Several months ago, I heard an interesting take on being a Soldier that is probably well known, but I hadn’t heard it before. Maybe I never bothered to pay attention until now. Basically, it’s the observation that what sets a Soldier apart from the average person is not that he is willing to die for is country. Anyone can do that. What makes a Soldier unique is that he is willing to kill for his country. Take a moment to ponder that. I’ve been doing it ever since I heard it and figure only now I could intelligently write on it.
On the surface, this makes us look like glorified monsters. Somehow, we are stable enough to mingle with society, but we are messed up in the head enough that, given a simple set of circumstances, we would violently end another person’s life. There are layers of philosophical meadows to wander in with this discussion. What of the concept of patriotism, of defense of one’s family, or of the protection of a society’s ideals? All of that is interesting, but apparent clutter in the grand scheme of things. The cycle of life does not concern itself with politics, or bloodlines, or such subjective notions as religion. Life simply is or it isn’t and the general default human position is that it should be protected at all costs.
Consider the following marching cadence taught to us in Basic Training:
One and one
We’re havin’ some fun
Killin’ commies, commies
All day, all day
And all through the night
Two and two
I’ll do it for you
(last 4 lines repeat with every verse)
Three and three
I’ll do it for free
Four and four
I’ll do it some more
Five and five
They won’t stay alive
Six and Six
I do it for kicks
Seven and seven
They won’t go to heaven
Eight and eight
Now don’t it feel great
Nine and nine
With gun or landmine
Ten and ten
Let’s do it again
(These days we say “terrorists” instead of “commies”)
Freaky, right? By the day-to-day standards of society we are celebrating murder! How could we be so sociopathic?
Having asked the question, there doesn’t seem to be a good direct response. “It’s not sociopathic” is simply not adequate. Life has two extremes with practically no transition (“brain-dead” might be the only example). As Soldiers, we are trained and paid to instantly arrange the extreme that is diametrically opposed to our regard for life.
Allow me to diverge for a moment…
I spoke with a captain in the Air Force at the DFAC today. He was an A-10 pilot and our conversation started with how boring we thought the game of cricket that was being broadcast seemed to be. We talked about what each other did and I mentioned that I was in the unit that had lost two members in the chinook RPG assault. He expressed his condolences and I remarked that at least the attackers were found and killed. We both celebrated that fact. We talked for a few more minutes as we walked out of the DFAC. The rise in violence during Ramadan became the topic of discussion. As we parted he mentioned that he had killed two insurgents the day before.
That last remark caused me a moment of pause (though I instantly said, “All right!”). Casually, though with obvious pride, this guy just stated to me that he recently and deliberately killed two people- perhaps less than 24 hours before I met him. An A-10 pilot probably does not leave much intact of his targets.
Back to the question at hand about being sociopathic.
Clearly, we are cognisant that our existence is philosophically much more than just life and death. If that were not the case than we would be no better off than an amoeba. Though life itself is indifferent to human endeavors, the vast majority of us believe there is much more that we have relatively little comprehension of, but a strong sense for. Such things as peace, justice, balance, and the very notion of God challenge the strictly on or off nature of life. These aspects of our consciousness are not just random, irrational clutter. They are the very color of and, we hope at least, clues to the meaning of our existence.
So passionate are we about these notions that we consider them our very identity. Both as individuals and as communities we see ourselves as much more than just another piece in the mechanism of life. We are part of the consciousness that moves it. As such, we perceive a responsibility to protect what we have determined to be the aspects that best contribute to that movement through the symbiosis of peace, justice, balance, and God.
Though we as individuals have our own understanding of these aspects, we find commonalities as societies and identify ourselves through friendships, laws, and spirituality. Anything that threatens the aspects we have established to represent our society threatens the society as a whole. Often such threats are only perceived through ignorance, but there are those times when society determines the threat to be direct and real and mobilizes its defenses to protect itself. Thus, we find ourselves looking at life not just as an individual endowment, but also as a collective phenomenon. At this point we find that society determines the value of eliminating the threat to be in some way proportional to the life it threatens with relatively little regard to individual loss.
Soldiers do not determine that value, save for the occasional coup (a very dangerous situation as this essay inadvertently highlights). As a volunteer Army, we are among those who have embraced the aspects of our society to such an extent that we present ourselves as defenders of it. We have accepted the value of the collective and pledge to preserve it in the manner consistent with the wishes of our society. If society determines that war and the death we must inflict in it is the best course of action, then we accept that it is correct and worthy of setting aside our initial notions of life for a larger purpose. We pledge not to question it and to commit to action.
For this, we as Soldiers accept that our cause is good and our actions are just. I realized after a few moments of pondering that the reason I paused on the pilot’s comment was because I did not know the circumstances around which two people died by his hand. Such is the way our society is wired through its values. We default to our basic notion of life and the value we place on it. After a while, I concluded that I had no place to even falter on the justness of his killing. That had already been done when society sent him to war.
So, if we are to question the mental stability of a Soldier who is willing to kill we would more effectively spend our time questioning the stability of the society that sent him on his task. It all boils down to faith. Faith in our values, faith in the strength of our society, and faith in the fidelity of our Soldiers’ commitment to our society and everything it represents. Such faith does not and should not come lightly. So long as Soldiers commit to fight honorably for what is believed to be the greater good that they are sent to defend, then they certainly do set themselves apart for they are the warrior ambassadors to something valued more than themselves.