combat writing badge C O M B A T
the Literary Expression of Battlefield Touchstones
ISSN 1542-1546 Volume 05 Number 02 Spring ©Apr 2007

Bugle and Bell
musings on the soul of war

Saints have no moderation, nor do poets, just exuberance.
by Anne Sexton ["The Saints Come Marching In"]

On a Clear Day,
You Can See What's Right in Front of You

The spiritual reality is the flip-flop of the physical reality. Put them together, and you have esprit de corps.

A lot of people catch religion while serving in the military. And it isn't necessarily as a result of the work of the chaplains – admirable, though, that the work of the chaplains may be. And it isn't necessarily as a result of a near-death experience in combat.

Whether you have served in the Army, Navy, Coast Guard, Air Force, or Marines ... you have experienced the military as a hierarchy. It's a long way from the rank of private to the rank of general. And, in the hierarchical military, you are aware that there is always somebody over you. Even the Army chief-of-staff must answer to the commander-in-chief. And the commander-in-chief has to answer to the voters.

One would think that your hierarchical military experience would be transposed, in your inner spiritual life, into a hierarchical sense of religion. The Deity would be the General Patton to trump all General Pattons. And you would be the equivalent of the whining, shell-shocked enlisted man just waiting to be slapped into line by The Deity.

This is not to imply that everyone in the military chain-of-command is an autocratic clone. There are as many leadership styles as there are types of followers to be channeled into a specific mission. General Omar Bradley, a contemporary of Patton, was adored by the enlisted men for his down-to-earth leadership style and his empathy with their fears and their need to rise above their fears. However, whether the carrot or the stick is employed by those in positions of leadership, the military is a hierarchy.

Similarly in Hinduism, one may follow the divine leadership of Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva, or any of a thousand other deities. But the mission of attaining nirvana remains the same, and the caste system of rebirths is a hierarchy.

Paradoxically, it doesn't really work out hierarchically for the military person in his or her relationship with The Deity. One catches religion in the military not because of the prestigious aloofness of The Deity but, rather, because of the intimate, close embrace of The Deity. One does not cry out to a distant Deity from the vulnerability of the foxhole. One finds, in the security of the foxhole, a divine buddy to cover you and to be covered by you. Holy swagger stick! The Deity is the same rank as you.

Opposites attract. The philosopher Hegel said that everything in mortal reality has within it the seed of its opposite. Each perspective, or thesis, has within it its antithesis. And the procreative wrestling of the thesis and its antithesis results in a new synthesis. And the new synthesis becomes a self-standing thesis in its own right and contains within itself the seed of its opposite, or antithesis. The new thesis and antithesis interact (sometimes violently), resulting in a new synthesis, and so on ad infinitum. If it makes any difference, Hegel called this theory Dialectical Materialism.

One would be advised to not use the term dialectical with one's platoon sergeant. One might receive a good, swift kick in the antithesis.

In any case, the hierarchical nature that one encounters in the military has within it the seed of its opposite, an anti-hierarchical nature. This is what enables a corporal – when his company commander, platoon sergeant, and squad leader have all been killed in a battle – to take the initiative and seize the day. He metamorphoses from being a cog in a wheel to being the wheel. And the wheel rolls over the enemy.

Civilian society tends to think of The Deity as a big wheel. Big. In contrast with us mortals – little. This is because civilian society is more egalitarian than the military, and the democratic civilian society's seed of opposition is totalitarianism. Voila! – a totalitarian Deity.

However, the military has already had the booster shot of a non-egalitarian, non-democratic social structure. Thus the seed is formed, in contrast, of a close-up Deity. If you are serving or have served in the military, you have had a glimpse – a kind of a negative of a photograph like the Shroud of Turin – of a Deity who is the opposite of a general or a pope or a dalai lama. This Deity is immanent. This Deity does not need a ladder of human and cosmic intermediaries in order to be approached. The Deity approaches us.

Some civilians consider joining the military in order to be special – remote, exalted, elite. Military persons, active and retired, strive to maintain (or to get back) a normalcy and humanity that they once took for granted. Through one's spouse, one's veterans organization, or one's organized religion ... one strives to be close to others.

People in a hierarchy – whether military, secular, or religious – seek personal references to intercede for them with the folks higher up the ladder.

Hey, Sergeant, will you let the captain know that we don't yet have the resources or the human energy which are needed to attack the hill again right now?

Dear Congressman, will you ask the Department of Justice to investigate my having been fired from my job for being a whistle-blower for truth?

Saint Joan of Arc, will you pull on the hem of The Deity and see if I can obtain the grace to quit smoking?

Others may indeed intercede between us and The Deity. But isn't it also – and perhaps more so – The Deity who intercedes between us and others?

Often The Deity is equated with love. To love is to be vulnerable. To be vulnerable is to be mortal. Or is it?

Perhaps it is not so much a matter of our finding an intercessor in order that we may approach divine love ... but, rather, a matter of divine love interceding for us so that we may approach one another.

Is it not the Deity who intercedes for us so that we may each enter that most inner of inner sanctums – oneself?

This is a Deity who is immediately accessible to the general as well as to the private. This Deity is so close to each of us that The Deity must wear a mask in order to prevent our eyes from being burnt out by a glimpse of pure love.

That mask is mortality. Life. Warts, wrinkles, and all. With its antithesis: death. The Hindus would call it maya, the world of the senses. It is mortal life stumbling around in all its imperfect efforts to love and live and laugh. It is our mortality and the mortality of others. Mortality is not The Deity. It is the mask of The Deity. It has been known to be nailed, painfully, to The Deity.

Another name for the mask might be camouflage. It's like that stuff that you wear, literally and figuratively, soldier. Without it, you wouldn't be who you are. And why be anybody else? Why indeed! Is it not enough to be mortal?

"A mask tells us more than a face."
by Oscar Wilde

contributed by B. Keith Cossey

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