Tuesday, November 16, 2010

I'm no coward

There's an odd sort of understanding silence between combat veterans.  There are reasons you don't talk about certain things you've seen, and certain things you've done.  As with any system, there will be aberrations- those who revel in how many 'hadjis' they've dropped, and those who immediately and loudly proclaim that what they've just gone through will scar them for life.  For most, though, any decision to actually talk about what goes on in combat comes with a very heavy price.  First, you have to admit that something bothers you about it.  You have to admit that something didn't feel right, and you need to get it off your chest.  That's a big can of worms to open up, because combat veterans are universally afraid of one thing - the realization that what we just did might have been the wrong thing to do, and that "following orders" wasn't a good enough reason to do it.  That's the bogeyman lurking under the bed, and that's one reason among many that we usually don't encourage a big touchy-feely heart-to-heart about that mission we all know went too far.  That's why there are no Oprah or Dr. Phil moments in the military.

When you hear civilians talking about people in uniform, you often hear language designed to incite emotion of one kind or another.  Words like "coward", "hero" and "monster" fly about like bullets in a firefight.  I'd wager a full nine times out of ten, those sorts of words are coming out of the mouth of someone who has never logged a day in a uniform.  At the risk of sounding condescending: if you've been there, you know that the lines between cowardice and heroism blur fast and often in the "line of duty".  I'm always amused when someone who's never aimed a weapon at another human being tells me I'm a coward for refusing to do it again.  They simply don't understand how silly they look leveling such empty accusations.  When it comes down to it, even if you did know every thing that I did every day I was in the military, you still can't know if I'm a coward or a hero unless you know what's in my heart, too.  It's not enough to know what I did- you need to know why as well.  Unfortunately, "coward" is a word the public responds to, and so it gets dragged out often by those who have the least business getting their fingerprints all over it.  Other veterans seem to steer clear of such absolute judgments, even if they vehemently disagree with the choice I've made.  They know how close you tread to that line every day you're on duty.  I suspect a good number wonder if they shouldn't have made the same decision.  Combat veterans avoid such polarizing words because they should be left for those whose actions truly are extraordinarily unusual.  During the Iraq War, desertion rates in the US military have spiked to a record high since the days of the Vietnam War.  It seems throwing down the rifle and walking away in disgust isn't as unusual as it might appear.

Of course, the same logic holds for words you might not expect me to object to.  Words like "hero", for instance.  At least once, whenever I talk to a group of people about the path that led me here, someone utters the word "hero" as if it were a compliment.  I cringe every time I hear it.  Just as I'm no coward, I'm no hero, either.  Deciding to shed my uniform and walk away from the military wasn't a heroic act.  It was an enormously painful experience for me, and I agonized about it for - literally - months.  For those months, I continued to execute my orders and support my unit.  I continued to give orders that would result in the deaths of innocent civilians in numbers that still keep me awake at night.  The thought that truly hurts me is that, for all that time, I knew better.  I knew what I should do months before I actually did it.  And I was never even remotely concerned about it until it was staring me in the face.  Only through being present during the actual commission of war crimes was I able to realize what was wrong in my military service.  I still feel like I was forced into taking action, and really had no other choice than to refuse further service.  I simply couldn't live with myself anymore.  I can honestly tell you if there had been any other way to not participate in that anymore, I'd have taken it.  If there had been any easier way to stop it, I'd have done it.  I was no hero, I just ran out of options.

Who, then, in this vast web of political intrigue that war resisters seeking refuge in Canada has become, are the heroes?  Who are the truly unusual, who are spurred to action not because they have no other way out, but simply because they are aware of an injustice?  In my mind, it's the people that have put in nearly inhuman hours trying to help us win our bid to stay here.  Nobody forced you people to help, and it would have been easy for you (far easier than it would have been for me) to simply turn and walk the other direction, pretending you'd seen and heard nothing.  But you didn't.  When the government of Canada elected the route of political expediency over principle, you took our hands, called up your friends, and put the word out: "Let Them Stay."

I'm no hero.  You are.

1 comment:

  1. Then it's the mutual admiration society, is it? Works for me.

    Truth is, it is no more possible for me to walk away than it was for you. My choice, however, comes with few consequences, and whatever those are, they are nothing compared to the consequences you could face.

    So there.