I'm thinking about the Marines these days, because my friends who are still in the Corps are getting ready to go into action again. I got your jihad right here, motherfucker, I can hear them saying. I know them, I know them as you know someone in the intimacy of fatigue and pride and boredom and isolation. I know that they will go wherever we send them, and that they will do what we tell them, and that some of them will die doing it. We Marines obeyed orders, and we used to wink at each other when we received orders that seemed to make no sense. It is not mine to question why. We just went and did it.
When we were training at The Basic School (something like a college for new Marine officers), we were taken to Gettysburg to see the battlefield. The only part of the battle we were made to walk was Pickett's Charge. We stood abreast of each other, a hundred bald and swaggering young men in a line. We left the tree line and walked through a huge open field that felt bigger with every step and sloped upward toward a ridge guarded by the black cannons of the Union artillery.
It took a long time to cross that field, and by the halfway point we'd stopped the catcalling and playacting ("I'm hit, Scarlett!"). Thousands had died on the ground below our feet. By the time we reached the top, we'd been sobered by the foolishness, the courage and the awesome failure. "This is what you've got to be able to do," one of our instructors said. "You've got to charge when they say charge, devil dog. And some of you are going to be the ones giving the order. Gut it up, Marines!"
They'll do whatever we tell them to do. They'll drop out of airplanes into the rough highlands of Afghanistan if that's what we want. They'll fight door to door in Kabul or Baghdad or Damascus--whatever. Doesn't matter. They are aware that millions of their countrymen are angry and that it is their job to be the embodiment of that anger. In that first flush of grief and sentimentalism and hubris, they will want to be the first ones on the ground, locked and loaded. They will face death (and all of my Marine friends have seen men die, that's nothing new) believing that they are doing what we wish we could do for ourselves, a thing only they can do, a thing they vowed to do. They will take comfort and strength from this.
But there will be some winking. You won't see it on CNN because the Marines who talk to television cameras know the drill: We're proud to be here, we're ready, God bless America, I've got a special delivery for Mr. bin Laden. And it won't matter if they're ready or not. There will be Marines moving to the sound of the guns, prepared to die, committing great acts of courage, who might have counseled a different course of action had anyone asked. But no one will ask, and they won't speak up. It is not mine to question why.