Monday, March 31, 2008

Distinctions About Killing

In her response to this post from last week, Lydia McGrew makes an important distinction. I had talked about the need to be willing to die for some (few and exceptionally important) things, and she pointed out that actually, you don't seek death, quite the contrary, but you're willing to risk it if needed.

I'm reminded of the story of Mike Strank, told with great empathy in James Bradley's Flags of Our Fathers, which I read a while ago and ought to review here if I find the time. Frank was a Marine squad leader, who trained his men to kill and prepared them to be willing to be killed if necessary, but who's main and constant refrain was that if they did as he was training them and leading them, he'd do his best to get as many of them back to their mothers as possible. He himself - and some of them - died on Iwo Jima.

I'm not certain the Marines in WWII are the best possible example of what I'm trying to say, following Lydia's comment, but the idea is simultaneously quite simple and endlessly complex: in a sane and just society, we don't want anyone to have to give their lives for anyone or anything, because what is there that is more precious than life. Yet at the same time there are values, or people, or things in life, that are more precious than life itself. In order to align those two concepts, we sometimes risk our lives - in the hope that we won't have to pay with them; indeed, we go to great efforts to ensure that our lives won't be lost... while simultaneously consciously endangering them because we must.


Lydia McGrew said...

Quite right. That interplay between trying to get back alive while going into danger is all part (IMO) of healthy masculinity, as well of course as healthy humanity. Not worshiping death, far from it, but holding life on an open palm, as it were.

Anonymous said...

I would have to agree with Lydia. Few men (or today, women) volunteer for military service out of a yearning for death. The reasons for service will vary. Some attempt to remediate deficiencies in family life or secondary school education; some seek additional vocational training, experience, post-service benefits, travel or adventure. Some men simply wish to emulate their fathers.

It really depends on the branch of service. For example, the United States Air Force tends to attract those with their eye on training and the post-service job market, while the Marine Corps attracts those who may define themselves as "combat hungry."

What is "combat hungry"? It isn't death--I've known no soldier who ever volunteered "to die." But it is a yearning to be tested in ways unavailable in civilian life. Ultimately, that testing may involve death insofar as certain MOS's (infantry, for example) promise greater testing by a higher exposure to the risk of death.

But that yearning is usually satisfied by one's first baptism of fire. At the sound (or as the target) of gunfire or mortars, if one didn't run, faint or soil themselves, one has passed the test; all the better if one had enough presence of mind to return fire or whatever job one was trained to do in those circumstances.

So when do such soldiers engage in activities that promise almost certain death? I can assure you that it's not with any knowledge or planning aforethought. Rather, it's entirely circumstantial, and usually revolves around the sudden, instant need to honor the moral contract that binds comrades.

If you look at the usual reasons as to why medals for bravery are awarded, the predominant theme is rescue--saving injured comrades under fire; destroying an enemy position in order to relieve one's own or one's comrades from increased risk, and so forth. Nobody thinks much about flags or nationalities--and few (hand grenade sitters are an exception here) go in believing that death is an absolute, unavoidable certainty: enemy fire may miss, running in a zig-zag pattern may cause inaccurate fire, or Heaven will save, or just plain luck.

Shakespeare captured its essence in Henry V: it's the band of brothers. There is no death cult, at least in the U.S. military. Many soldiers are first class killers, but believe me, it's a job, not a catharsis.