Nonfiction: Claiming the Title of United States Marine

Young and his fellow Marines are horny, deeply insecure, often drunk, compulsively (and inventively) masturbatory and disturbingly driven to kill. Away from the war zone they drink themselves sick, fight, and cheat on their wives and girlfriends. Deployed, they sometimes desecrate corpses and shoot dogs for sport. They are also willing to risk their lives and to kill with abandon for their country. All too often they come home maimed or in coffins.

Few of them turn into the kind of writers capable of sorting this all out. Young is an honest, clever, darkly humorous one. He has written a collection of arresting vignettes, roughly chronological, in a variety of forms, everything from hallucinogenic prose poems like “A New Species of Yucca,” about finding a human leg absurdly protruding from “Iraqi-desert hardpan”; to a comic strip (illustrated), about a small act of revenge against the chain of command; to a darkly satirical Marine instructional manual and brutal self-indictment, “How to Ruin a Life,” in which he tells us in 15 crisply delineated steps how he, Young, hounded and humiliated an inept recruit into going AWOL, the first in a series of missteps that led to the young man’s death:

“Step 14: Be completely unaffected upon hearing that during his transportation back to Camp Pendleton on Sept. 22, 2007, this person managed to slip the zip ties binding his wrists and open the sliding door of the van traveling 80 miles per hour down the 5. Remain similarly unmoved on learning he jumped. Step 15: Now live with it. Go on. Try to live with it.”

His every experience in the corps, from the over-the-top hazing at boot camp to the contempt and formulaic bullying of those who fail to measure up, had trained him to accomplish this feat. To hear Young tell it, his time as a Marine, from basic training to counseling newbies, ruined him and made him, in the sense that it made him determined to become something other than what the corps wanted him to be.

Young survived his combat tours physically unscathed, as do most service members. Like many Marines, he experienced more boredom, hardship and uncertainty than battle. In a hit-and-run war like Iraq, action was rare, and usually came with such suddenness and violence — an ambush, a rocket or, in Young’s case, a roadside bomb that flipped his Humvee — that those caught up in it hardly comprehended what had happened until it was over. There isn’t time for courage or even fear. The horror comes after the fact, checking for wounds, assessing the damage.

The terrible things Young saw in war disturb him, the random death, the gore, the unthinking cruelty, but not so much as the person he became during those four years. He feels as guilty about the things he did to those close to him at home as he does about anything he did in Iraq. At the same time he has real affection for that crude, flawed, authentic version of himself, the “Past-me,” who he knows would disdain his introspective, self-critical present self, a teacher and a writer:

“You sound like a real civvy-boy,” his Past-me tells him. “If you weren’t in any kind of firefight and you never killed anyone, what kind of nightmares do you have?”

His book powerfully explains what kind. His experiences in the Marines, and in war, were not what he expected. They are not simple to process or explain. Like life itself.

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