"As I mused, the fire burned"

Reflection on life as a person of faith.

“The Blue Cascade”, a reflection on the impact of war

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I just finished reading a fascinating book (The Blue Cascade: A Memoir of Life After War, Mike Scotti, Grand Central Publishing, 2012 in the EPL). Scotti served as a US Marine through a tour in Iraq and one in Afghanistan, working as an artillery liaison officer (what I think we would call a FOO in Canada). It’s a moving and powerful book documenting Scotti’s recovery from what sounded like severe PTSD. He also produced a movie, Severe Clear (available on Netflix) that is a compilation of his personal video of the battle space.

Starting with the movie…there are very few books or films I’ve encountered that really give a perspective into the actual fog of war. Band of Brothers and the Pacific come close, but are still somewhat contrived. In Scotti’s film there are a couple of sequences where he wedged the camera into a space in the command vehicle and let the tape roll in the middle of combat sequences. After reading the book, I better understand how tense some of those situations really were, with numerous danger close fire missions and Scotti’s vehicle coming under direct fire a number of times. Those video sequences are the best window into the reality of close combat.

I’ve not had a chance to re-watch the movie after reading the book to see if there is video of a friendly fire incident. Scotti hears a call on the radio net about a US unit under fire from their artillery (what we would politely call a ‘blue on blue’ incident). Scotti believes for a short time that he was the one who had made an error and called in the fire mission on US troops. He immediately called a cease-fire on the radio net, and discovered that it was a different liaison officer calling in artillery in Scotti’s area of operations. If that’s in the video it would be very interesting to review.

The book nicely compliments the narrative of the film and fills in some of the gaps, and in particular the personal impact certain events had on Scotti.

A couple of direct quotations.

Scotti receives a decoration for his performance in battle. He writes about what a decoration really means to him as a soldier – something I’ve written and spoken about previously.

To my mind, all the citation really said was that a Marine had fought the way he was supposed to fight in combat, regardless of the circumstances. It said that a Marine had done his job. It didn’t say anything about governments, politics, oil, the United Nations, the CIA, or intelligence that pointed to weapons of mass destruction. (p. 56)

That frames my understanding of a soldier’s view of valour awards. While the greater culture sees these as the marks of a hero (a word a soldier is highly suspicious of), the soldier sees this as a confirmation that he has done his duty. This is why I think the highest compliment one can pay to a soldier is to say, “she did her duty”.

On the following page (57) this comment about careerism in the USMC:

It felt good to know that I would be getting out soon. I would never have to kiss a higher-ranking officer’s ass to further my own career. Or be stuck in a situation where someone above me had made a decision that looked good politically, but that also screwed over everybody in the unit below the rank of captain. I saw this happen sometimes in other units — when majors and colonels are scrambling for the ever smaller number of spots at the top of the pyramid. All I cared about was that the Marines under my command were well trained and that I’d provided them with every tool possible to help them stay alive in combat. Nothing else mattered.

This rings so true from my own service. I can recall when I took over as the chief engineer on a fighter squadron, making a similar promise to the 170 or so people in my care. That we would be the best combat-focused maintenance unit in the Air Force, and that I would never sacrifice any of them to forward my career. That many of those soldiers did not believe me at first was a sad statement about the number of careerist people who had preceded me.

On the impact of quiet time for a veteran (p. 102):

But what I didn’t realize [on quitting his job as a trader] was that without something like a steady job to absorb the energy, I would be left alone much of the time. Alone time for a veteran who is struggling becomes dwell time. Dwelling on the past. Dwelling on the reasons or the situations or the circumstances. And the dwelling begins to slowly solidify. Transforming itself. Feeding and sucking on your energy. Changing your brain chemistry. Your beliefs. Your perspective. Turning the world the same ashen color as the eyes of the dead children along the road.

On how he began to perceive himself while trying to re-integrate with a new career (113-114) and actively considering suicide:

“Check firing! Check firing! Check firing!” And the voices seemed to bleed over from the spirit world to the world next to that cold brick wall and the neighbor that lived above who’d snorted too much blow and decided to rearrange his furniture. And the confusion and doubt of whether it had actually happened or had been another bad dream and I had actually reversed the numbers on the map by mistake [speaking of the friendly fire incident]. And that doubt and the wondering and the adrenaline in the pale hollow arctic desert that was becoming my life. Where sleep had been the only thing that I had left — but now they’d taken even that…

Mostly sober now but head pounding and throbbing and I was the ashes that were left at the end. The last few warm sips of beer at the bottom of the bottle. The best part of me — the prime — had already passed. The clarity gone. And the meaning and the days fat with sunshine. Things were on the downward slope but I couldn’t remember the exact moment when they had shifted quietly from the up to the down.

A reflection on leadership between business and the military (and I live this reality every day in my present life, pp. 276-278):

When things like that happen [mass layoffs], the difference between the resilience in morale of people who are fighting for a cause and those who are working for a large paycheck becomes apparent. Those who are united for a cause — for a mission — become stronger and more powerful. They dig deep inside themselves, and they persevere.

But those whose motivations are less heroic become frozen with fear. Unit effectiveness drops. Productivity drops. And the wrath continues and feeds on the fear, whether it’s a war being fought by mercenaries who don’t believe in it or traders and salespeople who say things like “I’d sell by kids for a twenty-percent return” and are only half joking. …

“You know what’s missing from Wall Street, brother?” I said to Kevin one day. “Trust. Leadership. Unselfishness. On the Street, fear, jealousy, greed and suspicion are the only things that matter. … People here have this ‘I’m watching my own ass’ mind-set. … With a system like that, how the hell are you supposed to rely on each other and create a real team? …

Then my thoughts drifted off to the Marine Corps leadership training we’d received as enlisted recruits and officer candidates — when our young minds had learned the importance of values like honor, courage, and commitment. I never realized how valuable those things were — and how important they were to me personally — until I started spending my life in a place that was completely lacking in all of them.

Here, even basic leadership skills were absent. Simple things like setting an example. Developing a sense of responsibility among your subordinates. Knowing your people and looking out for their welfare. These are the things that build great organizations, that make people want to work harder for the cause and not think twice about it.

That about sums it up — my post-uniform experience of much I’ve experienced. Leadership, in the truest sense of the word, is an exception, and a rare exception. I can’t actually remember the last time I was inspired by a leader…

The things that should be so apparent, like making decisions that have huge impact on your subordinates without even consulting them beforehand. Or even worse, consulting them beforehand on something key (like the design of an office), settling on that design and then radically changing it without telling anyone.

The Blue Cascade – highly recommended for anyone who wants some insight into the mind of a veteran of combat, and the differences between leadership in uniform and out.


Written by sameo416

September 24, 2014 at 10:50 am

Posted in Uncategorized

One Response

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  1. […] I’ve written several times about the soldier’s perspective on the concept of a ‘hero’. Most soldiers I know are distrustful of the term. A hero, to a soldier, is the person who takes huge risks for the purpose of being recognized. That is, a person who places their individual wants and desires above those of their comrades. That is fundamentally antithetical to the ethos of the soldier. […]

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