Altered State

French officials have praised the coolness of off-duty US Marines who jumped a terrorist preparing to attack a passenger train.  Their actions prevented what might have been a massacre.  The incident brought to mind an email I received from a Marine officer in 2008, then recently returned from a stint commanding an infantry company in Anbar, expressing regret he not been in Mumbai at the time of the terror attacks (his civilian employment had set him to traveling) because he felt he might have “done something”.


He devoted the next email paragraphs analyzing the movements of the Mumbai terrorist attackers, pointing out their similarity to the buddy-pair tactics his own men had practiced, with a matter-of-factness and eagerness to be there that some people might find disturbingly unnatural.

Because it is unnatural.

There are probably hundreds of videos on YouTube showing Marines — and other infantry — advancing toward the sound of gunfire in Iraq, Afghanistan, etc.  The thing to realize is it is genuinely perverse behavior.  The natural inclination of a normal civilian is to flee from gunfire and seek shelter wherever they may find it.

Most of us should go through life thinking about that sandwich in the rail dining car or the meeting we are scheduled to attend in Paris.  When war suddenly erupts from the train toilet, the normal man even if he has some means of defense will forget to use it in the confusion of the moment. In France the news articles report a number of passengers on the train slightly injured themselves in their effort to set off alarms or escape past closed glass doors.  There is nothing cowardly in this.  That is what 99.99% of the world will do in a similar situation.

Given time many civilians will overcome the initial shock and switch mental gears, as was the case with United Airlines Flight 93 on September 11, 2001. They started off as passengers and in consequence the attackers could count on the element of surprise to gain the few minutes needed to complete their plan. In the case of UA Flight 93 it took almost half an hour for the passengers to make the shift.


The passenger revolt on Flight 93 began at 09:57, after the passengers took a vote amongst themselves about whether to act. By this time, Flight 77 had struck the Pentagon and Flights 11 and 175 had struck the World Trade Center towers. As the revolt began and the hijackers started maneuvering the plane around violently, the plane went off of its Washington, D.C. course. The hijackers in the cockpit became aware of the revolt at 09:57:55, exclaiming, “Is there something? A fight?”

But that half-hour was enough.

The Marines on the French train were just as unarmed as the passengers of Flight 93. The difference was that, unlike the passengers on UA93, they were primed for war from the get-go. After the suspect emerged from charging his AK inside the toilet he was met by instant resistance. The rest of the training — the physical fitness, hand-to-hand combat drills, the desensitization to stress — helped in the affray. But nothing so much as the attitude the Marines carried around in their heads which allowed them to engage from time zero.

The Left has often charged that there is something “dehumanizing” about making a young man into a Marine or a soldier. And from a certain point of view they are right. What the Left forgets to mention is that symmetry of warfare makes this necessary.  The 26-year old North African who boarded the Paris train was a combatant too.  Along with his assault rifle, handgun and knife the man brought along something the newspapers will neglect to mention: his own version of an altered state; the unnatural desire to kill repeatedly, until the bolt locked back empty or death took him.  Against such people only the Marines — or men who as on Flight 93 decide to think like them — will be effective.


Such men are in a world by themselves, in an unnatural state.  It can’t be helped. The pact that civilians enter into with them is to keep the world turning and give them something to come back to in exchange for their exile.  One of John Buchan’s most powerful and enigmatic books, Witchwood, captures the importance of this.  Buchan’s novel describes the life of a young Presbyterian minister, David Semphill, trying to preserve the charitable outlook of his calling amid the turmoil of 17th century Scotland.

Semphill nearly succeeds: surviving hatred, betrayal and intrigue alike.  A man can endure a great deal for as long as it is for something worthwhile. What he cannot survive is the loss of love and a reason for living.  When the woman he loves dies of a fever, in one of the most hearbreaking chapters John Buchan has ever written , Semphill has no way home.  He buries the last link back.

Was there any comfort for a stricken man on this side of eternity? He had a vision of her face with its proud laughing courage, he heard again her voice coming faint and sweet from behind the hills of death. She was smiling, she was saying something too rare for mortal ears to catch, but it seemed to thaw within him the springs of life.

He lay long on the turf, and when at last he raised his head the dawn was breaking. The wind had fallen, and into the air had come the softness of spring. A thrush sang in the covert–he thought he caught the scent of flowers. . . . Of a sudden the world righted itself and youth came back to him. He saw brightness again on the roads of life and a great brightness at the end of them, where Katrine was his for ever among the eternal fields.


The old life vanished for him and  the readers find Semphill in the last chapter enlisted in the mercenary wars — in what we would today call a PMC or private military contractor business.  His recruiter has a final word with the civilians who seek their former pastor, and he tells them in words he is certain they will never understand that Semphill is gone never to return.

“Where is Mr. David? What have ye done with him? . . . We ken nocht o’ you–ye come and gang like bog-fire–there’s some says ye’re the Deil himsel’. If ye’ve wiled a saunt doun the road to Hell–”

“Be comforted,” said Mark, laying a hand on Amos’s arm. “I think I have helped to open for him the gates of Paradise.”

Paradise is the hope that remains to men when the familiar is gone.  And that is not the sort they seek for preference. We owe these men who preserve us from evil thanks, not in the gaudy gratitude of palaces or cash rewards of unimaginative recompense, but the familiar.  Our job is to keep the home of half-remembered memory whole; the dog in the yard, the baseball bat in the closet just where it always was.  To those who go into that far place we owe a place of return in the country they strove to preserve.

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