As we ate, he explained a situation where he almost got into a fight recently. It wasn’t a terribly unique scenario. In fact, were I in his position, I would have done the exact same thing – perhaps with less delicacy than he had handled it. Somebody had attempted to do something inappropriate to a friend, and he had stuck up for her, suggesting that the guy leave now before there was any trouble, but then getting more unpleasant when the guy didn’t.
“I always try to avoid fights,” he told me. “First of all, I hate being punched. It hurts. I’d rather be shot. Gunshots just sting [he knew that from experience], and then they dope you up with morphine and you don’t feel anything. Well, sometimes. But anyway, I just don’t like to get hit.” But he also didn’t like getting into fights, either. Not so much because they were unnecessary violence (sometimes they aren’t), but because he worried about himself.
“Here’s the thing: I try to be diplomatic for as long as I can, but then, probably after being too nice for too long, I just snap. And then, I don’t want to throw punches, I want to actually kill him. So if I start hitting him, I’m not going to just stop when he’s down. I’m going to finish him off. I guess I’m not really afraid of my rage or anything, but I respect it. I know what it could do.”
I asked him if it was rage, or if it was training, which was my first hunch.
“Yeah, good point. It’s probably training. It’s what we’re trained to do. Kill them. Eliminate the threat. Neutralize the target – or whatever you want to call it.”
In Marine Corps boot camp, we had been taught a number of martial arts moves where you get the person on the ground, but then always end with a killing blow. Not breaking the neck or anything pretty like that, but actually a boot stomp to the face. And it was always (at least in training) delivered as a double stomp accompanied by two loud, “Marine Corps” shouts. During training, we thought it was beyond lame. In fact, I still think it is. But it stands that these were the first moves we learned in the Marine Corps Martial Arts Program. And lame as it may have been, it stuck.
What he did not stay, however, was that these tendencies (and the associated fear of them when we’re not supposed to “need” them) aren’t so much training as they are consequence of practical application. Meaning this: once you’ve been in combat, you realize just how easy it is to kill somebody. It sounds horrible, but it’s a fact. With proper conditioning, only some of which comes from military training and the rest coming from social conditioning in our culture, the mechanisms that would normally innately tell us that this is to be avoided are easily, and perhaps permanently disabled. To him, and many others, killing is still easy.
I have never feared for my safety around him, not just because he’s a nice guy, but because I also know that he is fully aware of what he is capable of doing, and therefore works hard to ensure that he doesn’t do it. Nevertheless, the abilities still remain, and they’re something he monitors closely. He’s not a murderer, or particularly violent. None of us are. We just know how to use violence to accomplish things. And the reality is that the ability – though carefully controlled, still exists.
In fact, I don’t consider him any more dangerous than any other guy I know, and nor do I consider myself dangerous. We may not be exactly well-adapted civilians, but we aren’t lunatics, killers, and criminals. We were warriors once. That’s all, and the skills, and perhaps the character itself, persist s long after our part in the conflict has ceased.
I’m almost afraid to write this, since it paints him, and others, and perhaps even me as a threat to the security of society. Yet it was society that we swore to protect – and in many way still do now. We’re latent. Sleepers, if I can borrow the expression from terrorist cells. But we’re not criminals. And if I convey nothing else, that’s what I want to stick with people. Don’t fear us. Help us adjust.
What I have wondered personally, and I know others have as well, is if these abilities or tendencies ever go away. I’m sure they’re tempered with old age, poor health, and weight – since a 400 pound man on a motorized scooter isn’t going to be doing much, for example. But the mentality may still be there. I’ll bet that if I asked a Vietnam vet, he’d tell me that it never goes away. You just learn to live with it, and certainly don’t act on it. Ability means nothing. Character means not exercising that ability – at least until a situation absolutely requires it.
Perhaps the better question is this: do we really WANT these abilities to go away? In some regards, I don’t think so, since they kept most of us alive once, and are now still useful in harrowing situations. Yes, it may mean that we battle with ourselves in subdual for the remainder of our days, but I’d much prefer that than to ceding the mentality and living instead in fear or paranoia. I don’t think anybody should ever live in fear. We do not, but that shouldn’t necessarily be hinged on the capacity to kill. Such reasoning is a full reliance on self, not trusting God at all.
Yet even in this, as difficult as it may be individually for him, me and others to constantly have an internal struggle to not act in a way that now comes naturally, our presence, I firmly believe, benefits the nation. When calamity strikes, whether it be terrorist attack, natural disaster, riot, or just a situation requiring the use of delicate negotiating skills, veterans are probably best equipped to handle it. They know how to lead, to hold up under pressure, and if a terrible scenario arises where action must be taken, they can handle that, too.
For the same reason, the country is safer from foreign attack. We would be a highly successful insurgency. The men and women with the skills to accomplish a mission with little regard to personal safety. The dormant warrior, simply waiting on his war. Due to training, due to conditioning, and due to experience, we’re still ready, and we’re still able. Yet for the time being, however, our skills have no place. They just sit there, and rear their ugly heads when we least desire them to. We were of great use at least once to our nation, however, and we may still be again. Just don’t piss us off, I guess.
Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
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