What lessons can people learn from being in a war? Part III

Fear Inoculation

Fear inoculation is exactly what it sounds like. It is a process of becoming partially immune to the effects of fear. Lt. Col Dave Grossman describes in his books On Combat and On Killing, it is the experiences, conditioning and training to deal with events which would cause fear or stress and managing them to a level your body and mind can handle. Fear, causes people to forget things. It causes a reduction in the amount of blood reaching the brain and reduces the effectiveness of our vital sensory inputs. Fear makes your body do many, many things that it shouldn’t to maintain your effectiveness in high stress situations. Basically, fear makes you a stupid sack of meat. It is put perhaps the best in the science fiction classic Dune,

“Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.”

I’m not saying that Marines and soldiers are some sort of superhero caricatures of real people who can’t feel fear. It’s quite the opposite. These are people who go into some of the worst periods of places where it is impossible to not feel fear. General George Patton even said, “All men are frightened. The more intelligent they are, the more they are frightened.” I tend to agree. Since their jobs force them into intense periods of fear, though, it is necessary to develop mechanisms to suppress and manage your fear. Perhaps an example would be more appropriate.

I have a phobic reaction to heights. I don’t like being near balconies or high places where all there is preventing my fall is my ability to not somehow stumble off the wall or guardrail. I recently had this sensation when visiting a local historic watchtower overlooking our local lake. When I say I have a phobic reaction, I mean that when I am in these situations I can feel my heart rate spike, my breathing changes, and I get cold and perhaps a bit sweaty in the course of a single minute. I know that my fear is also not rational because I can reason that I won’t possibly accidentally trip and stumble off the four foot wall on the edge of that tower. I’ll still go up there, because my wife, completely immune to heights, likes the view. I even can acknowledge that it is a beautiful scene of the lake, but I can’t enjoy it. My body tells me this is a time to be afraid, whether it really is or not. That is a phobia.

So it surprises me that, when I needed to, I willingly stood on the edge of a fifty foot tower, leaned over and jumped off. Repelled is the more correct  term. Either way, heights are one of my greatest fears, yet I jumped off a tower for no other reason than that someone who I knew wouldn’t kill me told me to with nothing but a rope and a fall, which might. This process I would later come to realize, was the Marine Corps training me time and time again to overcome my fears and find a way to perform. While I still use it to go with my wife to be with her while she enjoys a view I very much do not, it was put in me for a very different reason. The Repel Tower, along with many other exercises in warrior training was intended to help Marines survive the wars they may face with some degree of mental clarity.

When I actually went to war I remember the first time I was really afraid. Years later, I realized how this worked. The first time I ever received indirect fire, a rocket attack on the base, I was naturally very scared. It was my first week in Iraq. It was a loud boom that you could feel, like the feeling of standing near a massive drum in a small room. We all scurried to our pre-planned locations. This wasn’t a new thing in 2005 so everyone knew what to do, at least, enough people knew what to do that the rest were able to follow along easily. I followed a Corporal who made his way to one of the bunkers. I didn’t know how long we would be there or if we were still in danger, or what came next. I remember being confused and a bit frustrated at how cavalier the Corporal was about the attack. I remember geared up and sitting under the concrete bunker, built for such purposes. After a long time, I turned to my Corporal and asked him, “Isn’t someone going to go after them?” He just laughed at me without saying anything.

The truth was, there was nothing we could do about the guys with rockets. Those rockets were ingenious little devices set to go off long after the person who set it up had gone home. By the time the blast hit, he was probably at home watching The View. It was a popular show back then. They were also fired from the center of the town of Habbaniyah down below the base, so we couldn’t just blanket the area with artillery fire, because that would be like using a grenade on an ant hill to kill one ant. There was nothing we could do about it. The constant threat of enemy rocket attacks was just something we were going to have to deal with.

So we did. I remember many days when my good friend and fellow comrade at arms Cody Solley would be asleep in our tent and an explosion would go off somewhere on the base. I’d roll over lazily and say to him, “Did that sound like inbound or outbound?” and he would say that it sounded more like us firing at them. “Good.” and I would try to go back to sleep. Moments later, the sirens would cry and we would angrily roll out of our cots, don our protective armor, grab our weapons and make our way to whatever rally point we were instructed to go, the whole time muttering colorful expletives about the stupid terrorists ruining our sleep.

While I fully accept that this story demonstrates how utterly complacent we had become, it also showcases how inoculated to the fear of being struck with one of these rockets or mortars we had become. After telling this story to others who didn’t go through it, people have told me that they don’t know how they would have ever been able to deal with the not knowing. They said that it would be terrifying not knowing if death would just come from anywhere at any time. I thought that was more dramatic than the situation deserved, but there were cases of people that definitely succumbed to this kind of pressure. There also were some casualties throughout the base, and several people I knew had close calls, but mostly just damage to the base itself. The church was hit, as was the mosque, and my blessed chow hall once, as well. The flight line was hit numerous times and as I understand, at least one of the birds was taken out. The worst we saw was a relay hub where a large number of our cabling and communication equipment was taken out, disrupting communications through half the base. That was a bad few weeks, especially for the wire guys. I can think of one person who most certainly lost his wits under the stress, though there were other factors, as well. As for those of us that were able to adapt, we knew not to let it trouble us and were able to focus on our work, in spite of the random timing and locations of these attacks. It could have come at any moment, that was true, and I can see many people being unnerved by that, but we had been conditioned to the point that they were really just nuisance.

I think this is an important time to mention the importance of training for the military. I’ve gone in very deep on the importance of boot camp as well as rationalizing how crazy it is to people who haven’t gone through it in What is U.S. Marine Corps boot camp like? The synopsis of that answer can be found in the first line:

“It is a place where you have to train 18 year olds to run to the sound of gunfire and perform under fire and the threat of death.”

One of the most intriguing descriptions I have seen for Marine Corps Boot Camp is in the way it conditions its warriors towards focused aggression and repression of fear through combat conditioning. Combat conditioning isn’t the same as working out. Regularly recruits are put into situations which simulate high stress, fear inducing events, whether it is jumping off a tower or being yelled at by six different people for minor infractions. Recruits face nonstop situations where they will be tested under extreme stress levels. This isn’t anything like test anxiety, or deadline anxiety. I can state for a fact that we can still fail at those like anyone else. This is high impact stress where in the course of two minutes a person can go from completely calm to a heartbeat of 180 beats per minute. At that heart rate, usually only brought on by the fear of death, extreme exercise or in the sultrous throws of passion (which better be seriously good since you are close to dying from it) much of the brain and body stops working predictably. You lose fine motor control, some of your senses may fail or deceive you, and you might only be capable of thinking at the very base level of mammalian instinct. The Marines train in this environment, know how to induce it under safe conditions and expect the recruit to dismantle and put back together a weapon consisting of numerous extremely tiny parts in under a minute while in it.

This type of training doesn’t just focus on higher order thinking. That is there as well. Military history, customs and courtesies, structure, communications systems, first aid, weapon characteristics, and all manner of scholastic knowledge will be trained. An example would be re-calculating the trajectory of an object traveling at 3,110 ft/s for a three inch change in elevation at 5 times the length of a standard football field when factoring in for wind speed and direction as well as differences in elevation. That’s basic rifle marksmanship. Marine Corps boot camp goes deeper, though. They focus also on mid-brain thinking. This is the mammalian brain and the one where most of our innate, instinctual reactions come from. You might think that because I said, “instinctual”, that one can’t train it, but you would incorrect.
Combat science has shown that most of the time a kill is rendered in combat for infantry, it is a reactionary response. This means that to prepare warriors, you have to train them to react to dangerous situations, not to rationalize their way through them. Essentially, modern militaries know that their soldier is being pitted not against the rationality of the other soldier, but against their enemy’s innate instinctive responses, trained in the middle brain. Under ideal situations, they will be able to take a well aimed shot from cover and concealment at a time of their choosing, but more likely for the young infantryman, they face the danger of needing to react faster than they can think of what to do. To do this, the Marines use numerous operant conditioning mechanisms that reward their reactions to stimulus and condition them to ignore non-important information instinctively. This channels their brain’s cognitive abilities to react to stimulus and building the same neural pathways connecting their reactionary subconscious brain to their bodies muscle receptors. This means that when the training is applied correctly, a person can recognize a target from a non-target, sight in and kill the bad guy, before the average person would rationalize that they are in danger. Yeah.

I’ve made a point of promoting training as the single most important trait that businesses should learn from the military. I’m not saying that businesses should start pushing their accountants off of buildings to see how they handle mid-April or that we should scream at the receptionist for messing up the coffee, but the Marines and most modern militaries have mastered training not only a of a Marine’s ability to analyze a situation when calm is allowed, but to even groom the other parts of the brain to function when it isn’t. This is happening when most civilian companies are wasting millions of dollars in human resources on recruiting because they still pride themselves on a “Sink or Swim” model of management from the nineteenth century. It isn’t that sometimes it doesn’t work, but usually it will just ensure an unnecessarily high turnover rate and fearful company culture, rife with paranoia, politics, and unproductive competition. This isn’t because it is a better system, but because civilians don’t have experience of a better model. While this feels tangential, I can honestly say that I have had a profound respect for the Marines’ education system of training its individuals for success after seeing the failures of the business world, even very successful companies, in this regard. The United States Marines are one of the most successful organizations on the planet because of their training, which doesn’t make them fearless, but which makes them immensely competent under stress. I only really realized after the war and one only really appreciates it when he is wondering what to write in this article, and can think clearly enough to find inspiration from the top of a very, very tall tower.

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What lessons can people learn from being in a war? Part II

You Learn How to Eat Anything Put in Front of You

There is a lot of truth to Dan Rosenthal‘s quip that grown men will wait in line for a juice box and some reheated macaroni to eat in the dirt. When you are starving and have been working in some of the most inhospitable conditions imaginable, food tastes really good, regardless of what it actually tastes like. I’ve always said the best flavors on any food are free and starving. You’ll eat anything, even the artificially tasteless food given out by the food preparation experts that were the cooks. It was apparently like that because people could be allergic to things with flavor, so why bother and just remove all of them. Regardless, even they tasted delicious depending on what you had endured for the last few days. Essentially, flavor is inversely related to suffering endured. Remember that. It might save your life.

I remember when I first arrived in Iraq I went to the dinner one day with one of my Corporals and the two Gunnies. The Gunnies were much more experienced than either us and this was far from their first war. Still, everything was new to me. I was surprised to see the size and scale of the chow hall. There is a few moments of cognitive dissonance when you enter the chow halls in Iraq. They are much larger and more effort put into them than anything you endured during training. It was better than what was offered in Yuma training, anyway. I stood in line and took what was offered. There was something fried and something green. Fork ready, I sat down and prepared to eat when the Corporal among us asked me if I knew what it was I was eating. He pointed to the fried nugget like objects on the plate. I looked, examined, and thought for a second. I hadn’t the foggiest clue.

“You know, I don’t care. I expect you to tell me they are fried goat intestines or camel testicals or something, but I just don’t care at this point. I’m hungry and they’re fried so I am going to eat them.”

I took my fork and skewered one, put it in my mouth, and attempted to identify the flavor. I wasn’t successful, but it wasn’t bad. So I went on to eat another.

“Oh… well, they’re mussels… like what people scrape off the side of ships.”

“Hmm…” I said with the mystery meat still filling my mouth. “Well, that’s not so bad when you go in assuming it was fried camel balls now is it?”

The Gunnies just laughed.

The truth was, I was always a very picky eater until I joined the Marine Corps. That said, in the worst of times, food was actually pretty good. Maybe by the end of boot camp I just wasn’t that picky anymore. During training it was bland, but bland isn’t exactly the same as bad. It’s just eh. By 2005 MREs, Meal Ready to Eat, are pretty good unless you just have really bad luck. You can mix and match, trade up and there was even a cookbook that circulated on how to juryrigg oddly appetizing if not aesthetically displeasing concoctions. For instance, cocoa powder and creamer make pudding! And you can make grilled cheese with spreadable cheese, two breads and the engine block of a humvee as well. Let that depressing thought boil for a minute. Perhaps it was just something you get used to, but I enjoyed them most of the time.

What I actually miss was the chow halls. Yes, I miss them and those who have been over understand. I wanted to mention this because this fact would probably surprise most people who have the wrong idea of what the war was like. If you were lucky enough to be on one of the big bases for a while you would get to eat at the chow halls which were these massive cafeterias. They served food so good I was actually in a state of shock that this was what war was like. I’m really serious about this and most won’t believe, but we had steak every week and the first time I ever experienced lobster or pecan praline ice-cream was in Iraq. I know that wasn’t everyone’s experience, but as I said, I was lucky.

I have heard since coming back that a lot of people are angry about this. Most Marines will tell you about how they had it so much worse. Most really didn’t since the majority never even went to Iraq and still a lot would never want to admit that we had it this good. That said, there were many who had it really rough, and I respect that. Getting sent out to Hit or Camp Korean Village in 2005 was no small achievement and the accommodations, even two years into the war were, shall I say, not yet 5 star quality. That said, if that is one of you reading this, really, my heart goes out to you. You have the gratitude of the nation for what you endured. Congratulations. Here is your medal and a cookie. Please pass the ketchup.

Having said all that, many people who never deployed, as well as many who were never part of the military at all, cry foul at the egregious spending of the Department of Defense on $50 dinners for the military. I don’t know if those figures are an exaggeration or not, or just some idiot who took the military’s entire food budget, including facilities, staff, transportation, plus food and then just divided it by individual meals. I also don’t know people just don’t understand how logistically hard it is to get food that passes American health standards in that sort of quantity to warzones, but if you are one of those people who think there is something wrong with the fact, perhaps you should consider this. Literally the best thing that could happen to me on any given day was having waffles with peanut butter smothered in hot syrup with a side of eggs and an orange for breakfast. Imagine that. That isn’t just a good breakfast, that is the guaranteed to be the best thing that will happen to me that day. The only good things I could imagine on most days revolved around food and phone calls. I hadn’t seen my wife in months. I lived in a tent, slept on a cot, my roommate didn’t bathe, my bosses were [expletives deleted], and I caught athletes foot a month ago from the showers that I will never get rid of. I hadn’t had a day off since I got here and oh, did I mention that we got bombed on a semi-regularly basis? This meal and more importantly, the twenty minutes of renewing socialization where my friends and I can unwind, is all we have. What more do you want to take away from us?

That question aside, there is a rational reason for the “enormously superfluous” spending of the US military on the grounds of food. Basic comforts, where they could be controlled, greatly affect troop morale. During Vietnam and World War II, the vast majority of people who became casualties were not because they suffered gorey bullet and shrapnel wounds. They weren’t casualties in the normal way respected by non-military folk, but were actually psychiatric casualties succumbing to stresses far outside the expected normal human experience. As it turns out, the Brits may have solved this first in World War I where they would cycle troops out of the trenches every ten days or so to the rear where they could have hot food and showers for a few days before going back. It seemed that they were the first to fight a war like that without suffering the impossible to imagine psychological damage that we are only now starting to understand. Basically, food isn’t really a luxury. I was surprised how often, during times when we would be way, way out there in extremely inconvenient conditions, some officer would go so far out of his way to make sure we had “hot” chow. I didn’t feel we needed all the attention, but sometimes, Hell itself couldn’t stop these men. After researching and understanding the mental effects of war on warriors, I’m starting to see that they did this for more than just purely altruistic good leadership. In those situations, it may be another inoculation, this time against future mental breakdown from prolonged poor morale in the middle of a warzone.

So the next time you hear someone say that it’s stupid that people in a war zone are getting to eat so good, at least consider that there is probably more to that decision than that the General just likes ice cream. Perhaps you should remind the person complaining so much that spending a little on food for a deployed service member is far less than spending on a lifetime of potential psychiatric disability payouts. It might actually do well to remind them that at the end of the day, they still get to go home while probably never feeling the pressures military guys feel the moment they leave the chow hall.

Thanks for reading. This blog is supported entirely by fan donation. If you would like to support the author, please visit: Support Jon Davis creating Short Stories and Essays in Military, Science Fiction and Life.

What lessons can people learn from being in a war?

The recent documentary The November War asks the question, “Do you believe a warrior ever truly comes back from war, or will a part of him always remain there?” This question is asked by the documentary maker, himself a veteran of the Second Battle of Fallujah, to fellow members of his platoon ten years after their experiences in the battle that changed the direction of that war. There was no clear answer given by the Marines, but they all agreed that warfare and battle do have a permanent change on the warrior who goes through them.

As far as real lessons, I don’t know. I can’t say there are very many brief bullet points, rules of thumbs, or quiet meditations that can be summed up in few words that describe what one learns from war. None that I know that are meaningful absent the context behind them. It isn’t that you won’t learn from war. War is one of the most fundamentally evolutionary events that a person can endure, and something so uncommon for most people that there is ample opportunity to gain wisdom from the experience. It’s just that no one experiences it the same. It will have a profound effect on you and what you take from it can be many different things. I think, for my experiences at least, a person can’t come back the same as he was before war. It will change you. It can grow you and it can take things away from you. Many come back worse for the experience, while others are given direction for life, a sense of purpose or a new understanding of the world which people who haven’t been a part of the war will never understand. It took many years to realize it and come back to a state of normalcy after my time in Iraq, but I am glad for the opportunity to do what few would undertake willingly. I believe I am a better person for it, not for any particular lesson I might take from the event, but just for the complete change it gave me.

Before I go any further, I want to make sure to clarify that I am not, by my own definition, a “combat veteran.” I was deployed to Iraq twice in 2005 and 2007 in places very near where the fighting was going on. 27 kilometers from my base was Fallujah, 10 as the crow flies, which then was a hotbed of terrorist activities. Surrounding the base in other directions, the insurgent cities of Habbaniyah, and Ramadi. The second time I went I was on a base between the cities of Hit, Al Baghdadi. and Haditha. Though these regions were center to Al Anbar and Nineveh provinces, known to the military as the Sunni Triangle and the source of the worst resistance, I myself, never saw combat. I was part of a unit that oversaw base operations for Marine helicopter units which would fly out to all these cities and help infantry win battles as well as the army’s evacuation teams. My role was very far behind whatever lines of combat existed.  The worst I ever saw were a few rockets land a hundred yards or so from where I was, which were scary but not immediately dangerous by the time I was aware of them, as well as the midnight care flights of dead warriors being flown out of Al Anbar in black bags bound for home long after the heat of battle had subsided. I never came face-to-face with any enemy and never had a need to fire my weapon in anger. I was trained and equipped with all the tools and willingness to fight, but always needed just on the precipice of where fighting was happening.

Though for many, this disqualifies much of my experience as irrelevant to warfare, I am thankful for having had the opportunity to be so near the fighting, but never be fully blooded by it. I feel fortunate that my experiences allowed me to be a part of war while not becoming overwhelmed by it. Though I was ashamed of my passive role for many years, I now realized it gave me the intense training and viewpoints to survive it, while affording me the objective distance to view warfare less as an event, and more as a science of humanity and a practical thing which must be studied and understood. I could objectify it and understand it, while not being overly jaded and traumatized by it. Because of this, I have been able to gain an understanding that many combat veterans are too close to see and that most civilians could never fathom. In the last several years since my war has ended, for me at least, I have been able to use this to help others understand the truth of war, and have been extremely fortunate to help other veterans come to peace with their experiences, as well.

I appreciate The Huffington Post for asking myself and others this question and providing me with the impetus to share what war has taught me in as complete a single place as I can. I’ll warn though, if a simple Top 10 Lessons Warriors Gain From War three minute read was what they wanted, they have come to the wrong place. These warriors, many my fellow veteran friends on Quora, have shown this to be one of the few questions capable of producing volumes without ever being complete. My answer will be no different. My belief is that if one truly wants to gain understanding of experiences so unique and so important to the world they live, they had better be prepared to endure the full scope of the pandora’s box they have opened. That said, years of research and reflection on the matter have left me with much to say, some of which I would like to share with you now.

What lessons can people learn from being in a war?

I was recently asked by the Huffington Post along with a few other veterans to share what lessons one can gain from being in a war. I really went off with it. What came out was basically the outline to a book I may one day need to write. This is one of the few subjects that is so broad that I have literally invested hundreds, if not thousands of hours writing over it over the last four years. It’s incredibly important to me so I wanted to pull out all the stops for it. I’ll be sharing the full text with all my followers here over the next week or so. Hope you enjoy it and thanks for reading.

How would Marines judge Colonel Jessep in the movie “A Few Good Men”?

A few good men can be summed up for Marines in the speech by Col. Jessup. You seriously need to watch it to get any of what I am about to say.

The climax of the movie, the famous minute and half “You can’t handle the truth” scene, is so loaded with theatrical and thematic nuggets of gold that it renders the rest of this great movie feel like a waste of time by comparison. I think that this movie it is a wonderful display of a subculture built on the mentalities of violence necessary for its success and survival, that is unable to coexist or to even be understood by the larger culture which birthed it. Full Metal Jacket and Rules of Engagement are also two great movies to get that experience.

The premise of the movie is based off the unintentional murder of a young Marine. The progress of the movie goes into a very deep story that eventually leads to one Marine’s death as a result of a secret disciplinary action, the “Code Red”. The Code Red was carried out by two junior Marines to forcibly improve one of their members. I even paused when I wrote murder. Murder wasn’t the intention, but the outcome. This is an extreme example and, of course, we don’t actually go this far in disciplining each other. We have at one time used various degrees of the off the books discipline, but never in my experience was physical violence part of that. Usually it means cleaning after you should have gone home or doing the platoons scut work. I want that much on the record.

In the end, Col. Jessup is arrested. The moral is fitting. Perhaps we can’t defend America if we have to give up our humanity to do it. What’s important though, is to see this from the Marine’s point of view. Really this may be the view of any warrior in a country like America. Sometimes we feel like we don’t belong anymore. There is a point when you have been in long enough you start to realize that it takes some very difficult choices to be a Marine. You have to first get over this moral problem of killing people and that is just the start of the journey.

Eventually you have to accept your role in life. Your very presence is something that, whether you fight or not, is meant to instill fear and demoralize anyone who would think about fighting the United States or harming its people from doing so. That is our purpose and to do so we have to be incredibly violent, scary men willing to do terrible things to people in order to protect that country, if only because of our reputation.

But this isn’t really acceptable behavior, not by normal people’s standards. In my answer to Under what, if any circumstances, is war morally justifiable? I touch on this (and actually reference this speech by Col. Jessup). My answer to that question was “A war is morally justifiable when the alternative to it is the destruction of your people or their way of life.” Someone didn’t like that answer. He asked me questions like:

“Are we one species, one world, one genus, yes or no?” and  “Just because their way of life is different?” and then decides “War is never morally justifiable, except when your very life, or the life of one of your children who are unable to defend themselves. War is deep rooted arrogance, greed, fear, nationalism and patriotism.  And wrong.  Just like Col Jessup.  The walls defenders should stand on should be around their own homes.  Not in some far off country.  That’s not defense, no matter how it’s painted.  It is either attack or revenge.”

This isn’t war. It’s self-defense. I don’t agree with him there. It is war, just one that isn’t done very well and lacking any real chance of defending the ones you love.

Yes, we are all the same species, however, we are not animals. We have cultures, religions, values, systems of law and different things that makes us enjoy life while add value to it. Each culture on Earth also enjoys the freedom to have all of these differently than anyone else. At the point that someone attacks not just me, not just my family, but other people like me, my country for example, then I am willing to make war on that person. This is a choice they made and the consequence of it. This is war, as a means of self-defense. But this is what you are missing, but the time that an enemy has already made their way to your homeland and endangered your family, they are already capable of inflicting ungodly amounts of harm on all the people around you.

Furthermore, if you are just a guy on a roof with a gun protecting yourself from whatever might be out there, you will lose. You will be outmaneuvered. You will be targeted. You will be killed and your family along with you. You’d be the most morally justified victim in history, but you would be dead nonetheless. This isn’t war, it’s a form of suicide. This is why we have armies. This is why we have the Marine Corps. This is why we fight wars at our enemies’ homeland and not our own. War must happen somewhere else if you don’t want your own people to suffer, and quite honestly and fairly I don’t want my people to suffer as much when there is the option to make war elsewhere. By the time someone is making war on you in your home it is already too late. That is why when we face a threat we handle it there.

Frankly, it is the reasoning of a person who calls out the military, or rather those willing to protect you and everyone else you know, as arrogant, ignorant warmongers [he did]. This is not only ungrateful to the fullest degree, but the reasoning of a coward who is too afraid to defend himself and his loved ones while resting comfortably and verbally attacking those rougher men who do.

Look. Whether you like to believe it or not, if you are using a computer that you own in a comfortable house, with internet connection, and you have the time to write your opinions, you are better off than at least 90% of the world. And many of those 90% would love to take from you what makes you happy and comfortable. A few are even organized enough to do it. The only real protection you have from that small bit of the world who are less fortunate, but more violent than yourself, are two oceans and a very large, very powerful military. Most of the world experiences war first-hand often. It is the most real condition that humanity has had since before recorded history began. To say that it is wrong because you don’t like it is childish, because there are so many others who, very happily would make war on you if given the opportunity.

Now, your statement that “only self defense is appropriate” is another subject altogether. You are a person who sleeps comfortably beneath the veil of security provided by rough men and women while declaring your position the moral high ground. This is absurd. You know good and well, as well as everyone who will ever read this, you will never be faced with an opportunity to need to defend yourself. You have a happy life. Be thankful.

While there are people of every country who swear to defend everyone in their country; the children, the beggars, the nurses, the teachers, the grandmothers, the prisoners, the firemen, the tall, the brown, people like you, and every single other person in their country, you say that it is rightonly to protect yourself and your immediate household. This isn’t morality. This is self-centered, selfish and cowardly. The fact that you refer to the people who are part of war as acting out of “arrogance, greed, fear” is incomprehensible. You have obviously spent a great deal of time justifying your position, without actually considering the reality of the world. So enjoy your moral high ground. It may be paved with gold, but it is really just a glorified pile of garbage.

This conversation goes on much more, especially later on when it is picked up by Feifei Wang, whom I am now a major fan of. Great job Faye. But I have already gone far enough off topic.

You see the conversation I had with the moral man is one that I have to think about all the time. People disagree with the war, or war in general or with civilians who die or with Marines and soldiers who lose and start to go into a place where they believe that the military is evil or unjust or wrong for existing. They forget that there are powers out there who very clearly want them to die and all that stops them is the idea that there are people out there who are well trained, well funded, highly motivated, vicious, angry and unforgiving enough to cross the entire planet to find them and kill them.

I’ve mentioned before that being a Marine is at times resenting the civilian population for not taking part in what we are experiencing. We do. We can’t talk about it, but we think about it on a cold night in a desert in some place no one you know can find on a map. We think about how we have tried to rationalize war in our minds, yet how the people we went to high school with are at college, or at the mall, or with their families and why is it that I am not? Why is it that I am here and they are safe and free and warm? Why is it that they are questioning me in doing this, or painting me as some sort of villain? What happened to the victory gardens or the war bonds of WWII? Does anyone really care that we are still here?

And then it all comes full circle. “Because I am willing. I want to go and fight so that my family doesn’t feel danger and so that my friends can be happy. I want to preserve my way of life for one more generation so that my kids can one day have the chances and opportunities I do. I am willing to stand on Col Jessup’s wall and do those things that moral men and polite people turn away from in polite conversation. And though no one will understand why or think about how there has to have been some other way, I am willing to do it.” That is why I always loved this movie, because no one really got what Jessup was saying. No one else really feels it.

To the common viewer who watches this movie in their comfortable living room Col Jessup is a barbarian. There is a darkness in him they can’t understand and fear ever being able to. He is a cold and vicious man willing to do anything for the mission. Marines who watch it always quietly smile and agree.

Was it wrong to order a young Marine to be beaten for his failures? Yes. Today he would probably just administratively separated, but that doesn’t make for good story. Whatever you viewpoints on Col. Jessup, be he right or wrong in his decision, I obviously view it as wrong, but I see where he was coming from, the film’s closing was correct in how it viewed the morality of the matter.

Thanks for reading. This is a post presented by the Quora blog Jon’s Deep Thoughts. If you would like to support the author, please visit: Support Jon Davis creating Short Stories and Essays in Military, Science Fiction and Life.

What does War Smell Like?

I was deployed to Iraq’s Al Anbar province. This is a particularly arid desert region which is important to understand the next point. When stepping off the plane you are instantly embraced by the heat and the smell. Immediately after the heat, depending on the time of year you are there, you get a smell that I have only been able to describe as the smell of “thousands of years of death and woe.” It was somehow very different from that of training in the Arizona deserts of Yuma or even in Kuwait.



In Al Anbar, the smell that is ever present is of earthen dust with a certain staleness. You don’t notice this smell anywhere else because of the particular weather conditions that are present there. The region suffers permanent drought which means that you might see less than a few inches of precipitation a year at best. The environment also causes sandstorms known as haboobs that happen at least once a year. The haboob will pull up all top layers of soil and deposit the finest of it on the surface, while helping to weather the rest for future generations of desert dwellers. The result is an ultra fine layer of dust coating the entire region. After a few weeks of no moisture, that being a return to the norm, every step you take creates a cloud of dust beneath your feet. The collected dust is almost liquid; it will flow through your fingers like water, but solid enough to leave a perfect imprint of your boots preserved in the dust until the wind carries it away perhaps hours later. In parts, the dust dunes, not quite “sand” dunes, seem to create seas of it. This video, recorded by an Army soldier demonstrates this perfectly.

The dust is so fine that all of it never really settles. You can look in the distance and always see a dull orange haze darken the blue sky along the horizon. This is the dust that is always circulating literally everywhere around you, but only visible en masse from a distance. The net effect of this layer of dust on the entirety of a region is a smell that always exists. The hardest part of describing the smell is describing what it is like to remove scents you have always experienced and have long ago filtered from your conscious thought. Moisture and the various aromas of vegetation are usually all around us in parts of the planet people enjoy living, so we forget about them until they are gone. Take these away, and replace it with the dusty desert and you are left an arid, earthy, stale, chalky smell that will be a constant for your next seven months. For some reason, I immediately attributed this smell with the scent of something ancient and long dead, like what I imagined to be the smell inside a tomb, or perhaps a stale old dumb.


The second smell I would think of is that of gunpowder. I worked at a rifle and pistol range as a weapons instructor for two years with the Marines, so I became very familiar with the smell. Though I never was given the responsibility to fire a shot in anger, the constant training for such an event left an indelible mark on my memory. I failed to articulate it though, so I asked the question What does gunpowder smell like? to try to refine it. Some of the best answers were fellow veterans.

Sam Morningstar

I’ve been in sustained gun battles in Iraq and I found the smell to be distinctly like a “metallic sulfur” (if that makes any sense).

Nick Layon

To me, it smells of “burnt earth”.

Takeo Eda

Sharp, pungent, leaves a metallic flavor on the roof of your mouth. If in sufficient quantities it will water your eyes, will deaden your smell sensitivity for other things for a long time.

The common themes I can identify with were the presence of a sulfuric “rotten egg” scent. I can only guess that this is from some modern derivative of the classic saltpeter brew of gunpowder. I wouldn’t know the specifics of that. This is overridden by an acidic, lingering, metalliod aroma that one could taste, as much as smell.

As I stood on the range behind my shooters firing round, after round, after round, the scent became very familiar to me, pleasant even. I’d never experienced it before pulling the trigger for the first time at the rifle range in boot camp. The target I fired upon descended into the pits and registered a hit for full points. I was a good shot and I loved the smell of that moment. Even today, when I go to the range as a civilian hobbyist, the scent of gunpowder is a pleasantly nostalgic. It brings about feelings of accomplishment, of power, and of pride. It is the intoxicatingly manly scent that accompanies the military experience and one finds that they long for the sulfur rich acidic bitterness long after they’ve left the war behind them for good.


Next is the presence of yourself. Frankly, there are some things you can never get clean.

I couldn’t find an image of a grimy flak jacket, so I took this guy because he will never get all of that out. Eventually, after wearing the same piece of equipment every single day for months, sweat and mud will dry and congeal into a strange type of black film that you can never get clean. You can take away the top layers of the muck, but you can never prevent it from staining the once khaki colored gear to non uniform shades of grey and black.

Add to this the constant smell of yourself after not getting to regularly shower, bathe, or really function on any degree of civilized cleanliness and you have a smell that I can only describe as pure and unadulterated manfunk. I also didn’t know how much salt could come from the human body. It turns out, that if you are forced to wear the same clothes over and over again, such as the few cammies you are capable of taking with you, and work very physically demanding jobs, you leave salt deposits on your clothes which will never wash out. Trust me. Over time, this uncleanness and chronic discomfort has been attributed more to the decline of morale over the long term in periods of prolonged fighting than most other factors barring the actual death of teammates and can be a leading factor in the breakdown that leads to psychiatric casualties in war. That fact surprised me, that people could stink so bad that they go crazy. Just go without bathing for a few weeks while rolling around in dirt, dust and a moderate supply of gun oil to top off and you won’t feel like a warrior, but you’ll smell like one.

Decay of a Nation

War has a few distinctive smells that are relatively common in most warzones, but rarely occur anywhere else today together. In the early stages of war, the government is broken down and basic services fail. Fires burn out of control if there are no government agencies to administer them. When delegates were sent in by the Americans following the collapse of the Hussein regime, they entered Baghdad and saw the smoke rising from all around. Fires had been burning nonstop for weeks. At first, the question centered on getting the firefighters back up and running, It was made obvious very soon that the fires were directly caused by the American weapons or the fighting. The real problem was those who set the fires intentionally. Looters were unpoliced by a police force that had abandoned their posts when their source of income had dissolved. Eventually, the fires would just burn themselves out. Imagine the time before this where for months, every breath was partially choked with the raspy irritation of soot, burning rubber, ash and smoke from distant fires burning from every direction of the city all around.

Then there is the fact that none of the public utilities are in operation. One element that many people know little about war is that it rarely takes anyone by surprise. The signs of it happening in Iraq were more than six months long. This resulted in what many called a “brain drain” effect among the Iraqi educated, where all the scholars, engineers, civil servants, and major leadership just disappeared prior to the war beginning or not long after. It happens in every major war. Part of why we couldn’t get power back up and running, along with so many other basic services we consider necessary for human civilization, wasn’t because of lack of effort. It was much more because everyone from Iraq who had the means to run the country from the middle, the managers, the engineers, the doctors, all had fled abroad. This meant that even basic problems were magnified when there were no educated and experienced individuals left to take care of it. Children die of the common cold. Power plants that weren’t even hit suffer catastrophic failures because a low level engineer hired three weeks ago is now the senior manager. Honestly ask yourself what exactly is the President of the United States and the US Military are supposed to do about jittery electrical grid in the town of Hīt in Al Anbar? Is some Lance Corporal supposed to just hook a generator to the central grid and solve all that? What if someone blows that up, again, and again, and again? What then? I’m honestly curious why people think combat statecraft is supposed to be easy.

That said, this brain drain had it’s own unique odor. Basic plumbing ceases to be a reality. It’s hard to keep pumps running without power, or knowledgeable people who know how the system works. Really, when you’re government is gone and you are unsure of getting a paycheck next week, why would you shovel human feces from the deep pipes? The system backs up and the putrid aroma hangs distantly, in the air, distant if you’re lucky. It was the same on base. We didn’t use the regular in ground systems where they existed because most needed too many engineers and support we didn’t have to keep them working. There were more pressing matters, war you know. Instead, we had hundreds of port-o-johns keeping our needs met. In the summers they were the worst possible inconvenience. We called them BLIS units: the Blue Water Iraqi Saunas. By the second deployment in 2007, we had a much better infrastructure in place. By 2005 though, the smell of sewage was a weekly recurrent. I am willing to bet that for the Iraqis beyond my base, the smell was etched in their memory of that time period, as well as billions throughout history of their wars.

Along with police work and firefighting, other crucial services of government fail and leave those who witness war in its early phases with an unforgettable memory. At its worst war has the faint odor of putrescine and cadaverine. You probably aren’t familiar with these two chemicals, but your body instinctively know them. When you first experience it, you experience a visceral sensation in your gut and you may feel the desire to vomit as they give off a putrid aroma. These are chemicals released as the body decomposes. It has a sickly sweet scent that you will recognize very quickly. It is the smell of death and your body knows it because you are evolved to stay away from the dead as an innate safeguard to not spread disease. Your olfactories know this scent and your body will react to it as is natural. It could be an animal killed on the side of the road after a few days or, during times of war, of people, insurgents killed in an active battlefield or civilians with no one to safely remove their bodies. This is the end result of a nation caught in war, there are no government agencies or rescue workers who can safely remove of the dead with dignity and protect others from disease, no one left ensure the streets are clean and fires burning everywhere.

Thanks for reading. This is a post presented by the Quora blog Jon’s Deep Thoughts. If you would like to support the author, please visit: Support Jon Davis creating Short Stories and Essays in Military, Science Fiction and Life.

What is a Veteran and Why are They Considered Heroes?

In the United States, we call people who have been in the military veterans just as a colloquial term. A “veteran” of anything is really just someone who has experience in something, such as a “veteran” teacher being someone who has been in education for 10 years or so, “veteran” nurse, being someone with more than a few years experience in nursing. At some point, and I am not sure why, “A veteran” with no other qualification became generally understood to be a military veteran. I can’t really tell you when or why that happened. I suppose it came from people who “veterans” of a particular war, having experience with it, that then stuck for all others.

As to the second, and much larger question, and I will also qualify assumption, not all veterans are considered heroes by many people. I personally wouldn’t qualify all of them as such, speaking as a veteran of the Iraq War myself. Some of them are nasty, brutish people deserving of little praise, respect, nor honor. I’ll qualify that statement to make clear that it has nothing to with whether a military service member were able to deploy or participate in combat. Some people are just terrible human beings no matter if they have been in the military or not. That said, apart from me there are many non-veterans who don’t believe veterans, as a class, are heroes either. In the three years that I have written on Quora I have personally been attacked I have no idea how many times. As an example, this comment came in just yesterday:

And, of course, there’s no shortage of idiot 18-25 year-old kids who will buy whatever line their government sells them, and happily be cannon fodder, because ‘merica.


I frequently receive this sort of attack which I usually just report and block the source, and I am just happy that Quora doesn’t allow anons to comment, otherwise I know I would have left it long ago. Since I came home from Iraq, when I participated online I’ve been called names and accused of many things, not the least of which being asked to answer the question Murder: What does it feel like to murder someone?. While many people see the numerous efforts by varying groups and individuals to thank veterans, particularly those who took part in the wars, for every hundred or so that publicly acknowledge what we did favorably, there is one person who very blatantly slaps us in the face with their disapproval of us or what we believe. Sometimes, it is very hard to remember the hundred people who said “Thank you”, when their efforts are completely overshadowed by just one who called you a murderer.

Having said that, there is a question of why there is so much positive attention given publically to troops that deserves to be answered, or at least attempted to answer. In some cases, this is a welcome acknowledgement, in others it is downright shameless marketing. Last year after the Super Bowl I gave this answer Jon Davis’ answer to How do military veterans view the manner in which the NFL attempts to associate its brand with the military, particularly during the Superbowl? I’ll share this except here:

… it is a completely rational choice for the NFL to choose military to be the group they would want to associate themselves with. The types of people who support the military fall neatly into many of the demographics. They really should be supporting the military, but then again so should every other company that enjoys the freedom of American patronage, customer base and the most secure and profitable economic environment on Earth. But that is besides the point. As long as they keep doing as much as they are doing to make sure that the people of the military are still part of our thoughts, they don’t overstep themselves in literally comparing themselves to those same member and are sincere in their efforts, then I wouldn’t have any problem with using my efforts to ensure they are profitable.

We’ve seen dozens of commercials that thank troops, letting you know that Company X supports troops. Many of these I’ve noted involve actors and production units who did very poorly with unresearched acting, incorrect uniforms, and simply seemed to be communicating to civilians “we love troops, shop with us”. Many pulled from a base that was just a few miles away in the middle of California, asking them to say hello to someone back home, implying to the audience that these soldiers were overseas. One even went so far as to imply that the troops on a ship were overseas with the scripted “I’ll be home soon,” from a sailor, unaware that his message would be used to imply something other than that this ship any future out to sea than San Diego Harbor. I’ve seen few of these commercials go so far as to send actual crews to places like Iraq or Afghanistan, which has many secure areas for their civilian crews, Letterman did a whole week live from Iraq for goodness sake, to connect actual military families. Instead, they do the cheap and easy way of attaching themselves to vets, while leaving actual troops feeling taken advantage of. It’s worse if you look at corporations who advertise how much they “endeavor to hire veterans” while showing no evidence that they do in the slightest. I’m putting Chase bank on the altar of public humiliation for this one. I’d like to see of independent third party evidence to support their several years of claims that they did so. Stereotypes around vets, particularly those returning from recent wars have made such individuals virtually unhirable.

So, yes please note that while you see a lot of thank yous going out, a great deal of it is just branding for military sympathizers.

Having said that, there are many actual military sympathizers out there who say “Thank you” with the best of intentions and in complete sincerity. I think these are the people this question is honestly asking about. If I were to venture a guess as to what these people’s motivations were I would narrow it down to three things:

People were very scared after 9/11

This section will be short because it requires little understanding. People get scared. 9/11 was this era’s Pearl Harbor and woke millions to the reality that they aren’t as invulnerable as they once were. For the first time, really since the Civil War, the idea of our prosperity, our businesses, our livelihoods, and our very lives being taken from us was a reality. Now that there was a very obvious enemy that existed, there was really only one source to provide protection, as well as what many people wanted even more, retribution. That was the United States military.

In a way different from wars and conflicts like Grenada, the First Gulf War, and Vietnam, Americans very much felt the justification behind war. There wasn’t any misgivings around why it needed to happen in the months following 9/11. Most people couldn’t really do anything about that. The military was in a position to give them that sense of security and satisfy their need to see vengeance dealt to those who would attack us.

I don’t think it would be a lie to say that many people felt helpless following 9/11. The military was our arm to reach back and deliver a message that events that robbed America of 3,000 of their own wouldn’t be tolerated. For many, not feeling helpless was something that gave them a sense of security and retribution. In a small way, I think that many responded to this sensation though gratitude to the military, as it gave them a sense of empowerment in a very, very turbulent and unsure period of American history.

Many people feel horrible for the treatment of Vietnam Veterans, as well they should.

In studying veterans since leaving the military myself, I’ve noticed the drastic change in how veterans were treated from my war, the Iraq War of 2003-2011, as opposed to the war of my father’s generation. He was a Green Beret who trained many soldiers who went over to Vietnam as a hand-to-hand knife fighting specialist. In trying to understand him better, I realized the level of social harm inflicted upon soldiers of that era upon their return for what was realistically, political grievances.

On returning from Vietnam minus one arm, I was accosted twice by individuals who inquired, “Where did you lose your arm, Vietnam? I replied, “Yes.” The response was, “Good. Serves you right.”

– James W. Wagonback, quoted in Bob Greene’s Homecoming

Richard Gabriel describes another experience featured in Lt. Col. Dave Grossman’s On Killing

The presence of a Vietnam veteran in his uniform in his hometown was often the occasion for glares and slurs. He was not told that he had fought well, nor was we reassured that what he had done only what his country and his fellow citizens had asked him to do. Instead of reassurance, there was often condemnation, “Baby Killer”, “Murderer” until he too began to question what he had done and ultimately his sanity. The result was that at least half a million and perhaps as many as one and a half million returning Vietnam veterans suffered some degree of psychiatric debilitation called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, an illness which has become associated in the public mind with an entire generation of soldiers sent to war in Vietnam.

As a result of this Gabriel concludes that Vietnam produced more psychiatric casualties than any other war in American history. Numerous psychological studies have found that this social support system, or lack thereof upon returning from combat is a critical factor in the veterans’ psychological health. Indeed social support after war has been demonstrated in a large body of research by psychiatrists, military psychologists, Veterans Administration mental health professionals and sociologists to be more crucial than even the intensity of combat experience. When the Vietnam War began to become unpopular the soldiers who were fighting that war began to pay a psychological price for it – even before they returned home.

Another segment of On Killing provides additional examples of the deep traumatization and scarring as a result of the hostile and accusing homecoming for the nation in which they had suffered and sacrificed.

The greatest indignity heaped upon the soldier waited for him when he returned home. Many veterans were verbally abused and physically attacked or even spit on. The phenomenon of returning soldiers being spit on deserves special attention here. Many Americans do not believe, or do not want to believe that such events ever occurred.

Bob Greene, a syndicated newspaper columnist, was one of those who believe these accounts were probably a myth. Greene issued a request in his column for anyone who actually experienced such an event to write in and tell about it. He received more than a thousand letters in response collected in his book Homecoming. A typical account is that of Douglas Detmer.

“I was spat upon in the San Francisco airport. The man who spat on me ran up to me from my left rear, spat, and turned to face me. The spittal hit me on my left shoulder and on my few military decorations above my  left breast pocket. He then shouted at me that I was a Mother F’ing murderer. I was quite shocked and just stared at him.”

Speaking from my own personal experience as a returning Iraq War veteran, I can only say how profoundly different my experience was from someone who would have joined during Vietnam. Besides the few who are unafraid to comment online, I was warmly welcomed by many casual acquaintances, thanked and admired in ways I could have never imagined. The greatest of these was upon returning home during leave after my first deployment. I went to the church where I had grown up just down the street from my house. At the behest of my mother, I wore my dress blues uniform. While there, the preacher acknowledged me in front of the congregation of around three hundred people from my small town and asked that stand to be recognized. The congregation clapped and stood, giving me my first standing ovation at the age of 20.

I never received public face-to-face condemnation for my participation in the military during the War on Terror. What I had endured online was by people who I could see didn’t really matter anyway and only had the courage to speak through the mask on online distance, a factor my studies have taught me is an import factor in empowering troops in combat as well. In spite of them, I was always overwhelmed by the support of wellwishers and fans, both American and, much to my surprise, from all around the world. I always felt that I was loved and respected for my brief period of service and I know that support helped me move on from a great many burdens I carried. I’m now one of the proudest people I know to have served. I can’t imagine a world coming home to what the Vietnam veteran returned to. It must have been like returning from Hell only to experience a second circle of it, one in which the tour of service would never end. While there is nothing I could do or say for them I can only say how extremely thankful my reception has been, not only for my happiness, but for my psychiatric health as well. It should be noted that my father, the trainer of soldiers who went to Vietnam, never actually went himself, even being a member of the Special Forces community. He still suffered greatly in his later years, eventually succoming to deep seated pyschological damage and alcoholism. That may have brought about for many reasons not related to the military, but his involvement in the Vietnam war, as an “accomplice to murder”, may have had a deeply profound and negative effect on him that reverberated in him for decades. Eventually, his alcoholism took his life when he died of cirrhosis of the liver. He died a miserable and lonely man, a fate that was unfortunately not unique to him, but shared by many, perhaps statistically too many, fellow veterans from that period of the American military.

The only guess I can make is that one of two things had happened between my father’s time and my own, or perhaps both; either the public has come to realize that the way in which they treat returning veterans has far more impact on the degree of traumatization they receive than the veterans’ experiences in combat, or they have come to realize that warriors of the United States are not the representatives of the people who sent them there. I have no evidence to support my first theory, in fact, if movies and TV are any indicator, there is no common knowledge of phenomenon at all. Most people would have never have considered themselves possibly culpable of damaging the health of a military veteran, but the evidence shows they are. The second seems very plausible. It seems to me that, perhaps in the presence of imminent threat, such as that caused by 9/11, people knew that the troops were necessary and even when the war became unpopular, the sentiment that these individuals fighting it deserved respect never dissipated. I will say this though, there is still a massive number of post combat sufferers of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. If what was learned by Grossman’s studies of the warrior experience on the warrior’s psychological health is to be trusted, then the huge number PTSD patients existing today should lead us to ask ourselves not what the government, or the military should be doing for returning for returning veterans, but how have we personally welcomed them back?

While I can only say that the treatment of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans is worlds better than that of Vietnam veterans, I’d still suggest that for the sake of any potential veteran’s health, it might not be that important for you to join in the chorus of voices repeating commonly known tropes, and even a few myths, about the current wars we are engaging in or which many young veterans are still dealing with internally. An example of this is the Quora question With the benefit of hindsight, should America have invaded Iraq in 2003?. For a point of reference, my own answer, as the only active participant in it, is ranked 20th. Of the other 58, only one other posts the possibility of it being a productive conflict (ranked 16th) and only one other is neutral on the matter (ranked 30th). That being said, what value do the 50 people after the original several arguments against going to Iraq feel they are offering to the debate? This sort of virulent “Me too!” form of unproductive debate and suppression of alternative opinions, views, and outright facts, I fear may be damaging to our returning veterans. I don’t believe this is the same kind of damage that was done to the Vietnam veterans, but it may be used as evidence one day that when subsets of a culture makes it so vehemently clear to veterans that it doesn’t support what they sacrificed so much for, whether they showed outright hostility to them individually or not, will produce the same or similar psychological damage as those who did. I’m not asking people to not argue against war or to not have a point of view, but in the future of conflicts that will come about, please consider if your voice is actually adding anything to the debate, or if it just more noise that does little to help your, but that echoes violently in the mind of the participants who took part in it.

Please ensure that your facts are correct, that your words are more than just empty rhetoric and additional noise, and mostly that you communicate your concerns with compassion to the participants who took part in it.

There is a selflessness inherent in the volunteer warrior

I want to ensure that I stay on topic with this one and attempt to communicate this without trying to make myself and others sound like we deserve the hero mantle. I want to talk about the nature of selflessness.

Selflessness is the attribute of someone who places someone or something at greater value than their own well-being. By itself, it isn’t really a trait that is heroic. We see it in people who are in love, parents, and great leaders. What they put in front of themselves may be many things; their family, their nation, an idea, or even a company. As with many leaders of many organizations, their obsession to success goes beyond greed, but into a true passion for success of their idea and a better world it may bring. That’s selflessness too. Most people don’t understand selflessness though.

Today’s world is one built on materialism and individualism, two cultural traits that represent the antithesis of selflessness. I’m not saying that I don’t like our culture. I love the things that the progress of our world have brought me. I’m sitting on my computer in my comfortable climate controlled living room (as opposed to the freezing temperatures outside) and could just as easily as writing to you, be watching a movie or streaming Netflix on the TV to my side. It’s a great time to be alive. I’m certainly not saying I am selfless either. I consider myself often very selfish, self-centered, and a narcissist, but in one regard, I am different from most other people. At one time, I was willing to endure great hardship for a set of ideals which included the risk of my own death. Such an idea is something most people will never experience. To be honest, I am glad of that.

Returning to the time when I received the standing ovation in my church, one might think that would have been one of the proudest moments of my life. It wasn’t; in fact, it was one of the most humiliating things I have ever endured. I didn’t expect it and then when it came, I felt a complete sense of embarrassment and the desire to not be the center of attention. I felt guilty about it for years. I wasn’t able to relieve the guilt until I met a friend of mine who, on that same day, had recently returned home from a mission trip to Romania. That was an act I thought deserved more recognition in a church than going to war, but, as far as I knew had received none of what I felt. Years later I saw him at a wedding and I was finally able to tell him that I felt he deserved the recognition and that I did not. Only after that was I able to feel good about having ever received it at all, and look back on the event without the sensation of guilt.

I’ve also noticed this same sentiments in other veterans, as well. I recently gave a review of the new movie American Sniper. In it, I was surprised to see this sentiment lived out by the films main actor, Bradley Cooper.

In that scene, Cooper displays classic signs of a veteran who doesn’t enjoy being thanked. He immediately deeply retreats upon being recognized and becomes politely evasive. His speech breaks down into monosyllabic chirps of general acknowledgement, while not maintaining eye contact and attempting to not carry the conversation further. While I’ve never saved anybody, I’ve had this experience dozens of times when random strangers thank me for my service. You really can’t describe the feeling that follows, but last Veterans’ Day when my boss made a big deal about thanking me in front of all my students, a motive I am deeply appreciative of, I was overwhelmed with a feeling I can only describe as a profound and sudden sense of humiliation which I can’t begin to quite understand. All I can say is Cooper’s portrayal of this feeling was something I saw in his short chirps and expressionless awkward glances that communicated a level of detailed research, coaching, and acting, to say the least of getting to know realveterans that needs to be known and acknowledged.

In reflecting on that profound and sudden sense of humiliation, the only thing I can guess was the cause was a sense that nothing we have done was particularly heroic or deserving of praise. As my last point about Vietnam should have made exhaustively clear, no one deserves condemnation for military service, but I haven’t ever met one who has shown that they need or particularly loved the praise either. The fact is, I don’t know anyone who joined so that people would thank them, and if that was all they received, it wouldn’t be worth it. I think what the sense of embarrassment that veterans feel comes down to is that most haven’t acknowledged the trait that sets them apart from the rest of Americans. They are, or were at one time, willing to endure pain, such as the pain of learning that you actually can keep running even as your leg seizes up in an excruciating cramp while at bootcamp, which all go through. Many also willingly endure a lack of food, comfort, and safety while in country, not to mention the months and years many often spend apart from friends family and the society which they serve. Finally, a few make the ultimate sacrifice in the supreme anti-statement to modern individualism, through death. While many say, and some rightly believe that they would make make these commitments, veterans are those who actually did. They put themselves in that position knowing the risks involved.

It isn’t that the risks were that great that I would die and I have stated often that the United States military is by far one of the safest to have ever been in. The risk of death in the United States military during the most recent decade is less than .1% while the risk of being wounded in action is a sizable amount less than 1%. That’s even if you are part of the only 26% who get deployed to a combat environment at all. It also isn’t like the United States doesn’t reward it’s veterans well for their service. Add on the fact that there is nowhere else in the world an eighteen year old with no skills upon entering can receive such a generous pay and compensation package, to include world class vocational education, housing, and the opportunity to travel the world, there is also free college, healthcare benefits for service connected disabilities, the VA loan and many other benefits I can’t name. The facts are, there are many selfish and rational reasons to join the military.

But there is that risk. There is a risk that is different from the risk of failure that an entrepreneur might take on. You actually could die in this endeavour. Despite the odds, I knew several who did just that. Many people, for whatever the reason, could never bring themselves to take on that risk, be it even for greed or something greater than themselves. I feel that, perhaps, people realize this in themselves, and look to veterans with, perhaps, admiration for it, or at the very least confusion and curiosity about it.

We have an all volunteer service today. That means that people there weren’t forced to join. They weren’t coerced or drafted. Every one of them showed in some little way that they had a part of them that valued something enough to risk their life for it. To the American people today, that means something. I presume they are aware that their lives and prosperity are in many ways contingent of the existence of a warrior class willing to risk pain, discomfort, and death to scare away the forces that would rob Americans of their prosperity. I can’t say that this is a fact, but I think that that selflessness, or whatever it is you want to call it, that the military show is something they are very thankful for. In many ways, I think that many respect such a trait as something of value and rarity. They view it as noble, while the veteran probably has never really thought about it at all.

As I stated in the beginning, I don’t think every veteran is a hero. I think that few are given any real test to prove heroism or cowardice. I went to Iraq twice with the Marines and never faced such a test. The only test they faced was if they were selfless enough to put themselves in that position. It also isn’t that I am saying that the average American is selfish. That would be hypocritical. I love my life today and don’t want to endure pain nor discomfort. I enjoy waking up next to wife with my dog at the foot of the bed and to feel no sense of unsafety in my home. I love that I live in a nation that is prosperous beyond reason. I also know that there are billions of people who don’t get these benefits, but I also know that they are contingent. I know that my comfort and happiness rely on the continued dedication and commitment of a few who have pledged to suffer for a time to ensure it for all of us. To you, I acknowledge your suffering, having been there myself, and am deeply appreciative of everything you do each day.

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