Saturday, October 21, 2017

“He knew what he signed up for ..."

Our president has gotten a lot of criticism for the insensitivity of this comment to the mother of a soldier killed in an ambush in Niger.  Deservedly so.  

But I'd like address the notion that "'he knew what he signed up for." I'd argue that soldiers tend to see the glory of war and becoming a man, but not the terror and agony of war.  Partly because veterans tend not to talk about the grisly details of war.  Partly because war and soldiers are so glorified.  

Soldiers Don't Talk

This letter is from a German officer, Rudolf Binding, who had studied medicine and law and was 46 years old when WW I broke out.  So he was well educated and older than most soldiers, yet he writes about how unknowable the reality of war is to those who haven't been in it.  From Spartacus, Letters From Soldiers, WW I.
"I have not written to you for a long time, but I have thought of you all the more as a silent creditor. But when one owes letters one suffers from them, so to speak, at the same time. It is, indeed, not so simple a matter to write from the war, really from the war; and what you read as Field Post letters in the papers usually have their origin in the lack of understanding that does not allow a man to get hold of the war, to breathe it in although he is living in the midst of it. 
The further I penetrate its true inwardness the more I see the hopelessness of making it comprehensive for those who only understand life in the terms of peacetime, and apply these same ideas to war in spite of themselves. They only think that they understand it. It is as if fishes living in water would have a clear conception of what living in the air is like. When one is hauled out on to dry land and dies in the air, then he will know something about it.
So it is with the war. Feeling deeply about it, one becomes less able to talk about it every day. Not because one understands it less each day, but because one grasps it better. But it is a silent teacher, and he who learns becomes silent too." [Emphasis added.]
There were 39 responses to a Quora question (there are over 100 now as I write) about why soldiers often don't talk about war.  Military1 reposted two of the answers.  First from Michael Hannon:
"I once read a reply to a question: “For those who understand, no explanation is necessary; for those who don't, no explanation is possible.” We are forever changed. There are many reasons why a vet does not want to talk about their experience. Likely many are still processing that experience."  [Emphasis added]
He also adds this related comment::
"Know that every vet does not like to hear, 'Thank you for your service.'
Thank me for unimagined feelings of terror, fear of the unknown, questions on trust that will never be answered, seeing indescribable fear in others and incapable of helping them, learning my confidence has limits, questioning my ability to protect anyone … the ‘thank you’ often awakens unwanted reminders of confusing memories."
The second was from  Roland Bartetzko:
"War takes its toll on every human psyche. It changes profoundly how you think about yourself and the world around you. I saw soldiers that were fighting a war for more than four years. From kids they turned into serious old men. One says for every year of fighting in a war you get 10 years older. These guys barely talked at all anymore."
A slightly different view of this comes from Afghan-war reporter Ann Jones in Mother Jones.  She describes the contrast between what they got compared to what they expected when they signed up.  She writes about those killed or wounded in the war, about the silence as they are whisked away to be buried or to have their shattered bodies repaired:
"Later, sometimes much later, they might return to inhabit whatever the doctors had managed to salvage. They might take up those bodies or what was left of them and make them walk again, or run, or even ski. They might dress themselves, get a job, or conceive a child. But what I remember is the first days when they were swept up and dropped into the hospital so deathly still. 
They were so unlike themselves. Or rather, unlike the American soldiers I had first seen in that country. Then, fired up by 9/11, they moved with the aggressive confidence of men high on their macho training and their own advance publicity."

The theme of all these comments is that soldiers have no clue of what they are getting into.  They don't know in part, because those who do know, according to these writers, don't talk about the real stuff.

Our culture glorifies war

Not only is there silence about the terrible realities of war, but we glorify soldiers and war. We regularly thank them for their service.   It's not that the negative information isn't available.  These quotes above all come from the internet and are readily available to those looking.  But most aren't looking to be dissuaded.  They're looking to become men, to be heroes, to follow family tradition, to get education funding when they get out, or to escape dysfunctional families or poverty.  I read a number of books about war as a teen - works like Upton Sinclaire's World's End which made the horrors of war clear to me.  Books that showed me that the soldiers on both sides got into their uniforms the same way - through recruitment to a higher nationalist, patriotic cause.  Taught me that the soldiers on both sides were more similar to each other than different.

The silence of those who have experienced war, is intensified by the unrelenting glorification of war and soldiers.  From Hollywood movies, video games, to history books, to family traditions, to military recruitment posters, and to the respect soldiers are given (verbally at least, but not in terms of help once they get back to the US).

Look at this army recruitment video.  It's a call to serve one's country, to be part of something bigger than yourself, to be a hero.  It doesn't show anyone dying or learning to walk on a new prosthetic, or committing suicide.

The heroic music, the emphasis on saving lives, the medical images, the theme of being trained to solve the world's problems.

Our media don't look critically at these kinds of US military recruiting videos.  Maybe they should look at our military ads the way this CNN piece critiques an ISIS recruitment video.

Maybe then the vulnerable teens who are enticed by these kinds of ads will be more savvy and get a better sense of what they are getting into.  (Probably most would not.  But some would.)

I'd guess the soldiers who died in Niger didn't even know where or even what Niger was when they signed up, let alone expect to die there.


  1. An unfortunate fact of life-even mild criticism of the military brings boatloads of grief from wannabe patriots of the right.

    Then there is the guy in the White House who proudly claimed his personal VietNam, a real conflict he was eligible to serve in and didn't, was avoiding applause from all the ladies he conquered as a shameless Lothario. 58000 Americans died while Drumpf claimed he should have a purple heart because he did not get the clap.

  2. Steve, I really enjoyed the information provided in this blog post. Check out Barry Eisler & crew post:
    Safe travels.

  3. Speaking of knowing what you signed up for, why does the C in C keep getting passes for his poor performance because he is new to the job?

  4. I don't think he's getting too many passes. The media are all over everything he says. Unfortunately his tweeting distracts too many reporters from the more important stuff.


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