I remember as a kid watching the Black Sheep Squadron television series, about Marine Corps fighter pilots in World War II somewhere in the South Pacific. While I saw other shows set in war like MASH and Hogan’s Heroes, Black Sheep Squadron was the first series I watched that featured combat prominently (mostly from stock footage of airplanes zooming and sounds of machine gun fire).
By the way, let me apologize for the length of this post up front—it’s not a quick read, which I don’t say to scare anyone away. But be aware.
I’d had other ideas about fighting before that, largely from Disney movies like Sleeping Beauty, in which Prince Phillip battles Maleficent-turned-dragon. That scene made a deep impression on me and as a kid I often imagined myself as the dragon-slaying knight, the warrior for goodness and truth.
But with Black Sheep Squadron, I imagined myself a fighter pilot, the personality of the knight riding in an aircraft cockpit. I also saw some classic WWII movies on TV, like The Dirty Dozen. I saw war and being a warrior as glorious. Who wouldn’t want to fight bad guys in a war?
I drew pictures of aircraft and naval battles in that period, lousy drawings really, but full of energy and excitement. My mother praised my efforts as kind mothers do, so I decided to send one of my drawings of a carrier battle between US and Japanese ships to my grandmother, expecting her to be as pleased as my mother was. Or even more pleased, because she had been a nurse during WWII and would appreciate my theme.
She wrote me back based on the picture I sent, telling me that war is horrible, that as a nurse she only one time witnessed an explosion tearing up the bodies of men, but once was all she needed. More than enough to know what war is like. Please stop drawing her pictures like that.
I was genuinely shocked. What? War is not glorious? But the impression that letter made was short-lived.
Another note of discord came when I saw the movie A Bridge Too Far as a kid with my family (at a drive-in theater no less), based on a real operation in WWII, which featured defiant British troops isolated from help due to their parachute drop, with American troops fighting hard to come to their rescue. I thought I knew how that was going to turn out: YAY USA…but what the heck, the Brits wound up starving and out of ammo, many killed, forcing them to surrender? The US forces never able to link up with them? And Polish paratroopers getting shot while they were still in the air when they came down to help?
I had no idea how to judge that and compare it to things like Black Sheep Squadron. For me, it formed a puzzle in my mind—what is war really like anyway? Is it pure horror? Or glorious?
In my teen years I was required to read The Red Badge of Courage at school, which was followed by commentary from a teacher who never had been to war, talking about the horrors of the Civil War. Like he would know, I thought. I also met some real veterans during that time, men who fought in Vietnam. Mostly, the Vietnam guys did not talk to me much about their experiences, though one did tell me that a moral man can only fight a war if it is to remove an evil greater than the war itself, like Hitler. Whereas a moral man will suffer intensely in a war that removed no evil. I listened and noted what I heard, but did not really understand.
As a teenager I had a poster on my wall of fighter aircraft of the world and loved to read books about military gear and strategy. I even invented my own Role Playing Game I called The Elite which was about mercenaries and which mostly fixated on weapons and weapons damage. I often talked about joining the military and becoming a fighter pilot on my way to becoming an astronaut—which wasn’t a realistic ambition for me (I needed glasses but didn’t know it, among other issues) but it was in fact what I wanted out of life.
By the time I actually joined the Army Reserve, I was 21, married already and had become much more aware that the New Testament clearly commands “to turn the other cheek.” I’d laid aside my former dreams and hoped to be a foreign missionary or teacher. I joined the Army for the college money. I became a medical specialist because I hoped I would not actually have to violate the New Testament commandment not to kill, even though I was not really sure I knew what that meant.
Less than a year after I completed my training, Operation Desert Storm kicked off. I was activated and served in a hospital unit that deployed to the United Arab Emirates. We worked in a civilian hospital, but my unit lived on a patch of desert beside the hospital, at first in tents but later in trailers, which we had to defend with sandbag walls and guard towers, because the UAE never expelled the Iraqis who lived in their country and our threat of a terrorist attack was high. Doctors and nurses did not carry the weapons to defend the place—that fell on more junior Soldiers like me.
One night while on guard duty and armed with an M16, I saw a vehicle driving out around our compound. We had been instructed about car bombs and had a procedure (rules of engagement) established. If the car stayed a certain distance way, it was fine. The car hugged the edge of that perimeter. After a bit, it stopped. The driver got out and fished in his trunk, his engine partially facing me, so I could not see very well what he was doing. It occurred to be he could pull out a weapon and fire it at us. I faced for the first time the reality that being a Soldier means you might have to kill somebody, that being a medic or in a support specialty does not exclude you from that. (The guy drove off after a while, after I reported what I saw. In retrospect, I imagine the whole thing was set up by the Sergeant of the Guard to test how alert we were. But I didn’t think of that at the time.)
Though nothing happened, my take away from that experience is that war is not something light-hearted. It’s a serious business and I had committed myself to it if I should be needed, even though that’s not what I had understood myself to do when I enlisted.
Between 1991 and 2008, my next war, many things changed. Driven by my curiosity about the true nature of warfare, I’d read a lot more about it. I’d watched more war movies. I came to believe that “turning the other cheek” is not a command to non-violence, but a command to repudiate personal vengeance, which is not the same thing (that’s how I still read that commandment by the way). I had become an Army Reserve officer, in a unit that specialized in military training. I myself held a combat arms specialty—Field Artillery. The pendulum had definitely swung back in the direction of me seeing war as glorious, albeit with caveats that it could be awfully gruesome.
I went to Iraq as a “training support specialist” but wound up advising Iraqis and worked full-time with combat arms specialists in the armies and navies and air forces of many nations who were involved in Iraq, especially the British. I worked with a number of combat veterans and professional military with far more training in combat than I ever had. I knew a quite a lot about war at this point.
But a rocket attack that killed two people and wounded seventeen, in which my best friend was among the wounded and a good friend was killed, drove home the difference between knowing about war, and knowing war. Like a person imagining what a dish might taste like based on its ingredients, I could imagine what it would be like to lose a friend in a war. But tasting the dish is an altogether different experience. I did not see my dead friend that day, even though I helped with the wounded, because I helped with those already outside the gym whose roof had been penetrated by the rocket that exploded inside. I’m thankful for that, that I never saw Major Stuart Adam Wolfer dead. Though at the time, I felt guilt once I knew he died, as if I would have been somehow magically been able to make a difference if I’d been at his side.
Of course, you could say a rocket attack is not really combat. It’s a wartime event, like the London Blitz or something, but it isn’t facing off with an enemy and shooting. I was still in fact curious about what it would be like to do that.
In 2010-11, I served in Afghanistan, in a unit commanded by a Navy Seal and where I met and worked with Green Berets and Marine Special Forces and I also met some other elite troops (including French Foreign Legion a year later in Africa). By worked with I mostly mean I did planning with and helped them succeed by providing money for projects, because I was a Civil Affairs officer by then--not that I was a special operator myself. But I had dozens of conversations with people who had combat experience. I had a good sense of what they did. They were open to me in a way the Vietnam Vets I knew had not been—I think it’s because I wore the same uniform as them and took a small portion of the same risks.
But it was not until I served as a liaison officer to the Italian headquarters at Camp Arenas in Herat that I got the final piece of the picture of what war is like, the thing that made my curiosity about the true nature of war go away, convinced that while my nibble on the flavor of war had been a small one, it was enough. More than enough to know what war is really like.
I got the chance to visit an Italian compound in downtown Herat, Afghanistan, one dedicated to their version of Civil Affairs, in other words, a place inhabited by people who worked humanitarian projects in Afghanistan for the purpose of “targeting” or persuading key people to support NATO and ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) operations there. While there I enjoyed an authentic Italian pizza cooked in an oven for which the wood had been flown all the way from Italy (I’m not kidding—Italians take their cuisine seriously). I talked to people. I looked around the buildings. I waived at the serious Afghan guards hired on contract to protect the place. I noticed that the compound had a number of higher buildings around it, which I didn’t think about very much.
Six days later, while doing my part of the command briefing that constituted my main job as a liaison (it’s a side note, but I also helped write strategic plans for the Italians because it was easier for me to write in English than it was for them—and all NATO plans have to be in English), I heard about an attack on the compound I’d visited, in detailed briefing.
Insurgents had driven a car bomb to the gate and blew it up, killing a number of the Afghan contract guards I’d waved at. But then the insurgents expected to be able to storm the compound but couldn’t, since the rubble from a collapsed guardhouse blocked the hole they’d made in the gate. They also had taken over the surrounding tall buildings and shooters begin firing down into the compound. They grievously wounded an Italian captain I’d shared pizza with.
A United States Air Force finance officer, one Captain Brasheer if I remember the spelling of his name right, climbed into the rubble and used the M16 he’d been issued to return fire. Not that he’d every spent much time with an M16, not that he had much chance to hit the enemy, but he did what he could. While under fire, US medics answered a MEDEVAC request and landed a helicopter, and at risk to their own lives rescued the Italian captain and some other people.
Outside the compound, the Afghan Army, once they were able to respond a few hours later, aided by US advisors, did what they were supposed to do—they charged up the stairs of the tall buildings around the compound and took out the attackers. But at least two attackers were wearing a suicide vests, which they detonated, killing a number of Afghan troops.
I knew this place as I heard the events reported, the exact layout. I knew the people involved. You could dismiss what the insurgents did as an act of terrorism, but it wasn’t. They attacked a military compound, even if one that acted as a center of humanitarian assistance. They killed armed people and their attack showed military planning and tactical savvy, even though it largely failed (and as a result was never reported in the USA). What they did was an act of war, even though the only people they killed were other Afghans.
And so I realized with full emotional flavor what the nature of war is. War is human beings using all the cleverness God gave them and perverting it to the task of killing other human beings—planning, training, designing, building, all for the purpose of doing horrific harm. War is fundamentally destructive and a violation of how God intended humans to act.
Is there glory in war? YES. The medics landing under fire. The finance officer climbing rubble with an M16. People risking their lives to protect others. Yes, that is glorious. But it’s a flavor of glory so bitter that it does not justify war. War can contain glory, but the horror is too great to fight just for the sake of the glory, no matter what fictional Klingons and the warrior cultures they were based on thought. War is NOT fundamentally glorious, even though it contains these horrible moments of greatness.
It may sound strange to some of my readers, but I felt especially sick about an aspect of what I heard that I did not have any connection to at all, the Afghan soldiers who got blown up. Because it occurred to my imagination that the ones who got killed were the ones in front, the first ones to reach the suicide bomber. Which would be the ones who were in the best shape as they ran up the stairs—the ones who were trying the hardest, the ones who cared the most.
And that is part of the perverse nature of warfare—it often kills those who are trying the hardest, those who are among the best of people. You have to pass a physical to be ALLOWED to fight in a modern military. While courts-martial records clearly show some bad people are in the services, that’s the exception, not the rule. In general, modern military training encourages positive virtues and tends to weed out the worst of the worst. The best of people go forth and run the risk of death or of being horribly mangled, while the slugs of society stay at home and collect the benefits paid for in somebody else’s blood. That’s an awful introversion of justice, how things should never be, but actually are. Which is a reason to hate war.
But what shall we do when the bomb goes off and the tower collapses into rubble next to us? Shall we find a hole to hide in because we’re afraid? Or shall we refuse to fight, because war is a horror and we believe we cannot participate in it? Or shall we climb the rubble with Captain Brasheer and do what we can, because there is nothing else we can do, because if we don’t protect these people, who will?
While I deeply respect people who acknowledge the reality of evil in the world but believe it’s wrong for them to add to the evil by fighting in a physical war, I have chosen a different path. I became a Soldier a long time ago. I am one willing to climb the rubble.
People often thank me for my service when they are aware of it, especially in the South. I appreciate that. I’m in fact proud of what I have done in service to my country overseas. I’m not ashamed at all that I never exchanged fire with anyone, that I never had to shoot an enemy myself. I spent time in situations where I and others with me were at risk. Where I could have been called upon to use the weapons I carried—but, thank God, I never had to. (But if I had needed to, I would have used them.)
So I love the…what’s the right term? I love the respect for service. The camaraderie to a degree. I also make use of the understanding I have gained of war to answer military questions on Quora and elsewhere, and I like being afforded some respect for what I know. I also love some of the struggles of war as narrative, some of tragic realities war causes, with profound respect for the tough choices people have to face. Warfare can make very compelling stories. But I also hate those things—my own tough choices, for example, cost me the relationship I had with my family. An effect I continue to suffer, though things are better in a number of ways than they were. I believe, though I cannot be sure without having done it, that I much rather would have lost a leg than my family.
I see the firearms of war differently that I did in my teenage enthusiasm. I understand now, really understand, what they are for. But they still have a beauty of design and target shooting can be fun. I mostly see them as tools with a purpose—a sense that carries with it neither hatred nor love, but does contain a grim reality. And I still think fighter jets are cool, but I’m especially glad none in any real operation have been called upon to unload bombs on my head. (As was shown with dive bombers attacking men on the beach in the movie Dunkirk.)
By the way, I loved Dunkirk because the movie captured the sense that the historical event of the evacuation of Dunkirk was about survival, both of those who were only trying to survive, and of those who either threw away their own survival or put it at great risk for the benefit of others. I find these war stories more moving than I used to, because I feel I really know what it’s like to face war, to lose friends, to be a risk, to risk for others. These are great stories.
But I balk at tales that portray violence as too easy, as nothing but glory, as a walk in the park. It’s part of the reason why superhero movies usually but not always ring hollow with me. The typical superhero story fails in so many ways to show the world what it’s really like to face a situation so horrible that the only option you can bear is itself awful—and I would say that’s what it means to fight and kill to save others.
Though war stories are also horribly wrong at times. On occasion, too optimistic. Though often enough in recent years bloody without a real sense of tragedy, bloody as if war is actually normal somehow and we should not be horrified by its effects.
I find inside myself a burning desire to tell people what war is really like, to explain to those who don’t get it. I also want to celebrate in my own writing and the stories I publish the Captain Brasheers among us. Yet…I also hate war and want to celebrate other struggles, especially ones between good and evil within the human heart, struggles of an ultimate importance far beyond a body count. (And I love the science piece of science fiction and strange stories, wholly independent of anything relating to war.)
I personally am proud of my service but don’t wish to be defined by that alone. Have suffered, but don’t wish to be seen as a victim. Have served, but don’t deserve the presumption that I’m a hero.
In short, I both hate and love war. I’ve tasted its fundamental nature and know the human race would be better off if we put aside warfare forever. Yet…some of the greatest stories are war stories, tragic because of the meatgrinder human evil puts people through, yet shining with patches of genuine glory.