combat writing badge C O M B A T
the Literary Expression of Battlefield Touchstones
ISSN 1542-1546 Volume 01 Number 04 Fall ©Oct 2003

The Reluctant Warrior

The media has been making a tempest in a teapot about the complaints of a few soldiers serving far away in an unpopular war ... as if reportage was a license for political activism. This group of biased journalists is trying to imitate their mentors by projecting a Vietnam-like scenario upon the Middle East. Media mindsets aside, the reluctance of soldiers is a genuine problem, and always has been.

Any fair-minded appraisal of American history will reveal that we have, and long have had, a love-hate relationship with our military. We are well aware that the mass of uniformed anonymity which protects and defends is composed of our own relatives, friends, and neighbors ... but we, a self-righteous nation founded by religious separatists and adventuresome capitalists, don't like war; and that dislike is not only too often extended to the warriors, but is shared by them.

Our forebears came to America to escape intolerance, and almost immediately established a new set of intolerances; wherein, for example, the formation of a militia to protect those who would not protect themselves. This kind of prejudiced contradiction runs through our history, and is today evident in the political correctness of the multiverse culture of our revisionistic society. This partisanship would be amusing if it weren't so expensive ... costly in aborted progress, costly in public funding, and costly in human sacrifice. For each time a commitment is made, amended or reversed, someone is sent to enforce that decision with his life.

For those who've not experienced it, the life of a combatant is practically unimaginable. Rest assured that everything acted-out in film or theater is inaccurate, and only a very few books composed by veterans capture a sense of the experience; but accuracy is always sacrificed to drama, and no portrayal can recreate authenticity. The number of persons who actually serve on the forward edge of battle has never been large, compared to those providing essential services and support, but that number of true combatants is shrinking with improved technology. This is not just a confrontation of the risk factor or the danger element, but a phenomenon that surpasses extremes. Anyone can toy with peril or suffer brutal harm, can be pushed beyond constraint or bored insensible by routine, and some civilians actively court these episodes by extreme sports or historic re-enactments. But a combatant is not playing a simulated war game ... he is in a crisis with no intervals and no second chances. There will be no re-matches because every battle is different. There are rules, but they may be violated, and there are no umpires to penalize the offenders. He is a volunteer only in the sense that he is free to reject the standards of his society, and must suffer the consequences of that choice.

Those of us who have accepted the responsibility of representing national policy by serving as society's factotum have no love of war. War is a form of organized chaos that indiscriminately reigns pain and destruction upon all participants ... and, since the introduction of weapons of mass destruction, upon whole populations and environments. When soldiers reach their limit, they become combat ineffective; and when communities reach their limit, they replace the old treacherous poseurs with new villainous manipulators. The American Revolution almost failed due to a lack of support by a fickle citizenry and a lack of troop replacements. From the War of 1812 through today's War on Terrorism, politicians and diplomats have defined and re-defined our national engagements and international conflicts. And whether that war is a defense or reprisal, a relief from persecution or a peacekeeping intervention, soldiers will be sent as manifestations of hallowed speeches. But politicians forget that crises pass, and soldiers eventually return home to vote.

Every combatant knows that there are no perfect plans; just as every lawyer knows that there are no perfect laws. Most of the time everything works well enough that the mechanisms don't fail, that the systems don't break down. We are imperfect and live with imperfections ... but we still aspire for the best we can attain. Therefore we do not condone deceit or injustice, corruption or malpractice as normative ... regardless of their temporary or circumstantial expedience. A popular war, such as World War Two, still generates conscientious objection, and an unpopular war, like Vietnam, still generates patriotism. Personal motives are, to be tactlessly honest, immaterial to the needs of society. Hence, many pacifists have served honorably, and even gallantly, as medics in combat. And many cowards have used factional sedition to excuse their disservice or disloyalty. Some people have worked the military for their own advantage, and others have defied the authority of those appointed to command them, even to the point of fragging their despised leaders. In this sense, the military is not unlike any other formulaic bureaucracy, where the secretary is more knowledgeable than the boss, and where some disgruntled workers go postal for trivial reasons. The significance of these systems is that society values them as a whole, and such value is expressed by accommodations made on their behalf, accommodations which are extended to their manpower. In the case of the military, these include special benefits or privileges, and persist as post-military service preferences or entitlements.

There isn't enough money in the world to compensate a family for the loss of their beloved in battle ... nor enough to pay a man for suffering the travails of combat. A grateful nation makes a sincere attempt to be fair and just, but no combat veteran ever admits to serving for the glory or the honor. Youth can be enticed into volunteering for military service with the allure of pomp and circumstance, but only because they don't know any better ... their first battlefield lesson will be mercilessly hard, and may leave them shattered. War is not something to be undertaken lightly, despite the evidence of our late Twentieth Century parade of persistent conflicts ... and despite our evident gullibility in swallowing the false advertising of our own propaganda. What the general public doesn't understand is that never again is not an option for any free nation, but most particularly for one acting as a model for others. What politicians don't understand about calculated risk is that each commitment or re-commitment, and every reversal, is an accounting transaction balanced in bloody money. And what the media doesn't understand about disingenuous combat analogies is that reputations are built on corpses, both figurative and literal. Our national prestige is too precious to be squandered by selfish irresponsibility.

Whatever is being taught in our modern schools or promulgated by our mass media, it most certainly does not include the concept of duty. Even our religious bastions are re-interpreting morality. The common man, who was formerly guided in his spare life by a rudimentary education and a severe deity, is now turning to benign courts for licensed self-indulgence. The problem with this excess of individualism is the enforcement of elastic or plastic codes of conduct. America is now the only advanced nation which has not banned private ownership of firearms; and yet to use one, even in self-defense, is tantamount to a confession of impotence ... we remain armed because to disarm would advertise our weakness, our dependence upon excessive force. This lapse greatly overburdens our police. Despite the expansion of homeland security, the military is consequently now adjunctive to domestic agencies. Our guns or butter legislation has reduced our available Armed Forces, and our two front strategic doctrine has been re-negotiated. We are now in the unenviable position of requiring a cooperative coalition with other nations to enforce extant treaties ... a form of war by popular decree. The prospect of this compromise necessitates either a loss of sovereign autonomy or a loss of command authority. Alliances have probably caused as many wars as they've curtailed, but the disbursement of American troops under foreign authority will only complicate our moral crisis. If we cannot find a reason to go to war alone, then it will be easier to find a reason to withdraw from an unpopular alliance for war.

When the private correspondence of dissatisfied National Guard troops serving abroad becomes political opportunism, we are not in the position of the Tenth Roman Legion sent forth to conquer the barbarians ... but we are much too near to the tragedy of being the last man killed in futile combat. As long as America instills pride in enough servicemembers, combatants will fight and die for a nation which may not appreciate them as much as they should. Soldiers do not want to waste their youth and ideals in an endless series of bad decisions by pusillanimous magnates, but they will. And when one unaccountable day, not unlike all the others, they won't ... then on that day America will be just another broken promise to reluctant warriors ... then America will have become just another forgotten dream to people bereft of hope.

Our detractors and dissenters need to be wary of what they wish for, since they may someday get it. When that day comes, reluctant warriors will be unwilling to accept being stabbed in the back while they're being executed from the front. When that day comes, no one will defend another's rights. We shall rue the coming day of joyous battle, but by then, it shall be far too late.

by Wolfram Landsknecht
... who is a retired soldier, outdoor guide, and freelance writer.