The Oaths We Keep

Jason Arment

When I first joined the Marine Corps, I'd thought people wouldn't cling to religion. Its cumbersome artifice struggled to fit into a Machine Gunner's tripod bag, although the Christian soldier delusion made rifles lighter for some. I'd already left religion, only participating in the reactionary sense; as with most vaguely Judeo-Christian persons, I only prayed when it suited. I might not have been a summer soldier—I joined during the War on Terror—but when it came to spirituality I was little more than a passive observer.

So when the Drill Instructor first called for everyone to line-up according to their religion, shouting out their names in an effort to make us understand they were about to “turn us to” worship for the Sunday afternoon, I was confused. Up until that point the Corps had seized control of our lives, and we'd only been turned to—allowed autonomy in striving toward a common goal—when it had been time to clean weapons and the Drill Instructors had grown weary of watching us fiddle around with our cleaning gear.

When we'd arrived, all of our hair had been buzzed off. This happened right after we surrendered our personal belongings, and just before we turned in our clothes. Everything we'd worn and brought with us fit in a small cardboard box with our name, social security number, and platoon of origin.

My platoon, 3111, had initially been a ghost platoon: an anomaly created by logistical errors in the United States Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego's receiving program. Out of the seven who were the first of 3111, I was one of two to make it through to be reunited with the brown box full of the remnants of our former life. The rest either washed out, or were “dropped” to start training over with different platoons.

Whoever they prayed to had failed them. But then again, most Recruits only went to what was universally called Sunday Service to get away from our Drill Instructors. Most of the other platoons had primarily Caucasian D.I.s, with blonde hair, blue eyes, and bulging muscles; Mike series D.I.s, however, were not. I thought that was why some of them acted like they had something to prove. But it wasn't that at all, and the moment I realized they were consumed by the Corps, regardless of race, it became apparent what boot camp was all about.

The D.I.s were selling something. Every time they paced the floor, whip-cord muscled arms straining, eyes rolling, grunting, screaming—convincing us. Boot camp wasn't the obstacle courses, it wasn't even learning how to kill. The D.I.s had one job, getting in our heads.

The Corps told Marines about their new lives:

Enlistment Oath

I do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. So help me God.

The United States Marine Corps Rifleman's Creed

This is my rifle. There are many like it, but this one is mine.

My rifle is my best friend. It is my life. I must master it as I must master my life. Without me, my rifle is useless. Without my rifle, I am useless. I must fire my rifle true. I must shoot straighter than my enemy who is trying to kill me. I must shoot him before he shoots me. I will...

My rifle and I know that what counts in war is not the rounds we fire, the noise of our burst, nor the smoke we make. We know that it is the hits that count. We will hit...

My rifle is human, even as I, because it is my life. Thus, I will learn it as a brother. I will learn its weaknesses, its strength, its parts, its accessories, its sights and its barrel. I will keep my rifle clean and ready, even as I am clean and ready. We will become part of each other. We will...

Before God, I swear this creed. My rifle and I are the defenders of my country. We are the masters of our enemy. We are the saviors of my life.

So be it, until victory is America's and there is no enemy, but peace!

The Mission of a Marine Corps Rifle Squad

To locate, close with and destroy the enemy by fire and maneuver, and to repel the enemy's assault by fire and close combat.

United States Marine Corps Machine Gunners Creed

We will cut our enemies down in droves. Our fires will be the substance of their nightmares. We will protect our brothers. The fields of the dead shall serve as evidence of our passing.

And if Recruits wanted to eat food at the chow hall, the only place food was allowed, they had to scream “KILL!” over and over again at the top of their lungs. KILL acted as many things besides a dinner bell. Much of the Marine Corps required KILL as an affirmative response. KILL could also be used as a greeting when coupled with a head nod. KILL was the word companies of Marines shouted at their command when they knew they were supposed to say something, but didn't know what.

On the steps of the School of Infantry's Bravo Company


Blood made the grass grow.

But this was all before we struck real deals with each other, none of which involved God.

“I get hit by a sniper, you drag me to cover. I'll drag you to cover if you go down. Don't wait for someone to tell you what to do. I'm not sure he knows what he's doing leading the squad.”

“Baby, what do you mean you're going to hang out with a couple of guys? Are they friends of yours? What time is it there? Is it smart to be driving after bar close?”

“What should we do if Prockop gets someone killed?”

“Jesus. You really think the rest of the squad would freeze up? You better come for me, too!”

“Oh, they're just some friends of mine. Listen, I've got to let you go.”

“If he gets anyone killed on a patrol like we had tonight, just stay back. I'm going to take care of him. We can cover-up anything, out there.”

Although many of our contrivances were born of bleak desperation, little was more desolate than my prayers. I reckoned myself abandoned by both God and Country. Unwilling to pray to those who abandoned me, I gritted my teeth and kept my head down. Many days I didn't speak. There wasn't anything to say. The invasion, and subsequent occupation, had destroyed what had once been called Iraq.

The loose coalition of peoples who made up the Iraqi Army and Iraqi Police were openly propped up by the U.S., although that's not to say propped up well; some of the IPs would go months without payment, while working posts on lonely country roads far from reinforcement. What oaths they remembered in the dark, I do not know. But now, their whispered prayers to Allah are what belays me from chalking it all up to mental illness.

There's an all too human weakness to the lives of armed men. There are strong and weak, hunter and hunted. What there are not, in most cases, are gray areas. And at first, doubt is pushed aside. But, like the IPs we left behind to ISIS' purge, eventually, the horizon is met. In the case of the first small desert city I occupied, circa 300 collaborators were herded into a building and gassed with chlorine until dead. The radical mujahedin left Saqlawiyah's inheritance to the meek. There weren't 300 Iraqi Police and Iraqi Army to make up the 300. There were two IP stations—the jail, and what amounted to a PR office—with fifty people, tops.

Maybe it wasn't delusion which led them to think whatever ISIS had summoned them to was anything other than a purge. After they'd witnessed power change hands so readily, watched it used for nothing more than domination, perhaps they thought it would be simple re-education. That seems most likely, but it's not what I like to believe happened.

In my mind, I see the men who stood outside the gates of our FOB at night. They rise with the sun one morning to find a message written on the door. The local Sheik, who we paid for peace while occupying FOB Riviera, summoning them to the old FOB. The men are hopeful for pardon, that maybe their sins can be given context which will stay fate's hand. But as their family rises for the day, and food is prepared while children scamper through dust, they pace the corridors of their minds.

It is too much to ask forgiveness, like the sun looming out of the east, this is an unavoidable truth. The men stare at their rifles, the sword they lived by for so long. They think about all the promises they were told first by Saddam, then the U.S. It's hard to remember all of them now, after so much has been blasted away in the desert. Deeply creased faces realize there will be no other day but this for atonement. Leaving their rifles behind they set out on the last journey. The final battle is not what they thought. It's without smoke or swords, and the sound of automatic fire doesn't thunder. Instead, it happens deep inside of them as they make their way toward FOB Riviera, on the horizon as a final totem by “Lake Salty Eye”—the lake of tears.

Backs stoop as the past descends on them, all the nights they couldn't sleep, waiting for Allah's vengeance. Men wonder how they could have gotten it so wrong. How they could have been made to hope. They shuffle through the FOB's door, past the old duty desk, and make their way up the stairs to be herded into small, sealed rooms. As they weep, old feelings swell back through them like the tide.

Now they know there is a God, and his word is true. Their betrayals were not unnoticed. The brothers they'd been sundered from have returned.

But this way of happening is false, and I only think it as such because in my dreams I am the armed men, musalaheen, just as I was then. And it isn't families—men, women, children—who huddle in the rooms, bawling and screaming, gas searing eyes and throat. Instead, it's my squad and me. Prockop sits in the corner, sullen that what we've all been waiting for has finally come to fruition. I plead with him, try to make him see how this end is “The nature of the beast” he always spoke of. He could not have truly thought it would be otherwise after what we'd done. But he won't listen—always off in his head. I try to tell the familiar faces around me that it's fitting we pass together; they've all got the 1,000 yard stare again, looking past me, but this time beyond the pale. Heavy metal throbs through the FOB, and Rose screams something in French. My lips crack and curl as I breathe deep a longed for release.

Author Portrait

Jason Arment served in OIF as a Machine Gunner in the USMC. He's earned an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts. His work has appeared in Narrative Magazine, Gulf Coast, Lunch Ticket, Chautauqua, Hippocampus, The Burrow Press Review (Pushcart nomination), Dirty Chai, Phoebe, Pithead Chapel, Brevity, The Florida Review, and War, Literature & the Arts: An International Journal of the Humanities; anthologized in Proud to Be: Writing by American Warriors, Volumes 2 & 4; and is forthcoming in Atticus Review, Zone 3, Duende, Midwestern Gothic, and The Iowa Review. University of Hell Press will publish his memoir Musalaheen in 2017.

View the website of Jason Arment