by Daniel Hurley
War isn’t all gunfights and explosions, despite what movies and millennia of storytelling would have us believe. The truth is, war is usually vastly and disproportionately boring. If I were to measure the excitement of combat and the training that prepares Marines for it on a ten-point scale, with 0 being the most bored you could ever be and 10 being the most exhilarated, combat pushed these bounds to about -5 and 15 for me. I have felt adrenaline in firefights and other combat operations that far surpassed any rush I have ever had outside of the military. At the same time, the boredom I felt was unrivaled by anything I have ever experienced.
This boredom is purely inescapable as a Marine, and what sets us apart from the typical civilian is that we have no choice but to adapt and, if possible, overcome while still residing within the infernal perdition of boredom.
The Marine Corps categorizes boredom as one of the five stresses of combat, along with extreme risk and fear, discomfort and fatigue, casualties, and fog of war. It was the boredom that I found to be the most unexpected and often the most difficult to deal with. Most combat stress is externally derived, which I found intensely unpleasant at times, but manageable. The boredom, however, felt as though it manifested deep within me and grew to the point that it caused me to feel like a prisoner in my own body.
There was a time when I had a particular image about what a warrior was. They were strong, courageous, and endured a series of trials that ultimately led them towards either an honorable victory or a virtuous death. As I set forth on my own epic, I thought of Odysseus and his many trials as he returned home to Ithaca over three-thousand years ago, and I wondered what trials awaited me.
Before I enlisted, it had not even occurred to me how much time would be spent on mundane tasks. Of course, if the recruiting posters said things like “Join the Marines! Experience the thrill of combat and the oppression of boredom” it is likely that enlistment numbers would drop significantly. It certainly would have made me reconsider.
Instead, six months after crossing the parade deck aboard Parris Island and becoming a Marine, I was excited to test my newly acquired combat skills when I was deployed to Afghanistan. I did not expect a level of boredom so severe that I hoped and prayed that someone would shoot at me. I wasn’t suicidal; I just wanted something to do, something to respond to, something to pull my languid senses out of the repressed depths into which they had fallen. I was fighting battles on two fronts. One was against the Taliban holdouts. The other was my own lonely war within the war: me against boredom.
Just to be clear, I am very proud of my service, and if I could go back and do it again, I would. I’m just complaining, and complaining is a time-honored military tradition that I uphold with a high degree of proficiency.
Here’s a test for the un-initiated. Find a window that looks out at a distance. It could even be a view that you really like. Now pull up a chair and stare out the window. How long can you last before you are ready to move on? Ten minutes? An hour? Now do that every day for a minimum of eight hours. One other thing: you can’t look away. No books or magazines or cell phones. You can talk to people quietly, but only during daylight. That simple exercise will provide a glimpse into what it is like being on “watch.” Of course, we have not yet taken the environment into account. Whether it is 2°F or 132°F, you watch. Rain, snow, darkness, blinding sun…keep watching. You’re tired? Too bad.
In Afghanistan, we occupied an old US Army outpost in the Khyber Pass outside the town of Mehtar Lam, which sat in the shadows of the Hindu Kush mountain range. We would spend two to three weeks at a time in this position then switch out with another unit to go do (thankfully) more active operations. This continued for five months. My team and I were assigned to a corner of the outpost with a medium machine gun and instructed to watch a certain sector of the landscape while continuously fortifying our position. So we dug in and started a watch rotation; two hours on, four hours off, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Being on watch is relentlessly boring, but the down time in between watch is not much better. Besides the fact that you can never get adequate sleep during your break, there is nothing to do. It only takes so long before you have exhausted discussion topics with the two other people in purgatory with you.
In the summer months, when there was more daylight, I read quite a bit. I read over forty books on that deployment, most of them while I was sitting in the dirt between watch shifts. Some of the books were sent from home via care packages from the family, but I tended to heavily rely on our “base library.” This was just a shoddy plywood shelf that housed a random assortment of dusty books that spanned genres from spy novels to romance to some oddly placed college textbooks. I grabbed anything that looked interesting, starting with military history and biographies such as One Tough Marine. Eventually, I began reading lots of fiction from authors such as James Patterson and Clive Cussler. I also read Vince Flynn, and I liked his stories so much that I eventually read his entire thirteen-book series. His engaging spy stories, replete with themes of courage and serving the greater-good, seemed to validate the physical and mental discomfort that I often felt in training or combat. His premature death from cancer was a bit of a gut-shot for me. I had never before read an entire catalog from a writer. It was upsetting to know there was nothing of his left to read, and there never would be. I also had to face the fact that Vince’s protagonist would no longer provide me mythical inspiration as I proceeded through my own hero’s journey.
In the winter, it was cold, wet, and dreary and the days were very short. Those were the worst months by far. Being from Buffalo, New York, I have often prided myself on being a “cold weather person.” Living in that bunker over the 2004-05 winter months put that notion to the test; I still have scars on most of my fingers where the skin cracked and bled from the minor frostbite that was routine
There’s a big difference between being a cold weather person and living outside with inadequate shelter and no hot water. The little camping stoves they issued us to heat water were maybe one step up from useless by the time December came around, so warm food was out. On rare occasions, the company would arrange for “hot wets” to be brought to the outpost. This was the artistic moniker for things that are simultaneously hot and wet —like coffee, or broth. While not typically such a gratifying luxury, it may have been the best damn chicken broth I’ve ever had.
With no hot water for food there was also none for shaving, and yes, we were expected to shave daily in the dead of winter, though we often only did when some higher-up was coming to pay a visit. Had to look prim and proper for the brass. I recall laughing to myself about how during boot camp, the drill instructors made us “scrape our faces” with cold water and no shaving cream. At the time, I understood it as just another act of sadism when, in reality, it actually proved to be a valuable preparatory training exercise.
It was during that winter that I found my sanity tested by the agonizing tedium of that bunker. Looking back, I think the only reason I got through it was that I did not have a choice. That is one thing that differentiates the boredom of military life versus civilian life. Choice.
Choice is a wonderful thing, as I learned when I worked at a Motorola factory before enlisting. I took the job, thinking: “Hey! I can work with some techy stuff and learn a cool skill.” Not even close. My high-tech training lasted about 2 minutes: assemble-send-repeat. I spent forty hours per week on an assembly line during the overnight shift, putting little components onto circuit boards, hundreds of them, thousands. There was no meaningfulness, no sense of accomplishment. The boards kept coming no matter how efficiently I worked. Some days I got a lucky break and would be assigned to parts inspections, which wasn’t much better, but it was a change of task. It began to feel like I was in some sci-fi movie where an alien parasite invaded my psyche and I could feel it gnawing away but was powerless to stop it. I felt it eating away at my happiness, and even my soul after just a few months.
At about the six-month mark, some friends and I were at an event over 4th of July weekend. It was a great time. The day wore on and it started getting into evening and I had to be at work at 11:00 PM. So I made a choice that I will never regret. I called my boss and quit on the spot, then went back to having a good time. You might say that my priorities were wrong, but it wasn’t that I simply didn’t want to go to work because I was having fun. Quitting was an overdue liberation of my physical and mental subjugation. It may not seem to have been the wisest choice, but at least I had a choice.
On deployment, opportunities to defeat boredom were scarce. Of course, there was no quitting and walking away. It was up to each Marine to find ways to circumvent the tedium. Board games are an excellent way of killing time, but games were not on the packing list, and even if they were I didn’t want to carry around any more stuff than I had to. Ounces equal pounds and pounds equal pain. Yet I had to act—for my own sanity. I decided to create my own chess set.
I started by using some cardboard from an MRE box to create the game board, drawing the grid with map pens. The pieces themselves – rocks I could scavenge inside the FOB – were the challenge. For starters, different pieces must be distinguishable from the others. The king and queen were easy enough, but rooks, bishops, and knights are all paired up and should be almost identical to one another. Then there was the problem of the eight pawns that should look similar. With enough time, which I had, you can create one side of the game pieces.
The real trouble was finding rocks that represented their counterparts. They must be recognizable as a specific piece (bishop, knight, etc.) but distinguishable by color alone. Then, each piece on each side must be similar in color to the other pieces of that side for consistency and easy recognition.
Not a very scientific process — time consuming and somewhat tedious — yet better than dwelling on the extremes of heat and cold and discomfort. It took weeks of rock-treasure hunting, but I finally managed to get a nice little set put together. It had a white side and a brown side instead of black. The white side was composed of quartzite rocks; the brown was sandstone.
I used map pens to mark the rocks to show which pieces they represented, and even found amusement in selecting their symbols. I labeled the bishops with the symbol for a M240G medium machine gun, which is an arrow that has two parallel lines perpendicular to the axis at the midpoint. I chose this symbol because the bishops’ movements on the board mimic a Final Protective Fire of a lateral limit, in machine gun speak. Next, an arrow with a circle towards the point and a trio of parallel lines crossing perpendicular to the axis. This is the symbol for a heavy grenade launcher and is used to identify the Mk-19. It fires 40mm high-explosive rounds and I used this for the rooks because of the incredible firepower they direct at long ranges. Next, an arrow with a circle at the base and a single perpendicular line at the midpoint. This symbol is used for light mortar systems. The Marines use the M-224 60mm mortar system in the ground infantry for their portability and firepower. These were my knights because, like the knights’ board movements, mortars utilize indirect fire to engage targets and can surpass obstacles that direct fire cannot.
I labeled the queens “CAS” (for Close Air Support) because they are dominant pieces and have the most freedom of movement, much like our fixed and rotary-winged air assets. The pawns were riflemen. That left the king, which I labeled as the CO. Finally, my masterpiece and salvation was ready to entertain me.
Sadly, I soon found that everyone got sick of playing against me very quickly because I always won. I’m no Bobby Fischer or anything, the other guys just weren’t into chess all that much. I couldn’t bring myself to lose on purpose though. No way. Call it pride if you must, but appeasement isn’t in my character. In this case, winning meant losing because then I was back to staring down boredom.
I even tried being like those haughty, cerebral guys in the movies who play chess against themselves, but that didn’t last long. In the end, the process of creating the chess set was more beneficial to defeating my boredom than actually playing the game. As a final act, I unceremoniously dumped the chess set out onto the ground near the bunker during my last stay there. While it was a good feeling to know that this act symbolized my departure from the misery, never to return, I do regret not keeping the set.
My time at the bunker certainly did not have the heroic and epic ending that Odysseus experienced, but he had to have faced much of the same boredom during his time at sea or when he was stuck in some dangerous, exotic land. Homer skipped all of the mundane and mind-numbing details to tell a story of the exciting moments from that twenty-year journey.
Someday, another three-thousand years into the future, archaeologists may discover my small pile of rocks with strange symbols and think they are evidence of some clever, ancient civilization that once occupied the lands northwest of Jalalabad and had some free time. Maybe that isn’t too far from the truth. They can be displayed in a museum alongside the Rosetta Stone and Aztec Calendar Stone and dubbed the Mehtar Lam Mystery Stones – date and civilization unknown.
How exciting that would be for future historians.