Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Their Reward

On the several occasions that I have observed a less-than-sober Marine receive some perceived insult, the quick retort has been the same. Summoning whatever half-drunken indignation he can muster, he ejaculates, “I’m a combat vet!” He will then add a few more lines about how horribly he’s being treated and how war heroes deserve better service, or quicker attention, or some other sort of deification on account of his military record. In consequence, I have avoided public appearances with any grunts who intend to drink. They get stupid.

But in reality, I have heard similar remarks from completely sober vets, which as far as I am concerned is even less excusable. I wondered for quite some time why so many invariably slip into this rut and feel compelled to tout their veteran status. Regardless of the reason, it does us all a disservice.

At the heart of the matter is the notion that being a veteran of combat operations somehow makes one a better person. Hardly. The purpose of war, as a whole, is the employment of an evil for the defeat of an even greater one. Philosophers since the beginning of time have argued its merit, and they will probably continue to do so indefinitely. Few, interestingly, have experienced war.

The purpose of combat, at its core, is the deliberate taking of human life. Killing. No amount of nonsense about national service and patriotism can detract from this. Combatants are purposed to take the lives of others. Aggrandizing the act reduces the intentions of the combatant and calls into serious question his or her motives for serving at all. Combat, and specifically killing, is a heinous situation which this nation must necessarily approach with apprehension and great debate, and then carry out with simultaneous regret and resolve. Pride has no place here.

What precisely is it about combat that justifies boasting? The act of destroying human life? Bravery in the face of adversity? The self-perception of being tough? This is by no means patriotic and selfless service; this is satisfying one’s own insecurities. If a vet must pontificate about his glorious involvement in combat, he has ventured into moral ambiguity. There is nothing glorious about taking the life of another. It is tragic, and dangerously close to playing God.

Christ once said that when we complete a good work we shouldn’t “sound a trumpet before” others and inform them of our accomplishments. Those that do this, He continues, “have received their reward in full.” A good deed done with an audience in mind is no good deed at all. It is a performance with an anticipation of applause.

Though I am more comfortable around veterans than perhaps any group, though I write extensively about the nobility of their service to fellow servicemembers and their country, I quickly distance myself from those that treat their combat experiences as notches in a belt. They paint us as fools.

We did not take up arms with the intent of advancing our careers or somehow earning a better theater seat. We did not volunteer to enter harm’s way with the expectation that we would receive special status as citizens. Most citizens, in fact, don’t care what we did. We did it because it was right and because we wanted to serve our country. These loudmouths may have done the right thing, but for all the wrong reasons.

As civilians, we walked amongst our fellows and went to war. Upon our return, we walk amongst them once again – as civilians again. The more these veterans boast, the more likely it is they’ve done little. War produces a continuum of tragedies, not halls of saints and idols. The more these veterans treat their combat service as an identity, the more they degrade the purity of their own service, and thus their own hearts. Keep pounding your fists, friends; this nation owes you nothing. Indeed, you have already received your reward.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved


  1. "Moral courage is the most valuable and usually the most absent characteristic in men." - George S. Patton

  2. Perfect, perfect, perfect!