Wanting to get into the fight
RU Writer Kelly Crigger penned this piece for The New York Times.
Just because you volunteer to serve your country does not mean you will ever be sent into harm’s way, even if you want to. No matter how patriotic or noble your intentions, the needs of the military come first, and that organization is a very focused machine that maintains a combat force structure based on units and their capabilities, not individuals and their desires. That policy has a side effect of leaving some of us bearing a burden of guilt at not having done more.
A little background. I’m the son of an Army colonel who was the son of an Army colonel who was the son of an Army colonel. My military ambitions were those of Lieutenant Dan in “Forrest Gump,” only none of my ancestors had perished in combat. They had all served multiple tours and lived to fill my head with stories of bravery and honor on the battlefield that made me want to do only one thing in life: be like them. So I joined up straight out of high school in 1986.
In 2006, the global war on terror was in its fifth year and I still had not been deployed. Since 9/11, I had either been in school or assigned to a nondeployable unit in South Korea. I pulled every string I had to get reassigned to a “Hooah” unit that would allow me the honor of getting a ride overseas to be with my brethren.
Finally, I got my ticket. I was assigned to the First Special Forces Group, but guess what? They were off rotation for the next couple of years. Another obstacle. After much ballyhoo, I finally got myself sent to Afghanistan to be with the Third Special Forces Group. Obstacle surmounted. I was elated, which I know is hard for many to understand, but that’s part of the warrior culture.
Upon arrival in theater, I was hit with another setback — I would be confined to a desk in the Joint Operations Center (J.O.C.) at Camp Vance. I rationalized it by convincing myself that I was at least making a difference, that for every war fighter embracing the suck, there were eight support personnel behind him and that everyone in the Army has a job and that job is to support the infantryman.
But it was lipstick on a pig. I wasn’t out on the streets leading troops or in the markets looking for weapons caches. I was behind a desk directing those brave troops from a distance. At that level, being responsible for the death of an enemy combatant is no different than playing a video game. When I saw death, it was usually a photo brought back by our operators or a live Predator feed (dubbed “Kill TV” in the J.O.C. for entertainment purposes). I personally gave the order to kill four Taliban fighters one night as they were emplacing an I.E.D. (improvised explosive device), and then went to sleep comfortably in my hooch without a second thought. It was complete separation and disaffection of the deed from the consequence.
Meanwhile, the troops out on presence patrols were living in crappy conditions with their head on a swivel, holding memorial services for their friends, and dealing with PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) when they returned home. Those of us who killed from a distance have no real issues to speak of … but should we? Should we feel guilty at not having done more? Should we feel remorse for not having suffered the trauma of killing at close range?
There are war stories that make you say “Whoa” and there are war stories that make you say “That’s it?” But what people don’t realize is that those of us whose war stories fall short carry the guilt of not having the “no joke, there I was” tale of standing toe-to-toe with the entire Mongol horde armed only with a rusty knife and a gigantic set of cajones, covering the retreat of our comrades. If war is apathetic to its casualties, so is the guilt of not having fought one.
In the movie “Gardens of Stone” the lead character, Jackie Willow, aches to follow in his father’s footsteps and prove himself in Vietnam, a sentiment I can identify with. But instead, Willow is posted to The Old Guard at Arlington National Cemetery to ruminate on how he’s not doing his duty. When he finally gets his chance to deploy, he’s met by two Vietcong bullets to the chest, and Francis Ford Coppola leaves us thinking of the utter futility of standing up for something we believe in. The audience is led to the tired, predictable conclusion that war is bad and that anyone who wants to take part in one is flawed.
We all weep over Jackie Willow and ask the question “Why did he want to go over there so badly?” It’s not an easy question to answer, and the party lines are as close as anyone can really come to explaining it: because we hear the sound of a different calling; because we want to be part of something bigger than ourselves; because we want to make a difference; if I have to explain it, then you won’t understand.
Trigger pullers will have no sympathy for guys like me, and they shouldn’t. They’re the ones who slogged across the mountains smoking the bad guys out of their caves. Not me. I wanted to be out there with them, but no matter how much I jumped up and screamed, there just wasn’t any need for a soldier of my age and background to go outside the wire. And I don’t mean that in an insincere “Oh, I wish I could have gone out there with you, but I had a hangnail” way. I was jealous of the guys coming in off a mission covered in dust, sweat and the satisfaction that they had made it through another day. They had the honor of knowing they gave it their all. I didn’t.
While many Americans now tell their kids about their combat experiences with pride, I hang my head and hope they don’t ask. When they do I quickly change the subject not because I can’t talk about it, but because I don’t have anything to say. “Well … um … I sat behind a desk and, uh … I clicked a mouse and I made decisions,” just doesn’t cut it. In the end, I’m rational and know that at least I volunteered and deployed to combat. I know that at least I gave something, even if there are so many who gave so much more.