As our truck passed a memorial commemorating Iraqi martyrs who died fighting in the Iran-Iraq War, I asked another soldier sitting across from me, “Do you think they’ll ever build a monument to the American soldiers who died here?”
“No,” he said flatly.
Our truck bounced along and our bodies rocked with the rhythm as I watched the wall disappear around a corner.
Doctrine Man posted the above photo and quote from Black Hawk Down yesterday as part of this weekend’s steady stream of Memorial Day related posts to counteract a supposed disinterested public while also helping us lose ourselves in a “twilight of sentimentality and nostalgia.”
The quote is a variation of the answer to “why we fight” that usually boils down to doing it “for your battle buddies on your left and right.” That is, today, the reason we go to war is simply to protect the ones with whom we’ve gone to war. Put simply, we’re there and doing it because we’re there and doing it.
I’ve always had a hard time swallowing this. Maybe I’m too cynical, but it seems to be a lowest common denominator rationale – there’s no good reason we’re doing this (conquering, for example), so the best we can come up with is this pseudo-spiritual link between the men and women in a given unit. The concept is popular among troops and when uttered, is usually met with nods of gritty determination from exhausted soldiers grasping for a reason to strap on heavy body armor, pick up their rifles, and step out on another ghost patrol.
“Honestly, at this point in the war, is anything really worth someone’s legs or their life or something like that?”
-As quoted in Stars and Stripes (November, 2013)
Earlier today, I read about “Mad Jack” Churchill, a British officer who was known to go into battle with a longbow and sword. It’s an incredible story and the picture is otherworldly. It was this macabre quote of Churchill’s though, that captured my attention: “If it wasn’t for those damn Yanks, we could have kept the war going another ten years.”
This is reminiscent of LTC Kilgore’s famous quip of “Someday this war’s gonna end...“, spoken with the sick sadness of a man lost in war, warning his troops to soak up as much of the grim death before it’s all over.
While Kilgore is fictional, Churchill is not, and there seems to be a “type” that indeed is a ‘war-junkie.’ I’m not sure it’s necessarily for the mechanical aspects of war – the shooting, the bleeding, the death. Rather, it’s the whole experience of the campaign. It’s the sights, sounds, and feelings swirling around for years. It’s life in the emerald city. It’s an endless summer where the only victory is survival.
“The dead only know one thing; it is better to be alive.”
-Joker, Full Metal Jacket
In generations passed, strict dedication to duty might have been enough to sustain the fighting heart. Or perhaps, simply, the casus belli was better, or at least understood. Certainly in a firefight, the only thing that matters are those on your left and right, for they will bring you home (the “warrior,” mind you, is dead). As soon as the first bullet is fired, the world washes away and all are instantly swept to a dark arena where humanity disappears and natural instinct takes over.
My point though, is that in order to get to that arena – that point in time where the only thing that matters are those on the left and right – required a series of decisions made by men and women on and far from the battlefield. It is in those decisions where we should find the answer to “Hey Hoot, why do you do it man?”
Not for fame or reward
Not for place or for rank
Not lured by ambition
Or goaded by necessity
But in simple
Obedience to duty
As they understood it
These men suffered all
Dared all-and died
-Inscription on the Confederate Memorial at Arlington Cemetery
I’ve heard it said that this generation, more than others, needs to know the “why” more than those of previous generations. I’d say that’s fair and true. “We’re going on this mission because I told you so” might get them out of the wire, but it is unlikely to tame (or unleash) the “beast in the heart of every fighting man.”
And it will certainly leave them thinking about what it all meant for the rest of their lives.
Something to think about.
This, incidentally is the 500th post on Carrying the Gun.
Veterans Day is a good day when it comes to military writing. It is a great peg for folks in the sphere to say what they want to say and get it out there to someone who might not normally read military stuff, but suddenly be all like hey fuck it, it’s veterans day, I’ll read it.
Here are some of the more interesting pieces I’ve seen over the past couple of days. I know there are more out there that I haven’t got to. If you have a recommendation, add it to the comments and I’ll add it to the list below.
Reunion Clips of Soldiers and Their Loves Ones Have Become Just Another Form of Entertainment (The Daily Beast) – This is what I wrote for Veterans Day. It’s about the spectacle of viral-ready “reunion” videos which appear on the internet and on news programs, essentially as entertainment.
On Military Service (Rhino Den) – I have a love/hate relationship with Ranger Up. Often, they post very reactionary or inflammatory essays – but it’s always had a “in the barracks” feel to it, which is probably good for people to see. Nick at Ranger Up often writes really, really good stuff, though. This is one of them.
Retiring the Vietnam-Veteran Stereotype (The Atlantic) – By Sally Satel and Richard McNally. About the struggle veterans face during reintegration because of some of the old stereotypes out there fueled by Hollywood and the media.
And of course, every Veterans Day, someone writes a version of this piece: Stop thanking the troops for me: No, they don’t “protect our freedoms.” This year it was Justin Doolittle.