Fire horses Balgriffen, Danny Beg, and Penrose respond with FDNY Engine 205 on December 20, 1922
I will be appearing on Malcolm Burn’s radio show, The Long Way Around, this coming Sunday, September 24, 2023. Malcolm has asked me to prepare a playlist for the show which reflects an anti-war theme. This is my response.
On April 23, 1910, Theodore Roosevelt, less than a year removed from serving as the President of the United States, delivered a speech at the Sorbonne in Paris, France. Entitled “Citizenship in a Republic,” the speech has gone down in history as “The Man in the Arena speech,” largely on the weight of the words contained in the following passage:
“It is not the critic who counts, not the one who points out how the strong man stumbled or how the doer of deeds might have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred with sweat and dust and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, and spends himself in a worthy cause; who, if he wins, knows the triumph of high achievement; and who, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.”
I have often drawn upon this passage when reflecting upon my own life, especially when trying to come to grips with my failure to prevent the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. I still struggle with the fact that, despite being empowered with the experienced-based knowledge that there were no viable weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. (I had served as a weapons inspector with the United Nation in Iraq from 1991 until 1998, where I participated in more than 45 inspections—14 as Chief Inspector—involved in accounting for Iraq’s chemical, biological, nuclear, and long-range ballistic missile weapons—collectively referred to as “weapons of mass destruction”, or WMD.)
Roosevelt’s words helped bring me some solace—at least I had stood in the arena in pursuit of a worthy cause.
In 2008, I was asked to participate in a panel of military veterans who would provide commentary and take questions from the audience in response to a theatrical adaptation of Tim O’Brien’s classic war novel, The Things They Carried. As I watched the play, I became increasingly agitated. This was a story about war, and the cost of war. Looking around me, I saw a theater full of people who knew nothing about war, and the cost it took on those who waged it. I resented the fact that I had agreed to allow myself to be put on display as some sort of zoo exhibit—“Here is a veteran; let’s ask him about the emotional trauma of war.”
When the play ended, I took my place on stage, flanked by several other veterans of America’s many wars. I was well known at the time, and so I was picked to answer the first question, “Did the play trigger any memories for you of war?”
My response stunned even me. “As I look out among the audience, I see people who lack any military experience. People who know nothing of war. This play talks about the most intimate aspects of a soldier’s life—the things he carried at the time of his death. This is a conversation I can have with the men sitting here with me on stage. But it’s not a conversation I’m going to have with you. You haven’t earned that right.” I got up and left.
I justified my actions by reflecting on Roosevelt’s speech. I had spent my time in the arena of conflict. They had not. They did not have a right to peer into my soul about issues of this emotional magnitude.
I had been invited to participate not only because of my veteran status, but because I had—by weight of my efforts to prevent the 2003 invasion of Iraq—been labeled as an “anti-war activist.”
But the real reason I refused to answer was something far different. By allowing myself to be labeled as “anti-war,” I was living a lie.
Today, I am involved with a number of podcasts. My wife has strongly urged me not to read the live comments that are generated during these podcasts, since they often contain insulting, even hateful, commentary about me. I usually follow her guidance, but on occasion I let curiosity get the better of me and allow the comments section to scroll while I’m on air. One comment, made recently, jumped out at me. I was talking about the heavy human cost that the conflict between Russia and Ukraine had inflicted on both nations. I was doing my best to reflect my honest opinion—that war was wasteful and should be avoided at all costs. But in making my points, I would often times discuss aspects of the fighting, detailing tactics and weaponry that contributed to the high human toll.
“Ritter claims to be anti-war,” one comment observed, “but look at his eyes. He loves war.”
That’s my dirty little secret.
I do love war.
But I also hate war.
I genuinely desire peace.
But I desperately need conflict.
I am addicted to war.
This addiction is hard to explain, especially to those who do not suffer from it. Even among fellow addicts, we cover up the addiction by excusing its symptoms. “Thank you for your service” is one such example. “Service” implies something harmless, something honorable, something society can stomach. It seeks to explain away all that which cannot be explained.
Back in 2006-2007 I served my community as a volunteer firefighter. To perfect my skills as a firefighter, I sought out regional professional fire departments who would allow me to participate in what was known as a “ride along.” This was more than simple fire tourism—as a certified New York State firefighter, I would bring my personal protective equipment, and respond to all fire calls during a 24-hour shift as a member of the crew.
I had developed a friendship with a Poughkeepsie firefighter from Engine 2, which served the 7th Ward of the City of Poughkeepsie from Station 2, located in the O.H. Booth Hose Company building on 532 Main Street. The building was constructed in 1907, at a time when the City of Poughkeepsie Fire Department consisted of volunteers who responded to fires using horse-drawn fire apparatus. Even though the fire horse was retired by the early 1920’s, replaced by firetrucks, the O.H. Booth Hose Company building retained some of the unique architectural features associated with the era of horse-drawn apparatus, including the feeding and watering troughs.
The City of Poughkeepsie firefighters, by this time all professional, were very proud of their heritage, and would regale me with the history of their fire department, and especially the history of Station 2. When the O.H. Booth Hose Company (present day Station 2) responded to fires in the first part of the 20th century, it was with a 1400-pound coal-fired steamer which required three horses to pull it. Fire horses needed to be strong, fast, and remain calm around fires and crowds of people. The Poughkeepsie Fire Department, like other fire departments around the United States, preferred a crossbreed of Morgan and Percheron horses.
The station was equipped with a quick-hitch harness that was suspended from the ceiling. The fire horses were trained to respond from their stalls at the sound of the fire bell and stand still underneath the harness while it was lowered on a frame to their backs; in this way, the horses were ready to respond to a fire call in less than a minute. The horses were well-trained, and would follow the smell of smoke, arriving at the fire scene, where they would be unhitched and positioned a short distance away while the fire crew battled the blaze.
While the firefighters prized their horses, and took exceptional care of them, the fire service was difficult on their health, and the average service life for a fire horse was approximately five years. Once trained to fight fires, a fire horse was unsuited for other duties. The firefighters would raise money for each horse so that it could be put to pasture once they lost their ability to perform.
The Poughkeepsie firefighters told the story of the last fire horse who was stabled on a farm just outside the city limits. This arrangement did not last long, however—the first time the horse heard the fire alarm, he jumped the fence and went charging up the city streets until he arrived at the station. There, he assumed his position in the fire bay, waiting to be harnessed to an apparatus that no longer existed, a warrior whose services were no longer needed, and yet who yearned to continue serving.
The final verse of Paul Simon’s haunting song, The Boxer, comes closest to capturing the dichotomy of service, and having served.
In the clearing stands a boxer
And a fighter by his trade
And he carries the reminders
Of every glove that laid him down
Or cut him till he cried out
In his anger and his shame
“I am leaving, I am leaving”
But the fighter still remains
The fighter will always answer the bell, even if he shouldn’t, until he cannot.
Looking back on my life, I am struck by the similarities between myself and the noble fire horses from times past. I, too, yearn for the sound of the alarm—wild-eyed, chest heaving, wanting nothing more to be harnessed to the engine so I can do that which has caused me so much pain and suffering in the service of a calling that is built on the pain and suffering of others.
It is my addiction.
“Faces, sounds and lights began to move in my mind over the dark screen of the foliage; there was the crackle of flames and the screech of shellfire; Darko and The Jokers; an old woman with her broken teeth falling bloodily down her chest; a girl’s severed ear; the last letter in its blue envelop; Hamdu, the Tigers and the final attack; frightened soldiers, the reek of smoke, and the clatter of a gunship. My war gone by, I miss it so.”
These words were written by Anthony Lloyd, a former British Army officer-turned journalist, in his powerful book, My War Gone By, I Miss It So.
Lloyd takes the reader on an intimate journey about the addictive qualities of war. The logic of the quoted passage escapes most—the horrors Lloyd poetically recounts, contrasted with the final sentence, a lover’s lament.
Like me, Lloyd was addicted to war. Unlike me, when he no longer had a war to fuel his addiction, he became addicted to heroin.
I became addicted to danger.
“The mentality and behavior of drug addicts and alcoholics is wholly irrational until you understand that they are completely powerless over their addiction.”
Those words were written by the comedian Russell Brand, who has documented his own struggles with addiction.
“It is possible to live differently if you are a drug addict,” Brand recently declared. “It is possible to live differently if you are suffering. It is possible to live differently if you live in a twisted and broken culture.”
But Brand will be the first to admit that the journey from addiction to recovery is, in many ways, a Sisyphean task. In a telling scene from his 2012 documentary, Addiction to Recovery, Brand watches a video clip of him doing drugs. “This is the thing,” Brand said, looking at the film, “where I know it’s a disease. Whenever I see me in that flat, and it’s happening, and now I’m sitting in the Savoy Hotel, I’m jealous of me then.”
My war gone by, I miss it so.
Addictions just don’t happen on their own. The reality is that inside of every being, there is an addict waiting to be exposed.
My addiction to war was first exposed on the painted yellow footprints that awaited my on the hot asphalt of Camp Upshur, located on the sprawling Marine Corps base in Quantico, Virginia, just south of Washington, DC.
The term “Shark Attack” in the Marine Corps describes what happens the moment someone steps off the bus, and on to the yellow footprints. Marine Corps Drill Instructors, operating in pairs reinforced by a roving Senior Drill Instructor, descend on each would-be Marine, screaming in their face’s unintelligible commands, demanding absolute obedience, and insisting nothing the recruit does is remotely acceptable. The “Shark Attack” is terrifying, designed to establish psychological dominance while shocking the recruits fight or flight reflex by stressing their bodies and minds to the highest degree possible.
As part of my Officer Candidate training, I did two trips through Camp Upshur (the first was curtailed by injury), and one through Camp Brown, before graduating college and being commissioned as an Officer of Marines. The “Shark Attacks” never subsided.
The summer heat in Quantico was, literally, mind-bendingly hot. The officer trainees would be called upon to perform exacting physical tasks in this heat, often resulting in a candidate collapsing due to heat exhaustion or, even worse, heat stroke. The first time a candidate went down due to heat, his t-shirt would be marked with the letter “H,” so that the instructors and medical personnel could keep a closer eye on them. If a trainee succumbed to heat a second time, they were washed out of the program. The training lasted for a period of six weeks; generally speaking, anyone who went down from heat in the first four weeks would not graduate from the program, because the instructors would go out of their way to make sure that the candidate would collapse one more time.
I had a reputation for speaking my mind, which is not a reputation one wants to have when going through Marine officer candidate school. As a result, I was often targeted for the “Shark Attack” treatment. I infuriated the instructors by refusing to flinch or back down. This got me marked for even more special treatment.
One of the hallmarks of officer candidate school is the Endurance Course, which starts with a double running of the traditional obstacle course wearing combat boots, utility pants, and a t-shirt, before donning combat gear and a rifle to run a 3.2-mile course filled with a variety of obstacles, including the infamous “Quigley” water obstacle. The event is timed, and passing the endurance course is a prerequisite for graduation.
I had scored a perfect 300 in the physical fitness test the week before we were to run the Endurance Course, and the instructors were giving me a hard time about wanting to set a record for the Endurance Course. “You’re a pussy, Ritter,” they’d sneer. “You don’t have what it takes.”
The harassment continued up until the day of the test. I was given the “Shark Attack” treatment up until the moment the whistle blew, starting the clock. I did the double running of the obstacle course, geared up, and began to run the course.
It was a hot day, unofficially “black flag” conditions, based on “wet-bulb globe temperature” which is a calculation of ambient temperature, humidity, sunlight exposure, and wind speed which, when considered together, show a temperature above 90 degrees. Because no physical activity is permitted under black flag conditions, the data was fudged to generate a red flag measurement, which allowed for physical training to take place under close monitoring.
The Endurance Course was run using a staggered start, with candidates going off every minute. My standard practice when running courses like this would be to find a Marine in front of me, and focus on passing that person, after which time I would pick another, then another. I used this technique to good effect and was making good time.
We had to run with two full canteens of water, which would be checked at the end of the course to make sure you hadn’t emptied them to lighten your load. This meant that you had no drinking water available while running the course. About a mile in, I could feel the heat getting to me, but I kept plugging along. At two miles my body was starting to react, with my skin flushing and my limbs going numb. The instructors, staggered along the way, were like sharks sensing blood. They saw me stumble, and they were on me in a minute.
“Quit, Ritter,” they shouted.
The instructor would run next to me, shouting in the side of my face, only to be replaced by another one a few hundred meters down the track, who picked up where the other had stopped.
“You know you want to quit, Ritter,” they yelled. “Come on, I got some nice cold water over here for you.”
I kept going, but it was getting harder and harder to focus. My vision became blurry, and I started seeing things in tunnel vision. By the time I cleared the Quigley (a water obstacle filled with the vilest liquid mixture imaginable which required the officer candidate to swim under barbed wire, crawl through submerged pipes, and navigate across submerged logs), I was literally on my last legs. At this juncture I was swarmed by instructors, all of whom were encouraging me to quit. At their head was my nemesis, the senior instructor, who yelled the loudest, his insults rising above all the others.
“You’re a disgrace to the Marine Corps,” he shouted. “Do us all a favor and quit. You’re an embarrassment.”
I kept running, focused on a finish line I could barely make out through my fading vision.
They kept yelling. “Fall down, already. Just quit. You know you can’t make it.”
I kept running, finally crossing the finish line.
Then the most amazing thing happened. My legs started to buckle, and I felt the senior instructors’ arms grab me. “Keep going,” he whispered. “You made it this far. Don’t let them mark you with an ‘H’.”
He called over to two of the instructors who had been hazing me all day long, including as I approached the finish line. “Walk Ritter over to the shade. Get some water on his head. Don’t let the medics check him.” He checked his stopwatch. “The son of a bitch almost set a course record. In this heat!”
I graduated that summer as the Platoon honor man. There was a lot to be proud of that summer. But the thing that stood out the most for me was finishing the Endurance Course. I had been subjected to the ultimate “fight or flight” experience possible, and I chose to fight.
I ran the Endurance Course in the summer of 1983. I was commissioned in May 1984, and for the next four years I was involved in a wide variety of training opportunities, most of which involved perfecting the art of putting high explosive munitions on a designated target. The “Shark Attack” was a technique only used at the basic training level. But the concept of subjecting a trainee to stress is universal. So, too, is the methodology of triggering the “fight or flight” reflex. The goal of all this training was to condition the trainee to respond without thinking under the most stressful conditions.
There is a physical high associated with intense training. The more intense the training, the more the body yearned for this rush. Even after your body learned to adapt to the stress, you would still generate the buzz that comes from the fight or flight reflex, even though you were conditioned to always fight.
After a while, all you want to do is train, to find the next challenge, to conquer the next obstacle.
Back in the day, fire horses were put through intensive training by their handlers before being assigned to a fire station. Light a fire near a normal horse, and it bolts. Surround a normal horse with shouting men, the clang of machines, smoke, and screams, and it bolts. It is the “flight” mechanism of the “fight or flight” response that is automatically triggered to events that are perceived as stressful or frightening. To overcome this “flight” mechanism, a fire horse was conditioned to “fight.” This was done through conditioning, by repeated exposure to those events which cause stress, with the idea that, over time, the “fight” mechanism will overwhelm the “flight” mechanism.
Horses are naturally afraid of fires, and the smoke from a fire is harsh on a horse’s eyes and lungs. And yet, despite the instinctive desire to flee from that which it feared and which brough pain and agony, the fire horse jumped at the call of the alarm, positioning itself for duty—to run towards that which it was predisposed to run away from.
To overcome the urge to flee, fire horses put themselves into a chemically induced state of self-preservation where both adrenaline and cortisol were released in large amounts. Because of the need to respond at any time, day or night, fire horses would become neurologically conditioned to release adrenaline and cortisol, which would leave the horses emotionally unbalanced, unable to differentiate between reality and whatever memory they relied upon to trigger their response.
Lou Reed’s version of Heroin, performed live on the album Rock n Roll Animal, perhaps best captures the rapture of an adrenaline-fueled addiction. At 7:49, the song begins its final passage, a journey from the dark recesses of the mind of an addict, the quiet place where there is nothing but your own mangled thoughts.
Heroin, be the death of me
Heroin, it’s my wife and it’s my life
Because a mainer to my vein
Leads to a center in my head
And then I’m better off than dead
Then, slowly, relentlessly, the addiction grabs hold, and you lose control, surrendering to that which you hate, embracing that which you detest, the contradictory sensations colliding into a cacophony of sound that explodes with violence that is beyond cathartic.
When the smack begins to flow
Then I really don’t care anymore
About all the Jim-Jims in this town
And everybody putting everybody else down
And all of the politicians makin’ crazy sounds
All the dead bodies piled up in mounds, yeah
At 10:04 a guitar solo begins that consumes the listener with passionate fury.
I used to play this song when driving by myself. When the guitar solo began, I would become lost to the world. There’s a stretch of highway near my home where, if you catch the lights just right, you can drive unimpeded for several miles. The speed limit there is 55 miles per hour. I once caught myself clocking in at over 100 miles per hour after listening to that guitar solo.
I don’t allow myself to play that song while driving any more.
Earlier this month I was invited to participate in a conference in Switzerland. Hosted by the Mut zur Ethik society (which roughly translates into English as “the courage to live and act with integrity), the conference brought together people that the organizers believed lived their lives in a way that mirrored their ethos.
I made a few presentations, but two stand out in this regard. The first was a discussion of my book, Disarmament in the Time of Perestroika. The organizers were taken by my telling of the moment where I made the transition from being a Marine dedicated to killing Russians, to a human invested in the cause of peaceful coexistence. I accurately recounted the emotions of that moment, on New Years Eve 1988, in the apartment of a Russian engineer. He had invited me and three other inspectors into his home, to meet his family and neighbors, and to celebrate the New Year. During this visit, I was overwhelmed with the notion that I no longer wanted to kill Russians, but rather, having seen the engineer interact with his family, I realized that he only wanted what I wanted—a life where one could live in peace, love a woman, raise a family.
It was an honest recounting of that moment, and the impact it had on me.
And it was a lie.
The second presentation was at the end of the conference. I opened myself up to the organizers and attendees, talking about a moment during the Gulf War, shortly after a planned raid I was preparing to undertake together with US Navy commandos had been cancelled. On the night that we were scheduled to insert into southern Iraq aboard a helicopter, I instead found myself outdoors, staring up at the moon and the stars.
I was accompanied by an Australian officer who had been attached to the US military. We started talking about the mission that had been cancelled, what the chances of success would have been, and what the consequences of failure would have looked like. As we spoke about the various iterations of fate that could have befallen the raid team, I began focusing on the moon, and at one point, in a pause in the conversation, found myself being drawn into space, experiencing, indirectly, what has become to be known as the “overview effect,” a feeling of awe about the beauty and fragility of Earth. I was transported from where I stood in the desert of eastern Saudi Arabia, upward, until I was hovering over the theater of operations, my target visible off on the horizon, and then further, until all I could see was the Arabian Peninsula, which then disappeared into the blue and white marble that was Earth.
Suddenly my cancelled mission, which up until that time had been the most important thing in the world to me, seemed trivial and insignificant. So, too, did the war I was participating in. I had done everything I could to be right where I was because I believed it to be my destiny. In the blink of an eye, none of it mattered anymore.
The Australian officer and I talked about space travel, what it must be like to have traveled to the moon and back, and compared the magnitude of that accomplishment with what we were doing here on Earth.
“It sort of puts it all in perspective,” the Aussie said.
“Yes, it does,” I replied. “I don’t think I want to be fighting wars anymore. When this one is over, I’m going to get out of the Marines and find something more meaningful to do with my life.”
It was the most honest thing I could say at that moment.
And it was a lie.
You see, I had trained my entire life to find and kill the beast. In Russia, I had come face to face with the reality that this mission was needless, that the beast didn’t exist. If there was no beast, logic held, then there was no need to go to war.
And yet, less than six months after leaving Russia, I found myself in Saudi Arabia, once again chasing the beast. And once again, while reflecting on the fragility of the planet, I concluded that the hunt was a fool’s errand.
But I was lying to myself.
The next day I was back in the business of finding a way to get me close to the beast. It waited for me, just over the border in Iraq. All I had to do was find a way to get there. The fact that the war ended without me achieving that objective continues to count as one of the greatest failures in my life.
When it was time for me to go home once the fighting ended, I was pulled directly from the field and put on the first available aircraft out of Saudi Arabia. My desert fatigues and boots were caked in filth, and I smelled exactly how one would imagine someone to smell who had not showered for days. Upon my arrival at home, I stripped off my clothes, filled the tub with hot water, and submerged my body. The water quickly turned black from the dirt, dust, and unspeakable detritus of war that I had brought back with me. I emptied the tub three times before the water stopped changing color.
Thus cleansed, I rose from the tub, put on civilian clothes for the first time in months, and headed out to dinner with an old friend. Sitting in the restaurant, I was taken aback about how little the people around me cared about the war, and the men and women still serving over there. I started to get angry, before realizing that I wasn’t mad at them, but myself. I had failed. I should have been thrilled to be home, to be alive. Instead, I felt empty inside.
I struggled with this emptiness in the weeks and months that followed. I didn’t like what I had become, and when given the opportunity to remain in the Marines, I opted instead to leave. I had plans—I was going to marry, start a family, and find employment suitable for that task. I put the Marine Corps in the rear-view mirror of life.
There’s a scene in the movie, The Godfather Part 3, where Michael Corleone, played by Al Pacino, finds out that he has been double-crossed by the mafia, forcing him to turn his back on a legitimate life, and instead return to a life of crime. “Just when I thought I was out,” Michael laments, “they pull me back in!”
At first, one wants to feel some sympathy for Michael. But soon you realize that he has returned to his natural element. He was never meant for a life of legitimacy.
I left the Marine Corps in June 1991. In August, I received a phone call from my former boss, an Army Colonel, inviting me to come work for him as a member of the United Nations Special Commission, or UNSCOM, charged with disarming Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction as part of the ceasefire agreement that had brought an end to the fighting.
Without hesitation, I said yes.
“Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in!”
The job was supposed to be strictly analytical, involving the collection and assessment of intelligence information in support of on-site inspections carried out by teams of UNSCOM inspectors inside Iraq. I had promised my wife that this was a safe job, that there was nothing to worry about.
In December 1991, UNSCOM began preparing for a major inspection in Iraq that closely mirrored the aborted raids that I had planned during the war but was unable to carry out. Some Delta Force operators came up to New York to help plan the mission. I had worked with Delta Force in the latter stages of the war, on yet another aborted raid behind Iraqi lines. The war had ended before the mission could be executed. Now, ten months later, the opportunity to right what was, for me, the greatest wrong of my life, had manifested itself before me.
I had flown to the Republic of Georgia in November 1991, where I married my wife, Marina. She was still in Georgia, waiting for her visa to be issued, and was expected to arrive in New York just before Christmas. She was the embodiment of my new life, my everything. I was supposed to meet her at the airport, and take her to New Mexico, where we would spend the Christmas holiday together. Instead, I lobbied to get myself placed on the inspection. The Delta Force planners believed Iraq was hiding ballistic missiles from UNSCOM, and there was uncertainty about what would happen if we found them. There was concern that the Iraqis might take the inspection team hostage, and Delta Force had deployed its forces along the border with Iraq, ready to move in and rescue the inspectors if needed.
The beast was calling, and I heeded the call. It was the first time that I abandoned my wife in pursuit of the beast. It would not be the last.
Each inspection was an escalation in confrontation, with the Iraqis and UNSCOM inspectors engaged in a deadly game of chicken, seeing who would back down first, both sides knowing that if neither yielded, the outcome would be war.
In March 1992, backed by the force of the US military, UNSCOM inspectors made the Iraqis blink first, compelling them to reveal the locations where they had secretly destroyed missiles so that inspectors would not find them.
In July 1992, it was the inspector’s turn to blink, having been thwarted outside the gates of the Ministry of Agriculture, where the Iraqis were hiding documents related to their weapons of mass destruction programs.
I was at the center of both these inspections, serving as the operations officer responsible for planning and executing the inspections, and for coordinating with the CIA and Delta Force regarding potential rescue scenarios. With each inspection, the odds of a decisive confrontation increased.
In August 1992, I helped plan an inspection which was designed to force the Iraqis’ hand—we were going to surround the Ministry responsible for producing weapons of mass destruction before the war. This was a veritable suicide mission—the Ministry in question was headed by Saddam Hussein’s son-in-law, Hussein Kamal. If he was in the building when we arrived, there was a 100 percent chance that the Iraqis would try to arrest the team and hold us hostage.
We had a contingency plan in place which had us breaking up into two-vehicle teams. Experienced Delta Force and CIA operatives would drive the vehicles to a pre-designated spot in the desert outside Baghdad, where we would be rescued or, failing that, we would seek refuge in a friendly embassy. We were a few hours away from executing the mission when someone in Washington, DC leaked to the media our inspection plan. Instead of starting a crisis, the Iraqis preempted our inspection by instead inviting the team leadership to a meeting with senior Iraqi officials in the Ministry in question.
I could hear the beast barking at me, mocking me.
I was an inspector for nearly seven years. Throughout that time, I relentlessly pursued the beast, trying in vain to trigger a crisis which would give me the violence I so deeply craved. My actions became increasingly foolhardy. During one inspection, I insisted on leading a team of inspectors into a Presidential residential area, despite being warned by both Delta Force and the CIA that if I and my team were detained by the Iraqis, there was nothing they could do for us. We were escorted into the facility in question by Saddam Kamal, Hussein Kamal’s younger brother and one of Saddam Hussein’s personal bodyguards.
I continued to push the envelope. In the summer of 1997, I got in a shouting match with Saddam’s eldest son, Uday Hussein, prompting him to order his bodyguards to kill me. Fortunately for me, they got drunk and, upon exiting their vehicle to make the hit, one of the would-be assassins ending up shooting himself in the leg.
During this time my wife had given birth to our twin daughters, and our family had grown by an additional two persons as her parents came to live with us after being forced to flee their home in Georgia because of a civil war. I was needed at home, but instead I continued to chase the beast, all the while telling my wife that there was no problem at all—I was just a simple inspector, the same guy she had met when we worked together in the Soviet Union implementing the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty.
I was lying. The job I was doing was extremely hazardous. Every inspection I was on was designed to provoke a confrontation which could result in war. I had become the leading force behind these inspections and was increasingly singled out by Iraq as the most reviled of all the inspectors.
I was becoming immune to fear, and as such started taking even greater risks. On one inspection, while trying to load missile parts onto the UNSCOM aircraft so we could have them evaluated in laboratories in the US, France, and Russia, our aircraft was surrounded by armed Iraqi security. When one of them jostled an inspector who was filming the standoff, I confronted the senior Iraqi present. He scoffed at me, patting his pistol. “You’re not the law here,” he sneered. “This is.”
I lost it. I got face to face with him and dared him to pull out his pistol and shoot me. “Do it!” I screamed. “DO IT! SHOOT ME!”
Everyone watching was shocked, including the Iraqi security officer. He hesitated, then backed away.
I went home in time to celebrate my wife’s birthday. She had no idea what I had become, for the simple fact that I did not shared any of what I was feeling, and how I was acting out as a result, with her.
My final inspection, in August 1998, was designed to be a hostage mission. I was to lead a team of inspectors into the heart of downtown Baghdad and surround the regional Ba’ath Party Headquarters—the equivalent of surrounding the Republican and Democratic national committee buildings. We believed that the Iraqis were hiding ballistic missile components inside, and our goal was to compel the Iraqis either to let us in, in which case we expected to find the parts in question, or have the Iraqis take us prisoner, in which case the US would begin bombing Iraq.
The mission was cancelled by the United States, prompting my resignation.
The beast sneered at me with disdain.
I spent the next three years holding the US to account for its failed and inconsistent policy regarding Iraq. I openly condemned the US for the 72-hour bombing campaign unleashed on Iraq in December 1998, rightly noting that the US had failed to make its case regarding Iraqi non-compliance.
I soon became one of the leading advocates against US policy in Iraq. I flew to Iraq in the summer of 2000 to film a documentary, In Shifting Sands, which exposed the lie of the US position regarding Iraqi WMD. I flew to Iraq again in September 2002 to address the Iraqi Parliament and senior Iraqi officials to get them to allow UN weapons inspectors to return to work, something I believed would help prevent a war with Iraq. I view both trips as highlights of my life, some of the most important work I have ever done.
But I was living a lie.
In the summer of 2003, after the US invasion or Iraq, it became clear that the US was going to be in Iraq for a long time. I wrote an Op Ed in the New York Times making the case that the US was about to become embroiled in an insurgency it was ill-prepared to deal with.
I could hear the beast howl.
In August 2003, I called the Marine Corps, offering my services. “I know Iraq inside and out,” I said. “My knowledge could be invaluable to Marine commanders on the ground.”
The recruiter was skeptical. “You’re pretty well-known as being against this war,” he said.
“I was, and am,” I replied. “But I can’t stand back and do nothing while Marines are engaged in a fight where my knowledge and experience might save lives.”
The recruiter made some calls, before coming back with the bad news. “Your marriage to your wife precludes you being brought back on active duty as an intelligence officer.”
Marina had become a US citizen while I was still with the United Nations. But the fact that she was a citizen of the former Soviet Union was still seen as a strike against my patriotism.
I was crushed. For a fleeting moment, I had thought that I would, once again, get the chance to chase the beast down, to confront it face to face, and to finally find out the true measure of myself as a man.
In the summer of 2001, I joined the Delmar Fire Department. I was struggling with depression brought on by a lack of action—my body craved the adrenaline that had coursed through my veins during seven years as an inspector. Fighting fire was the closest thing I could find that would satisfy my urge to wrestle with the beast.
Once again, I abandoned my wife and kids in pursuit of my inner demons. I trained harder than any other firefighter in the department. I spent thousands of dollars of my own money to sharpen my skills, attending academies throughout the US and around the world. My life revolved around the fire pager, waiting for the tone to sound, followed by the announcement, “Stand by Delmar Fire…”
Most of our calls were minor—traffic accidents, carbon monoxide alarms, false alarms. But a few times a month, the voice on the pager would announce a “Signal 30”—a working fire. When a Signal 30 was called, nothing could stand in the way of my responding. I abandoned my family at the store, and in restaurants. I left the Thanksgiving table. I left Christmas presents unopened. Because nothing—NOTHING—was going to stand between me and an opportunity to fight the beast.
Most Signal 30 calls were quickly resolved—minor fires that could be knocked down by the initial responding crews. The beast never reared its horrible visage.
But occasionally, the beast would be waiting. I remember one call in particular, a basement fire in a split-level private dwelling. My engine was second due, meaning that we would be pulling the back-up line. The first due engine had already advanced a line into the building. I was the nozzleman on our line, and led the way into the building, crawling low to get underneath the heavy smoke that was pushing out the door. I followed the hose from the first due engine as it made its way to the basement entrance. Before I could make my way down the stairs, I ran into a firefighter exiting the building. I paused, waiting for the second firefighter, knowing that we worked in pairs. But he didn’t show up, so me and the backup firefighter pushed forward, until we found the other firefighter, manning the initial line by himself (the other firefighter had panicked, and fled the building, abandoning his partner—a mortal sin).
We were crouched as low as we could be on the staircase leading to the basement, blinded by the heavy smoke that was pulsing its way up the stairs, and burning from the heat. “We’ve got to move,” my backup firefighter said, “or we’re going to get cooked.”
Below us, the fire burned through the door, and blasted its way up the staircase, which by this time had become little more than a giant chimney. The firefighter in front of me was surrounded by flames, so I opened the nozzle, spraying him down with water, and knocking the flames back. We worked our way down the stairs, one step at a time, with me constantly knocking back the fire from the lead firefighter, as well as from the ceiling above us.
I could tell when the fire had made its way over my head by the searing heat on the back of my neck. You couldn’t see it as much as you felt it, and when it got over you, the heat was unbearable. I would open the nozzle, turning the flame into steam, which banked down over us, boiling us like a trio of lobsters.
We made it to the bottom of the stairwell when the low air alarm went off on the firefighter from the lead line. Behind us I could hear a third crew making their way down the stairs, dispatched by the Chief to search for the abandoned firefighter. They escorted him out of the building, before making their way back to pick up the now unmanned lead hose.
This left me and my backup firefighter alone to face the beast. I started knocking the fire down with long streams of water, inching my way forward to locate the seat of the fire—its point of origin. The basement was fully involved, flames ripping from top to bottom. I’d sweep the fire away in one direction, only to find that it had returned while I sprayed water in another. The fire kept trying to make a run for it over our head, to get behind us, in the stairwell, cutting off our retreat. I had to keep knocking it down on the ceiling, during which time the beast would regroup to my front, trying to outflank us.
For a second, I looked at the flames, which had manifested themselves into a living being, who stared back at me, mocking me.
“I see you,” I thought. “I see you.”
And in the hiss of the steam and the crackle of the flames, I swore I could hear it replying to me:
“And I see you, too.”
My low air alarm went off, which meant it was time for me to exit the building. I could hear the third crew making their way down the stairs, so I opened the nozzle one more time, driving the beast back.
“I see you…”
Outside, in the chill air of a crisp autumn night, I changed out my air bottle, and made my way back to the entrance of the building, anxious to return to battle, to finish the beast off once and for all. But the fire had taken its toll—I had blisters on the back of my neck and ears from the searing heat, and the Chief pulled me out and had me report to the medics.
For me, the battle was over.
I spent several more years chasing down the beast. Sometimes I caught up with him, and we fought. I’d emerge from some battles feeling victorious, only to find that beast still lived, still haunted me.
The thing about the beast, you see, is he never dies. He cannot be killed if you are alive because, at the end of the day, the beast is in you.
I was the beast. I was fighting myself.
I realized this harsh truth near the end of my time with the fire department. I’ve written about this event before, an attic fire in a restaurant where, caught up in the throes of depression, I contemplated ending it all by removing my mask, and letting the beast win by drawing his fatal flame into my lungs.
In the end I chose life.
But even here, I am lying.
The beast chose life, because if I died, he died with me.
The beast needed me to live.
To answer the alarm.
To infuse my body with the self-destructive chemicals produced by fear and stress.
To live out my addiction.
It’s a shameful moment when one comes face to face with the reality of their addiction because it compels the kind of honesty that had escaped them for their entire life up until that moment. But honesty with oneself is one thing.
Being honest with those you love is another.
There’s a great television series, The Patriot. It ran for two seasons. It tells the story of a CIA officer who suffers from post-traumatic stress. The only way he can communicate his true feelings is through song. While on one mission, in the throes of suicidal depression, the CIA officer sends his wife a tape containing a song that described what he was going through.
This song is called Charles Grodin.
There’s something I have to tell you
I haven’t told you
And it’s going to scare you
There’s this actor named Charles Grodin
He’s smart and charming with an easy-going vibe
He was in this movie Midnight Run
Which is why they named this crazy bike race after him
That I can’t stop doing
I’ve been riding my bike at night
Through red lights and stop signs and railroad tracks
Against these crazy messenger guys
In between buses and oncoming traffic
Sweetheart, I guess I want to say
If I get hurt real bad
That would be okay
There’d be nothing to fix, hold, or fold
Nothing to lift or find or transfer
Nothing to sleep on or remember
Nothing to hide, forget, or figure out
Nothing to conceal or carry
Or break, wear down, wear out, or bury
Adrenaline, especially when combined with stress, is highly addictive. Cortisol, when released in large amounts over time, suppresses the immune system. Fire horses, when responding to the alarm bell, were literally killing themselves. And yet, eyes wide open and wild, inured to the fear generated by fire due to the addiction to the adrenaline that fire produced, the fire horse waited, heart pounding and chest heaving, for the harness to be hitched so that it could lunge into the trace, pulling the impossible weight of the engine toward its date with danger and destiny.
The story of the fire horse who fled the farm to take his post at the sound of the fire alarm has a tragic ending. The horse jumped the fence time and time again, until the firefighters, concerned for the safety of their horse and the citizens of the city, arranged for the horse to be pastured further upstate, beyond the reach of the fire alarm. The horse, addicted to the adrenaline rush that was generated by each fire call, was now denied its soothing rush, and with its health compromised by the overabundance of cortisol in its blood stream, passed away shortly thereafter.
Today I live the quiet life of a fire horse that has been put out to pasture. My body is a wreck, ravaged by years of adrenaline addiction, my immune system suppressed because of an overdose of cortisol. I find it increasingly difficult to walk, to enjoy the physicality of life as I once did.
Yet I am happy, surrounded by a loving wife, secure in the home we have built together, enthralled by the family we have created and nourished, and enamored by the life we have led, and which we continue to lead.
When I write these words, I am telling the truth.
Just don’t look into my eyes.
Like Russell Brand, I think back to the days when I chased the beast, and I am jealous of those times.
My war gone by, I miss it so.
I hear the howl of the beast daily.
I try to ignore it, knowing that, like heroin, it would be the death of me.
But like the boxer, I remain, yearning for one last time in the harness, one last lunge into the trace, one last gallop down the street, once last race with the beast, before time takes its final toll, and the beast and I slip away, together, from this mortal life.