In this episode, we reflect on the significance of the military in American life and discuss what it's like to serve in the armed forces during wartime. We spoke to Karl Marlantes, author and Vietnam War veteran, and Sean Davis, author and Iraq War veteran, about the experience of preparing for war, being at war, and coming back home to Oregon from war. Content note: descriptions of violence throughout and ethnic slurs at the 17 minute mark.
Karl Marlantes is a writer and Vietnam War veteran who grew up in Seaside, Oregon, and now lives in rural Washington. He is the author of Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War, What It Is Like to Go to War, and Deep River.
Sean Davis is a writer, teacher, artist, and Iraq War veteran who lives in Astoria, Oregon. He used to lead the American Legion Post 134 in Northeast Portland, where he led a number of coming home programs for military veterans. He is the author of The Wax Bullet War. You can find his writing and art at seandaviswriter.com.
The conversation with Karl Marlantes is an excerpt from a Think & Drink program with Marlantes, Cameron Smith, and John Frohnmeyer on October 23, 2013. You can hear the whole program here.
Other writing on war from Oregon Humanities:
- "A Century of War" by Jill Owens
- "Within Makeshift Walls" by Eric Gold
- "Against Custom" by Margot Minardi
Adam Davis: Welcome to The Detour. I'm Adam Davis.
The military is a big part of American life. We spend a lot of money on our military. We see ourselves and our nation occupying a certain place and status in the world due to the strength and size of our military. And we have adopted the widespread practice of thanking people, often performatively, at events large and small for their military service.
But fewer than 1 percent of American citizens are active military personnel. And only about 7 percent of living Americans have served in the military. Look a little deeper into these numbers and you see that about 13.5 percent of men and about 1.5 percent of women have served. And however much we valorize and conspicuously thank people for their service, we rarely seem to ask about, listen to, or try to make sense of what that experience is like.
So even though there's a strong cultural imperative to genuflect toward service members, there is, at the same time, a significant difference in experience between those who have served and the many more who have not. And there's also a large and not necessarily helpful silence around what the experience of service is like.
In this episode of The Detour, as war rages on other continents, and the United States navigates the involvement of US service members in these violent conflicts, we wanted to consider the experience not just of serving in the military, but specifically the experience of serving in the armed forces during wartime. We wanted to explore the experience of preparing for war, being at war, and coming back home to Oregon from war.
In this episode, you'll hear from Karl Marlantes and Sean Davis, two Oregon veterans who write and speak in thoughtful, candid, and moving ways about their experiences of war and challenges coming home.
What's especially interesting about Karl and Sean, who differ on plenty of specifics, is that, although they're both known in some sense for their military service, they're also both powerfully critical of how this country prepares and supports the people who fight on its behalf. Sean and Karl both speak about the burden of war and how all of us in this country, not only service members, might shoulder and share this burden differently.
Karl Marlantes is an author and Vietnam War veteran who grew up in Seaside, Oregon, and now lives in rural Washington. He's written books, including Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War and What It Is Like to Go to War, as well as the 2021 novel Deep River, about logging, labor, and family in the Pacific Northwest.
If you haven't yet read Matterhorn or Karl's other books, well, you should. Our conversation with Karl is from all the way back in 2013. And although the conversation took place nearly ten years ago, it brings up ideas that are deeply resonant in this moment. This conversation between Karl, Cameron Smith—who was then the head of Oregon's Department of Veterans Affairs—and John Frohnmayer, at that time the board chair of Oregon Humanities, was part of our Think & Drink series on the theme “How to Love America.” And it was recorded in front of a live audience at the Alberta Rose Theatre in Portland, Oregon.
John Frohnmayer: On my right, your left, is Karl Marlantes, who is a native Oregonian, grew up in the Northwest Oregon coast.
As Marines, you, I think necessarily, were volunteers. And so I would be interested in hearing: knowing that Marines are fighting outfits, why'd you volunteer?
Karl Marlantes: It's really interesting because I grew up in a very different era. Virtually everybody—and I grew up in Seaside—and virtually every adult in town was either in World War II or was married to someone who was in World War II. And you sort of had this sense that people served their country.
There was also something called the draft. And that was always hanging over the heads of the boys. And it was like, you know, nobody really thought, “Yippee, I'm going to get drafted!” But you also had this sense that, well, you know, if you get drafted, it's like paying your income taxes, you sort of owe your country. That was the feeling. “Okay, I got drafted and I got to give them two years.” So that was the sort of the zeitgeist behind the thinking, which has changed a lot today.
And then you get down to my specific things. There's some funny reasons and some not-so-funny reasons. I thought, well, if I have the chance of getting drafted, I'd rather serve in some other outfit, maybe, than the Army. And all the guys on the football team were going down to San Diego and joining something called the Marine Corps. And they would come back with something that I'd never seen before called a suntan, and their shoulders were about four inches wider, and they were sort of lean as whips. And I'm an eighteen-year-old kid and I'm going, “I want some of that. Yeah. I want some of that.” So that was why I joined the Marines.
But I have to tell you one funny story: so I asked the Marine recruiter. I mean, I knew about what Marines did, Iwo Jima and John Wayne and all that stuff. I said, “What else do they do?” And he looks at me. He says, “Well, we guard embassies.” I said, “Really? Like in Paris?” He said, “Yeah. Paris.”
John Frohnmayer: Let's talk about the nature of sacrifice. What Abraham Lincoln called “the last full measure of devotion” for those who are actually killed. I'd like you to talk about it, not just in terms of you who were on the ground, facing the mortality issue, but the rest of us in society, who are there at home and maybe pretty comfortable.
Karl Marlantes: Yeah. I think that when I was most afraid was just before an operation. I'd watch the helicopters coming in and I'd go, “There's no way out. I'm going to have to get on that bird. And then when the door opens, it's going to be fire,” you know?
But once the door opened, then it was, like, this thing about the unit. I mean, there was certainly no thoughts about, you know, I'm doing this for America or anything of the sort. It's like, I got to get these kids out someplace where we can get into the right kind of perimeter, and I've got to get the artillery called in, and you suddenly just start operating to try and keep your unit—basically people you really do love—from getting killed.
It comes down to real basic stuff. And the fear kind of goes. It's an interesting thing. You're just completely pumped full of adrenaline. I try to explain to people, it's like the most enormous high you can imagine. But it's like crack cocaine: the costs of that high are extreme, so you really don't want to do it. But that's what happens. At least that's what my experience was.
John Frohnmayer: What sense, if any, did you have about the fact, particularly during the Iraq wars, that the wars were, quote, "off budget," and we back home were affected by them almost not at all? And then, of course, during the Vietnam war, the whole society was in turmoil all over that. So did that affect you as, as military people?
Karl Marlantes: Yeah. I mean, there's no doubt about it. Certainly the Vietnam experience was horrible, because you'd get—I mean, guys would get letters from former girlfriends saying they don't want to see them anymore because they're, you know, baby-killing bastards. You would really get hateful mail from politically activated people that used to be, you know, something that you wanted to date. It was really difficult. I always say there is a bind that civilians face about supporting the wars, which is that, you know, “Well I support the troops, but I don't support the war."
You have to accept responsibility that you can't do it. Because the fact of the matter is, if there's some nineteen-year-old out there and he knows that somebody back home says, “this is a really stupid war,” it's going to hurt his morale. And the other thing is, if the people on the opposite side say, “if we just wait it out long enough, the American people are going to get tired of this, and they're going to go away,” that's going to hurt too. That doesn't mean that you shouldn't protest the war. But what I'm saying is that you can't just be in la-la land and say, “oh, I support the troops.” You have to accept the responsibility that what you're doing is very problematical in the sense of its impact on these young kids that are fighting. Do it anyway, but don't kid yourself.
I think that we have to really think about who we are and if we are a republic. I was at a book reading outside of Fort Bragg in North Carolina, and a young couple came up to me. They look like they're about three years out of high school, and she's got a baby in her left arm and she's holding a toddler like this, and she starts crying. And I asked, you know, what's the matter, if I could get her something. She points to her husband and she says, “Well, he's shipping out again tomorrow.” And I turned to this kid and I say, “Wow, your second tour.” He says, “No, sir, my seventh.”
You know, we ought to be ashamed of ourselves, basically. And I think it's problematical because we are getting to the point where we're sort of hiring it out, and you can't hire out killing. You can hire out lots of things, but that one's immoral. It's got to be an action by the state, performed by people who are employed by the state. And I think that we have a problem with that.
And if I can just go on one more thing, it's just so unfair. One half of one percent of this country, I think it's just unfair. Seven Southern states supply of half of the military. And the worst trend is that, if you take the lower three deciles in terms of income from where kids are raised, and compare it to the top three, In World War II, the lower three died at 1.2 times the rate of the top three. Now that's perfectly understandable. It's not just, but the kids that can type and read get jobs in the rear. Okay. And the ones that can't end up in the front fighting. In Vietnam, it went up to 1.4 times or 1.45 times. Today it is 1.65 five times. That's a very bad trend. That's something that our republic needs to think about. We're putting the load really on a class that should be a shared burden.
John Frohnmayer: Tom Foley, who died last week, was heard to say that you can never trust anybody who hasn't done something for you. And I think that that's a pretty good argument for the draft in terms of patriotism.
Karl Marlantes: Well, I would argue that the military doesn't want to draft everybody, because you don't want to have people there that really don't want to be there. I think you've got a moral issue forcing somebody to kill somebody. But the thing is, the unfairness, I think, could be solved by national service. I don't think there's a military person on in the country that would feel bad if someone said, I did my two years teaching kids to read in Watts. You pulled your oar, fabulous.
John Frohnmayer: Okay, so we've kind of touched on it, but let's go to the ethical issues of war. We had the Nuremberg trials after World War II. And, during the second Bush administration, John, you termed the Geneva Accords as quaint. So where are we in terms of rules of war in an ethical sense?
Karl Marlantes: There's a lot of this sort of tough guy talk about “there's no rules to war,” and I think that that is wrong. I think that what you're really trying to do with your military is, you're trying to stop somebody from hurting your people. If you're not stopping someone from hurting your people, what are you doing? All right. So how do you stop someone from hurting your people? Sometimes you have to use violence to stop the violence.
That's my position on the ultimate ethics of it, is that you've got to make sure that the people are committed to something that actually makes ethical sense in the first place, which is, we're threatened and I think we should fight back.
You know, I'm not anti-war. I am anti-stupid-war, but I'm not anti-war.
John Frohnmayer: There's a scene in Norman Mailer's The Naked and the Dead where they have captured a Japanese prisoner, and the Sergeant that's in charge gives him cigarettes, and they treat him nicely, and then he shoots him. What kind of rule were meaningful when you were actually in combat?
Karl Marlantes: Well, one of the problems is that that the rules get bent. The golden rule applies even there. If you are taken prisoner, you would certainly want someone to treat you nicely and then not kill you. So that is an immoral act. And you certainly know that, if you're engaged in warfare, that the other guy is going to try to kill you, but you've agreed, in a way, to put yourself in that situation.
I mean, there are 1,001 ways to get out of fighting. You have to deal with being called a coward, but, you know, you can do it. It's not hard. You just walk out. No one's going to stop you. So you have sort of an agreement about it. And I think that you still have this idea of the golden rule, and the other one is that I think this sort of tough guy, you know, “there's no holds barred” is wrong.
If you think about military organizations, they are, in some ways, the epitome of civilization, because they're the ones that are completely armed, can do all the damage in the world, and they are the ones that have to be the most under their own control. And how else are they controlled except by their own ethical standards?
And you just think that somehow war excuses you from that, it doesn't. And I think that there's many examples where people have fallen short, we all fall short. We all do things in business or in politics that we don't feel particularly good about, or human.
John Frohnmayer: Let me just follow up on that, Karl, because in one of your books, you talk about red heat, white heat. Do you want to explain?
Karl Marlantes: Yeah, it's sort of a way I talk about how you get into atrocities. There's sort of the red heat. Atrocity is the one where you finally have gotten to a point you'd been so battered in combat that you actually just become enraged, or you're seeing blood, and that's why I call a red heat. And it's a very difficult situation to try and check and try and control.
And I call white heat when you get just so steely cold that your mind no longer has any sense of compassion, it is completely, like a computer, What are the odds that someone's gonna hurt me? If it's one tenth of a millionth of a percent, why take the chance? Just kill him. Because if he really isn't surrendering, well, then I could get killed. So if you're in that white heat stance where you're just calculating, well, the calculation is, why would you take a chance? It's an infinite loss if you die.
Behind all these is something that I think we really need to understand, and we, we really need to teach all the people who are going to do fighting for us, is this idea of what I call pseudo-speciation. We all know the words: kraut, goop, jap, nip, towelhead, Haji, you name them. We got lots of them. The more politically correct say, well, that's awful. You're dehumanizing the enemy. And I'm going, like, yes. How else was is a nineteen-year-old going to kill somebody when he's been raised all his life, thou shalt not kill, and he's a decent kid, and he shouldn't do it. The only way he's going to pull the trigger is to dehumanize the enemy. The problem is after he's done it, and the battle's over, are they humans again? Or are they still animals? If you stay in that state, that's when the atrocities really started to happen.
John Frohnmayer: What about the role of literature, of poetry, of song in war? Both while it's going on and then obviously afterwards in the healing process.
Karl Marlantes: Yeah, there's a wonderful, I think it's a Hopi myth, about the two brothers who go to the sun, and they're warriors. And when they come back, they've been in the war mode, and there's lightning coming out of their heads and smoke coming out of their mouths, and everybody in the village is scared to death. And Spider Woman comes out and gets them to start singing, and all that starts to go back down. And then after they've sung what they've done, they are actually then able to once again reintegrate with the community. They're no longer in that fearful frightful mode. And I think that the arts singing in the terms of what veterans can do with it.
But I think there's another function that's really important, which is, particularly with literature, if you read history about wars, it's like, okay, you know, this was caused by this. And then this unit went here and then here's the casualties. You learn something, but you don't get it. The thing about literature is, we have to live inside of our skins. I have no idea what your life is like or how you see the world. I can't get there. It's just the way we are built. But literature is actually a way around that. And it's called identifying with a character.
And if you have great literature with great characters, people can actually get out of their own skins and begin to see the world through the eyes of that character. And in the case of war, there are novels, starting with Tolstoy on, that actually gets you into the skin of those characters. And you're no longer here. You're no longer your age, your sex, your social class, you are that person. And then you really do get as close as to an experience of war as I think is possible without doing it.
John Frohnmayer: Let's talk about the cost of war. One estimate of the Iraq war is $6 trillion. Talking about opportunity cost of what $6 trillion could do in some other way. And of course the personal cost, not just the dead and the wounded, but probably the, maybe, what? Quarter to half a million that have PTSD. What about that?
Karl Marlantes: Well, just doing the math, six thousand US cities could get a billion dollars, that'd probably help their budgets. It's a massive number. The issue of the true costs of war, which is certainly the dead and the maimed, but it's also the families of those people, and it goes on for generations. I think that we don't reckon those costs there. This one's “off-budget,” but the thing is you don't count the cost. That's going to go on for another seventy or eighty years.
And I think that you need to reckon with those costs. I said I'm not a pacifist. There are times when you say, “I’m going to have to pay for this because there are certain values that I hold that are worth it.” You know? And if, in fact, our life way of life and our freedoms and our ideas about equality and the many things that we've struggled with and fought over for centuries are threatened, $6 trillion is nothing. But if it's not for that, then $6 trillion is a whole lot of wasted money.
John Frohnmayer: Karl, you have described combat as a spiritual experience. What did you mean by that?
Karl Marlantes: Well, what I meant by that was that, when you're dealing with death, you are dealing in the realm of the spirit. You cannot deal with the death, which is actually something that only the gods should deal with, taking human life, deciding who dies or who doesn't die. That's something that is really should be beyond human capability. It is in the realm of spirit.
And so when you put somebody into those situations, if you don't recognize that you have put them into a situation of the spirit, then they're going to get messed up, because there are wounds to the soul, not just the body.
Starting to think about it that way is the first step. The second one, which I talk about, the actual experience of combat, is that if you think about the experience of mystics, they are constantly aware of their own death. You know, Don Juan, your death is over your shoulder. They strive through incredible psychophysical exercises to be in the present moment. They are part of a group, you know, the song, the church, the convent, and they lose their egos and become less ego-bound and more oriented toward the other.
Every one of those things is there in combat. Now whether you can just say, well, it's the equivalent experience or it's a same experience, my own opinion is that it's the opposite side of the coin.
We we in America. I used to work in India, and one of the Indian managers, after we had several beers at the Bengal Club, he said, “You know, you Americans are the only people on the planet that think that death’s an option.”
And our religion is sort of that way. We love Christmas, but we don't like Good Friday. All right? But the Aztecs did ritual torture, the Iroquois did ritual torture, the Buddhists have monsters guarding the gates. Other world religions have enormously dark sides to them. We don't like that. I think that perhaps in this world of opposites, of yin and yang, that you're just seeing the opposite spiritual experience
Adam Davis: Sean Davis is a writer, teacher, artist, and Iraq War veteran, who lives in Astoria, Oregon. He used to lead American Legion Post 134, in Northeast Portland. And in that role, he also led a number of Coming Home programs, gatherings of military veterans and family members to read, write, and think. Sean, who wrote The Wax Bullet War, has also lived in rural Central Oregon, where he convened people to reckon with wildfires. He's also been a wildland firefighter. In 2016. Sean ran an inspiring campaign for mayor of Portland. He's been a partner and friend to Oregon Humanities for many years, and I was fortunate to speak with Sean over the phone in April 2022 at the XRAY studios in Portland, Oregon.
Hi there. This is Adam Davis with The Detour from Oregon Humanities.
I'm happy to be on the phone here with Sean Davis in Astoria. Sean maybe for starters, I just wanted to ask you to say hello. And could you maybe tell me how you ended up getting involved with the military and where you did your service?
Sean Davis: Oh, of course. You know, I joined the military. It was kind of an economic draft. As many people, I lived in a very small town in rural Oregon, up in the mountains. And I didn't see a whole lot of options, and it was the first Gulf War that was happening, and they were taking everybody. II wasn't supposed to be in the infantry because I'm colorblind, but because of the Gulf War, the doctor's like, "Do this," and he made his finger go back and forth. And I'm like, "What's this? There's a trigger finger." And I did, and he was like, "All right, you're good." Then I was let in the military. So I went to active duty Army Infantry from April 5, 1993—so yesterday would have been twenty-nine years since I first signed up—until January 31, 1999.
And I got out of the military. And then of course the day after September 11, I re-enlisted into the Oregon National Guard, which is a little different than active regular Army. And then I stayed in for six years and went to Iraq during that time.
Adam Davis: Hmm. So it's interesting to think about the two different periods, and it sounds like the first one, even as you think about it now, starting in '93, was driven more by your sense of economic necessity. And the second one was driven by something else. How do you think about the different reasons for why you went the first time and the second time?
Sean Davis: Well doing six years pre-9/11 and then six years post-9/11, yeah, it's completely two different militaries. Um, yeah, the first time I joined up, I just didn't feel like I had another options if I wanted to go to school or buy a house. And I learned a lot, I did. A lot about selfless service, a lot about discipline. But I also didn't like the military experience too much.
We went to Haiti in '95, and it had been such a long time since we’d had a conflict that the officers in the higher enlisted were jumping out of the plane that day. We were out putting them in the Hills of Les Cayes, trying to get in trouble a little bit, so they can get their coveted Combat Infantry Badge and turn this into a war engagement, or just get awards for doing something, anything. All we've had at that point that people that I was serving with was Grenada. And that was a little while ago. So they're itching to get into a fight. And then, when September 11 happened, and even when we were going to Iraq, we did like a six month train-up in Texas, during that time it was kind of like that again, you know, but then the years after the war had started, there was definitely that fatigue that set in. People didn't want to go to war anymore.
You know, we we've glorified war since we've started writing stories or cave paintings, in motion pictures, so much. I grew up with Arnold Schwartzenegger and Rambo and Jean-Claude van Damme. Patriotism was in the beer commercials. I did join at first because I needed a way out of my small town, but there was a belief that I was doing something greater than myself in this world.
Going to Iraq, it only took like a month before I understood, you know. I can't speak for others. I thought there'd be a great plan to spread and maintain democracy. And I didn't see that anyone had a plan, and I didn't really know what the heck we were doing there. I think there's going to—there is right now, I mean, I know with myself, but people that I served with—where there's a great disillusionment that, we're like, what the hell did my friends die for in Iraq? I don't know what that was about. “We were there for each other" is what we say, but I don't see why they sent some of our best and brightest seven thousand miles to go die in a desert. I Don't know what we accomplished.
Adam Davis: So there's a lot in what you just started to say there, including losing friends and people you care deeply about. You also said early in your comments that you didn't really like the experience the first time, which sounded like you were going to contrast it with going after 9/11.
And so maybe I just want to slow it down a little bit and ask, you said you learned some, you learned about selfless service, discipline, but you didn't really like it. And I just want to ask what didn't you like, and how did that sit alongside things like discipline and selfless service?
Sean Davis: Well, I was enlisted, not an officer, you know. I made myself up from the ranks from private. So the first ten years that I was in both enlistments, I did make it up to E-7, which is a Platoon Sergeant. And that's pretty fast, you know? So the first six years I was in, I got up to E-5, which was a non-commissioned officer. I was in charge of people. And when you get to a point where you're in charge of people, it gets better.
But there is a real sense of, I'm here in the military fighting for other people's rights, and I have none, I am government property. And they have to tell you where you're going to live. They have to tell you like what you could do. You really don't have a whole lot of choices in a lot of stuff.
And so you're fighting for, you know, land of the free, but you really don't have the freedoms that everyone else does. And that was really hard to deal with, at least in my time, on my first tour. And I know a lot of other people had that same attitude, but they tell you, like, you got to re-enlist, if you don't, then you're going to get out, you're not going to find a job, you'll just end up back in here, you know? And there is a certain sense of institutionalization. You're there every day and you only really have two missions when you're in: take care of your guys and complete the mission. And then when you get out, you have to deal with rent and relationships and everything else.
But you kind of want that freedom that you don't get when you're in. I think I had to get out for a while and then look at it, because there were a lot of benefits that the US government gave me for being in the military. And I might not have seen them when I was in it.
But the second time I joined—I love to tell people I was so patriotic that I joined the day after 9/11, and to a certain sense, yes, maybe. But looking at it years later, I think one of the biggest reasons I joined is because I just didn't have excitement in my life. But I knew that something was going to happen. I also knew that there was going to be a knee-jerk reaction against a certain population of US citizens, you know, Iraqis and Middle Eastern people. And I wanted to be in the military so I can help deal with that in a way.
But honestly, I didn't think that I'd be sent to Iraq, because I wasn’t regular Army and that's who they send the war. I thought, well, I'm gonna join the Oregon national guard and do my part here in Oregon and help out. And then, you know, a year and a half later, I'm in Iraq.
Adam Davis: And how did that feel when you got the news that you're going over?
Sean Davis: It was scary. I mean, we were ready, but I don't know if people thought we were ready. So they had us do a six month train-up in Fort Hood, Texas, and then do one month in Fort Polk, Louisiana to make sure we're ready. So they're all looking at us. We got fast rope training. That's what the guys in a Black Hawk Down did, right? So you're hovering in a helicopter, they throw ropes down, you've got some thick leather gloves, you go down that rope. That's the stuff that we did. I mean, we did some pretty high-speed stuff.
Adam Davis: What did it mean to be ready?
Sean Davis: Well, you want to be able to be able to do the job. Like I said, National Guard were thought of as weekend warriors that maybe weren't the soldiers that we they needed to go serve.
We showed them that not only did were we at the level that you needed to go, we were above that level. And so they started giving us higher and more specific training to do different things while we are in, when we got to the theater in Iraq.
Adam Davis: You said a few minutes ago that one of the reasons you wanted to re-enlist was that you had a sense that there might be some things that weren't going to be so great. And you wanted to be able to affect that by being over there. If I heard you right. How did that shake out?
Sean Davis: Well, I thought I would be effective here in Oregon against any anti-Middle-Eastern sentiment with the people who live here. But going to Iraq. So you have to understand, when I went to Haiti, I was just a private and I didn't know anything. I didn't know what language they spoke. I had no idea they were, you know, speaking Creole or French. I didn't know their religion or anything. I knew just enough to fear everybody there because they looked so different than me. So when we went to Haiti it was terrifying for me.
When they told us that we were going to Iraq, I took it upon myself to make sure that my people that are underneath me were not going to be terrified like that. So I started learning Arabic, I read the Qur'an, and I read about the mandate system that kind of chopped the Middle East in pieces and just kind of assigned them governments, and about all their history. One of the first things I did is I went to the bookstore and I bought A Complete Idiot's Guide to Iraq. People made fun of me for carrying that around and reading it while I was on the drill floor. But at the end of the day, they all wanted to know what was in there, because no one had really even heard of that country before.
And so when we would go to chow hall, I would stand in the front of the chow line, and if my guys didn't know the word of the day for that day, they had to go to the end of the line. My Platoon Sergeant saw me do that. So he did it for the platoon, and pretty soon I was doing it for the whole battalion.
So we had to make sure that they knew how to say hello, thank you. And, you know, what's in the bag, where are the bad guys, and stuff like that.
Adam Davis: But that wasn't part of that wasn't part of institutional preparation or readiness? That was something that you had to—
Sean Davis: Not at all. Maybe the squad leaders got a little booklet that gave you Iraqi phrases, but a lot of those Iraqi phrases weren't even the phrases they use in Iraq. It's maybe Egyptian, you know?
So I had to find which dialect they're using and try to learn that for when I was over there. We didn't even have translators. They used me as a translator. I spoke as well as maybe a four-year-old child. It was pretty insane.
Adam Davis: It sounds—your word was insane. It sounds really challenging, especially because you went for principled reasons. And you wanted to have a different experience of where you were then it sounds like you had, when you went over to Haiti, and you talked about fear. Did you feel fear of the people you ended up among?
Sean Davis: Oh, I was afraid every day, and I'll admit that. The guys in my squad or my platoon is like, “you didn't seem like you're scared,” and I was like, “Well, that’s cause I’m in charge.” I couldn't show it.
Of course. Because the people that we were there sent there to protect looked exactly like the people who were shooting at us and mortaring us and blowing us up with IEDs every day. And in some cases they were the same people.
And it's really not their fault, their entire economy collapsed. And so if they get somebody who knocks on the door and says, “All I need you to do is dig a hole and I'll give you $5. You don't have to do anything else. If you don't, then I'm going to hurt you or your family.” You're going to dig a hole. And then the next family, they’re like, “What I need you to do is drop this in the hole.” And then the next one is just “bury the hole.” You know, they're not out there doing it to—
You know, there were people that were upset at us because like an accident will happen and a family member will die, because there were huge bureaucracy. Just the logistics of so many military personnel coming into a war-torn country. You know, a convoy will run over a child and kill it, or we'll be trying to mortar at some bad guys and accidentally kill their livestock, which they depend on. And so, in a certain way, sometimes we were creating our own enemies while we're there. And so you would get people that are upset at us and try to shoot at us, and we'd shoot back to them and kill them. And then their friends and brothers and cousins become more bad guys. And it was like that with the people that we were fighting at least.
Like I said, you go over there and you think, okay, I have an idea of war because I watched movies or I read books, and I'm supposed to be fighting these guys that are wearing a certain uniform, and we have different ideals. And then you get there and no one's wearing any uniforms. You don't know anybody's ideology. And not only that, but now throw like a dozen war orphans, you know, babies without parents, in combat on the battlefield. And every town you go into, people are sniping at you, and you don't know why. It was insane. It was insanity.
I didn't see, from my perspective of being over there, a way out or even a reason for it. You know, I think we're trying to turn the power back on, we had to keep people from price-gouging gasoline. And so if we did certain things. But like the kids, a lot of the kids that we helped get out of bad situations would just join the Iraqi police and get killed, or you know, you drive to your favorite pizza shop—we did this one time. We would go into the green zone. There was this pizza shop. I go, it's a smoking crater, you know, and no one really tells you why that happened. And that was really difficult.
Adam Davis: So it's interesting, because you're talking both about the experience itself and the reasons for the experience. And it sounds like there was a good degree of difficulty, to understate it, with both. I want to ask you just a little bit more about the experience itself, even leaving the reasons aside for a minute. Do you remember when you were first shot at, or when you first shot at someone else?
Sean Davis: Well, the first day that we were in Taji, we got mortared. About, I don't know, maybe 250 feet away from us there was an explosion, and we were brushing our teeth and stuff, and I thought, What the heck? They're doing demolition over there. They're probably, you know, blowing up, they put a road or something. And then another mortar landed closer to us. And I'm like, okay, that was weird. And then the third one, you can hear the whistling of the mortar turning as it's coming through the air. And so at that point we're like, "Somebody's trying to kill us." And my very first thought was, “I don't know why they would want to kill me. They don't know me at all.” Like, why are you doing this? You know, I took it personal.
And so that was really difficult to figure out, but you know, you snap into it because of your training, and all of a sudden you're doing everything. The first time that really struck me was, we got mortared one day, and my unit was the first one to go to somebody’s—a new unit had a platoon formation outside for accountability, and one of the enemy mortars landed in their formation and it killed three people, and it wounded like thirty people, and we're there trying to triage and figure it out. And we had been mortared so many times for the first couple months we were there, the Colonel's like, “You guys go out and find these guys.”
And so we went to a Baathist town and we, just through force and—I mean, there weren't any war crimes. We were aggressive, violent, and angry. And we finally found one of the guys that, he was a cousin and he escaped through this ruin route, and we had found him. And we had leads for another one.
And so I was left with this guy. He had his hands tied behind his back, was on his knees and with a gag, and I—that morning, I was with the people who he killed and the people in pain because of this man. And I wanted to kill him really badly. But I didn't. I really did [want to]. And I think I, you know, I was alone with this guy. My guys were cleaning out a house. I could have killed him. I really could have, I don't think there would have been repercussions. It's harder to not kill sometimes.
Adam Davis: Can I ask why you didn't?
Sean Davis: I think about that. I don't know. I so badly wanted to, I just—there's social norms. You're not supposed to do that. Yeah. I just think that I was trying to hold on to what….
You know when you're going through your drills, you're working it until muscle memory. So you hear somebody shoot at you, your arms are up and you're shooting back already. You're really trying to get rid of the part in your head that tells you not to do these things that we are told you can't do in society. That's why the pop-up targets are shaped like—well, when I first got on, were shaped like Russians with a big red star on them—probably are now again. But so pop-up targets look like silhouettes of Russian soldiers, you know, and you were doing ready ups and were shooting all the time.
And we're trying to kind of squash the, I wouldn't say the decent part, because that job needs to be done so badly, but the more human part of it, just be the soldier. And I didn't want, I wasn't ready to give that person up, you know, wanting to make sure that, uh.... Because I that's why I joined the first place. I thought, maybe I can make a difference.
And I think if other people were there, we could've blew his brains all over the wall and moved on, and we wouldn't have had to deal with it. But I think the guys that I was with, I don't think any of them would have killed him either. I think they're really great people, but we were really angry. I mean, you see the people that he killed and you want that revenge.
Adam Davis: It sounds incredibly psychologically challenging to, on the one hand, be there and to be trained to be ready to kill, to not know where the threat is coming from, and also to have sort of deep human impulses not to do one of the things that you're there to do. How do you think about, now, even from a little distance, how do you think about how all that goes together?
Sean Davis: I honestly try not to think about it. I mean, the VA gives me pills for nightmares. I have a lot of issues with all this stuff. And at first I thought it was because I was being weak. You know, it's hard to admit that we had to do a lot of stuff that regular people in society shouldn't do. It comes out when I write, you know, a lot, but I try not to think about it.
Adam Davis: You said you write a lot. And I know that from some work that Oregon Humanities was lucky to get to support that you've been doing, and I've read your stuff. And writing seems like one of the ways that you've come home and adjusted to coming home. But can I ask you a little bit about either how writing has fit in or just how coming home has worked for you? What's it been like to come home from this experience where, to put it, again, starkly, you talked about brushing your teeth, and, you know, there's brushing your teeth in your bathroom at home, and there's brushing your teeth while mortars getting closer and closer to you. How do you adjust?
Sean Davis: It's tough. People ask me What's war like? And I'll tell them, well, it smelled like diesel fumes, it tasted like cold coffee, and it was very, very boring until it very much wasn't. That's kinda what it was. If I'm next to a truck idling, and it's a diesel truck, I'm right back there in the desert, you know.
I'm hyper-vigilant. Everybody around me is a threat. If something that I see kind of triggers me, and I'm in a restaurant, I count all the people in that restaurant. And then I prioritize which one I'd have to take out first. It's not a pleasant way to live, you know, but it's impossible not to be like that.
Art has really saved my life. I definitely did the writing. I wrote a whole memoir called The Wax Bullet War, and that was a good, and it went across the country. And I did a book tour with it, and talking to complete strangers about the worst times of my life. And somehow that was cathartic. But I also paint and I illustrate. I helped out with an opera that was put on in downtown Portland about war. I do I try to choose as many mediums that I can.
I always say PTSD is like, if you have a spinal injury and you have to learn how to use your legs to walk again. PTSD is you break your emotions, and they’re not working. Right? And you try to use them for something. And all of a sudden something else happens. Your anger is like trying to balance an orange on a toothpick. And then when it falls, it just comes out, and you have to try to figure out how to use all that stuff again. And it's so difficult to do. For me, art is what helped me and saved me. That and having routines. I need to have routines or else, like, I get outside my routine, it's tough for me.
Adam Davis: I want to ask you a little bit about the extent to which you feel a kind of unique bond with other service members. Like, is that, do you feel like there's an experience that, and I haven't served, so I'm coming from outside and my questions are based in large part in ignorance.
Sean Davis: Well, I don't think anybody else has really asked me that before. And I'll tell you, I don't think I have a unique bond with all the other service members, because, just like any other population, there's some assholes who are veterans, you know. There are a lot of people who have completely different political ideology than I do and don't believe in climate change or—in fact, that's kinda like the fault in a lot of the military, who's more of a conservative type person.
I think my special bond is, and this is what I had to learn, was people who experienced trauma. I didn't live through it, and it doesn't have to be a combat veteran, you know?
Adam Davis: So I think I want to ask you if you feel like you have an open question or two, when you think about where the military sits in our culture or where it sits for you? Are there any persistent questions for you that come up?
Sean Davis: So I've said that there's a huge untapped resource in our communities, and that's our combat veterans. If I were going to talk to politicians, which I have talked to some, if they want to tap that resource I would say start something like the Civilian Conservation Corps for combat veterans, or just veterans getting out, because I would say most of the people—not all—they join because they wanted to make a bigger difference in their community, to make our country a better country. We're not doing that by being sent off to wars that that don't have [purpose]. I mean, we are ready to do an incredible difficult job. We understand that when we sign up. But make the sacrifice or the hard work that we put into it worthwhile, you know?
So if we can do something like fund the American Legions to do things in the communities. We tried to do that here with the veterans lottery bill fund. We put a bill together, and we were asking for 5 percent of the lottery funds to go toward veterans issues. And for a certain extent, it worked. We only got 1.5 percent after a couple of years of lobbying. But that money went into creating veterans service officers to help combat veterans get a higher disability rating. And while I believe that is definitely something that needs to happen because, you know, they should be able to live comfortably after they come back and not have to worry about money and everything. But what we're doing essentially is we're taking that money and we're betting on our veterans' disabilities. They're saying, so every $1 that we put in as a state to hire BSO, we're getting $10 of federal money back in the form of that disability check.
What we should be doing is helping out with disabilities, for sure, but what we should be doing, instead of betting on our veterans' disabilities, we should be betting on their capabilities and creating programs for them to give back into the community, because they want to, and not only will they do a great job, but it'll help them in their mindset to be able to be important again and make the country better.
Adam Davis: I think your presence at the American Legion the way you're integrating your military service and your art and your community work, your firefighting like all this stuff that you model by your own commitment it sets a high bar. And I just really want to express my appreciation to you for all of that work and the ways you show up for the communities that you're in.
Sean Davis: I appreciate that. Thank you very much.
Adam Davis: You can find links to our guests' work and photos of their time on tour on our website, oregonhumanities.org, where you'll also find suggested readings related to today's show picked by Oregon Humanities staff, as well as our calendar of events. We'd love to see in person for a Conversation Project, Consider This event, or other programs.
You can support the show by subscribing wherever you get your podcasts or by sharing with a friend. We'd be really grateful. And before we sign off, please consider telling us about your experience with war or how a relationship with someone who has been to war shaped your view on it by emailing us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
While you're there, let us know what else you want to hear on the show and what you think of the show. The Detour is made possible by the National Endowment for the Humanities. I'm Adam Davis. Keiren Bond is our producer. Our editor and engineer is Dave Friedlaender. Our assistant producers are Alexandra Powell Bugden, Karina Briski, and Ben Waterhouse. Thanks for being with us. See you next time.