question of why officers had to be saluted. The gunny turned to me as I approached and said, "Take Lieutenant Davis, here. Some day he's going to be out in the middle of a rice paddy, pinned down by enemy fire, and he's going to scream 'move out!' … and not one swinging dick is going to move. And Lieutenant Davis is going to have to stand up and start moving … and just pray that the rest of you follow him.

"That, gentlemen, is why we salute the Lieutenant."

That said, there are a few practical things that occur to me …

Don't bunch up. I know you've heard it a million times, but stop to think about it. We're hard-wired to gather together when something threatens … and for centuries it made sense to "have each other's back" … but explosions love nothing more than a crowd. You can get as close as you like with your buddies back at camp, but stay the fuck apart when you're out there.

30% of the shit is just bad luck. You feel pretty good about your training and the people and the system, then you go out and you do everything right … and two guys die ugly. Not stupid … just ugly. If you were raised to believe in cause and effect, that's the hardest thing to accept. You're entering a world where people die … no matter how smart or how good they may be. It's pure random-chance. Wrong time, wrong place. Those are the ones that are hardest to accept. You just have to.

30% of what happens is just good luck. Right time, Right place. I spent one night using a backpack radio to call in air and artillery on snipers in a treeline. At dawn, when I took off the radio, the tape antenna sticking up had a bullet hole straight through it from the front. The bullet must have passed within an inch of my right cheek, below my helmet, but above my flak jacket. I keep the antenna as a reminder.

40% of what happens is for a very good reason. Not doing stupid things in a war zone will keep you full-time busy.

If something bad just happened, there's a very good chance something else bad is going to happen real soon. This may seem obvious, but I can't tell you how many times in Vietnam I'd watch them pull a small night-time attack on a fortified position, then ambush the column coming to its relief. Ask yourself:  what would you prefer to do?  Attack a fortified position or ambush a bunch of guys running down a darkened road in the middle of the night? DOH! But every time, we'd do the same thing. When we finally learned that trick, they lost a few men, then found a different trick. Small unit warfare is about training. Winning small unit warfare is about learning quickly.

I love every Marine who's been "in the shit." I just don't like most of them. Just being in a crowd of Marines has already taught you that they come in all shapes and sizes. Now you get to see how they behave in the shit. I guarantee you it will be eye-opening. Just remember, whatever you do will be with you the rest of your life. I came away with immense respect for their courage and humanity out in the bush, despite the fact that many of them  acted like rednecked, gay-baiting, politically ignorant assholes back at the base.

Think like he thinks. Forget about what the situation looks like. (You usually can't see shit anyway. <g>) Learn to look at the situation from his perspective … like those video games where you can look back on the tank or plane you're in from the other direction. The situation will never be the same, but you'll develop a sense of when to crank it up a notch … when something just doesn't feel right. Get past your own fear of being "blind" and start visualizing aggressively … what would I do if I were him and I saw a squad of marines strolling into this place? Where would I hide?

Cleaning up the mess is the hard part. When you're in the shit, the adrenaline is pumping. It's only after the shooting stops that you stop and pay attention to the mess you've made.

Don't trust anyone you don't know. I was the resident "gook lover." Civil affairs. Vietnamese language. Became friends with a number of Vietnamese civilians, but I learned not to leave anything to "trust." It's terribly seductive to think you have the ability to transcend thousands of years of culture and language difference. Just don't stop thinking. The bad guys won't.

Keep your protective gear on. It's only heat. Getting caught without protective gear is like getting stopped for speeding when you forgot to turn on the radar detector. But it's much more permanent.

Don't let us down. For more than 200 years, the whole selection process, training, and esprit of the corps has been aimed at producing a bunch of crazy motherfuckers who will charge pillboxes across open sandy beaches, then rip off the heads of their enemy and shit down their throats. It's very important that you do nothing to tarnish that image. At the same time, realize that it is a very successful tactic. If you are in a pillbox being attacked by crazy motherfuckers simultaneously from four different directions, it is much more uncomfortable than being attacked by four crazy motherfuckers, one at a time (witness Full Metal Jacket). It's like a ballet. Done properly, it is fucking amazing. Fight smart.

So that's what comes to me off the top of my head. I hope at least some of it will be useful. Let me know how things go.

Semper Fi,


Ist Plt, C Co, 1/27



Crane Davis currently lives in New York's Hudson Valley, where he is working on a book on the American experience in Vietnam. His former employers include TIME magazine and public television.

Articles in this Issue

The Revolutionary War, by James Thacher, M.D.
War of 1812, by Dr. William Beaumont
Mexican-American War, by James Nagle
The Civil War, by Bret Harte
The Spanish-American War, by Theodore Roosevelt
World War I, by Frank Buckles
World War II, by Audie Murphy
Korean War, by James Brady
Vietnam, by Crane Davis
The Iraq War, by Joshua Key
Pixels, by Clay McLeod Chapman
Clamor, by E. B. Moore