The Atlantic

When You’re in Command, Your Job Is to Know Better

In war, the temptation to take revenge is strong. Fighting that temptation is a commanding officer’s job.
Source: Associated Press

“We fight with the values that we represent; we don’t adopt those of our enemy.” This is what I told the marines standing in a loose semicircle around me on our forward operating base outside Karmah, Iraq, one day in December 2008. “If we lose sight of that, we’ve got nothing left.” I meant every word. For many of us, making sense of the war in Iraq was becoming harder, but we needed to believe that we were fighting for something. Most could articulate a version of that argument themselves during squad-level discussions back in Hawaii, but now it was hard to tell what impact my words were having. I watched the familiar faces as I spoke. Some nodded, others looked at the ground, shifting their feet on the gravel or gazing back impassively, their expressions a reflection of the gray skies and drizzling rain.

The day before, the same faces had watched, blanched with shock, as the battalion sergeant major and I removed the remains of the 19-year-old Thomas J. Reilly from the Humvee in which he had died. In a war in which death was customarily delivered remotely by roadside bombs, T.J.’s killing had been an unusually personal one. As his Humvee passed through Karmah’s darkened streets, someone standing just feet away threw an RKG-3 anti-tank grenade—an unusually sophisticated weapon for that of molten steel through the roof of the vehicle, killing T.J. and wounding the other three members of his fire team. I was nearby when the incident happened and arrived on the scene within minutes. One look at the faces around the wrecked Humvee told me that what lay inside would be bad. It was. That image remained in my memory, the way the shadow of an object seen in the bright sun lingers on your retina when you close your eyes.

You're reading a preview, sign up to read more.

More from The Atlantic

The Atlantic4 min readPsychology
Legal Abortion Isn’t the Problem to Be Solved
The real problem is that families are primed to see a fetal anomaly as a catastrophe in waiting.
The Atlantic7 min readSociety
Everyone Wants to Talk About Reparations. But for How Long?
The issue makes the occasional blip in the national conversation. Yet in communities that have been fighting inequality for generations, it is more like the steady thumping of a drum.
The Atlantic16 min read
The Tree With Matchmaking Powers
For nearly a century, an oak in a German forest has helped lonely people find love—including the mailman who delivers its letters.