Monday, August 8, 2011

A Terrible Love of War

Waste is a slippery concept.  One man's waste is another man's art, another man's life's work, and yet another man's sustenance.  What we see as waste might actually be fulfillment, or comeuppance, or just another narrative chapter.  If risk is the price tag for reward, then the ultimate price should come with the ultimate reward - but in an odd twist, here the rewards are earned up front, collected throughout a career filled with immeasurable highs and unspeakable lows, and the price is collected last, savagely erasing all the days of effort and nights of terror, all the moments, forever.

30 Americans died at once on Friday, simultaneously, in a pointless war in a valueless place for a meaningless goal, and some might call it a tragedy, and cry out to mourn our national loss.  But to do so would be a failure of understanding, an inability to grasp what, precisely, has been lost, the banal conflation of what and why.  These men were, even in the midst of this most cynical of political gamesmanship, not wasted.  Indeed, it is not possible to waste lives such as this.  There are professional soldiers, certainly, but these were not that - not really.  These were professional warriors, men as there have always been, less committed to the ideal or even the goal than they are simply to the fight, men who have been to war and want nothing more than to go back.  Men for whom the fight is the point, and are therefore willing to do anything it takes for another chance to fight other men to the death.

Mourning them would serve no purpose, indeed it would obscure rather that clarify the way this story ended.  This was the outcome that was always there, the thing against which they measured themselves and their comrades every time they fought, at once the likeliest result and the one so often repeatedly avoided.

On an individual level this was not really a tragedy, and certainly not a waste.  It was, in a very real sense, just another day at the office, the consequences unusual only in number, otherwise no different than a severed finger at the lumberyard or the terminal deceleration of an avid parachutist having a very bad day.  These guys were doing exactly what they wanted to do, what they LOVED to do, and every single last one of them had taken human lives, weighed culpability against responsibility, considered and accepted their accountability and, having seen it and smelled it and tasted both the warm flow and the red mist, opted to return once again to that place where lives are traded, the exchange rate measured in lead.

To be clear, one should not feel compelled to honor them either.  They represent the part of human evolution that has, to this point at least, failed.  They are killers, not by training or by temperament, but at some deeper, vocational level.  Everywhere throughout history you will find similar men in prisons and graveyards, the same drive fueling a different path, but always with similar outcomes.  They have always been amongst us, and they have always been co-opted and recruited by those with wealth and power to serve whatever cause ordered.  They were crusaders and assassins, outlaws and pirates, the tip of the spear and the last line of defense.

Afghanistan is a waste, a waste of resources, a waste of lives, a waste of geopolitical credibility and diplomatic leverage.  Most of the lives lost there are wasted, and most of the lives spent there are wasted too.  America's involvement in Afghanistan fully ten years after the attacks of September 11th is a permanent toxic stain on what remains of her tattered honor, calling simultaneously into question both American political integrity and military capacity.  But for these men, Afghanistan was exactly where they wanted to be, for exactly the reasons we saw play out.  The fact that we'll bury these Sailors all at the same time means they died doing what they wanted to do more than anything in the world, and regardless of how you might feel about that, for them it was no tragedy...


  1. Long ago I watched this. I think the main thing I got out of it was that the purpose of soldiers was not so much to kill for you as to die for you: these are the guys to burn through when you want something done.

  2. I think that's right.

    But I think it can't be emphasized enough that these are the guys who WANT to be burned through. They understand the nature of the game but even more they understand the nature of what THEY want to do, every day, every night, any time.

    They lust for combat - they choose a life of privation and danger just so they can taste that magic moment that lasts and eternity and is over in a moment again and again and again...

  3. Afghanistan is a waste, a waste of resources, a waste of lives, a waste of geopolitical credibility and diplomatic leverage.

    True, but for Obama it's "the good war".