Why, you might ask would I compare the two?
While in boot camp, I was always very concerned when we were frequently told by our drill instructors and trainers that we had better face the fact that half of us would probably die in Vietnam. I believed them and hoped that I would not be one of them, as I am sure all my fellow trainees also wished. At the same time that I thought that this prediction was probably true, I wondered why we were being told this. It seemed to me both morbid and cruel and I could not fathom the purpose of this message.
In retrospect, I think that there were several reasons that we were being told to expect that many of us would die. Since almost all of us were going to Viet Nam it is likely that almost all of us were also going to see combat. While it was an exaggeration to say that half of us were to die, it was likely that some of us would die and even more likely that we were apt to see some of our fellow Marines be wounded and some to die. If we already expected this to happen, I think our trainers thought that we would be more prepared mentally. Or, to put it another way, they were trying to toughen us up for the fatalistic realities of war.
We were also taught that we must always watch out for our fellow Marine. This meant that in a combat situation we would do anything to save our buddy, even if this put us in harms way. If one of our own was wounded they would always be carried out as “no Marine is ever left behind”. Not only were these values taught in Marine training but they were reinforced when we were deployed to Viet Nam.
Not only were all my buddies ready for whatever they might be asked to do but I also detected an element of fatalism in their demeanor. “I can fight and I can follow orders and all may be well as I don’t control my destiny or if I will die this day”.
I have always enjoyed reading and while in college, both before and after my Marine Corps stint, I took a number of literature courses, even though my major was history. One course that I enjoyed was studying Norse mythology. This study was categorized as a literature course as we were reading English translations of the original myths that had been transcribed about 1,000 years ago. Since the Norse myths were memorized and passed on verbally, we are truly very lucky that an Icelandic resident transcribed these stories. The Norse tribes had migrated to the Scandinavian areas some 1000 years before this so they had many years to accumulate stories and tales. Not only was the literature very interesting to read and study but it was also fascinating because it gave a first hand glimpse into the life, culture and values of the Nordic tribes who lived over 1000 years ago in what are now the Scandinavian countries of Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Finland.
Why, you might ask, would I bring this up when I am talking about the Marines and my experiences in Viet Nam? I think that it is safe to say that an interesting comparison can be made between the fighting values of the Vikings and those of the Marines.
If you read any early account of those that fought the Vikings they were often characterized as fierce and ruthless. They never backed away from a fight and were depicted as fearless and nearly unstoppable. From studying the myths, as a way to see what the values and character of the Vikings really were, one can get a true glimpse into their character and motivation. They valued a good fight and felt that it was more important to be fearless than just safe and that by doing so they were ensuring their place in Valhalla with the God Odin after they passed on. They not only wanted to live to fight another day but they wanted to die gallantly to fight another day with the gods. They also had a sense of fatalism and felt that if it was your day to die – so be it; but, regardless, the most important thing was to fight the good fight. A quote from one of the myths, Skirner’s Journey, supports this principle… “Fearlessness is better than a faint heart for any man that puts his nose out of doors. The length of my life and the day of my death were fated long ago.”
While it would be an exaggeration to say that Marines are truly fearless it would not be an exaggeration to say that we always followed orders, even if we thought that we were being put in harm’s way. I never once heard of any Marine unit refuse an order to advance or “take that hill”. We always supported our buddies. While it was never verbalized, I also felt that many had a sense of fatalism about them. Some kept a calendar and marked off the days until they were to go home, others did not do this as they said, “I do not want to tempt fate”.
Vikings and Marines are separated by at least 1,000 years. They have very different cultures and political values. But they also share some values and this is where the comparison has some validity. If we now compare the Vikings and the Marines I think it is fair to say that it is important to both to always fight the good fight (and maybe try to be fearless?). In both groups there is a feeling that following orders is important – for the good of the group or the cause. Both groups show an allegiance to their fellow fighters. Both groups also show an element of fatalism as the day of death may somehow be preordained. This is the element that the drill instructors were promoting when they told us that half of us were going to die. I did not understand their purpose at the time; but, in the context of the Vikings, the fatalistic approach begins to make a little more sense. If you believe in a sense of fatalism, then you can fight the good fight and not worry as fate controls your destiny and not so much your immediate actions.