“‘I prayed only once in Afghanistan,’ O’Byrne wrote to me after it was all over. ‘It was when Restrepo got shot, and I prayed to God to let him live. But God, Allah, Jehovah, Zeus or whatever a person may call God wasn’t in that valley. Combat is the devil’s game. God wanted no part. That’s why our prayers weren’t answered: the only one listening was Satan.'”
As a young student in high school attending an AP English class I was once told that “All power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” It is a quote I have thought about tremendously. We all assume some measure of power in our lives. How then can we shield ourselves from corruption? I did not begin to get the answer to that question until a few years later as at West Point, now a young cadet, where I was told once “To whom much is given much is expected in return”. The idea that power was not merely something to be wielded for its own sake– but whose presence alone brought with it a whole host of obligations, responsibilities, morals, and ethics began to take root. I could not even begin to understand the true implications of these adages.
I am hard pressed to think of any other path in life where I could have assumed so much power at such a young age. All the rifle ranges, artillery ranges, the simulators, working with the Bradley Fighting vehicle, leading patrols, maneuvering squads and teams of soldiers around on raids and ambushes are all so incredibly violent. And the notion that all of it exist to prepare me for the reality of conflict is strangely and incredibly exciting. I enjoy it. My friends enjoy it. But we’re playing a dangerous game, where the stakes are incredibly high. We respect the power, sure, but the fact that we also delight in it is something that disturbs me and something that I have struggled to understand.
Karl Marlantes, a Vietnam Veteran, Rhodes Scholar, Yale and Oxford Grad, talks about it in his book “What It Is Like to Go To War”, “I’m asking the reader who has never experienced this feeling to try very hard to understand it and then balance it against the war feeling more legitimized by moral society, such as horror. I am well aware of the price of the feelings I’m talking about– dead friends, dead enemies, waste, pain, sorrow beyond imagining, sorrow even after forty years– and I see no end. In fact to remind myself against this feeling of transcendent power I keep on my filing cabinet a picture of a fourteen-year-old girl from Mozambique, a stunted skeleton with drum-tight skin, hair gray, eyes swollen nearly shut, the starved result of war.
“Yet it is exceedingly difficult to keep this image in my mind, even with all the moral weight of society behind it. The realm I enter now, the transcendent realm one reaches through violence, is one that society says it condemns but in fact celebrates everywhere, on film, on television, and in the news. It is because of this split that these feelings are so very dangerous. The spilt is like the wicked fairy who isn’t invited to the wedding but who will get her due. It is the darkness that haunts the lynch mob that in the daytime is dispersed as lawyers, doctors, and church alderman. But that darkness hovers ghostlike in the soft trees and shadowed alleys between the buildings. And at night it is all crazed power and torture, a thrill deeper than any ever imagined in the sleepy daytime.
“The next time you’re with a group of around forty people, perhaps at a meeting, maybe on a city bus, imagine them all with the lean hard bodies of eighteen- to twenty-year old men. Arm them all with automatic rifles, rockets, and grenades. Add three machine guns and a supply of bullets backed by the industrial might of America. Understand that these armed men will do, without question, absolutely anything you ask. Now add the power to call in jet aircraft that shake the earth with engine noise alone and can spew jellied fire over entire football fields, make craters big enough to block freeways, and fire lead so thick and fast that it would pulp the body of a cow in an eyeblink. Add to this artillery with shells as thick as your waist and naval gunfire with shells the weight of Volkswagens. And you’re twenty-one or twenty-two and immortal. And no one will ever ask a single question.
“This is just a platoon commander, the lowest-ranking officer in an infantry unit, which itself has the lowest sophistication of weaponry. In today’s combat environment this lowly lieutenant can call in bombs from B-52s flying so high they are unseen and Tomahawk missiles fired from some 500 miles at sea, all with the accuracy of a rifle at 200 yards.
“Try to get into this frame of mind. Try, because the world needs you to. If you say you can’t, I will counter by saying you’re tragically cut off from a very deep part of yourself– tragic for all of us, not just you. I loved this power. I love it still. And it scares the hell out of me.
“For those who don;t know it, but at least suspect they might love it, I have hope. Those who won’t know it, those I fear. They are the ones who will kill a commie for Christ, even an eighteen-year-old. They are the ones who will spit on a veteran, even a medic. They are the ones who will send letter bombs to bankers, even the fathers of small children. They are the ones who will kill their sons’ spirits and drive this immense energy so deep in their sons that when it returns, as it must, it will be in such a great rage that the gates of reason will be shattered like a boot going through a pane of glass.”
It is my favorite passage in his whole book. What he says is incredibly truthful– but something that is hard to admit to people outside of the military. The idea of going to war and combat carries with it such a stigma. Society says we should hate it, that it is horrible, and that our lives should be filled with regret and sorrow for what we’ve done. It loves to glamorize dying for your country– but falls strangely silent on the idea of killing for it. But ultimately that is what we spend a large part of our time training to do. To kill in the most violent and efficient way possible. To kill at night, unseen, from the bushes. To kill with artillery strikes. To kill with airpower. To enter a room and kill at point blank range from the end of a rifle barrel. We rehearse it. We lecture about it. Sometimes as whimsical as if were talking about the weather or sports. Then we deploy and we do it for real.
Sebastian Junger in his book “War”, chronicling the experiences of 2nd platoon, Battle Company, 173rd Airborne (the documentary ‘Restrepo’ was also based on his time with 2nd Platoon) provides more insight to it. In his book he tries to explain why it is that soldiers seemed to miss the combat. During long bouts of inaction, where no combat with the enemy had happened for weeks, the soldiers were yearning to get into a firefight. Despite the knowledge that their was a good chance some of their friends or they themselves might be killed. Even after they had returned from war, they were dying to go back. Junger writes, “Civilians balk at recognizing that one of the most traumatic things about combat is having to give it up. War is so obviously evil and wrong that the idea there could be anything good to it almost feels like profanity. And yet. throughout history, men […] have come home to find themselves desperately missing what should have been the worst experience of their lives. To a combat vet, the civilians world can seem frivolous and dull, with very little at stake and all the wrong people in power.
“When men say they miss combat, it’s not that they actually miss getting shot at– you’d have to be deranged– it’s that they miss being in a world where everything is important and nothing is taken for granted. They miss being in a world where human relations are entirely governed by whether you can trust the other person with your life
“It’s such a pure, clean standard that men can completely remake themselves in war. You could be anything back home– shy, ugly, rich, poor, unpopular– and it won’t matter because it’s of no consequence in a firefight, and therefore of no consequence, period. The only thing that matters is your level of dedication to the group, and that is almost impossible to fake. That is why men say such impossibly vulgar things about each other’s sisters and mothers. It’s one more way to prove nothing can break the bond between them; it’s one more way to prove they’re not alone out there.
“War is a big and sprawling word that brings a lot of human suffering into the conversation, but combat is a different matter. Combat is the smaller game that young men fall in love with, and any solution to the human problem of war will have to take into account the psyches of these young men. For some reason there is a profound and mysterious gratification to the reciprocal agreement to protect another person with your life, and combat is virtually the only situation in which that happens regularly. The hillsides of loose shale and holly trees are where the men feel not most alive— that you can get skydiving– but the most utilized. The most necessary. The most clear and certain and purposeful. ”
I think that gets to the heart of the matter. Combat amplifies the human experience. Sure, it manifest feelings of pain, guilt, depression, horror, and fear. But it also manifest feelings of love, brotherhood, courage, and loyalty. There was a time, when I first got to West Point, I could not wait to go home again. I carried homesickness around like some sort of strange affliction. But as the months gave way into years, I went home less and less frequently. It’s not that I no longer miss my family or my friends. I do. It’s something more than that. I have never felt that homesick out in the pouring rain, enduring a near freezing night, when I had one of my friends next to me. And friend isn’t really even the right word– they are family. They are my brothers. And wherever we are– home is not that far away. The bond is very strong. And most of us have not even experienced combat yet. But if our predecessors have anything to say, it is that the experience will only strengthen our bonds even further.
A close friend once told me, during a particularly low point as a cadet, that if he had to go to Afghanistan tomorrow– he’d want me on his side. Through thick and thin that has always stuck with me. Not in the sense of a self inflation of my ego. But more in the fact that no matter what happened to me, I would do anything to avoid letting him down. There is nothing that would cause me more pain and grief then failing to live up to the expectation of me that he had to say that. That is the one fear, above the others, that I live with the most.
As for power, yes it has the ability to do unspeakably horrible things. To kill, to maim, to tear apart the very fabric of humanity and blacken the earth with its destruction. But it also has the power to bring out the best in us. The key for any leader is being able to recognize his own vulnerability to be seduced completely by it. It’s ok to enjoy it– but understand it and try your best to leverage it for good. Know the difference between the time for unshackled chaos and the time for self-restraint.
The article represents the opinions of the author and does not reflect the views of the U.S. Army or Deptartment of Defense.