I was thrilled and honored this past Saturday to have the opportunity to chat with US Marine Corps Major Jane Blair, Operation Iraqi Freedom veteran and author of the memoir Hesitation Kills. I’d read her memoir several months ago and found it fascinating. Blair served on the front lines during OIF — she was on board the first wave of ground forces moving from Kuwait into Iraq. Very few people are part of something like that, and the account is harrowing. Add to that the fact that Blair was one of only twelve females in her unit of about 170 people, and her story gets even more interesting.
Maj. Blair was generous with her time and chatted with me at length about her writing, her wartime service, her dedication to women in the military and her love for the people and culture of the Middle East. As a Major, she has every right to ignore the likes of me, an earnest Navy wife with a blog, and I would have thought nothing less of her — but instead she made time in her schedule for us to chat and was very kind and just tremendously cool. Please enjoy this recap of her memoir and pick up your own copy of Hesitation Kills – you won’t regret it! — Andria
In September of 2001, USMC Major Jane Blair was attending The Basic School in Quantico, Virginia, the Marine Corps’ extensive, 26-week training program for newly minted officers. She and some fellow Lieutenants heard that an accident had taken place at the World Trade Center, and they wandered into a lounge to see what was going on. When the second plane hit, they thought they were watching a replay, until the same horror dawned upon them that was slowly dawning upon every American glued to a television set across the country: we were under attack. There was one significant difference — at that moment, Blair and her fellow Marines realized that their voluntary service was heading in a very specific direction. “We thought, ‘Oh my God, this is no longer peacetime,'” Blair recalled. Their war was unfolding right before their eyes.
The events of September 11th were very personal for Blair, who had grown up partly in New York City, and perhaps even more so for her husband Peter, a fellow Marine who lost no fewer than twelve friends and family in the Towers’ collapse. She and Peter would become part of the first class of Marine Lieutenants trained up in the shadow of 9/11. Married for only a month, they deployed within weeks of each other from Twentynine Palms, CA, to Kuwait, where they were part of the initial push of Coalition forces moving into Iraq. Though they were only about ten miles apart much of that time, they were able to have only one furtive, romantic reunion — much of which they were forced to spend, absurdly, sitting in a tent wearing gas masks (“How very Dada,” remarked Peter, which says a lot about his endearingly scholarly personality) before they could escape to an empty Humvee.
Prior to that, Blair had slipped away to her husband’s camp hoping to see him, but his unit was out and she had only been able to leave him a note, an apple, and a bag of Tootsie rolls she’d saved for his Marines. “I missed him by minutes,” she writes. “With the shape of this battle, I didn’t know if I would ever see him again. As I got into the Humvee, I held my emotions in check so the Marines who were with us would not know my disappointment.”
Blair’s story is a riveting, eventful one — remarkable not only for how surreal and unique a time in history she and her fellow Marines occupied, but also for the intelligence and insight with which she tells it. She’s not your average Marine, and not just because she’s a woman. Raised in NYC by artistic, free-thinking parents, she was always a daredevil, “a bit of a tomboy,” and a risk-taker. (“I was a little crazy,” she admitted to me by phone this past weekend, with a smile in her voice. “I still am. And it’s just gotten worse.”) At age ten, she sneaked out for a fifty-mile bike ride and returned without telling her parents. At eighteen, fresh out of high school, she traveled the Middle East solo for over a year (!), camping and staying with Bedouin families in Negev, Sinai, and Jordan. She was in Jerusalem during the first Palestinian Intifada.
“My parents raised my brothers and I the same way,” she said. “They were very much about letting us take every opportunity we could, taking our own path.” When, in Egypt in the late 90’s, Blair encountered a group of guys climbing the same mountain she was, and learned that they were US Army soldiers (on a weekend break during their deployment), she was floored. “I didn’t even know you could do that in the military,” she said. “I thought, ‘I could do this — travel, see the Middle East — and do something for America at the same time.'”
Her wanderlust, combined with the heartbreaking loss of her father not long after, spurred Blair to join the Marines. She describes this in her book with the quiet poignancy typical of her writing style:
My father’s death made me realize safety was just an illusion. No one was going to protect me any more.
…I recognized that I was weak and that my life to date had consisted of nothing more than an effort to make myself as comfortable and safe as possible. I wanted to become unsafe, and I wanted to be uncomfortable….. So I joined the Corps and burned away the layer of cotton gauze that I wrapped around myself as I walked through this life, that cushion of comfort and complacency that buffered me from the world. By doing so, I brought myself closer to reality, and I saw the things that were not beautiful about the world but that needed to change.
During her deployment Blair kept a journal, writing every morning when she could, and by the end of her time in Iraq realized she’d written over 300 pages. It took her nearly two months to transcribe those pages and cut out about 150, but even as she worked she wasn’t sure what she was going to do with all this writing. “I was a little shy about it,” she said (which seems, to me, incredible). “I’d written a couple of articles [previously], and a short story….I didn’t think I had done anything exceptional [in Iraq]. I thought, ‘I’m just a Marine.'”
This strain of humility is common among military members, and is, I think, admirable, but it turned out that Blair’s story is pretty exceptional. She was one of only two female officers in her unit and twelve females total. While women were not technically allowed in combat, her unit (which flew UAVs, light unmanned aircraft which fly ahead of the infantry to provide photographic intel) was at the front lines as Coalition forces made the initial push from Kuwait into Iraq in 2003, the initial phase of Operation Iraqi Freedom. It was a dangerous, very uncomfortable, day-to-day existence. Blair and her Marines survived on about one M.R.E. a day, a near-starvation diet. She had to go a month without showering and lost so much weight that her pack was nearly as heavy as she was. She and her Marines stayed awake for days on end awaiting up-to-the-minute information, knowing that the intel they were gathering had a direct relation to the safety of men on the ground.
Some of her challenges were practical in nature, such as the eternal struggle to find a place to pee. (One one occasion, the only female in a Humvee full of men on the initial push into Iraq, she’s forced to cut the top off a water bottle with her knife, wrap herself in a tarp, and relieve herself while sitting adjacent to her fellow Marines.)
Others were more philosophical. Blair tackles the thoughts that came up in her journals, such as the cyclical nature of history and the knowledge that the U.S. could sometimes cause as many problems as it solves. She describes the Iraqis she meets, generous, hospitable people whose circumstances have been dictated by the vagaries of power grabs and politics. She tells about touring Saddam’s opulent palace on the grounds of the gardens of Babylon, receiving her first wedding gift from an Iraqi woman, and meeting children fascinated by the water pumps the Americans use to purify the Euphrates for drinking, when these kids have been swimming in and drinking that murky water all their lives.
Now a Major in the Marine Reserves, working in Middle Eastern Affairs, Blair is passionate about the full inclusion of women in military life. “I’ve seen what women can do in the military,” she said to me during our phone conversation. “We’re so set on putting women in this box, and I think it’s a slightly embarrassing thing for America. We haven’t even had a female President, and so many other countries have: Germany, Indonesia, Liberia. Now I realize how necessary it is to speak up, to recognize other women. I think it’s necessary for women to vocalize their desires to do these jobs. Women are talking about it. I’ve been happy to see a lot of enlisted women, and officers, being vocal even if it is against women in combat. There has to be an equal debate.”
She’s also concerned with the toll our extended war on terror takes on active-duty families. “I know plenty of Marines with four, five deployments,” she said. “People will miss significant life events. It’s a lot to ask and ultimately makes them ineffective, ultimately takes too much of their lives away from them.” She recommends more forward-deployment options, such as one in Okinawa, where families are stationed within a reasonable distance from their service member rather than halfway around the world. “Being gone for a year is a lot worse than thinking, ‘My spouse is a five-hour flight away and I can go home every two months.'”
Though she has not settled in one place for more than three years since graduating high school, she has enjoyed her time as a marine, particularly her billet as an attaché. “It’s one of the coolest things the military does. As an attaché, you’re the main representative of the U.S. military in your host country. It’s a military-to-military kind of exchange. You help support local military efforts; for example, say, you might be in the Philippines getting Special Forces going, facilitating training. If there were a flood or typhoon, you’d be the chief point of contact with the U.S. military to help get reconstruction started. You’re kind of the on-the-ground point-person.”
By this point, Maj. Blair had kindly shared an hour of her Saturday afternoon with me. But before we hung up, I wanted to know if she had any more writing in the works, and I was delighted to learn that she’s in the process of writing a novel! “I’m about halfway done,” she said. “It’s also related to the military — it’s about a Marine — but it has a very different flavor. I think it’s harder writing a novel [than nonfiction]! You can’t touch the subject when you write nonfiction; with my memoir, I couldn’t say anything that wasn’t true. But with a novel, you’re throwing yourself out there creatively. There are lots of levels of criticism. It’s more personal.”
In closing, I want to share one of my favorite aspects of Blair’s book: her knowledge of, and appreciation for, Middle Eastern culture. This makes the memoir not just a war narrative but a larger story about the struggles humanity has faced for thousands of years. Like many Marines, Blair puts the phenomenon of war into a lager cultural context — the Peloponnesians, the Spartans, the Mesopotamians — but her love affair with classical culture went back to her youth. As a child, Blair had always wanted to travel to the Middle East and, in particular, to Babylon, partly because she wanted to see its incredible blue Ishtar Gate
and partly because of her fascination with its founding queen, Semiramis, a sort of “female Alexander the Great.” Semiramis was an orphan (according to legend, raised by birds in the desert) who went on to become ruler of the empire, which included much of Mesopotamia. When her first husband, Onnes, was paralyzed by fear during a military campaign and unable to lead his army, Semiramis took control of it herself, leading a surprise attack and saving Babylon.
Visiting Babylon after Major Combat Operations were over, Blair marvels at the depth of its history.
As one of the earliest civilizations, Babylon was testament to both the progress and the history of mankind. Most people can trace their history back to this place where law, calendars, languages, science, literature, and civilization were born.
What was the purpose of any war, if the history of the struggles of man were forgotten?
Buy Hesitation Kills here