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Dust and Shadow (part 2)   (Chris Sullins, September 5, 2008)

The reasons someone becomes a soldier are varied. At an individual level I would suspect they are little different from those given by warriors from across the planet from now to ages past. One can read “The Seven Military Classics of Ancient China” and see that the art of warfare, harnessing the motivations of men, and empire management has changed very little over the past two millennia.

As one moves through history the reasons for wars between tribes, nations, dynasties, and empires have been commented upon by sages in many languages. Like the works of Ibn Khaldoun, they were lost to the sands of time and rediscovered by later generations. It doesn’t take much study to understand that nothing has changed except the technologies for making warfare and exchanging the commerce that finances it.

In order to evaporate a lake into a drop of water and explain the primary motivation of the individual soldier I would have to say that they do what their people ask them to do. I purposely use the word “ask” because no one gets a large group of well-trained, highly energetic, armed people to do anything that they don’t want to do in the first place. It doesn’t matter if they’re led by Alexander the Great, General Patton or some future God-Emperor, soldiers do what they do because they feel supported by their fellow people and have been given a mandate.

During my deployment to Iraq, I could see many of the principles noted by past commentators at work in the present when it came to leadership styles and how they influenced soldiers. These were very simple behaviors at the core. The commanders who ate with their soldiers, occupied similar lodging, and personally went into the field on a regular basis were held in greater respect than those who didn’t. This was the concept of shared burden put into practice.

However, it was more than that. These esteemed commanders took actual interest in the welfare of their soldiers. When a loss was suffered within a large battalion, it was a personal loss for the battalion’s top commissioned officer and non-commissioned officer as well. These leaders didn’t have tears painted on for political appearance at Memorial Ceremonies. It was something genuine I could personally see and hear separately with them one on one.

These top notch battalion and company commanders, command sergeant majors, and first sergeants were typically the rule and not the exception. Although there were objectives to achieve which risked the soldiers under their command, these leaders always tried to balance the larger goals with their concern about the soldiers’ well-being and secured the tools and opportune timing they needed to complete the mission. However, in this war like others there were losses.

I remember following up with many different small groups of soldiers who had lost their comrades in various incidents. In addition to the common emotions of loss and grief they also often struggled with additional feelings of guilt. This came from wondering if there was something different they could have done to prevent the deaths. This feeling was due to the collective responsibility that soldiers feel for one another. It was a source of both strength and pain.

Sometimes I needed a small group’s company grade officer present to help take their soldiers fully through to the other side of a critical event debriefing. This was especially necessary when the soldiers were looking for someone within their own command to communicate some validation to them. This wasn’t just someone to tell them they had done everything they could do, but that they personally felt the loss, too.

Although many officers are reticent by nature, all it took was literally a few honest verbal sentences from them to bring about some shared sense of relief in lifting the painful burden from their men. Rather than standing and watching the group pick up the proverbial log, those officers stepped in and picked up the log with them. This emotional journey was just as necessary as making sure each of them physically got on board the flight back home.

It was after such times that I felt quite satisfied with my role in the military and how it was a necessary function in supporting the front-line fighter. I felt like I made a difference keeping the soldiers in the fight and helped them continue performing their tasks without distraction. My role had another purpose in educating the leaders of the combat arms service branches about mental maintenance. I helped them understand that keeping the warrior ready for battle involved not only providing the oil for the whetstone to hone his spear point, but taking him by the gauntlet and symbolically helping him back up after he took a hit.

There are a lot of things that I can’t fully explain as a soldier to an outsider. This is not meant to be condescending. In the armed forces there are different levels within that community which have little to do with rank or skill tabs. There are some things which I too won’t fully understand, but soldiers who experienced them trusted me enough to tell me firsthand. I felt this was due to more than wearing the same uniform, but that I had been willing to take on some risks just to hear their story as it was told on the front-lines.

During my deployment I didn’t have any “Black Hawk Down” incidents of my own. I had plenty of days of incoming mortar and rocket fire and people I had met were killed, but no situation in which I had to drop the hammer on someone standing a few feet away or carry away warm pieces of someone I considered a friend. My autobiographical movie would be considered boring for today’s box office crowd. However, I still have some small personal insight into war that most do not.

Quite frankly, it wouldn’t matter if I did have profuse amounts of personal glory that could paint the silver screen red with gore. As I’ve come to learn over the years, explaining a high-risk experience to someone whether by words or visual media over a few minutes or hours does not equate to living through it and having to carry the weight of the emotional bags for the following decades. Likewise, surviving such extremes in human experience often has associated repugnant behaviors and personal aftermath which many people altogether refuse to elaborate to those who weren’t anywhere near them by circumstance.

This stance has applied not just to warfare but to other acts that people inflict on one another on a daily basis. The overt killing of other human beings has not usually been sanctioned in a society except during war. Along with civil law there are other social and religious sanctions against it –for good reason. However, the process of readying the soldier for war has been one in which both the spoken and unspoken prohibitions against killing have not only been undone, but used to lash together contradictory concepts within the human mind.

This was done in order to open and re-condition one human to efficiently kill another human. Combat was often made up of many smaller personal life-threatening confrontations in which someone else across from the soldier has been taught to take their life. This may have been up close or at a distance. This state of existence for the soldier has been summed up simply and accurately by the phrase “Kill or be killed”.

If I could conjure up a single odor that was custom-tailored for each reader strong enough to elicit a concrete emotional state of fear, hatred, paranoia and loneliness, then that would be a tiny baby step on our journey together in understanding what it has meant to be a soldier in war. But, I’m not sure how I can fully plumb the depths of subconscious emotion which rests barely bridled beneath. If I could walk you down through the reeds and skim the bloated bodies off the Tigris, would you plunge your head in and take a drink? How deep would you really want to go in the dark putrid waters? Neither the hardened veteran nor the gentle villager want this leviathan awakened without sufficient safeguards in place.

There isn’t anything you can click on a webpage, a movie to watch or a book to read that can do this. Many have wanted to take a journey to the river’s edge. But as has been said before: Dulce Bellum Inexpertis “War is sweet to the inexperienced”. I can tell you from my small sip that the water is indeed bitter. It’s not just physically challenging but a threat to the stable sanity of the spirit. The soldier is placed in a strange limbo between faith and fatalism that may not be resolved in a lifetime.

Like I’m attempting to do now, I had been warned as well. My grandfather had fought in the Battle of the Bulge among others which earned him four bronze battle stars. He did his best within reason for youthful ears to tell me about the horrors of war. He had seen much, talked about it very little to others, but still tried to answer my questions. His responses were relevant and ranged from the life and death of historically insignificant individuals remembered only in the hearts of their loved ones to the rise and fall of nations.

Once when I asked him which firearm he had used to kill the enemy during WWII he seemed to think about it for a few seconds before replying “All of them”. My grandfather wasn’t the boastful type and didn’t go into a lot of detail explaining his answer. I asked which one he used “most” and he told me to go finish some chores instead. This had just seemed evasive to me at the time. Sometime later I found his weapons qualification badge which had more than half a dozen different small arms bars hanging from it. Back then I realized a slight inkling of the zero BS content in his answer. Now I comprehend its finality on different layers.

My grandfather died quietly during my years of college idealism and long before my entry into the Army Reserve. Soon after my redeployment home from Iraq, I read his letters home during WWII for the first time and I came to understand him even better. He was good teacher, role model, and dear grandparent, but I just had to do and know some things for myself. On that part there was little regret. And like him after a certain point, I had enough of my own war.

I can’t narrow it done to one thing or even a handful that gave me a change of heart about this war. The “when” part was less hazy because I was still in Iraq late in my tour –I was in Baghdad. My personal trigonometric function upon which I toiled was something both of thought and emotion. There were a lot of things I could explain using logic about the long-term view, “the greater good”, “ends versus means” and where this adventure at global empire was going to land the world in the not too distant future. However, this was more than a list of boxes to be checked or un-checked with a point value assigned at the bottom as they were re-assessed.

In many ways, it was more difficult to explain the emotional part. In the battle between the rational and irrational of the human mind, it’s not a matter of moving some beans around on the balance scales and showing one was slightly heavier than the other. In fact, it seemed to me that the center fulcrum point itself had broken off and dumped both pans of beans onto the table. However, just as I’d attempt to pick up the beans and re-center my personal scale, the war had a tendency to shake the entire table.

I wish I could explain my personal scale better to peace doves and war hawks, liberals and conservatives, and other people who mentally inhabit a bipartisan fantasy world. Both sides need some education about the different situations in which they are right and wrong. There are times when brute force is necessary to stave off aggression and this will continue to be the way it is for the foreseeable future despite all the lofty dreams and noble ideals mankind can envision. The charms of highly skilled diplomats won’t keep the wolf packs of the world at bay who seek to tear out the throats of lone lambs. All the positive thinking in the world won’t change that.

Likewise, the difference between pre-emptive war and preventive war seems to have conveniently forgotten or twisted the understanding of the definitions of “national security”, “imminent threat”, and “defense of the homeland”. This case of collective amnesia spread from one branch of conservatism and turned the demarcation zone between just and unjust warfare from a well-defined concrete wall into a suggested line in the sand which constantly shifts with the wind. It seems legal requirements for a “just war” could be changed at a momentary whim.

The question now becomes where do we go from here? What do we do as a nation, a people, at this point in time? I keep hearing the word “change” thrown about and I see some candidates who supposedly have some new demographics to offer on the scene, but I still keep hearing the same old music in the background. I look inside and it’s still the same jaded people in the same decaying dancehall.

Like war, there is nothing new that can be written about politics which focuses light on some under-illuminated facet of government. The knowledge of both the bureaucratic machine and the covert machinations has gone from the secret realm of some obscure obsidian order to the crystal clear of the open information superhighway. Such awareness is now widely available to both the common person and the modern manager of global empire alike. A direct result has been there are very few real secrets left.

The indirect effect has been the dispelling of the illusion that the so-called elite had a better overview of the global arena, a more solid grasp on the political beast at its center, and the ability to manage animal, arena, and crowd. It has become apparent to more people in the ringside and middle rows that the elite’s anemic hold on the bull was tenuous at best. As another inbred apparatchik is bucked off and trampled in the field, these people look to the boxed seats for a sign of careful planning and able direction. They find it lacking.

However, compared to the sedentary crowd in the stands chattering on cell phones, checking their watches, and yawning while waiting for their next fix of exponentially exciting entertainment, it at least looked like the rider gave it a good try. The elite still have some supporters. The majority of the people still politely clap for the effort. The crowd might murmur some complaint, but they can’t think of anything better to do. They wait for their next handout from the bread wagon. “We the people” have become the mob of ancient Rome all over again.

The systemic problem where we now stand has been the lack of public will to raise up and support leaders who espouse views that will take generations to maintain. Such potential leaders speak of goals that will require individual sacrifice and national moderation in the present. The crowd doesn’t want to hear it, though. This circumstance is not a new social disorder nor has it been developing over a short period of time. It has been cumulative yet foreseeable.

Although this civil deficit has accelerated over the last couple of generations, I don’t want to imply that it’s the “fault” of a single generation. It also isn’t meant to exonerate an earlier generation of its own shortcomings, misguided actions, and short-sighted selfishness which have since been given the gold-leafing of untouchable myth. Somewhere between the Titans of history with their Teflon-coated laurels and today’s moral pygmies with their celebrated character flaws, there has to be a reasonable human medium. I fear though that we may find it too late again.

Typically this shortfall in leadership has led to a call from the masses for a “strong man” to “get the job done”. F. A. von Hayek has already done an excellent job in his book “The Road to Serfdom” in detailing the tyrannical process of the re-organized state which leads to the demise of individual freedom. We can see the signs of this starting to happen again at the global level. It will eventually lead to the current bull in the arena being slaughtered followed by some members of the audience being dragged down to the field and lined up for execution. This will seem exciting for a while. The crowd will lend consent to the actors in the field and howl for blood.

Professional soldiers and true statesmen will find this process as horrifying as any religious pacifist and ivory tower idealist. They will understand by its very nature that the beast unleashed in the coliseum will be ravenous and insatiable. Both beast and crowd will be stuck in an expanding feedback loop. The changes to the existing system needed to support it will be detrimental not only to the living standards but to the long-term survival of their families.

Likewise as this spectacle plays out the civil atmosphere will go from circus to riot. It will weaken the collective strength of the entire community to the very real threats which form both inside and outside the stadium. At some point the gates will be unlocked and thrown wide open to the barbarians who find the crowd inside willfully self-decimated.

Does the cycle repeat itself again as the barbarian becomes civilized and seeks to fill his desire with “more” or does mankind finally say he has enough and meet his destiny with a full embrace of balance and serenity? This is not a question seeking an answer in the future, it is one we are capable of achieving now.

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