Memory under fire

2016-01-09

in Bombs and rockets, Books and literature, Psychology

At company headquarters the captain had no further instructions for me — just settle in for the night and be ready to move in the morning — so I returned to the platoon. By now, the Marines had hacked sleeping holes from the soft dirt and had begun the daily routine of security, cleaning weapons, eating, cleaning feet, and sleeping.

And storytelling. Every fight is refought afterward. Sometimes quietly, sometimes boisterously; sometimes with laughs, sometimes with tears. The telling and retelling are important. Platoons have institutional memory. They learn, and they change. Most of that learning happens after a firefight. Some officers squelched the stories, considering them unprofessional and distracting. I encouraged them, as psychological unburdening and as improvised classrooms where we sharpened our blades for the next fight.

But something about the retelling unnerved me, too. Faith in our senses is what anchors us to sanity. Once, in college, I went cross-country skiing during a snowstorm. As I crossed an open meadow, the blanket of snow on the ground merged with the snow falling from the sky. With no horizon and no depth perception, I got vertigo. A twig poking through the snow near my feet looked the same as another skier hundreds of yards away. My head spun, and I had to sit down.

Combat is a form of vertigo. I was trained to thrive on chaos, but nothing prepared me for the fear of doubting my own senses. Frequently, I found that my memory of a firefight was just that — mine. Afterward, five Marines told five different stories. I remembered turning left off the dirt road onto a paved street running west through Al Gharraf. I saw fire coming from buildings to the right and remembered a drag race of four or five kilometers out to the highway. That was my memory, my accepted truth of what had happened.

But the map showed the distance was only about fifteen hundred meters, less than half of what I’d estimated. Some in the platoon remembered armed men standing to our left as we made the turn; I never saw them. The domed mosque was burned into my memory, but only Colbert and Wright could remember seeing it as I described it. Person was adamant that we had driven across a bridge during our sprint to the highway. Not one other person in the platoon remembered a bridge, but there it was on the map.

Fick, Nathaniel. One Bullet Away: The Making of a Marine Officer. Houghton Mifflin; Boston. 2005. p. 219 (hardcover)

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