66. Love

Love

This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.

John 15:13

Staff Sergeant Dunning Died. 

Second platoon found an IED in the green zone on a road between Habib and Griffin and after setting up a cordon, they called EOD to take care of it. When Staff Sergeant Dunning arrived, he approached the IED, calling for everyone to take cover while he worked. This bomb, however, was rigged to explode not only when stepped on, but also when disturbed by anyone attempting to disarm it. 

I hung my head when I heard the news. Another good Marine, gone. I racked my brain, trying to recall images of him. Only a few, faint snapshots popped in my mind from our training in Mojave Viper. He helped prepare us for the IED threat we now faced. 

I remember a calm man, quiet in his confidence, humble in his approach to training us, always on the lookout to better our ability to safely navigate the most common source of death or dismemberment in Afghanistan. These qualities were so potent that I gathered them at a distance, from only a few, fleeting memories of him. We knew that he cared about us, that he loved us, that he would die for us. And on October 27, 2011, he did.

Other bombs went off in the following week. On October 30th a loud but distant explosion jolted us as we lounged in our hooch. Moments later, a voice on the radio said, “Mobile got hit by an IED.” We were relieved to hear a vehicle got hit and soon discovered that the explosion mangled the MRAP’s hood and front tires, only injuring the vehicle commander’s leg. On November 4th, while standing watch on our southern post, I was startled by another blast from further south down the riverbed leading to Panda Ridge. While en route to resupply us, Mobile’s second vehicle set one off. Thankfully the mine roller served its purpose by taking the hit without any damage to the vehicle or personnel.

Later that day, the real bombshell hit us. Panda Ridge would be no more. As part of the Obama administration’s strategic goals to downsize our presence in Afghanistan, fringe patrol bases in rural nowhere such as ours were the first to go. 

The news knocked the wind out of me and my virgin understanding of the war vanished. Up until that point I never questioned Uncle Sam’s cause. Bad people lived here. They hate America, freedom, democracy, equality and virtually every good modern Western value. They idolize Hitler, murder indiscriminately, orchestrated the atrocities of 9/11 and countless other acts of terror we will never see nor hear of. They send their young to their deaths, subjugate women, force innocents to do their dirty work and promote suicide for their wicked cause as the highest honor. They are infected with radical, distorted beliefs of their god, the font from which all their abhorrent sins flow. 

We are here to put an end to this, to take the fight to the enemy and to promote flourishing in the region by empowering the Afghani Government and protecting its people. Our presence at Panda Ridge has played a critical role in this mission. We have made a direct, meaningful and lasting impact in Musa ‘Qala, and therefore the work done, money spent, and more importantly, lives lost in gaining this ground was worth the sacrifice… right?

Our orders to leave slapped a big fat question mark at the end of everything we’d done thus far. I felt violated… used… abused by the great Uncle I thought I knew so well. Why were we even here? What the hell was the point? Sure we would have to leave eventually, but why now? Why in this way? I knew that within a single day of our departure Panda would be stripped to literally nothing. Everything would continue as if we were never here.

I was stuck in the morass of a war with no objective, no end date and no clear-cut conditions for victory. Without a destination, the journey means nothing. The US government had no destination. The emperor had no clothes. Uncle Sam was a pitiful creep, using his family for his own pleasure and gain. We were all pawns, fighting and dying for nothing. 

I thought of Corporal Jones,1 Lance Corporal Schmidt,2 and now Staff Sergeant Dunning. Were their sacrifices in vain? According to our governments mismanagement of the war, yes. The White House’s irresponsibility, lack of clear direction and increasingly stringent rules of engagement that hamstrung our ability to perform our duties rendered all our efforts useless. If a man is forced to march on a road to nowhere and dies on his journey, his life was spent in vain. I was on a mission to nowhere.

A vain effort though it may be, I was here. I needed to find the why that could sustain any how. Then it hit me. 

Brotherhood. 

Norm “Hoot” Hooten, a Delta Force operator who served in The Battle of Mogadishu and is featured in the movie/book Black Hawk Down said it best. “When I go home people’ll ask me, ‘Hey Hoot, why do you do it man? What, you some kinda war junkie?’ You know what I’ll say? I won’t say a goddamn word. Why? They won’t understand. They won’t understand why we do it. They won’t understand that it’s about the men next to you, and that’s it. That’s all it is… Once that first bullet goes past your head, politics and all that shit just goes right out the window.”

Fuck the government. Fuck politics. I now know my why.

Nothing else mattered. We fight and die for each other. For this reason, nothing is without meaning. Why? Because our efforts are fueled by love. And love in its purest sense can only be expressed towards others.

Governments cannot be loved, religion cannot be loved, social movements cannot be loved, agendas cannot be loved, but a person can be loved. The man or woman beside us can be loved. And this love, the foregoing of personal safety, desires, needs or wants for the benefit of others, will always have meaning. Sacrificing everything for an ideology is chaff, but one wink shared with another endures forever. 

“If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing. Love is patient, and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things; endures all things. Love never ends… So now faith, hope and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love. 3

I always wished that I could offer Staff Sergeant Dunning more than my solemn silence. He deserved mourning, ceremonies, celebrations and stories of the laughs and tears shared with him. Although many were able to give him these, I had no such offerings. I didn’t know him.

I did, however, remember him. And now, many years later, I can tell the world about a man who swallowed up death to give others life. I can proclaim a great salvation he brought to those who called upon his name through the shedding of his own blood. I can bear witness to the glorious submission he embodied when he willingly shouldered the burden that only he could bear, and in so doing, bring life to those who trusted in him.

This is the love that stops our feet, opens our eyes and shuts our mouths, the love that we pay to see in our movies and read about in our books, the love that we are compelled to remember, to venerate, to embody, to strive towards and put our faith in. This is the love that is eternal, the love that is meaning itself, the why that can bear any how.4 Love is the greatest of all gifts and giving any part of us to another is love. But he gave us all of himself, the love above all love.

  1. See post: I Could Never Pray That Prayer
  2. See posts 59, 60, and 61.
  3. 1 Corinthians 13:1-8a, 13
  4. A paraphrase of the quote from Friedrich Nietzsche’s book Twilight of the Idols: “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.”

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