Saturday, August 8, 2009

That Question Again

This past weekend, a friend of mine (and his girlfriend) drove some distance out of their way to attend the wedding of an old high school friend. Though they hadn’t seen each other in years, Brad, knowing how important this event was to his old acquaintance, made every effort to be there. He did this even though he was partially immobilized by recent surgery on a combat-related injury. Brad, an old Marine machine gunner, is a veteran of OIF (Operation Iraqi Freedom).

Brad wasn’t the only member of his old high school class in attendance at this event. A small crowd was, most of whom Brad hadn’t seen in a decade. To his knowledge, none besides him had any involvement in the US Armed Services, but they all somehow knew he had served.

The only question he was consistently asked was “did you kill anybody?” Such questions may be excused when posed by children, but these were from adults, asked in what Brad described as “snarky demeanor, like it’s cool.” Though livid, he carefully and politely dodged them each time. A query such as this merits no response. Brad and his girlfriend left the event early, and he told me he is pleased he escaped without hitting anybody. After one such question (Brad was asked at least five times), I would have lost my cool completely.

Later that night, he woke with a start, yelling for one of his Marines by name and screaming at somebody needed to “get the .50 up” (M2 .50 caliber machine gun). I do not consider this a coincidence.

Though it may be something I have covered before, it clearly bears mention again. In truth, it should be mentioned repeatedly until no veterans are fielding such an ignorant, inappropriate question. As Brad put it so articulately, “more occurs in war than killing.”

This question is akin to asking a surgeon how many patients he or she has lost on the table, or a police officer how many times he has drawn his weapon and fired on an assailant. Though it is the primary purpose of an infrantryman to kill, it also represents the most tragic breakdown of humanity. And even in such situations, it is undertaken with regret – for the purpose of saving another. Killing for the sake of killing is murder. Killing to protect the lives of others, however, is what distinguishes the warrior from the criminal.

Killing another human being has been repeatedly proven to be an act that humans are innately disinclined to carry out. Only careful training can change that, as can a psychotic condition. But even then the mental processes differ vastly. A psychopath kills because he wants to. A warrior kills because he must. He will never be proud of the death he caused. There are few, in fact, for whom human life is more precious than a serviceman. Consider that it is he (or she) risking personal wellbeing for the sake of preserving the lives of friends, comrades, and strangers. Were not human life precious, such selflessness would be impossible. It would be death for no cause at all.

As another veteran recently told me, combat is remarkably similar to the intimate act of lovemaking. It is not a light matter discussed with one’s casual acquaintances or strangers. In the case of lovemaking, it is only mentioned privately to one’s lover. In the case of combat, it is only discussed with those who were there. All those unfamiliar will fixate on the novelty of horror, failing to acknowledge that the lives of men were snuffed out in an instant, violently, and by others who will replay those few seconds for the remainder of their lives. And most have quite a few years left, since it is usually only the youth of this nation willing to act with such selflessness.

Let us turn the tables for a moment and make a civilian squirm. How many miscarriages have you had? Have you ever run over a pedestrian in the street? How many times have you cheated on your spouse? How many loved ones have died before you had the opportunity to tell say you loved them? How many friends have taken their own lives, never knowing you’d have done anything in your power to help them?

These questions have one thing in common: they are all situations and acts that one will think about repeatedly, often with regret, for the remainder of one’s life. And few, if any, were deliberate acts. They happened suddenly, you reacted suddenly, and you’re now left with many years to think about how you handled it all. In most cases, regret is the dominant emotion.

More than just a difficult situation, however, combat is a situation that every man and woman in the US military has volunteered to face – on behalf of their countrymen. Their actions, even under the best of circumstances, were devastating and ruinous to a clear a conscience. Killing, after all, is only innate to the psychopath, not the warrior.

These warriors have sacrificed their lives, their personal wellbeing, and their consciences so that those back home need not, yet that in no way authorizes total ignorance of war. Success in a business may be contingent on product output, but wars are wholly different. Success in war is the least loss of life possible in order to preserve as many as possible. War itself is certainly inglorious, yet the warrior is not.

When those back home deliberately mock such service to country, they propel a veteran’s thoughts back to the moment of the act itself; the chaos, the horror, the fear, and the memory that oftentimes not all their friends walked away from the situation unscathed. Unless we wish to be returned to the very climax of a horrible situation, it would be wise to learn some respect. Not extending an iota of courtesy to those who served, those whose actions under duress demonstrated an unwavering devotion to others above self, is more than antagonistic. It means that willing sacrifice may not have been for you at all, but for those that actually care.

Silence is the greatest respect. When we’re ready, we’ll talk.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

1 comment:

  1. Excellent post! After watching my wonderful uncle raise his three daughters with such peace and gentleness, it is difficult to imagine him commanding troops in Vietnam – much less killing anyone. Every now and then, he says something in passing, and I know how deep the memories of combat are – still. I am awed and humbled by such men. But I would never ask a soldier about killing. People who do that are morons of the first degree.