There are few so callous as to join some branch of the armed services without a noble ideal fuelling their motivation. You want to serve your nation and be a part of its fabric. You want to make a contribution to the higher good, even to the point of self-sacrifice. You want to leave your mark and be an example to those coming after you. You want to be someone others look up to.
But sometimes noble intentions can be railroaded and you can find ourselves being used in operations you didn’t sign up for.
A generation ago, I used to be at the spear head of military ‘defense’. I could strip a sub-machine gun when I was fourteen. I went to a cadet style boarding school with grenade screens on the windows and rifle drill after classes. By the time I was eighteen I had trained with special forces and enlisted in an elite commando unit. I went to war and fought in many a bloody battle..
One day something happened to change all of this forever that I want to tell you about. We had been dropped behind enemy lines deep in the bush. There was a brief but intense battle which, with surprise on our side, we had won. The sweep line crossed a clearing and on the far side I saw the broken body of a man. I approached him cautiously. Multiple wounds. Large pool of blood. Twisted limbs.
Then he opened his eyes and looked at me. He was alive. He stared at me impassively and without fear. His eyes bored into me. I made a quick check for weapons to distract myself from his gaze but he was unarmed. He was however desperatly wounded. A total of eight bullet holes in his upper legs and lower belly. I stood and stared at him. He stared back. His eyes ripped into me. Not a word was spoken.
Strange thoughts forced their way into my head. This is a man in his own backyard. Someone’s son. Someone’s sweetheart. He has a family as I have a family. He has a name as I have a name. He looks to the skies and prays to his gods. As I do. He wants to go home and longs for peace. As I do.
What on earth am I doing?
Something in my chest started to splinter and then suddenly snapped. Some nasty, rotten, fetid piece of ugliness in me broke and in one moment my most urgent task in the world became to save this man. I called a medic, radioed for a chopper and began to patch his wounds. His eyes never left my face. The sergeant arrived to see what the hold up was. He raised his rifle to shoot the wounded man. No prisoners. I growled at him to back off. He was my superior officer bu the didn’t argue further and the whole sweep line waited while I continued with my work.
As I bound one wound after another I noticed a ring on his finger. I took it. He said nothing, offered no resistance, just continued staring at me. I patched another wound then gave him the ring back. Suddenly ashamed. When I had finished I picked him up and carried him to a clearing in the bush where a chopper was waiting. As I slid him onto the helicopter floor he pressed the ring back into my hand and said, ‘Datenda Nkosi’. ‘Thanks boss’. I never went into battle again. I wear the ring to this day.
There are two kinds of fight. One is noble, the defense of the land and its people. . The second, the quest for power, is not noble because it is about placing wealth above life. Life in which you participate and are a part. It is beneath a warrior’s true dignity to be used to suppress the common people. It does not bring honour to a man’s name.
It was the first time I had looked into the face of the ‘enemy’. I was a little surprised to find that he was just a man like me. And then I realised that he was a man like me with one teensy difference. He was on his own ancestral lands and I was not. I was not fighting for a noble cause. I was being used to bring about the very opposite of the ideals and well intentioned motives I signed up with, to serve, to protect, to defend.
We can hardly use the word ‘extremist’ without the prefix ‘Islamic’. But our own culture is riddled with extremism. We have been gaily oppressing people for centuries. People that already have next to nothing.We believe that we can go to war to do God’s work and that all the violence and destruction is pleasing in His eyes, indeed that through our aggression against the heathens we are bought closer to Him. How comforting, how dangerous, how terrifying.
Perhaps this is the real meaning of Armageddon, not some future megawar that destroys the world but any oppression of the common people that has lost it’s horror and destroys men’s hearts. Wars fought on this basis are not really about oil, or gold, or land, but about ideology, final solutions, the eradication of difference.
Unfortunately this also means the eradication of curiosity, wonder, and aliveness in yourself. It denies the importance of finding your own path in life and devalues the significance of other people on theirs.
Ask yourself if you can hold your head up at the end of the day. Ask yourself if you can tell your kids what you do with pride. Ask yourself if you feel respected by your superiors. If you get a ‘no’ to all three of these questions then, please, go home.
Recover your dignity as warriors.
Reconnect with what it was you signed up for.
Remember the intention to be that someone whom others looked up to.