"The Nation that makes a great distinction between its scholars and its warriors will have its thinking done by cowards and its fighting done by fools."
This morning SPC Frances was taking a practicing test for the SAT, and asked me if I would help him with an especially difficult question. I read through the question and dissected it for him, pointing out the definitions for each of the myriad terms. He settled on the correct answer, and happily continued on with the test.
I promptly forgot about the incident and went back to putting together a safety class for my soldiers. Seriously. As I sat there fabricating a powerpoint presentation I was struck by the incongruity between reality and my tasking. I was sitting at my desk in the middle of a war zone making a briefing for soldiers in combat about how to stay safe. As I built the class I realized there were some valid points that needed to be covered, but it still felt wrong.
After lunch I pulled together my soldiers and several other troops from other shops and hammered through the briefings. I spent a good hour covering all the issues and then turned off the slides and happily transitioned back to mission. A few minutes later the shop emptied and SPC Frances slowly approached my desk and asked permission to ask a question. I agreed, pushed my paperwork away, and leaned back in preparation for another SAT question. As I waited for the question SPC Frances started fumbling for words, only managing to get out “you don’t have to answer”. I patiently waited until he finished, and then told him to fire away. When he finally managed to string together the question I was shocked by the blunt impact of the words. The flicker of pain came not for the content of his question, but from its unspoken implications. What SPC Frances said as he sheepishly stood before my desk staring at the floor was “Sir, you’re like, ummmm, you know, really smart. And you’re doing this when you could ummmm, you know, so many other things. Don’t you wish you were, ummm doing something better?”.
The question is one I’ve heard from several well meaning individuals, but never, ever from a soldier. If it were possible I would have torn the implicit assumption that question housed and crushed it beneath my muddy heels. Because wrapped in that question like two fat maggots in an otherwise perfect roast sits two false postulates that have poisoned many clear thinking individuals. The first deadly lie is that soldiers are stupid. The second is that the Army is a dumping ground for people with no other options.
I paused for a long moment after SPC Frances asked his question, unsure of how to answer the question and simultaneously leach its poisonous implications. And then I stood up, told SPC Frances to follow me out of the TOC, and we went outside to sit in the sun and talk. I had hoped the desert sunlight might somehow burn away the bitter responses that were welling up like raw crude. Instead I walked into the acrid smell of burnt plastic, which seemed fine tuned to match the frequency of my heart.
By time we were outside I had stalled long enough, and I started to talk. I spoke from experience, and I spoke from the heart. I told him about the misery of feeling my feet rot in the swamps of Florida during ranger school. I told him about getting stuck in knee deep mud during a blinding deluge in Germany. I talked about having to pull my frozen finger off the trigger while riding through the Balkan winter. I talked about the string of missed birthdays, holidays and weddings I never had the opportunity to celebrate. And I told him about living in the sun stoked furnace that was Kuwait in the summer. I purged all the collective misery of my decade in the service. Having finished my impromptu confession I paused for a long moment, letting SPC Frances absorb the full weight of my response.
As the silence stretched like a teardrop waiting to fall I broke the silence and told him that I would do it all over again. His face contorted into a mask of disbelief, his jaw drooping slightly from the strain of following this verbal about-face. His lips shaped the word “Why?” but there was no breath to give it voice.
Before answering him I told him about how part of my heart chipped off when I looked into a mass grave in Bosnia. How for days after my dreams were clouded with an image of the very earth opening a yawning pit to engulf the dead, only to choke on their numbers and leave them on the surface half swallowed. I talked about countries where famine and disease left people whose bodies left shadows that gave the illusion you were looking at a photographic negative of a skeleton. About places where the only rule of law was the brutal and unswerving laws of physics and ballistics and the only peace one could hope for was the grave. And the story that did not need telling, the story of our ongoing struggle with insurgents who revel in the misery and deaths they cause our forces and the Iraqis.
As I finished I noticed my mouth was dry and I had to take a long draw of water before continuing. When I slaked my thirst I told SPC Frances to close his eyes and I would tell him why. As he closed his eyes I told him to imagine his young wife, his beautiful infant daughter and the future he wanted for them. He paused a moment and a smile slowly creased his face. As he looked up I caught his eyes and told him a simple truth. I told him that the thin line that separates the two realities isn’t a line on a map or the signature block on a document filled with hollow proclamations. The dividing line between the two kingdoms is a long line of soldiers. And that is why I’m proud to call myself a soldier. Its not about a lack of options, or the size of my paycheck. Its about what kind of world I want to leave for my children if I am lucky enough to be a father.
SPC Frances thanked me for the explanation and moved back into the office. I don’t if the words resonated but as he walked away SPC Frances seemed to stand a little taller and step with a little more confidence. As he should... as he should.