I am not a soldier—not in the official sense at least. I have never been deployed. I have never been trained to operate a tank or a fighter jet. I know nothing about wilderness survival tactics or firearms. I have never had to kill another person. I have never been forced to watch a friend die. I do not claim to have the slightest idea what the difficulties of returning from combat are like. But sometimes I feel as though I am a different kind of soldier, trained for a different kind of war. Except I had no choice in my service, there was no enlistment bonus—no, I was drafted. And though my sex ensures my safety from official conscription, it simultaneously seals my fate to be drafted in this other fight—a fight which has no rules of engagement. This other draft which masculinity provides sanctuary from, much as my femininity insulates me from theirs.
The parallels between these two peculiar soldiers are in some ways many. But my training as a soldier has been far less procedural, much less official, and with no clear conclusion. I have never been trained for warfare on their battlefield. I have never been accosted by drill sergeants—with their odd, wide-brimmed hats. But I have been trained extensively for warfare on the battlefield where my war is fought. I have been firmly instructed by drill sergeants who wear no hats—in their stead are somber eyes that beg me to grasp the urgency of their lessons. They take many forms, have many faces, go by many names—my drill sergeants. They are my mother; my aunts; my female mentors and teachers; my father and brother with their vain hope to protect me from a fight they cannot spare me from; unfamiliar women giving PSA’s in videos widely circulated throughout the ranks; the grave advice of a Facebook post; and most harrowing of all, the broken resignation of warnings offered by POWs.
The skills taught in our boot camps are different from those taught at Camp Pendleton. Our combatants don’t wear uniforms like the soldiers of the other war—in fact, our combatants often wear convincing disguises as friends, colleagues, bosses, even romantic partners and spouses. We are fighting a guerrilla force in our war, and an unconventional enemy requires unconventional tactics in turn. Our soldiers are taught hand-to-hand combat, but not any kind that has a name or is taught in a dojo. Our soldiers are taught from childhood that we are the outmatched, out-manned, out-gunned rebels in this war. That our enemy is stronger, more powerful, and notoriously successful at evading the war tribunals convened to adjudicate their crimes. So we are taught to use what few advantages we have: to be resourceful, quick thinking, and to capitalize on the enemy’s hubris. For they are also taught that they have the power, that our forces most often present only a paltry resistance to their attacks. They will underestimate us, and we must use that.
There is no firearms training at our bootcamp—our weapons are scavenged. Keys clenched between fingers like crude claws (beggar’s brass knuckles), small canisters of pepper spray poised at the ready with safety off (ironically a prohibited weapon in the other war). Because the other war has rules, guidelines, boundaries that are not to be crossed. Gentlemen’s agreements ratified with handshakes and unspoken understandings. But our war is not subject to these accords and codes of conduct—our enemies do not observe the Geneva Conventions, nor do they answer to the ICC. Our war is a free-for-all; anything goes when the fighting is done in the shadows and behind closed doors.
We are not taught wilderness survival skills in our training, but we are taught a different kind of survival skills. Our training is one born from a forced vigilance that is learned by every soldier, either the easy way—from the constant lessons of drill sergeants, or the hard way—from experience. From wounds at the hands of the enemy. Our wounded warriors look a lot like those who are awarded Purple Hearts in the other war. Their faces hardened from the trauma of things wished to be unseen. They withdraw, nurse their wounds in the safety of privacy. Their wild eyes flash in search of imagined threats—the terrifying ghosts of memories that will long haunt them.
But our injured soldiers also have many differences from those of the other war. Our wounded warriors, our rescued POWs, suffer attacks more intimate, and in some ways more painful, than those committed in the other war. For there is a betrayal in the evils of our enemies that is absent in the atrocities of those other soldiers’ foes. The other soldiers fight known enemies, they do not expect anything less from their combatants than the aggression they offer. It is a harsh, but predictable violence. In contrast, our opposition often comes in the form of spies, sleeper agents lying in wait for the perfect moment to strike and deliver a devastating blow. The wounds left by these attacks are twofold: one, seen in the physical aftermath—the bruises, scrapes, and scars—and a second, which is less obvious in its pain. The second is a more insidious harm that hides itself from the eyes, one that manifests in scars on the inside. Where the first harm is treated with physical therapy and doctors, the second is treated with therapy and doctors of a different kind.
The scars of the second harm are less literal, instead they take the form of lost trust, haunted eyes, twitching hands, night terrors, and fears laid bare by silence. For our soldiers much too often did not realize they were facing the enemy until they were left bleeding on the ground from an attack they never saw coming. And sometimes the enemy decides to twist the knife deeper—to tell our soldiers that they didn’t hurt them at all, that our soldiers were exaggerating for attention, that the wounds weren’t that bad, that our soldiers brought the violation on themselves by not carrying their weapons, that the fault was our soldiers’ for not wearing their armor to stop the bullet when they shot them. The worst of it though, is our soldiers sometimes believe them.
Just as the Marines are taught skills for fighting the other war that our soldiers might never learn, our soldiers learn lessons that those Marines never will. Lessons like:
- Never walk alone at night—that’s when the enemy is most active.
- Always have your weapons ready when you’re on the battlefield—and even when you’re not.
- When in a parking lot, check under your car before you get in—the enemy might be lying in wait for you.
- Always park under the lights—so the enemy can’t hide in the shadows.
- Always watch your drink—lest the enemy try to poison you when you’re not looking.
- Always keep your guard up—you never know when the enemy might strike.
- Always double lock your doors and double check your windows—so the enemy can’t attack your base.
- Always keep the blinds closed at night—so the enemy can’t see you’re alone.
- When you get in your car be sure to lock the doors and leave immediately—otherwise you’re a sitting duck and vulnerable to attack.
- Don’t trust anyone, no matter how well you know them—they could be a double agent.
- Never forget your kevlar—or the enemy will say you were asking to be shot.
- Never allow yourself to be alone with the enemy, always have witnesses—otherwise it’s your word against theirs and no one ever believes the rebels.
- Always be polite to the enemy—so you don’t offend them and provoke an attack.
- Don’t be too polite to the enemy—they’ll take it as an invitation that you are welcoming an ambush.
- When you stay in public barracks, cover the peephole and check under the bed—there may be enemies in hiding.
- Check the mirrors that they don’t hide enemy spies—remember: no space, leave this place.
- If you see a fellow soldier in danger, provide support—there is safety in numbers.
And on and on the list goes. These mantras are drilled into our soldiers by our training, they are our protection and our only hope for survival in this endless war.
No, I am not in the military. But I am a soldier—this world gave me no choice in becoming one. I have been a soldier all my life and I will continue to be one even after they bury me in Arlington. I was a child soldier: born into a fight I never asked for, that began long before my time and will continue to be fought long after I am gone. I am like the soldiers of the other war in many ways: I too have my battle scars, my nightmares that haunt, my enemies that lurk. I too learned to fight, to defend my fellow soldiers, and to never ever leave a soldier behind. I too have the shifty eyes and constant alertness, the deeply ingrained instinct to always be on the lookout for danger, and to be assessing potential threats. But my tour of duty has no end, I am doomed to fight this war for the rest of my existence. My fate was sealed the moment the doctor wrapped me in that pink blanket.