From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered;
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he today that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother.
—William Shakespeare, Henry V
Is the Marine Corps the last bastion of manhood in American society? In this post-Vietnam era, it often seems that the military and the manly qualities it stands upon—like honor, courage, brotherhood, and commitment—have been relegated to the “glory” days of a patriarchal past. So is there anything more for a young man to learn from America’s proudest few? Nathaniel Fick thinks so. And this Gen-X Ivy League Marine Corps officer put his life on the line to find out.
Lieutenant Fick is the author of One Bullet Away: The Making of a Marine Officer, the bestselling account of his own modern-day hero’s journey from the halls of Dartmouth University through grueling Marine Officer Candidates School (OCS) to the combat zones of Afghanistan and Iraq. There he led teams of Recon Marines—the toughest and most highly trained in the corps—on some of the most challenging missions the military has to offer. Along the way, he learned some hard lessons about the forgotten qualities of manhood that have been cornerstones of the military culture throughout history … and became a man.
“The Marines will teach you everything I love you too much to teach you,” were the words Fick’s father said to him on the day that he headed off to OCS between his junior and senior years at Dartmouth College. He had made the decision to join the Marines for reasons different from what one might expect: He was in search of an adventure that couldn’t be found anywhere else in our postmodern culture. “Dartmouth encouraged deviation from the trampled path,” Fick writes, “but only to join organizations like the Peace Corps or Teach for America. I wanted something more transformative. Something that might kill me—or leave me better, stronger, more capable. I wanted to be a warrior.” For Fick and many of his military peers, “becoming a Marine was not about money for graduate school or learning a skill; it was a rite of passage in a society becoming so soft and homogenized that the very concept was often sneered at.”
What may be most impressive about the Marines, and the military in general, is the extraordinary bravery, selflessness, and camaraderie brought out in soldiers by the overwhelming atmosphere of combat, where every action and decision has potentially fatal consequences—and the training that prepares them for it. Fick and his fellow Marines found out firsthand what it takes to cultivate these virtues during OCS in Quantico, Virginia, the gauntlet through which each of them had to pass before becoming an officer. “Marine training is essentially a psychological battle against the instinct for self-preservation.” Aspiring Marines are made to run hundreds of miles wearing full combat gear in the hot southern sun, do thousands of push-ups to the point of vomiting and collapse, endure weekly conditioning sessions in the tear-gas chamber, and carry out countless seemingly trivial drills like polishing buttons on their uniforms and making sure that all of their underwear is folded just right. All of this is intended not simply to train them in the skills necessary for combat but to break down their defiant independence and build a deep, indomitable strength both within and between them.
In his book, Fick describes his response to the absolute challenge presented at OCS:
I wanted to be there, and I tried hard. For the first time in my life, desire and effort wouldn’t be enough. I was learning that in the Marines, the only easy day was yesterday. Success the day before meant nothing, and tomorrow might never happen. I woke up each morning at Quantico wondering whether I’d still be there that night.
As the training intensified, Fick came to the point where he had only two choices: submit completely to the challenge before him or “ring the bell,” the symbolic Marine ritual for dropping out. Fick was among the two-thirds in his class who rose up and persevered. He describes the transformation and the unity that resulted from this choice:
The future disappeared, and my selfish motives went with it. I existed only in the present. The one thing keeping me going was being part of a group, knowing each mistake made my comrades a little weaker. Group punishment, shunned in most of American society, was a staple at OCS. Platoons fight as groups. They live or die as groups. So we were disciplined as a group.
It wasn’t until four years later, when Fick saw his first heavy combat during the invasion of Iraq, that he and his platoon of twenty-two Recon Marines felt the true value of their training. Fick’s platoon, code-named “Hitman Two,” was traveling through one of the many enemy-occupied towns en route to Baghdad when they found themselves in the middle of an ambush. Careening through bullet-infested streets in poorly armored Humvees and taking heavy fire from the fedayeen (resistance fighters) lining their route, Fick found himself completely disoriented:
Sensory overload paralyzed me. I saw mud buildings set many meters back from the road. Beyond the turn, the buildings were concrete and seemed to tower above the road on both sides, trapping us in an urban canyon. Flashes of incoming fire surrounded us, but I didn’t hear it, and I couldn’t tell whether my platoon was shooting back. There was no fear, but no bravado either. I felt nothing. I was a passive observer watching this ambush unfold on a movie screen.
When Gunny Wynn yanked the wheel straight, I snapped back to the present. My hearing returned all at once: roaring machine guns, Humvee engine shrieking. I saw the street, the fedayeen positions, and my platoon in a fight. Fire poured from the buildings on both sides. Wisps of smoke swirled in the wake of each bullet. We drag-raced down the street, but it felt like a crawl. I lifted off my seat as we crashed through potholes and over missing slabs of pavement. Colbert darted left around a wrecked car smoking in the middle of the road. Wynn followed, and we jumped the median, swerved past a light pole, and picked up speed. Muddy water and sewage sprayed in rooster tails from the Humvees’ tires.
“This is Hitman Two, in contact. Taking small arms, left and right. We’re engaging.” I couldn’t even see the rest of the battalion ahead of us.
“Roger, Two,” headquarters replied. “We took some on our way through, too. Just keep pushing.”
Survival and command tugged me in different directions. A normal human survival reaction would be to curl up on the Humvee floorboards and close my eyes. This is precisely the reaction Marine Corps training is designed to overcome. And it worked. After the initial shock of the ambush, I felt calm and completely self-possessed. The Marines looked the same. They were aiming their shots, calling out targets, and moving as one.