combat writing badge C O M B A T
the Literary Expression of Battlefield Touchstones
ISSN 1542-1546 Volume 01 Number 03 Summer ©Jul 2003

Stout-Hearted Men

They called me hard-ass, but they didn't realize that it was only my protective shell. I was as hard on myself as I was strict with them, but such egalitarianism is inherently unfair.

The balance of mind and body, each whetted to their utmost, was an ideal of the ancient Greek culture. It inspired Theodore Roosevelt to exercise his body into a condition matched by his keen mind. This form of inculcated discipline is often perverted into a tyrannical program of compulsory improvement by pedagogues and martinets. The proper goal of a drillmaster is not perfect conformity, but the acquisition of a sense of potential attainment, and a sense of internalized calibrations. Not only does the novice have to develop his latent or dormant capabilities, but he needs to learn his limits. Knowing what can and cannot be accomplished empowers the soldiery to act cohesively and successfully.

Often mislabeled a disciplinarian, the standards I exemplified were not abnormal. The difference between adequate and superior is often a matter of additional training, which is dependent upon the possession of a good attitude. The difference between overworked drudgery and competent professionalism is more than mere joy, since every masochist is most content under extreme abuse. It's a balance of mind and body ... working hard and playing hard! Because I would study when others were goofing, and I would exercise when others were relaxing, I was classified as not one of us ... an intolerant hard-ass. I believed that we should not ride whenever we could walk, and we should not walk whenever we could run. As far as I was concerned, an elevator existed only for moving freight greater than a man-portable load carried upstairs. As far as I was concerned, more training would meld us into a better unit, and give us a better chance of surviving those early firefights ... preserving us until acquired experience informed our intuition.

Like a good Boy Scout, my uniform was festooned with all the merit badges that supposedly proved something to everybody. Every man who was offered the opportunity for additional training worked extremely hard to acquire one of these tokens, but attaining it was less important than the respect of fellow achievers ... that in-group sentiment of complete acceptance that civilians try to emulate with unconditional tolerance.

We called these ornaments trash because they were essential for certain assignments, so everyone else in that unit also had them, which made their display meaningless. But these tokens were also trash in regular or conventional units, because no one else had earned them, which made that additional expertise meaningless, if not counter-productive. Only people with a poor self-image or weak identity invest themselves with tangible proofs. Real soldiers learn ultimate lessons about themselves, so they don't need to be more than they can be ... more than they truly are! Real soldiers don't need badges or medals to know who counts, and who doesn't. Competition teaches us that a big fish in a small pond is usually average (or less) in a larger sample. A fine amateur athlete is often unremarkable in a larger arena. So when ticket-punching for the sake of advancement predominates, the professional soldier quietly pursues self-improvements that will enhance unit performance. It's like following the road less travelled, or a heartfelt commitment to monastic asceticism.

The self-confidence and steady assuredness that a soldier acquires with experience is often disparaged as macho arrogance, or proud posturing in John Wayne's America. Concealing one's talents is difficult for youths, who also imagine themselves smarter than their elders. Young people have always thought themselves invincible and immortal ... and if they survive long enough to acquire some prudent judgement, their wisdom will be informed by ineffable truths. Deception is a valuable military ploy exercised by wise commanders whose talents prevent them from under-estimating their opponents. This is a developed skill that rash gallantry cannot imitate. That hotdoggers and cowboys simulate unattained abilities is merely part of the process of military education. If there were no impetuous youths anxious to accomplish the impossible, then most deeds of daring would never get done, and few changes would occur. And if no one learned from his mistakes, then there would be no informed consent and positive guidance. That we strive, against all odds, is not a refutation of common sense; but an inspiration to persistent excellence.

When war came, putting our patterns in context, some of us performed unconventional duties. We took all of our training and carried it to foreign allies in remote and alien environs. We maximized our talents in order to meet the unexpected with some semblance of effectiveness. We extrapolated what was missing from the manuals, and improvised what was incompatible with staid doctrine. We had attended every preparatory course, and found ourselves challenged to accomplish more with less. It was exhausting, enervating, and frequently demoralizing. We worked with good people, who were well motivated ... after all, it was their homeland that would bear the brunt of failure ... but good wishes were often insufficient. Willpower only lasts so long without elementary substances. It was discouraging to discover that we were the best our nation had to offer, and, for various reasons, it was too often not enough. A comfortably secure society had put us through their hardest courses, making us certified hard-asses, in preparation for violent solutions to intractable predicaments, and often it wasn't enough. While we had attained bulletproof credentials from olive-drab schools, our allies and opponents had been reared in the proverbial school of hard knocks.

It happened too often to be other than authentic. As my knowledge and direction enabled them to grow stronger with each encounter, I noticed that I was growing commensurately weaker. When I clung to the side of a mountain, gasping for enough strength to continue, their smiling faces would indulge my inadequacy. As I condemned myself for not keeping pace, I began to resent them and their benefactions. I would rotate back to the world for a period of necessary recovery before returning for another stint, but they remained to carry-on the enduring mission in an endless war. These intrepid and implacable comrades were disdained as savages by their racist foes, discarded as wogs by their patronizing superiors, and dismissed as cat's-paws by their privileged manipulators. Even though our little brown brothers had committed their hearts and minds to the contest, when the war finally ended, they were defeated by an ethnic majority and betrayed by immoral allies. I shudder to imagine the plight of lesser men. I shudder to imagine a harder engagement with less resolve.

Recriminations are always bandied by those who perceive an advantage, and excuses are always proffered by those who abstained, but anyone who kept the faith by giving his best effort is only chagrined. That plans inevitably fail, and that accidents invariably occur is no reason not to attempt their prevention. Setting standards and arranging schedules is not going through the motions in a futile effort to cover our ass in the fallout of their aftermath. We tried to do everything we could, and attempted a few things more, but the desired result is not automatically forthcoming. That our can do spirit fails for the best of reasons is not an endorsement of inaction, is not a warrant to resign, is not an excuse to quit ... and never try again. Our best intentions are sometimes worse than inaction. Call it misfortune, or fate, or karma, or Murphy's Law ... but sometimes shit happens.

The dirty little secret about combat is that death is indiscriminate, and victory is inconstant. We plan for every contingency and practice each plausible scenario, and chaos contradicts reason and luck defies logic ... the outcome is heartbreaking no matter what happens. The noble cause doesn't always prevail, the good guys don't always win, and might does not make right. Perhaps if battle punished incompetence, man would not suffer so deeply after each encounter ... but war is not fair. Stupidity and weakness are extinguished with virtue and strength ... and there, but for Grace or Love or benign neglect go I.

They can call me a hard-ass, because it's true. War has taught me some hard lessons, and that knowledge is stowed away inside, beside my stout heart. My vulnerabilities and inadequacies have been amply demonstrated, but I refuse to concede defeat. I am merely mortal, prone to err, but I will resist my imperfections as long as I have strength. I shall be as good a soldier as I can, because others need my dedication. My strength lends them hope. I pray for the strength to die well.

by Pavlovich Bakunin
... who is retired from the U.S. Army, and now writes freelance.