31 March, 2008


If you have no capacity for violence then you are a healthy productive citizen, a sheep. If you have a capacity for violence and no empathy for your fellow citizens, then you have defined an aggressive sociopath, a wolf. But what if you have a capacity for violence, and a deep love for your fellow citizens? What do you have then? A sheepdog, a warrior, someone who is walking the hero's path. Someone who can walk into the heart of darkness, into the universal human phobia, and walk out unscathed. - Colonel David Grossman.

J.D. Johannes has created an excellent short film on the Vets for Freedom visit to Kansas City, contrasting how military heroes are received today versus years past.

The part of the film that stuck with me was David Bellavia talking about the response he received from parents of the children's soccer team he was coaching when his book about the first Battle of Fallujah came out. The parents were horrified to discover the violent things Bellavia had done while fighting in Fallujah; they acted as if they expected his capacity for lethal violence would burst out again at any moment.

As Bellavia points out, the parents' responses are indicative of the discomfort many civilians feel with what warriors do in wartime, and how that affects their interactions with and opinion of veterans. The sheep-sheepdog-wolf allegory addresses this: the sheepdog, though protective of the sheep, is a little too much like the wolf for some sheep's taste. We sheep can't imagine ourselves having to kill someone, or finding satisfaction in physically destroying an enemy. We don't think we have in us the same spirit that causes an old war dog to strain against his age when he hears and smells the distant battle. Thinking on such things confounds us, makes us a little uncomfortable, makes us wonder... reminds us of what we don't understand.

But frankly, we don't have to understand in order to appreciate the service the sheepdogs render. The problem is, the self-centered, weak and morally arrogant among us tackle that sense of discomfort and ignorance by deciding that if the sheepdogs are different than us in some way and we can't integrate their battlefield experience into our life experience, then there must be something wrong with them; we're "normal/good/sane," so they must be "abnormal/evil/insane." Like the protesters who recoil at the idea that others are killing on their behalf, such people calm their fears of the unknown and incomprehensible by reassuring themselves of that unknown's "separateness" from them.

I don't know how it feels to have to kill someone, to watch them die, or to know that my decisions and actions resulted in the death of some faceless person I will never meet. And because of those who serve in our armed forces, I fortunately, most-likely never will.

Neither do I pretend to fully understand how having to do such a thing changes a person--changes how he sees the world, how he sees himself, what he thinks about in the predawn hours before he (hopefully) finally lays the battlefield ghosts to rest. But I do know some people who have experienced those changes. Arms that wrestled with and dispatched a man on the battlefield have enveloped me in tender affection; powerful hands trained to kill even when empty have gently "spoken" to me with a touch when words were inadequate; minds that planned and executed actions that ended the lives of people simply unlucky enough to be forced into military service under the wrong country's flag have formed words to me reflecting the best of humanity--kindness, perceptiveness, inspiration, and wisdom. Bodies trained for war have been put to the business of cooking my food, protecting me as I walk down the street, making me laugh, and holding me close.

To me it sometimes seems a conundrum that people of great gentleness and goodness can also accomplish feats of ferocity and violence; but they do. I don't pretend to understand how the sheepdogs harness any wolfish tendencies to the protective ends of the sheepdog's calling rather than the wolf's predations. But having had the opportunity to know some sheepdogs, I know that's exactly what they do.

They've told me how their training made them master the human tendency to violence rather than let it restlessly lurk in the unacknowledged shadows of their psyche, like the rest of us who would rather play the odds that the beast in us will never be activated by random experience. They've taught me that being face-to-face with what humanity is capable of can shatter some people, and that it takes time for many warriors to find their equilibrium again. But they have also been the proof that the majority of those who go face-to-face with the darkness come back more self-aware and more wedded to the good in their world--with fierce tenderness for the naturally weaker or defenseless, joy in the blessings of a loving family, and a level-headed knowledge that the "big issues" aren't really that big after all.

Hearing Bellavia talk about those parents made my heart hurt, made me angry. Kudos to him for obviously having the sense and the support system to not let such treatment get him down. But shame on those who use a misplaced sense of moral superiority to mask their own weakness, ignorance and fundamental lack of humanity.

[cross-posted at The Castle; h/t to Jimbo of Blackfive for the video]