Does it take a special kind of courage to be a combat soldier—who pulls the trigger from an office, thousands of miles away?
I think it was the scent of the oregano growing in my garden that triggered what was more of a gut reaction than a thought; the smell, holding it in my hands, the physical sensing of skin on plant. Being aware that I could only have those sensations by actually being there in the garden was juxtaposed with the thought that I could be more easily hurt than a man amidst a battle taking place on the ground in Afghanistan.
A strange thought for our strange times indeed, now that we have reached a point in the evolution of society and war—if war can evolve—where a man tending his vegetable patch in urban “Anywhere” might come away from a few hours of light labor with more complaints of pain than a soldier at war. I know they say that oregano has some strange and mighty power and people are advised to sip only a few drops in a full glass of water for whatever ails them, but I’m inclined to think that what caused my episodic herbal awareness was more of a coincidence.
I had read an article published in The Guardian from August 2012. It profiled the U.S. military’s increased use of drones or what the men interviewed for the article apparently prefer to call remotely piloted aircraft, (RPA), and I can see their point.
When I think of a drone I think of a faceless, lifeless automaton, more of a “thing,” than a person. Planes without people anywhere on board being flown by remote control is amazing but more normal somehow and easier to accept than the idea of robots of war on missions of their own accord. We are all familiar with controlling things in our lives remotely. Our TVs, cars, lights, and now our war planes can be controlled from the comfort of wherever we happen to physically be.
The article ends with a quote from a lieutenant colonel in an officers’ bar decked out in what sounds like classic tough guy style meets the Addams Family, “adorned with a replica medieval suit of armour, a framed tomahawk and oil paintings of John Wayne and Clint Eastwood.” The topic of the interview is bravery. Everyone the reporter talked to is said to have“bristle[d], at any suggestion that waging war by remote control requires less bravery than traditional combat.” There’s a certain defensiveness to what I imagine would be at best the good natured ribbing that flying a drone is not fighting.
The Lt. Col. is quoted as saying that the bravery needed to fight a war by remote control is different than the bravery needed for traditional combat: “Ours requires moral courage. We take moral and legal risks. If I pull the trigger and I’m wrong I have to live with the consequences.” Which strikes me as strange because legal risks and consequences sound more like the everyday troubles of Wall Street types, and greedy bankers, not soldiers. And to say that a pilot fighting a war by remote control has to live with being wrong doesn’t make sense as an example of the difference between traditional wars and wars by remote control.
I don’t doubt that traditional combat soldiers have to live with the consequences of what they do as much as a pilot waging war by remote control. I’m guessing, therefore that the colonel may have been describing something else, like the shift in the mind set of a soldier waging war by a keyboard and a wireless headset.
Fighting in front of a monitor streaming images of a place in the world you’ll never set foot in, you are part of a larger enterprise—a machine if you will—that relies on intelligence and technology more than brute force. You are brave in this increasingly wireless and virtual New World that we all participate in to varying degrees when you face the challenge of change. The strength and bravery a man needed in battle for all of time preceding us, is not needed when the weapon is triggered by invisible signals beamed from the surface of the earth to satellites orbiting around the world.
Is it really any surprise that as warriors come to rely on technological strength more than brute force it only makes sense that our everyday notions of toughness and bravery should also change? There’s a famous speech by Theodore Roosevelt which conjures up images of the fearless man—The Man in the Arena—the man who gets in there and does it, whatever it is that has to get done. A worthy man is bold, courageous, brave, physically fit, tough, practically able to leap tall buildings in a single bound or at the least as he says so poetically, able to “quell the storm and ride the thunder.”
Hell, we don’t even make things as much as we used to with our own hands, and so getting things done in war or life relies less on physical strength, than on intelligence and know how. Selfless service and answering a call to the highest duty of a citizen may not be completely dependent on physical strength or even physical presence as much as it used to be, or as much as it may be in the future, but soldiers at the most ideal, embody noble virtues of what it means to be a man, what it means to be tough.
So as a soldier must be comfortable with uncertainty and detachment from traditional notions of what it means to be tough, to have courage, to be brave, so do the rest of us. Bravery on the virtual front is followed by a drive home that gives a soldier time to “decompress” “listen to music, take a deep breath, [and] compartmentalise” as he transitions “to husband, father, [and] family man, according to Chad an RPA pilot quoted in the Guardian article. Now once his fight is over, life resumes somewhere on the outskirts of Las Vegas in the sparse desert and on the interstate in rush hour traffic. He is like the rest of us in the suburbs of daily life and the grind of the rush hour commute, moving in a new direction.
Read more: On Being a Good Man
Image credit: RDECOM/Flickr