Abner Greenberg doesn’t look like someone who was shot in the head on Iwo Jima.
At 93, he’s stockier and more solid than any nonagenarian I’ve met. The skin on his forehead and cheeks is smooth and has a healthy glow, and despite being mostly bald, his head bears no evidence of the Japanese bullet that went through the left side of it, leaving him unconscious for weeks and confused for months, unable to access his own speech.
When I shake his broad, meaty hand, I cannot tell that he hasn’t had feeling in his right arm for the last 73 years. He cannot button a shirt; his wife, Marilyn, helps him get dressed every day. “That’s the fun with us,” he says with a grin.
His aphasia is another result of the bullet that entered his head, but I don’t recognize that he’s using almost exclusively pronouns instead of proper names until he points it out himself. He is lively and sharp, easily the envy of men two decades younger.
Iwo Jima is familiar to most Americans thanks to a John Wayne movie and the famous photo of the flag-raising on Mount Suribachi, which is immortalized at the Marine Corps War Memorial in Arlington, Va. It was a battle so fierce and horrifying it shocked even the battled-tested veterans of a country in its fourth year of world war.
Of the 82 Medals of Honor awarded to Marines during the entirety of World War II, 27 of them were for actions on Iwo Jima; of those, more than half were awarded posthumously. The island was death itself.
Imagine: Somewhere in the vast Pacific Ocean is eight square miles of volcanic ash where nearly 29,000 lives ended in just 36 days. Greenberg was one of nearly 20,000 more who suffered a casualty but survived. Iwo was his fourth amphibious landing in 13 months, and he’s still shaken by the horror unleashed on the first day when 2,400 Americans were killed or injured. Two of them were the best friends he’d ever known. “We hung around together, y’know? We just … talked. ‘We’re gonna survive this thing,’ et cetera, et cetera.
“Well, we got off of the beach, and we had a spot … I got down with these two other guys, and all of a sudden it started lighting up. It got into the late afternoon and evening, and mortars were hitting us.”
This is how combat stories are told, by the way. Hours of terror and stress that shatter lives get compressed to a sentence in the service of a more interesting narrative.
“We got hit by mortars, all three of us. And, uh—” His voice wavers. “I got to Barney. Barney Aloysius Cochrane, who was my best friend, my leader, everything that I needed to get through what I went through … and I just couldn’t leave him for that moment. He was dead. I was shaking all over, and I was crying. And frozen, absolutely frozen.
“And then I realized that someone was moaning, and it was Schultz. George Andrew Schultz.” He pauses. A long pause. “I couldn’t get the corpsman, but I knew he was like 100 yards from me. I patched him up the best I could, hoping that in the morning I could get him [out] alive, because he was breathing. And I did all I could to hold him. And this corpsman got to me when it was still early [in the morning], and they pulled him down to the beach. I thought he made it.”
Abner and I served in wars that began 62 years apart, but we share this: You don’t say your friend’s full name if he made it out alive.
‘I’m confident that this will be over soon.’
I met Brian Michael McPhillips at the end of our time at The Basic School in Quantico, Va. TBS is a six-month course that teaches Marine lieutenants the bare bones of leading an infantry platoon, even though most will go on to become specialists in other fields: aviation, artillery, logistics, supply, and so on. For our class of 240 students, there were three openings for tank officers. McP and I got two of them.
He was forthright and exacting, a New Englander with dark hair and icy blue eyes that hid nothing. He could bludgeon you with honesty or sarcasm, and like many Massachusetts natives, he had just enough charm to mitigate his asshole streak.
In the winter of 2001, we reported to Fort Knox together and joined a class of Army lieutenants, most of whom were reservists or National Guardsmen. Brian made no effort to hide his disgust for what he deemed their lack of knowledge, professionalism, and physical fitness. I tended to agree, but I at least tried to be nice to our colleagues.
McP had no time for niceties. He cared about training for war and keeping his Marines alive in battle; making friends wasn’t on his to-do list. Besides, he had me.
We were assigned to tank battalions on opposite sides of the country but ended up in the same desert for war. McP arrived in Kuwait a couple of weeks after I did, and his unit camped several kilometers away from ours. Still, he hitched a ride over one day and sought me out, no easy feat in a camp of four thousand Marines. I was out training with my platoon when he came by, so I didn’t see him that day. I never saw him again.
The war was mostly boring, except when it was terrifying. I’ve started forgetting even the memorable parts; I only recently recalled killing two Iraqi fighters with a coaxial machine gun — their bodies flung into the air like they’d stepped on cartoon springs — when I revisited an old diary. But the map is imprinted in my brain; the names of the cities and towns shine like beacons through the fog, checkpoints that put the war in order: Basrah. Nasiriyah. Diwaniyah. Numaniyah. Aziziyah.
Aziziyah is about 40 miles southeast of Baghdad’s outskirts, on the banks of a bulbous C-curve of the sidewinding Tigris. I didn’t fight there, but Brian did. My guess is the ambush came from the palm grove; it’s where most ambushes originated that spring, because they offered cover and restricted the movement of tracked vehicles. He was on top of a Humvee leading the scout platoon, returning fire with a .50-cal machine gun when he was shot in the head. I’ve heard rumors that the last thing he said was “I FUCKING LOVE THIS SHIT!” I’ve believed it for so long that it may as well be true.
Baghdad fell a few days later. I learned about his death 10 days after that. When my friend Charlie told me the news, I was standing in a garbage dump outside Baghdad; we’d left the city because tanks presented an “aggressive posture” that ran counter to the new mission of nation-building. We were going home.
When I boarded the Navy ship that would bring me back to the States, I checked my email for the first time in five months. On Jan. 31, 2003, McP had sent a characteristically terse note.
Friends and Family,
We are leaving for Kuwait this evening. Thanks again for all the support. I’m confident that this will be over soon. God bless.
The subject line was one word: goodbye.
‘At what point do we do something about it?’
On the internet, I have watched a war of words, waged mostly among people who haven't fought for their country. One side, pained by a protest occurring during the national anthem, will say that our troops fight for the flag. The other side, typically, will point out that servicemen and women swear an oath to defend not the flag, but the Constitution.
I grew up on Air Force bases, and wherever we lived, the theater played “The Star-Spangled Banner” before every movie. My father, a pilot who served 22 years, had a habit of haranguing teens and young airmen for wearing hats or talking during the anthem. It became a running bit for our family: We’d identify disrespectful culprits in the crowd and watch my father’s blood boil until he marched over to correct them.
Later, as a student in ROTC, I spent three years on the color guard, skipping tailgates to present the colors at windswept Big Ten football games, where my drunken classmates watched from the stands.
I still stand at attention for the anthem, from the first bars until the final note ends. I don’t think I can be any other way. Like a Catholic making the sign of the cross, I stand for the anthem. It’s a rite tied to my identity, ingrained by family and belief.
When Colin Kaepernick first sat during the anthem — before he consulted with the former Green Beret Nate Boyer and began kneeling — I took offense. How could I not? Kaepernick rejected a ritual that was part of my identity as an American. But it was also his First Amendment right to protest peacefully. I swore an oath to defend the Constitution, not my feelings.
As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie advised in Americanah:
Hear what is being said. And remember that it’s not about you. American Blacks are not telling you that you are to blame. They are just telling you what it is. If you don’t understand, ask questions. [...] Sometimes people just want to feel heard. Here’s to possibilities of friendship and connection and understanding.
I had to say it to myself: It’s not about me. It’s not about the troops. It’s about Kaepernick’s experience as a black man in America. And he started the protest because he saw black men dying preventable deaths. “I remember thinking our posture was like a flag flown at half-mast to mark a tragedy,” wrote teammate Eric Reid in The New York Times.
If you read or listen to what black Americans have to say about police violence, chances are good that at some point you will see the names of the dead repeated. Philando Castile. Michael Brown. Tamir Rice. Terence Crutcher. Freddie Gray. “I couldn’t see another ‘hashtag Sandra Bland,’ ‘hashtag Tamir Rice,’ ‘hashtag Walter Scott,’ ‘hashtag Eric Garner,’” Kaepernick said to reporters in 2016. “The list goes on and on and on. At what point do we do something about it?”
I’ve only recently realized that veterans do the same thing. More than 70 years after his best friends died on Iwo Jima, Greenberg still says their names whenever he can: Barney Aloysius Cochrane. George Andrew Schultz.
And Brian McPhillips. He’s as dead as Barney and George, as dead as Tamir and Terence. The circumstances of their deaths were different, but details matter little to the dead. Their lives ended in their youth, and they stay that age while the survivors grow middle-aged and old, the memories fading but not the names of the dead they loved.
Saying their names is the vigil the living keep, a flame tended so the light they brought to the world isn’t extinguished entirely.
“Life is ... it’s people,” Abner tells me. “It’s touching people.” It’s the end of our conversation, and we’ve been talking about war and the anthem and Black Lives Matter.
“We’re doing it to us. What they’re doing to our people — how do we allow it?” I’m not sure who he means by they. The aphasia that robs him of specificity makes it unclear if he’s talking about his war or my war or police violence. Maybe it’s everything.
“I recognized, I’m a culprit. Which I didn’t recognize before. ‘We gotta win this war. The Nazis are there, we gotta win this war.’ But it became beyond that.
“It wasn’t winning this war — it’s never having any wars.”