To Soldiers

Soldiers intimidate me. They make me uncomfortable. Knowing that they are experts at killing people is part of it, but only part. The part that’s worse, or at least more complicated, is the set of emotions they inspire me. It’s mostly pity. Pity because I don’t think they should have to carry the psychological burden they do, in addition to all the physical wretchedness I imagine they endure.  There’s also gratitude, but I find that very hard to articulate. In fact, I’ve seen soldiers and wanted to walk up to them and say, “Thank you for your service,” but I have never been able to do that. Maybe I’m scared of the potential within them to kill. It’s more likely that the formula is too stilted and has an unpleasant combination of banality, condescension, and, at least for me, insincerity. Insincerity because I’m not so much thankful for the job they do as I am for the effect that doing that job has. What I mean is I am not so idealistic that I cannot see that but for America’s military might, the tranquility and abundance that makes American life so enjoyable could not be sustained. Though it’s often said that American soldiers die to protect our freedom, I see that as a lie. Looking at American history objectively, I see that soldiers are tools of foreign policy that are deployed to protect our resources and acquire new ones.

I’m not a patriot. I find nationalism vile. There was a brief period in my childhood when I could look at an American flag and feel a kind of joyous recognition of what that symbol might mean. But that faded quickly as I learned American history. It’s almost funny how when you know no American history, the flag means next to nothing. Then when you learn a little, it’s this terrific symbol. But when you learn even more, you just can’t stomach it. The annihilation of Hiroshima hit me hard. It still does. There’s a place in my mind’s eye, where the blue field doesn’t contain 50 stars, but just one big mushroom cloud. 100,000 people died when the energy of a star’s core was unleashed upon mothers, fathers, children, grandparents, animals and trees. For me, even the trees resonate in my heart. I don’t know why. I don’t pretend it’s logical or scientific. Going by numbers of dead, I should be far more troubled by Stalin’s purges, or the Irish famines, or of course, Hitler’s atrocities. It’s not as if I give all of those a pass, but they don’t stick with me like Nagasaki and Hiroshima do. Part of it is that this is my country and Germany isn’t nor is Ireland, nor is Soviet Russia.  It can be argued that the bombs shortened the war but only if one totally ignores the clear-cut messages Japan was sending at that point in the fight.

I feel pretty alone in this. I think most people can separate their views on history from their views on soldiers. I am not so foolish as to paint every American in uniform from Bunker Hill to Baghdad with one broad brush. But I find the “good war/ bad war” kind of dialogue to be missing the point. Even if you call the American Revolution a good war, that good war leads to Vietnam. The enlisted men of one war become the generals of the next one. The lineage is unbroken from start to finish. No two wars are the same in terms of their underlying motives, tactics, and casualties. That means no two wars can be the same morally either. But I have yet to encounter a persuasive defense of any of America’s wars that convinces me, that the war taken as a whole was beyond reproach morally.

Though people are sly about hiding this opinion, I know many think the troops are just simple. I don’t believe that for a minute. Some are, certainly so. But you can’t be an idiot and even survive in the conditions they endure, much less be an effective killer. And though I have friends who seem to be sincere in their view that “Thou shalt not kill” has no exceptions to it, I am miles away from that view. It’s a nice sentiment. But it breaks down rapidly in the real world.  What does a pacifist do if his opponent captures his president? Maybe, just maybe you can get away with just threatening to take lives and resolve it before there’s complete chaos, but even that won’t work unless the enemy is darn sure that your threats have teeth.

I hope this doesn’t create the impression that a soldier is like a garbageman – one who fulfills an unpleasant task so that the rest of us can do more important things. Although the garbageman could claim that he saves lives too, by ensuring pathogens like e. coli don’t spread.  I don’t think we could do without them. I haven’t said this yet, but I don’t even blame them for becoming what they are. In different circumstances, I would make the exact same calculations they assuredly have. It’s a paying job, it’s legal, and there are opportunities for advancement.

I really ought to reward anyone who has made this excursion with me, but I’m afraid I don’t have much to offer in this conclusion. There will be no great wisdom from Thomas Jefferson and no soaring rhetoric from Martin Luther King. There will be no bars of one of our great anthems like the Star-Spangled Banner or America the Beautiful. And there will be no call to revolution.  But if you are a soldier, and you see me in what was formerly called the real world, just know, that I am constantly reminding God to be loving towards you, because I think you deserve that.

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