I’ve been thinking a lot about war lately, not about the politics of the current war(s) we are involved in (don’t get me started on that), but more about the whole idea of war at the point where it really matters — the tip of the spear where those who actually fight the war have to live.
To a greater degree than any time in human history, modern technology has allowed the vast majority of our society to remain wholly disconnected from the horrors of the wars we fight. Beyond headlines on the CNN crawl at the bottom of your TV screen; beyond USA Today’s three-by-three inch text box that regularly contains the names of the most recent casualties; and beyond the Wounded Warrior plea for donations that might show up in your mailbox, the wars in which we are currently engaged don’t get any more play than Lindsay Lohan’s latest court date. Probably less.
In some cases, even those who are directly involved in combat … are not directly involved in combat. Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) in Afghanistan are flown by pilots who sit in front of a video game console at Nellis AFB in Las Vegas and drive home every night for dinner. The aviation assets that are on location in theater can bomb targets they cannot see, from tens of thousands of feet above the clouds, guided by GPS and lasers that make them lethally accurate. Even those who are more directly engaged have standoff capabilities that keep them beyond retaliation range with an unprecedented level of safety. These are all good things and I pray we make them better.
But there is also a moral element to these aspects of modern warfare. How do we square the disconnect between the horror and pain of war and the ability to deliver its consequences with physical and emotional detachment? Has this made war even more barbaric than it already was? Does the future portend an easier justification for war because those who commit to engage in it are able to do so without tangible personal consequence?
We need to think about these things and as we do, we need to remain cognizant of the basic reality of war that has never changed in the least. No land is conquered; no enemy is defeated; no aspect of warfare is complete until, and unless, you have boots on the ground.
And there are young men in those boots.
I am as guilty as anyone of taking this for granted so I have no delusions of speaking from some kind of moral high ground. The truth is that my own acknowledgement of this has come in an emotionally painful way — as I watch my own sons lace those boots up and walk away to war.
The fact is that we do take their sacrifice for granted. We whine about our circumstances, forgetting that whatever we are experiencing is also being experienced by young men burdened just to walk with 80 pounds of combat gear on their backs; or sleeping, without protection from the elements, in the dirt and mud; or wondering if the next step they take will be the one that triggers some diabolically disguised IED. We bow to a consumerist culture and load our holiday shopping carts with things we don’t need, while these young men want for a bar of soap. How many people walking around this week do you think ever give these realities a second thought — or even a first.
This is not meant to induce a guilt-trip on anyone. My point is simply to try to remind myself to see the reality of war through the eyes of those who are most directly impacted by it and to reflect on why they fight. Though many dismiss this aspect of the mindset, it is a real one:
War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things. The decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks that nothing is worth war is much worse. The person who has nothing for which he is willing to fight, nothing which is more important than his own personal safety, is a miserable creature and has no chance of being free unless made and kept so by the exertions of better men than himself.
~ John Stuart Mill
It has become a cliche to say but I don’t know how else to explain it: they go to fight for something bigger than themselves. Very few may articulate it even if challenged to do so, but it is a motivation toward honor and toward protecting a comfortable way of life, not just because it is “comfortable,” but because it represents the best (even if imperfect) kind of society flawed human beings can hope to live in. It is this idealism that grounds the cause of liberty and justice even if some (me being one) disagree about how we go about trying to spread it around the world.
Self-sacrifice in defense of one’s community is virtually universal among humans, extolled in myths and legends all over the world, and undoubtedly ancient. No community can protect itself unless a certain portion of its youth decide they are willing to risk their lives in its defense. (242)
They fight for us.
Yes, politicians and leaders can and do manipulate this sentiment. And, yes, their doing so is the lowest form of demagoguery. But that doesn’t change the fact that it is there. Argue about our wars we must, but there is no denying this idealistic kind of love is a part of what motivates them to put the boots on in the first place.
Once the boots are on, however, the idealism vanishes. After more than a year of being embedded with Army units in Afghanistan, Junger also goes on to identify a completely different aspect of the war — the one that most of us will never experience or completely understand:
What the Army sociologists, with their clipboards and their questions and their endless metanalyses slowly came to understand was that courage was love. In war, neither could exist without the other, and that in a sense they were just different ways of saying the same thing … the primary motivation in combat (other than “ending the task” which meant they could go home) was “solidarity with the group.” That far outweighed self-preservation or idealism as a motivator. (239-240)
They fight for each other. It’s just another form of sacrificial love.
We are afforded the luxury of living our lives in blissful ignorance of the real cost of war. We should be thankful for that. But I pray that none of us take that blissful ignorance for granted. Someone has to face the ugliness of war and it would do us all well to stop …
… and remember how and why they do it.