When I was a teenager I dreamed of getting into a firefight, or a standup knife-fight to the death. I dreamed of being a combat hero and killing hundreds of enemies singlehandedly. I wanted to kill a bad guy because, in my mind, that represented some sort of rite of passage into warriorhood. It is strange, a little funny, and a little sad, to look back at that and see how much I’ve changed.
At the ripe old age of 27 I don’t think that desire of my younger self was totally wrong. In fact I would go so far as to say it was tremendously right, and could not have been any other way, without weakening my character a great deal. I still maintain that it is a very good thing for a young man (such as myself) to look forward to a fight out of the sheer joy of fighting. I trust that adventurous instinct. Someone who fights for the joy and excitement of fighting is much closer to the truth than someone who does violence out of malice. It is more likely to produce courage, honor, and freedom of spirit, while malice, even non-violent malice, can produce only backbiting, hatred, injury and death.
So the blood and vinegar me was a natural part of my development, and is still a part of my character. I still think fights are fun once you get into them, but the difference is that I don’t want to get into a fight. I have much to learn, but nothing left to prove against any human being out there.
There are so many younger soldiers who are lamenting the withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan. They feel cheated, like they missed their chance. Some boldly hope out loud that we go to war with Iran or North Korea. Oh God in Heaven, please no! If it must be, then I will do what I must, but I pray with all my heart that it never happens. It isn’t that I am afraid of being killed or wounded. I have faced that before and will face it again. By God’s grace I have never yet backed down or failed my mission. It’s just that there would be so much killing. So much pain. So much hatred. The hatred is what really frightens me. My soul shrinks back from it, like my naked flesh would shrink back from an acid bath. It hurts. It stings and suffocates. Hatred of me by other people is not so bad. It definitely hurts, but the fighting spirit I was born with rebels and tosses it back. I refuse to be damaged by it (but might not that refusal itself be damaging?) But hatred of others is far worse. A war is always a breeding ground for hate. The Iraqis hate us, because of the lies they have been told, and all too often because of the truth they have seen. Americans despise Iraqis because they haven’t discovered sit-down toilets yet. They hate them because it was an Iraqi who blew up their buddy. They bitterly wish that we could nuke the whole Middle East. The sneering and mistrust, and the sense of righteousness in sneering and mistrusting is the drug of choice in a combat zone. How else could we do what we are told to do? There is a way, but it is not open to most.
And all the people who would be killed. I have never desired the death of any person. Even when I was spoiling for a fight, it was not the death of the enemy that I wanted. I saw a challenge (he wants to kill me) and my spirit rose in response (Bring it!) But if I do have to kill someone (and make no mistake I will if I have to) what a waste! Every human being was born beautiful, alive, practically bursting with hidden promise, called to inexpressible glory. How much good is each human soul capable of? And each one is not a nameless, faceless, number in a vast sea of other people. That is now who he is in the eyes of God, and therefore that is not who he is to me. That person, my enemy over there, has been loved into existence by the Holy Trinity. He is unique, absolutely unrepeatable. In all time and space, past, present, and future, and through all eternity, he is the only one there is. There can never be another. What a tragedy! All the good that he was capable of, gone. All that he might have been, gone. No second chance, no do-over. There will never be another one of him to pick up the slack.
How could this be a good thing? How could this be subject for celebration?
It may seem strange that it is a soldier who thinks of all of this and puts it in words, but it should not be strange at all. Who else would have cause to think about it? And how could you stand to go through life as a soldier constantly shoving it under the rug? If you have never looked at what you do, squarely and honestly, and asked what it means, then you should not be doing it.
So I look and I ask, and I answer. I will not always be a soldier, but I have been called to be a warrior, because, as much as the idea of human violence fills me with sadness, there is something else which matters even more deeply. I don’t particularly want to kill anyone, but all my life I have wanted to protect everyone. I want people to live and be free, to be happy and find the greatness they were created for, and the sad truth is that too many cannot. Especially the children, born into worlds of violence, or brutally stolen from their homes, their innocence destroyed, their futures obliterated before they had even a chance to see them; these children need someone to protect them, and sometimes to protect an innocent person a guilty person must die.
But I want him to die like a human being. Even in death I can never despise him, but I must instead afford him the respect he never afforded to himself. Hopefully that way, in some small measure, I can restore some of his humanity. At least, let me not lose mine.