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I Knew the Marlboro Man

Updated: Jul 29, 2021

I've decided to start putting into words experience from my times in the Marines as a means of writing down a history of my time from my perspective. Given that I left eight years ago, there has been plenty of time to think on things, and see my time with the benefit of hindsight. Being able to look back and see what was with the benefit of new information and a better understanding of the world, I figure I can learn something and maybe pass on some of that learned knowledge to the next generation (or my fellows). This may get edited if the unnamed individuals let me put their names in, or I have something wrong. My memory is only so good, and I want these to accurately reflect what happened as they are a part of history (which is insane to me some days).

I knew the Marlboro Man. Lance Corporal James Blake Miller. The face of the battle for Fallujah. He was my platoon radio operator, having attained the position after our previous radio operator was injured by a VBIED and sent home. When I first met him back at Lejeune, I didn’t really mind him, but over the course of the deployment- I started to dislike him. Eventually, this dislike increased to the point where I found it difficult to be around him. My feelings for him then- to this day still hard to place- started to affect our working relationship. And all this before he became famous.

Taking a step backwards, and looking at everything with the benefit of hindsight, it’s easier to see what happened in the month that we spent in that city, and the potential reasons why Miller started to fall apart. I can’t really say that I blame him anymore, or even that I dislike him. I can’t look back and say, “that motherfucker was a total piece of shit” and not question what I’m saying. I don’t think that he was broken in Fallujah- I think the break came after, when he formed an opinion, and his brothers- the people who he had served with and who had been his friends- turned their backs on him little understanding what was going on. Hell- I still don’t know if I know what’s going on- but I think I have a reasonable idea what happened to him all those years ago.

It’s probably a good idea to put everything into context from what I have gleaned from those I still know, and what little I have read/watched of Miller’s story. We’ll start where my dislike for him did- Haditha Dam. Our platoon radio operator at the time, along with a couple other Marines were injured by a rather potent VBIED near a police station a couple of months before the battle for Fallujah. At the time, Miller was a SAW gunner in my squad. His team leader was very nearly killed by the resulting blast that sent our radio operator home, and was also evacuated with pieces of a 203 HEDP round in his neck. Having lost a team leader, as well as the platoon radio operator, a reshuffling of billets was required. Miller picked up the position of RTO, and Wheathers' rifleman was shifted to my team and inherited Miller’s SAW.

My new SAW gunner cleaned the ever loving piss out of his rifle before handing it over to Miller, the two of them, at the time, were fast friends and he didn’t want to let his friend down. Just before the swap was to occur, our squad was down in a service area of the dam doing MOUT training and SAW dis and ass drills as we started to prepare for the upcoming assault on Fallujah. Two SAWs were set up side by side, and a competition was established between members of the squad to see who was the fastest at ripping the light machine gun down and putting it back together again (oddly one of our favorite games to play). Two Marines knelt on the concrete, one hand placed one on the pistol grip, the other on the charging handle awaiting the word “Go.” At “Go,” they began the process of clearing the weapons before they ripped them apart. One Marine had difficulty even getting the bolt to the rear. Upon inspection, rust was evident in the feed tray, charging handle, and the entire inside of the weapon. There was no lube. It was a total shit show of a weapon.

The weapon was Miller’s.

Miller cleaned the weapon, and the swap came and went. Miller was the RTO, and I inherited a second SAW in my team. That moment, when Miller was about to turn over a rusty barely functional weapon to a fellow Marine, soured me to him, and I began to find fault with everything he did. Being that I had been the platoon RTO on my previous deployment (and earned a NAM for the effort I put into it) it was easy to find fault (even where none existed). The tipping point in our relationship came about a month prior to the attack. Our working relationship was suffering which for a unit going to war is a bad thing. I called him out onto the balcony overlooking the dam’s spillway.

“Ok, Miller,” I said, “We need to talk.”

He lit a cigarette and nodded.

“I fucking hate you,” I said.

He blew out smoke from a long drag. “I hate you too, Lance Corporal.”

“So what are we going to do about it? Seems to me that we need to put this shit behind us and try and get along so we don’t let down the rest of the platoon,” I said.

He nodded his ascent. “Yeah, I reckon.”

And that was it- a tacit agreement to put it aside and do our damned jobs. In a way, we had restored mutual respect (even if we still hated one another) for the sake of the Marines in the platoon. Our friends and brothers in arms were more important than some petty squabble between the two of us. We had a job to do, and we were going to do it to the best of our abilities. And I believe now that Miller held up his end of the bargain, even if he didn’t do so in the way we in the platoon had hoped. There was a time I didn’t, but now- with hindsight and study into the psychological effects of war- I know he did his best for us.

You see, on the day that the picture that made him famous was taken, he didn’t shoot his rifle. A machine gunner attached to our squad did. At face value, this is heretical- akin to being Catholic and denouncing not only the words of the Pope, but Jesus Christ himself. Going into combat, and then not using your weapon to kill the enemy- and letting another use your rifle to do just that- is just wrong. Being young and headstrong, we all looked at it that way. When Carpenter told me what had happened, I felt disgusted and let down. How could a Marine NOT shoot someone? Only the next day I would take my first shots at another human being (and miss… Damnit…) and be proud of it. Marines kill badguys. End of story. Miller had to have been scared of dying or something. Had to be it- he was a coward… Right?

But it’s not that simple. The fear of death isn’t the hardest part of conflict and war. Fear of death doesn’t make psychological casualties in war- killing does. Even just the knowledge that you may have to causes not uncertainty, but dread. Taking a life is a tough thing to do (even for Crayola munching baby killers like Marines) and most people just aren’t up to it. Something like 98% of people can’t kill another person without some form of conditioning (not just training- they’re two entirely different things). Two percent can drop the hammer on another person, and feel nothing more than recoil. Proper conditioning can get that number flipped, but there is still about 2% who CAN’T kill another human being. There is a lot of evidence to support this idea, and to be honest I never would have given it any thought had I not read “On Killing.” But having read that book, and thought on my life and the situations that I’ve been thrust into- the actions of Miller that day suddenly make a lot of sense.

He wasn’t shirking his responsibilities to the platoon. He never gave up being the RTO. He had the opportunity to LEAVE Fallujah and be a national hero- but he stayed with us, where his duty lay. I wonder now if maybe that day he learned something that day I would years later paging though Grossman’s book- that he is one of those who can’t kill regardless. Given that he was an ordained minister before he joined the Marines, I can see it. But he never quit on us even when we quit on him. He suffered what we all worry about suffering- alienation and degradation from those we love. He manned up the best he could, and we, his platoon and brothers of battle, let him down in his most trying of times. And for that I feel ashamed even if I hated him before it all went down.

Today though, I can honestly say that the hatred I felt for him is gone, replaced by a sense of sadness that I hated him at all, and a muted sense of pride at having known him in the first place. I’m no saint- never will be- but I can at least admit when I was wrong. It’s part of growing and learning, and humility is a trait that can bring out the best in us by allowing us to realize that we have been in error. Miller never let us down, he did the very best he could to protect the men whom he loved and wanted to serve and be considered amongst. He was a wolf in our pack, and deserved to be counted amongst us as equals even if he wasn’t able to drink the blood of his enemies. He stayed when he could have left. He put aside personal feelings so as to do his job and help keep his fellows alive and complete the mission. His beliefs on the war, and our part in it are his own, and we owe him the respect of his views just like we owe anyone the respect of their views- even if we disagree with him.

So, if James Blake Miller ever reads this, I hope you can accept my apology for being a dick to you. You didn’t deserve it. A rusty SAW happens on a dam. It was small potatoes, and O’Rourke used it to great effect during his tenure as one of my SAW gunners. I’m proud to have known you, and sorry that your life took such a hard turn. Semper Fi, Marine. You’ve earned it.

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