Tuesday, October 13, 2009




Tonight I help my son, Luke, prepare for combat in Afghanistan. He asks for the war paint. I take out my old jar and try to open it for him. The lid has rusted tight; hasn’t been used in such a long time. I no longer have the hand-strength to twist the lid off. He does.

As my son applies the green and black pigment to his forehead, and under his eyes, and on his cheeks, I study an apparition of my younger self as I made my own brave preparations for what was to come. So many years ago, and now, the night before battle, the memory returns in the body of my own child. I know he will be courageous and resourceful, for that is how he was raised by me, and trained by the Corps. Will it be enough? Will it give him the edge? Will he fight well? Will he hesitate at a life-and-death moment?

Luke is a liberal and a democrat, something of an anomaly among the rank-and-file of the Corps. He considers things deeply. How will he reconcile his humanistic instincts with the brutal demands of his profession?

I seek reconciliation of his dilemma, and solace for my suffering, in scripture.

At the climatic engagement of the Mahabharata, Arjuna, the combat commander of the Pandava nation, is driven by chariot to Kurukshetra, the sacred field, between the two armies. He is there to blow the war horn that will signal the beginning of the mêlée. Arjuna looks upon his enemies, rank upon rank of former friends, teachers, and even relatives from within his own family. He envisions the internecine carnage to come, the massacre that he himself will commence with the sounding of the great horn. He is overcome with the conflict between his compassion for humanity and his duty as a warrior.

Unwilling to initiate the slaughter, Arjuna climbs from the chariot and throws himself to the ground. The two armies are frozen in place. The battle, constrained by the formal conventions of the time, cannot begin until the horn is blown. From both armies, combatants shout for Arjuna to give the signal. He ignores the shouts.

Arjuna’s charioteer, a kinsman by the name of Krishna (yes, that Krishna) joins him. Krishna asks the reason for Arjuna’s distress.

"I see my kinsmen so willing to shed their common blood. My limbs fail. My mouth is dry. A shudder shakes my body. My bow, Gandiva, slips from my hand. A fever burns my skin. I can hardly stand. My mind is spinning. Nothing but sorrow and evil can come from this war. I am confused and lost. I no longer see what is right. Show me what is best. I will be your student. Please instruct me and guide me."

Over the next several hours, as the martial hordes of two nations wait in the hot sun, Krishna speaks quietly to Arjuna. Krishna’s discourse, of course, is the crown jewel of Indian scripture, the Bhagavad-Gita, the Song of God. The Gita explicates the many aspects of Dharma, correct and conscious living, but key is Krishna’s charge to understand, accept, and act on Arjuna’s duty as a warrior for righteousness. Upon the conclusion of Krishna’s sermon, Arjuna ascends the chariot, blows the horn, and launches the war.

Arjuna’s predicament is also my own. As a warrior, and as a yogi, my duty to country and Corps (not necessarily in that order) stands in stark contrast with my commitment to love, gentility, and the other elements of my spiritual aspiration.

Knowing that Luke’s deployment to the Afghan conflict was imminent, I ask Swami Nityanand for his counsel. Nityanand is not my guru, and I offer no opinion as to his legitimacy or competence, but he treated me with kindness and respect, so I ask him for a blessing for my son and any advice he can offer. Nityanand thinks for a few minutes, and says these words:

“Blessings on your son. Tell him to do his duty. But whenever he can, tell him to see God in the innocent people he will meet and treat them with great kindness. That way he will preserve his soul and return with the knowledge that Dharma has prevailed in him.”

Nityanand says it better, but that’s the essential message I pass along to Luke.

Later, I overhear Luke talking to his men.

“You will be in shape before we deploy, especially your cardiovascular conditioning. You will run until you go blind or you will get my boot up your ass. You will not get anybody knocked up. You will not run off and get married between now and spin-up. And one more thing . . . when we get over there you will treat the Afghan people with respect and kindness. You will be a credit to the Marine Corps and to yourself. You hear me, Marines?”

I marvel. My little boy, my Arjuna, is commanding a fire team of warriors. Their lives are in his hands; and his, in theirs. How can I let him go? How can I hold him back? How will I go on living if he . . . . no, put that terror back in its dark little box and shove it deep into a far corner where I can pretend it isn’t there.

War paint complete. He is fierce and frightening. Then he winks at me and mugs with his tongue out the side of his mouth. I have to laugh. Killer and clown. My only son.

I want him to listen to me. Wire it tight. Watch your six. Think. Keep your eyes moving. Think. Use every piece of cover. Think. The ground is your best friend. Be silent. Use the darkness. Think.

“Thanks, sir, all good advice.” He humors me. Pops. Old Corps. Dad.

His men are strutting young roosters. I love them. I’m terrified for them.

“We’re the professionals, sir. We have stuff you never dreamed of. Don’t worry, we’ll all come home, and bring Corporal Jenkins with us. Hey, assholes, mount up! There’s beers to drink and women to woo! Let’s go see the Elephant! OoRah!”

OoRah. Whatever the hell that means.

I watch them drive away in my son’s beat up Camry.

Just me now.


Drifting away into the remembrance of my own initiation.

Nineteen Sixty-Six.

The year I went to see the same damned Elephant.


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