Someone emailed me tonight asking what I thought about the attack on the consulate in Benghazi. Being that I was a Marine officer once upon a moon, this person asked whether my blood was up about them passing away and what I thought about the President putting our people in danger like that. Their words. Yes, of course my blood was up. I felt deeply for their families and for the poor souls who had to notice their families and for the entire situation.

But there is a bigger picture here that I want to point out. These guys faced an impossible task. Utterly impossible. There was no right answer for them and all these people screaming about why aren’t our embassies safer and posting about the poor Marines do a disservice to their service. As Marines we are not in the business of allowing ourselves to be victimized. That, in my opinion,  is a bigger disservice to those Marines than a simple and honest answer: this is the fog of Krulak’s three block war. Before I explain Krulak’s theory, let us first try to picture the decisions these Marines had to take.

I was not there that night in Benghazi and I make no claims on knowledge of the attack other than what I’ve seen on the news. The below should be taken for no more than it is meant to be: a thought experiment.

You are in a safehouse and it is 9/11. You are in a predominately Muslim country and as opposed to all the other Muslim countries you’ve likely been in recently, in this one they don’t hate you. In fact you are accompanying the Ambassador to the heartland, the ground zero, of the movement your country helped to achieve power.

There have been riots but you likely pay those no mind. Not because you are negligent, but precisely because you are not scared of them. Even if you have been told of possible security concerns, you probably still pay them no mind. You understand the waxes and wanes of the moods of crowds. Sure you stay vigilant. Your helmet stays on and your weapon is there, but it is just people annoyed. They aren’t attacking you. And chances are damn good that you know what it feels like when a crowd turns on you, when the focus of collective disdain is you.

Or perhaps you do feel it. Perhaps the security briefings and 9/11 and the feel of the crowd tingle your spidey senses. What are you going to do about it? Absolutely nothing. You just stay there, vigilant. Your helmet stays on and your weapon is there. And you watch. And wait. And listen.

When you hear the woosh of an RPG you barely have any time to react before the bang of the detonation.

Now what? Do you fire back? Who exactly are you going to fire at? You have very likely been taught that aimlessly shooting into crowds is an atrocious idea. Anyway, it is night and this is guard duty. You know you don’t have the full range of combined arms at your disposal you may have had in Afghanistan or Iraq. You know that you have only a few guys with small arms. And you have no idea who is shooting at you or how many they are. You are smart enough to know that now is not the time for asking the why. You are also smart enough to remember that this city is highly militarized and while they generally like you now, you understand damn well how fleeting that public opinion is. And shooting randomly into the crowd isn’t going to help.

Even if you had the luck to see the shooters location and had tracked his movements through the crowds on grainy NVGs because you are a superhuman. And even if that guy was stupid enough to give you a clear shot. (It must be said that the chances for that happening are basically nil) How sure are you that you can make that shot in the midst of a heaving crowd at night from distance?

So do you go after him? If you pursue, you leave the place you are supposed to be guarding, and worse you leave the *person *you are supposed to be guarding. The Ambassador. In the olden days people were hung for decisions like those.

The ambassador. That jogs your mind. How is he?

The above sequence of thoughts took me twenty times longer to type then for you to process. Perhaps a hundred.

You inquire about the ambassador and are told that he is injured. There are people everywhere. People are shouting. It is dark. You have no idea who is who. Still the consulate is being fired on. Even if you were superhuman enough to track the shooter they have melted back into the crowd while you were checking on the ambassador.

This my friends is chaos. Utter and complete chaos. Not complexity. F-ing chaos. You can call it the shit, the fog of war, or any of the other catchy terms people give to it. But that’s it.

I will say this. I am not sad that it was Marines that passed away that night. If it had to have been anyone I would gladly take Marines over private contractors, over anyone else. I want Marines on those walls because I know that they know how to make the best possible decision given the constraints in which they are forced to operate.

We Marines have had a chip on our shoulder from basically the time of our birth. We have never really fit into the overall structure of the armed forces. We are neither the round peg nor the square hole. We are both. And we are neither. Our neither-ness makes us the first to have our money taken during defense drawdowns, but our both-ness makes us the first to be called on in a crisis. We pride ourselves on our ability to do more with less. To go anywhere and do anything that is asked of us. It is this adaptability, this chameleon like ability to properly react to chaos, that is the reason we guard (ceremonially these days) the White House and (not so ceremonially) embassies all around the world.

Training for these scenarios used to be standard faire. I have no idea whether it is anymore as I’ve been out of the game for a long time. We train for basically everything. From humanitarian intervention, to quasi conflict (like that night in Benghazi) in crowded spaces full of noncombatants, to full scale kill the enemy conflict. And last week Marines were doing all three of these. In numerous locations around the world. With grace and with honor.

It is this spectrum from completely mundane and non-violent (but foreign) to fully violent that General Krulak was talking about in 1999 when he wrote his seminal piece called the Strategic Corporal: Leadership in the Three Block War. I had graduated OCS but was not yet a Marine officer when he published that piece. And that piece of work is truly a seminal piece as it influenced greatly an entire generation of Marines. In it Krulak argued that the Marines needed to build a force capable of ratcheting up and down the violence as appropriate for the situation. This is incredibly dangerous stuff. It is much safer to retreat to bases and hide behind technological solutions than it is to get out of the bubble and walk the streets.

But under Krulak’s tutelage the Marines adapted. And the fires of a zillion firefights and uneventful patrols have proved old Chuck was right. That young people can be trained to react appropriately and honorably under the craziest, most screwed, utterly chaotic of situations. Because, that’s what Marines, especially Marines who understand the challenges and risks inherent in the three block war, that’s what they do.  

If you want to feel emotional about something that is fine. But don’t denigrate the honor of the Marines who died that evening in Benghazi by loftily screaming for more security, higher walls, more razor wire; by pretending that these Marines were some lambs to the slaughter. They may or may not have fought that night, but I have full faith and allegiance to the same that they most certainly had a good reason for whatever they did.

And I know even more than that they most certainly were not victims to be held up as a symbol in order to win votes. It was Remember the Maine that was the slogan, not Remember the Marines on the Maine.