“The Marine Corps is a culture far removed from the society it protects. Its rites of passage purposely sever those ties.”

So writes Andrew Milburn in the introduction to When the Tempest Gathers (Pen and Sword Books), his detailed memoir as a Marine Corps leader in Mogadishu, Baghdad, Fallujah, Mosul and in the fight against ISIS.

Marines, with their ritual, tradition, obedience and hierarchy, thrive in a profession that most Americans would tend to avoid. “It is the camaraderie engendered by shared hardship for a common cause that helps offset the trauma of combat.” 

And of course, there is the constant specter of death. He so effectively writes that they “draw their first breath as Marines on this same parade deck [and] draw their last in places with no significance.” Marines accept the possibility of death as “an implicit clause in the contract.”

Yes, Andrew Milburn is a Marine — his chosen life. And there’s something else as he meticulously describes one precarious leadership assignment after another: Andrew Milburn is a human.

On the one hand, he notes how nothing gets Marines more excited than the prospect of action. He practically pouts at one point when he doesn’t get an assignment at the front.

Remember that Milburn’s accounts are not of choosing teams in some pickup game where winners and losers shake hands and move on. The stories and events he describes are quite real, and as a writer, he wants readers to feel and understand the experience. Take fear — it’s hard not to have it. If you want to know how scared to be, he cites George MacDonald Fraser who says to just look at the men around you, with most eyes gravitating to the command leader.

Milburn takes you inside his feelings, whether it is simply assessing strategy at a battle scene, sucking it up under the weight of constant high-level scrutiny, or having to identify bodies from a helicopter crash and travel the country to console their families.

He also takes readers inside his own family life, and laments how his job has not allowed for as much attention to his children as a more typical vocation might. Facing a potential personal tragedy, he vows to do better if given another chance.

Gluttons for military detail will marvel at this work and appreciate the fine writing. He describes a scene in advance of conflict: “Below me, the lights of Mosul glimmered with deceptive tranquility. I had been up on the front several times, but still found it surreal to look down on the city that was our ultimate objective. It seemed so close, so reachable, so strangely benign, as though you could just get in a car and drive there … There was nothing to suggest that this was a city in the grip of medieval savagery and under siege.”

Milburn comes off as a great history teacher as he dissects his experiences within the big picture, but also captures the human drama and emotion of men in the trenches, banded together in the most unusual of circumstances. The author makes you feel their sweat, their stench, their apprehension and their commitment to the task at hand.

There’s a bigger question that Milburn also addresses — the “why” of war and the decisions that people in power make to enter it at a cost of trillions of dollars and thousands of lives.

But those are not decisions that Marines have to make. “They realize they have joined a profession that commits them to being instruments, but not architects, of national policy.”

He fittingly sums up this observation with a quote from the poet Lord Alfred Tennyson: “Theirs is not to reason why; theirs is but to do and die.”

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About Andrew Milburn:

Col. Andrew Milburn was born in Hong Kong and grew up in the United Kingdom where he attended St. Paul’s School and University College London before enlisting in the U.S. Marine Corps as a private. As a Marine infantry and special operations officer, he has commanded in combat at almost every rank. He retired in 2019 as the Chief of Staff of Special Operations Command, Central (SOCCENT), the headquarters responsible for the conduct of all U.S. special operations throughout the Middle East. He and his wife Jessica live in Tampa, FL, with their two children and a coterie of rescued dogs.