25 January, 2006

Stein, Again: An Officer and a Gentleman Responds

The American Thinker has published a gentlemanly but powerful reply to Joel Stein, written by the Lieutenant Colonel who commanded the Task Force that captured Saddam Hussein. It is the epitome of grace, class, and quiet confidence. In part, LTC Steve Russell writes:

I take exception to Mr. Stein’s comment about soldiers ignoring their morality. And as a soldier that has served in Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq, none of those experiences ever made me feel ‘lucky.’ The noble ‘wars’ and ‘fights’ are seldom noble for the soldier. They involve pain and human suffering on a grand scale. Mr. Stein I am quite certain has never killed a man and is proud of that. I have had to kill several men in desperate, close combat while I watched my opponents facial expressions change as life ebbed out of them. I am quite certain that I am not proud of that.
Like Mr. Stein, I have never killed a man. But unlike Mr. Stein, I know those who have, both from “antiseptic” distances and in the kind of desperate close quarters the LTC describes. And I know what the experience has done to them, for better and for worse. They faced that in my stead, leaving me obligated to keep up my end of the bargain.

The LTC goes on to write:
But what separates him from me is certainly not education. Nor is it conviction of purpose. It is indeed morality. But of a nobler kind. No greater love has a man, than he lay down his life for his friends—even when they act and write unfriendly.
The nobility is not in the fighting of the war, but the reasons for which the fighting is done, the reasons for which a soldier is willing to walk right up to that line and cross over it. In the heat of the moment it is all about his brothers, but his having volunteered to be in a position that might come to that is his gift to the rest of us and the future of our country.

We talk so easily about boys going off to war and becoming men, sometimes without considering what that means. Participation in war is not required for manhood, but it confronts a man with things that require increasing maturity in order to cope successfully. And so, men of all ages come back from war different men, having crossed that line, been confronted with corners of humanity and themselves that most of us never encounter, and having found that the hardest thing is not dying for what/who you believe in, but living with a thorough knowledge of what you are and what you have seen.

Phrases such as “sacrificing himself for others,” or laments over the hardships of wartime suffered on our behalf become almost cliché after awhile, though no less appropriate. But the true gift found in the service of a warrior is never marked on the outside: it’s found in the marks on his soul when he has passed through the fire of combat with his integrity, honor and humanity intact.

Warriors who can look themselves in the mirror are those who also can see the world as it is today—complete with dangers and darkness and evil—not as we hope it to be someday in a utopic future. And seeing it clearly, they offer to stand between us and that darkness: absorbing the hits and crossing that line so that we never have to. It is a gift of the spirit, a willingness to shoulder the burden because they believe they can do it and because it allows what they love a safe space to flourish. They know that in an imperfect world war is sometimes the best of a very bad lot, and that while the killing in wartime is nothing to be proud of, the fact that they stepped up to do what had to be done is.

LTC Russell closes with:
...when I am old, I will be able to look in the mirror and know that I acted on my convictions to preserve what others will not. Cannot. Do not. And what I will see is a man with a clear conscience and a moral sense of purpose.
Reading LTC Russell’s gracious letter brought all of the above to mind again, along with the deep, deep feelings of gratitude that overwhelm me when I think of these things.

LTC Russell, I know you are only one of many deserving my gratitude and respect. However, I am honored to be the beneficiary of your self-sacrifice, made as it was with such a clear-eyed view to what was necessary and coupled with the moral courage to ensure it was done with honor. In the tradition of the finest of our warriors, your gentle humanity shines through in your quiet confidence and the generosity of spirit with which you responded to Mr. Stein’s cruel ignorance and self-importance. I gladly count myself among the blessed recipients of your gift to our country, reminded again that my end of the bargain is to be worthy of your trust—to never hold lightly such an irreplaceable gift.

That, I swear.

H/T John of Argghh!!!