HELMAND PROVINCE, AFGHANISTAN
SANGIN DISTRICT, Helmand province, Afghanistan - In fairy tales, it’s the wicked witch who desperately wants a pair of shiny shoes or the brutish baron of some dark and spooky tower who really just needs a hug. In romantic comedies, it’s the stuck up frat boy who belittles the scrawny underdog and his goofy cadre of friends in front of the dream girl.
This individual carries a number of names, from villain to foe - it’s the nemesis with a million faces or the shadowy figure hiding in the alleys of the mind and riding on the back of one’s thoughts. It is the enemy.
Out here in the knee-deep “moon” dust of the Sangin District, the enemy is often formless, and faceless. For a squad of Marine infantrymen patrolling small patches of land teaming with life and color, known as the green zone, an area both beautiful and exceedingly dangerous, it’s a violent phantom whose face is rarely seen.
In today’s war, Marine and coalition forces are required to exhibit a level of restraint rarely seen on the battlefield, but in order to succeed in their mission, they must do more than restrain. Marines and sailors build rapport with the local populace on an individual level. They learn names and histories, forge bonds and after enough time and shared hardship – friendships.
They empathize and connect, but in some ways this is nothing new. For men at war, there are always questions they ask themselves, and at times, one another.
Who are these men we’re fighting? What drives them? What makes them want to do us harm? Do they have a family? Will they be missed?
“My very first challenge with being a Marine in the infantry was when we did a [Battle Damage Assessment] on a target that was killed,” said Sgt. Daniel Pluth, from San Marcos, Texas, now on his fourth deployment where he serves with 1st Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment. “I got to talking with someone and it popped into my mind; that guy, what was he doing a few days before that? What was he doing ten minutes before? Was he drinking tea? Twiddling his thumbs waiting for us to show up?”
For Marines like Pluth who have carried the brunt of the war effort, from Operation Phantom Fury in 2004, when he took part in the push to take Fallujah, Iraq, to the helicopter-borne insertion into the insurgent held city of Marjah, Afghanistan, during Operation Moshtarak on his last deployment with 1/6. The nagging of his conscience has caused his thoughts to wander to the men he and his peers are called to fight.
“I’ve talked to others about not knowing who these men we’re fighting are, and wanting to know what they did,” explained Pluth, a 2003 graduate El Capitan High School of Lakeside, Calif. “Maybe it’s just one of my things, but I’d really like to try to understand where the thought comes from. Why are you going to put that [bomb] in the road, to kill me? Is that it; is that your only answer? But, what if his answer is, I’m doing it so they don’t die; my family, my children. That’s something I would do for my family, if I was stuck in that situation.”
The thought of a warrior with a conscience may seem like an overused cliché. In a war with no clear line in the sand dividing combatants from civilians, and where success depends heavily on the support of the local populace, it may prove instrumental, not only to the mission, but to the clarity of conscience for Marines and sailors returning home after a decade of war.
“The significance of empathy [in combat] is you then begin to put a face to the war and you’re not just going out and hunting after somebody,” explained Navy Lt. Nathan Rice, a chaplain with 1st Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment, from Katy, Texas. “You’re actually thinking; that is someone’s son, someone’s child. The other side of it is, you also have to protect yourself. I think the importance of empathy is you begin to understand your actions in regard to the mission at hand. Not to question it, but to help retain your humanity while at war.”
“A lot of that is getting to understand the brutality of war,” said Rice whose role within the battalion is to offer guidance, both spiritual and moral to Marines and sailors in need.
“It’s almost like a necessary evil, but you have to remind [Marines] that this is what we’re called to do,” explained Rice, who worked as a history teacher at Katy High School, before pursuing his commission as an officer in the Navy
“You have to take into account that you’re doing what you’re commanded to do…and you’re protecting your brother, that guy next to you,” said Rice. “If you have someone shooting at you the natural response and what we want you to do is shoot back, but you also have to understand the humanity of it. That’s why the empathy is there; you have to understand your actions.”
Though the moral strain can at times seem too much to bear, and one’s inner monologue so littered with doubt that peace of mind seems as hard to attain as regaining one’s lost innocence, that voice can be what is most needed to stay both moral and sane.
Conscience, explained Rice, and a Marine or sailor’s ability to empathize, not only with his brothers in arms, but those they meet on the battlefield can be their saving grace.
“Conscience plays heavy in war. [Service members] get back home after the war and they kind of close up,” said Rice, explaining how Marines within the battalion have dealt with the death of friends in combat. “I spend a lot of time dealing with operational stress. The first [casualties] we had, my job was limited because the Marines were already doing it - talking among one another. They were opening up and talking, they truly were feeling like brothers, sharing how they felt. To come to peace with yourself you have to deal with it – you can’t just bottle it up.”
Like those heroes and villains in fairy tales, the impact Marines and their enemies have on one another goes far beyond the physical. The marks left on flesh are no less deep than those left on the mind, but by carrying the heavy moral weight of one’s conscience, service members can grow from their experiences at war, rather than being haunted by its memory.
Editor’s note: First Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment, is currently assigned to Regimental Combat Team 8, 2nd Marine Division (Forward), which heads Task Force Leatherneck. The task force serves as the ground combat element of Regional Command (Southwest) and works in partnership with the Afghanistan National Security Forces and the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan to conduct counterinsurgency operations. The unit is dedicated to securing the Afghan people, defeating insurgent forces, and enabling the ANSF assumption of security responsibilities within its operations in order to support the expansion of stability, development and legitimate governance.
||HELMAND PROVINCE, AF
This work, Empathy & War: Fighting an enemy, fighting to understand the ‘enemy’, by James Clark, identified by DVIDS, is free of known copyright restrictions under U.S. copyright law.