Fighting Fires.

June 2009


I originally wrote “Fighting Fires” in map pen on the back of a patrol order I had given to my squad leaders on the afternoon of 26 October 2006. It was later posted online for the three people that read my column. I also read it to my platoon as a response to their friends and family who would lecture them on the rights and wrongs of Iraq…”just tell them you fight fires.” I thought this would be an appropriate follow-on piece to last week’s 58 Words.

My intent with last week’s article was not to say, (as an American) “here’s what happened in Iraq and why it was right,” but rather (as a Marine) “what happened in Iraq, happened…things are going well, it should be talked about more, I’m happy.”

While it is quite appropriate (and important) that the citizen-reader voice his or her opinion on Iraq (a costly issue both in lives and treasure), I don’t think it is appropriate for an active duty Marine Corps officer (like me), to do the same. And so last week I removed myself from the follow-on debate.

The truth is I find great strength in maintaining my bearing as a political agnostic. At least as long as my affinity for Jameson and spontaneous travel are being bank rolled by a paycheck from the Department of the Navy anyway.

Simply put, my duty is to my mission (whatever, wherever and whenever that may be) and my Marines. Period. End of story. So while I won’t comment directly on the after-math of 58 Words, I will share with you something I believed back as a bright-eyed Lieutenant and still believe as I write this as a balding Captain: the men and women of the armed services fight fires…always have, always will.  This is a story about Iraq, violence, politics, fires, and going at it with your boots on…

When five firefighters from the San Jacinto Ranger Station were overwhelmed by flames in the Esperanza fires on the 26th of October the first report I heard was that “five firefighters have just died trying to protect an abandoned house.” How sad, I thought. What a shame. How terrible those five men gave their lives for a deserted piece of property.

Later that afternoon an ambitious news team climbed to a canyon bluff overlooking the fire. The footage they captured made my heart stop. The inferno was fierce, violent, and just plain frightening. It consumed acres of arid land in minutes, leaping entire roads, and canyons slowing for a moment, only to catch the wind like a ginger sail and gain speed again towards the next home or terrain feature. There was a certain rhythm to the blaze – the kind of violent rhythm familiar to many Marines – it was the rhythm of chaos and fear. As I watched this footage, paralyzed by the sheer force of what I saw, I realized something about the men who laced up their boots that morning to meet this chaos, something very powerful, and strangely calming:

The men of Engine 57 did not die protecting an abandoned house, they died fighting fires.

This is a very important distinction I think, and it has everything to do with the men and women who put it on the line everyday in Iraq and Afghanistan. On the one hand, yes, the firefighters were in vicinity of an abandoned home when they fell; so in a sense, they died protecting a deserted home. But there’s an important distinction here – they did not die for the home. The home was simply the front line, the line of departure from which these men decided to fight the blaze. That house was the fault line, a professional chasm which divided those who did not have the training, material, and duty to fight fires, and those who did. That day violence put down the five brave men who did.

It’s hard for some Americans to deal with the notion that people in these positions (police officers, firefighters, and military personnel) know exactly what they are putting on the line and the sacrifice that daily hangs in the balance in the routine execution of their duties.

Maybe it’s because some Americans tend to view these things through a complex social lens of politics, materialism, religion, and determinism. Maybe it’s because they heard the same news report I did that morning and didn’t tune in for the footage of the actual fire. Or maybe they saw the footage and still saw it as hollow.

Whatever the case, when the list of dead and wounded come in each day from the front lines of our Long War, these same Americans think what I did when I heard the first the reports of the San Jacinto firemen: How sad. What a shame. How terrible that they gave their lives in such a way, for such a thing, in such a place.

The story of the men of Engine 57 is a reminder to all of us that these men, like those firefighters, were in the offense when they fell, facing head on hundreds of degrees of violence, and chaos, and madness. They died while faithfully executing the duties to which they had so meticulously trained. They died with their boots laced, and their eyes forward. They died on duty.

As reports come in of our protectors killed in action across the world we owe it to their memory to acknowledge perhaps the darkest of truths and the greatest of hopes: That fires and wars will always rage but, as Thucydides wrote, that there are men who see this violence and yet still go out to meet it, is our greatest hope. Hope grows from this dark truth, right from the dark soil of our own human condition: some will only ever see an abandon home in Esperanza, or an impossible democracy in Iraq, while others will see in this very same instance a front line for fighting fires.

Many kinds of people fight fires too…everyday. No doctor, nurse or corpsman, for example, can stop in the middle of a surgery to question the morality of a “just war”. Just as we cannot lay down our rifle during a gun fight. Their morality is that patient beneath their steady hand, and trained eye. Their morality is to heal, not to question why there is healing to be done. A Marine’s is to seek battle, not to ask why there are battles to be had.

And there is something pure in all of this, in fighting fires. There is something pure about a 19 year old with a colt rifle, a dip of Copenhagen, and a raw sense of courage. It’s every bit as pure as our apolitical resignation to our duty as killer and healer, each with an end to our means. Each with doubts and fears and questions, but each with, above all else, a common understanding that beneath these uniforms there lies a heart that cares for something and someone other than themselves.

This is the way our protectors would want to be remembered – it’s the way I would want to be remembered – not piteously, that we were killed by a roadside bomb or a well placed sniper round, not gloriously, as Hollywood depicts, but honestly and without sadness…that we fell in the line of duty with every expectation of our own fate, our boots laced and our eyes forward doing what it was we trained to do all along,

Fight fires.

Posted by Alexander Martin in Marine Corps
Tags: , ,

You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

  • Hey, out here in the West Coast there’s three Marine Corps rotary wing squadrons certified to do just this very thing–help fight wildfires–to, in part, prevent wildfire tragedies like the one you described here. You Marines have been helping our overwhelmed firefighters since…2005(?) and we’re darn grateful for it!

  • Andy (JADAA)

    CAPT Martin:
    Hew to your chosen course, remain eloquent and carry on. Your words provide perspective and insight that only personal experience can provide. You show me great potential as a Marine, as a leader regardless of what your future brings and as an essayist. You stand as an exemplar of many of the intellectual qualities that seem to flourish, often unheralded and frequently unexpected to those who do not know the history of the Corps, within the officer corps of the Marines.


  • Benjamin Walthrop

    CAPT Martin,

    This is an inspiring post and message. I can only hope it will generate the groundswell of discussion, as evidenced by the number of comments, as other posts in this space recently have generated. Keep up the writing and the fighting.


  • UltimaRatioReg

    Capt Martin,

    Very well-said. It is important to remember what Thucydides expressed, and what you so eloquently stated in your last line. These who serve, do so with the full knowledge of their potential fate. Regardless of where we stand on the politics of the fight, the fighters deserve our eternal gratitude and respect.

    Never was I prouder to call myself “Marine” than when looking into the faces of those young men who had fought so hard in the heat and dust, and who had lost friends, and lived with the fear and the danger. There they were, waiting again to seek out the enemy and engage. And amidst it all, the restraint, compassion, and humanity they showed the Iraqi people defies description. Semper Fidelis, indeed.

    I think back to that wonderful exchange in Kipling’s “Kim”, when the Lama asks the Punjabi NCO; “What profit to kill men?”.

    The NCO’s answer to the Lama contains words to live by. “Very little, as I know; but if evil men were not now and then slain, it would not be a good world for weaponless dreamers.”

  • UltimaRatioReg

    *Burma Shave*

    The above sentiments include the female soldiers, sailors, and Marines with which I served. Magnificent, all.

  • Grampa Bluewater


  • Fouled Anchor

    Captain Martin,

    That is probably the finest essay I have ever read. You sir are a credit to your service, our department, and our country. What an eloquent description of what it is our brave Marines do every day. I am happy to know that fine men like you are leading our Marines in fighting fires, but I pray that you will not have to again.

  • John


    Thanks for that. As a Marine and a firefighter, I can say you are spot on. The only thing more exciting than being heavily armed in a combat zone surrounded by my fellow Marines is fighting fires in buildings. I would add that the media understands even less about firefighting than they do about war, and their ignorance causes untold problems in public relations, funding, and firefighting operations.

  • virgil xenophon

    I can see the good Capt. hasn’t yet reached the requisite level of cynicism to be allowed in polite company…he’s going to have to work on that before the “right” people on the association committee will allow him to by a condo in their bldg. when he retires…

  • Byron

    Virgil, he can live next door to me. I’ll even help him move in, and buy the beer.

  • Tony

    Captain Martin,

    Yet another wonderful article. It’s no wonder why your marines hold you in such high regard. It’s an honor to have served under your command. Memories of “Blue Collar Combat” and sessions on the Mystery Method still arise when I speak of my time in our beloved Corp.

    Semper Fidelis

  • chris

    Capt martin, your words of wisdom helped guide me through the rough everyday life of a grunt. Your the best platoon commander and role model i have ever served under in the usmc.