"Once we roll out the wire," our section sergeant often
reminds us, "this shit be real." We all know to what he refers.
When the mission comes down, the following days become a long blur, filled
with packing and lists of pre-combat checks. Gear has to be loaded, and
convoy orders established. Downtime becomes a rarity, and as crunch time
approaches, tensions begin to run high. As the date draws closer, we are
reminded to "put on our game faces."
If all goes well, the chain of command tries to give us a day off before the
mission. This allows us to prepare the last of our gear, clean our weapons,
and do whatever it is we need in order to place ourselves into the combat
mindframe. Like professional athletes, many soldiers have specific rituals
which they must perform before mounting up for the days ahead. I am no
Before my mission, I spend the early portions of my day staging my gear.
This means reviewing packing lists, checking weapons and ammo, and hopefully
stowing my equipment in whatever vehicle I happen to be riding with in the
convoy. I like to get these things done as early as possible, but with
mission briefs and pre-combat inspections, the day before any mission still
manages to seem cramped.
Once all the basic objectives are achieved, I usually settle down for a nap.
Our missions are physically demanding, so a little rest is always a sound
proposition. Three hours if I'm lucky.
As the formation time draws near, I wake for chow, grabbing a to-go plate,
after which I retire to my room and finish with a little bit of light
housekeeping. I generally fix myself a cup of rooibos tea and smoke a pipe
out at the pavilion, taking a last opportunity to relax and soothe my
The final and most important part of the ritual comes roughly an hour or two
before mission time. I set up my altar, light some incense (technically
contraband), and perform zazen, meditating deeply in the Buddhist tradition.
This serves a dual purpose: on one hand, it clears my head for the
mission, and on the other allows me to organize my own spiritual affairs.
I allow enough time for one incense stick to burn off, and after cleaning up
my area again, I reach into my nightstand and pull out an empty notebook.
Only the first page has been used, and on it I have composed the lines of
verse, which I would consider my death poem. It's another old Buddhist
samurai tradition, and I leave the poem on my bed, so that if something
should happen to me, the person who gathers my things will find the poem,
and hopefully draw some final understanding of who I was. I hold faith that
the finder will know to whom the message should be sent.
As farfetched as it can seem, people do die out here. Things do happen. I
cannot choose when or where my end will come, but if nothing else, I can
make my peace now and so enter into the Void with calm and dignity.
We ritualize to stimulate, to focus, to draw strength. But we also
ritualize for a more important reason. The soldiers standing next to us in
formation could be stacked on top of us like cordwood tomorrow, and so we
turn to comforting practices and familiar dances.
All of this formality, for a possibility none of us dare discuss.