CJ Chivers’ excellent profile of Marine veteran Sam Siatta in a New York Times article called “The Fighter” has a lot in common with Phil Zabriskie’s equally excellent The Kill Switch, in which Zabriskie explores how fighting men learn to kill in combat and how they feel about it afterwards by examining the thoughts and actions of two Marines. Both authors, for example, are curious about the connection between combat prowess and post-deployment violent behavior. Reading “The Fighter” and The Kill Switch together, along with a dozen or more other memoirs and profiles I have read over the years, it’s hard not to get the impression that at least some and probably many and maybe most combat veterans like to fight. Whether they are driven by short tempers and familiarity with violence associated with military service and combat or some other consideration is an important question. For the veterans themselves, it seems clear that fighting is a big part of their self-image, as well a preferred way of dealing with things that bother them. What’s not clear is whether they see fighting as a problem, at least until destructive personal consequences become too large to deny. The impression is that they associate fighting with bravery, independence, and excitement, all of which they value very much.
Among other things, both Chivers and Zabriskie describe the interest of Marine combat veterans in mixed-martial-arts fighting, or “MMA.” For their protagonists, MMA provides a “legit” outlet for aggression, and maybe even a means of productively structuring their lives and making a living. But whether MMA reinforces or exacerbates aggression, rather than channeling it, is another question to consider. In any case, after reading The Kill Switch about a year ago, I was inspired to write the following adaptation of Ovid’s Minotaur myth, updated for our modern times. In the original Minotaur myth, a Greek hero named Theseus enters a labyrinth on the island of Crete to fight the half-man/half-bull monster called the Minotaur, who is owned by King Minos. Theseus defeats the Minotaur, but on the way out of the labyrinth he becomes lost until assisted by King Minos’s daughter Ariadne. Theseus runs away with Ariadne, but then Theseus inexplicably dumps Ariadne on the island of Naxos. All is not lost, however, for Ariadne eventually is rescued by Bacchus, the legendary god of revelry and theater.
Ari and Theodopulous
(based on “The Minotaur,” from Ovid’s Metamorphoses)
Ari’s gaze drifted to the TV above the bar. It was tuned to a news channel and though Ari could not hear the broadcast, she could read the banner across the bottom of the screen and she recognized the face on display. It was that of a former boyfriend, a Marine veteran named John “Killer” Theodopulous. A legend for his exploits in Afghanistan, Theodopulous earned his nickname as a captain leading a company of Marines during the hard fighting in Helmand province in 2008. Ari hadn’t known him then, but while they had been together after he left the Corps he had become a successful mixed-martial arts fighter, winning bout after bout in events staged by Ari’s father, himself a larger-than-life entertainment entrepreneur. Ari and Theodopulous had made a great couple for a while, but the relationship didn’t last. After they moved from the East Coast to the West Coast, Theodopulous found someone else and so too, after a while, had Ari. Now she was in Naxos, an artist and musician hangout, with her new boyfriend Baker. On the screen, Theodopulous was proclaiming the need for better health care for veterans. Capitalizing on his legendary fighting prowess, he was now a spokesperson for a large veterans organization. While Baker and his band buddies chattered on about their next gig, Ari thought about when she and Theodopulous had been together.
They met when Theodopulous was in training for a fight with the reigning champion in his weight-class, a fighter known as “The Beast.” “The Beast” had been Ari’s father’s protégé, and now “The Killer” vs. “The Beast” was a natural match for promotion and he had played up the two men’s nicknames to the hilt. Ari’s father had introduced Ari to Theodopulous at a press conference and the two had hit it off immediately. Ari was 25, pretty and popular, and a mixed-martial arts fighter herself who could keep up with Theodopulous’s furious physical energy, which found outlets not just in fighting, but punishing Crossfit workouts and extreme endurance races, as well as beyond-belief all-night drinking bouts with war buddies and, at times, titanic rages directed at people who offended him, such as those who expressed the opinion that duty in Afghanistan shouldn’t have consisted of killing as many Taliban as possible. Theodopulous, decisive and energetic, didn’t have much of a sensitive or inquisitive side, and Ari also didn’t spend much time thinking about things other than the next workout or party. She might have thought her new boyfriend needed help, at some level, that all the physical exertion and fighting prowess was a call for help, but Theodopulous on the surface was such a combination of bluster, bravado, male-one-upmanship, and competitive drive that it would have been hard to convince him, and most of the world, that there was anything wrong with him at all.
During the fight with The Beast, Ari had stood in Theodopulous’s corner along with his trainer and cut-man. In the first round, The Beast had bludgeoned Theodopulous with his fists and then taken him to the mat and nearly pinned him. In the second round, The Beast opened up a nasty cut below one of Theodopulous’s eyes; if the cut had been above the eye, the bleeding would have surely blinded him and the fight would have been called, but as it was blood from the cut merely painted the bottom half of Theodopulous’s face red. In the corner before the third round, Theodopulous tuned out the words his trainer yelled at him and, for the first time in the fight made eye contact with Ari. Ari without hesitation mouthed a single word, “low.” The cryptic suggestion registered immediately and as soon as round three opened Theodopuloous took down The Beast with a short, fast move to the left leg. Within seconds Theodopulous had The Beast in a submission hold and moments later The Beast tapped out. In the ring after the fight, Ari posed with Theodopulous and her father, with Theodopulous wearing his newly-earned title belt and holding an oversized check.
Ari and Theodopulous were on top of the world. Soon they moved to Southern California in pursuit of more lucrative fights and the good life. Theodopulous never acknowledged the help Ari had given him, but neither did he seem unhappy in their relationship. Given their outgoing and active lives, women swirled around them, but when Theodopulous began to drift away from Ari, she couldn’t find evidence that he had found someone else. Still Theodopulous was soon gone, on to other things, things that didn’t include her. Ari brooded for a while, but then began hanging out in Naxos and other places along the shore. Not so long later, she met Baker and now she was with him. Baker was about as different from Theodopulous the Killer as you would expect a musician to be from a mixed-martial-arts champion, but he was cool too in his own way. His band was going places, their local concerts selling out and talk of a national tour and recording contract bubbling. Ari never spoke about Theodopulous with Baker, except to say that she had once gone out with a Marine, and she no longer fought MMA, did Crossfit, or any of the stuff she used to do with Theodopulous. Now, in Naxos, she ran her hand across Baker’s back while watching Theodopulous’s face on the TV screen above the bar.