“Prejudice is a burden that confuses the past, threatens the future, and renders the present inaccessible.”
“We don’t have a soul. We are a soul. We happen to have bodies.”
We are all in this together.
No, I’m not pointing this out in the hope that we might one day coalesce as a species. That we might look around us and see that we all share a common human journey. That the lowliest of us deserves the dignity that comes with being a living soul. That each of us are living mines filled with inestimable value, where education can reveal each gem in all its glory, adding to intangible wealth that lies dormant in those we walk past on the street. But this is not the case. When I say “we’re all in this together,” it is not about hope. It is already Truth. Instead, by saying the phrase, it calls us to recognize the heavy responsibility that comes with our shared existence. In the military, the phrase is slightly more nuanced, yet carries that same heavy weight.
“We’re all green.”
Far before I joined the Marine Corps infantry, I knew this to be true. Not simply because this idea was presented to me by my parents, by television and history class, but by the simple observation that humans, flawed as we are, are literally sharing the same planet. The same human condition. It seemed foolish to think otherwise. Mad. Crazy that social animals such as we would intentionally bottleneck future potentials out of antiquated social constructs and the subtle cowardice that can come from security in numbers. As the hip-hop artist known as Immortal Technique once professed, “Universal truth is not measured in mass appeal.”
So when my bunkmate in boot camp mumbled the N-bomb when our black drill instructor forced him to physical exhaustion, the casual comfort of his tone founded in the idea that he was talking to a white man, I was shocked. A flood of ideals tumbled over one another, battling to see which order they should be addressed. Of course, for those of you that went through boot camp, you know that conversation, especially those of philosophical or sociological origins, had no place amidst the guttural swearing, hidden doubt, and panicked anger. So I stayed silent, knowing that, in due time, he’d see what was so obvious to me. That our drill instructor had earned the power to train us, had earned the authority, because he had succeeded as a person.
Duh. No shit.
Plus, once I was out of boot camp, once I’d finally made it to the rubber-hits-the-road fleet Marine Corps infantry, this would not be an issue. Where the band of brothers was tied together in a celebration of our mutual existence, and of those for whom we’d chosen to fight, juxtaposed and underscored by the lives we’d be snuffing out once we touched down on pink desert. Because we’re all green. And at first, this seemed to be the case. Grated and scourged through the initial months in the fleet, we would pass through the crucible together, bound by a shared suffering and a common goal.
So when one of my squad leaders started dropping terms like “sand-nigger,” sometimes even to the “dark green” Marines, my world began to shift, along with my hope that I was in the right place. And it wasn’t simply the slur that felt like slivers cutting away my skin. It was how casual he said it. How accepting others were of it. Nothing reveals the power dynamic of a relationship like a casual, open disdain, as though it were a universal understanding that one person was better than the other. And that’s when I began to see how this simple mindset could be pervasive. But it wasn’t until later that this rot truly struck me.
My first tour in Afghanistan was relatively uneventful. We had taken the Kandahar Airport in late 2001, bathing in hardship like it was home, frothing at the idea that we would fulfill the purpose for which we had been training. We got shot at a few times from a significant distance, but no one was hurt beyond those people so far away that they might as well have been ants. And in my mind, they were, for all intents and purposes. They were the Enemy, the Bad Guys, and so our moral vacuum was cemented not simply in the knowledge of our part in their demise, but the pride in it. Killing was our business and business was open. But again, more or less uneventful.
And then the second tour, where we took the embassy in Kabul in 2002. There, things changed. The feeling of invincibility I’d had in Kandahar was gone, replaced by the emptiness that the country felt in regard to the value of life. Not because they weren’t special, but because they had to adapt their mindset to the wars in which they had been steeped for decades. Maybe that’s what did it. Maybe we coasted on the idea that we were giving them nothing more than they were used to. After all, it was a different context than simply taking an airport, where you weren’t surrounded by people who were just biding their time to kill you. But we shrugged off the deaths of innocent people, laughing at kids bleeding from head wounds, at people tortured to death. Because in our eyes, they weren’t really people. Hell, they were less than animals. They were the Bad Guys.
But there was one time in particular, one moment where my life was split into two pieces. The time before… and the time after. One night I was on a roving post, where I would wander the compound, relieving people of their positions when they needed to relieve themselves, acting as backup if the perimeter was being attacked. At one point, we were told that our enemy might be guarding the compound across the street. But instead of lifting their weapon to take aim, one of them raised a homemade flute to their lips, playing a melody that pierced not simply the cold silence of the moment, but the human I thought I was.
He might as well have been green.
Later, I would think about my squad leader, who so callously threw about slurs like a spoiled boy-king. I thought about my dark green brothers who would return to a country run by those who would spit on them, like spoiled hippies spit on veterans when returning from Vietnam. How our society would allow it, buying yellow ribbons to put on their cars, saying “thank you for your service,” and washing their hands of responsibility before returning to a system that would ensure those that fought would “know their place.” How being comfortable with guns in the way they were taught would be a threat to those who looked down upon them. To those that benefitted from their sacrifice. How some of us would one day become pillars of cultures that denigrate those very same “brothers” with whom they’d fought alongside. How we weren’t “all in this together.”
But again, this isn’t the case.
We are all green. Each of us. Veteran and civilian alike. We all fight for what we believe to be Right and Just and Good. That requires hope. But regardless of hope, we all share a common human journey, given to us by the right of life itself. And those that stand against this understanding are merely avoiding a heavy truth. They’re escaping a stark reality in exchange for the lazy, ignorant path of least resistance,. And ironically, they do this because they’re human. Our solidarity begins when we recognize that we aren’t alone in this world. That each of us has talent, capacity, brilliance, if only we’re allowed it. That “if I’m deserving of dignity, then so the hell are you.”
Our hope isn’t that we’re all in this together. Our hope, and what’s more, our mission at Bullets and Bandaids, is that one day, we can realize it.