A Soldier Speaks of Death
The ex-Marine I spoke with yesterday had seen a lot in his 23 years, thanks to a couple of tours of duty in Iraq as an infantryman. The recent news of Marines who’d urinated on the dead Taliban insurgents came up between us, of course. The reports have been all over the place on this one, from those who understandably decry the incident wholesale, to those who remind us that desecration of the dead has always been a part of war. Some old warriors go so far as to say that since the Taliban did what they had done to us, no harm, no foul on the part of the young soldiers.
I personally don’t see how one can avoid the term “despicable.”
A lifelong and ardent pacifist, I nonetheless respect and try to help soldiers, and did so as part of a project I worked on with a friend at the University of Chicago, Aleksandra Kulczuga. She went on to become a Phillips Foundation scholar who routinely blogs from Afghanistan on matters related to foreign policy, specifically Poland’s involvement in the war. Here’s a sample of her work; it’s important to know, and care, that while we have spearheaded everything, there are lots of countries with skin in this game, and young men and women all over the world exposed to the hell of this war:
Back to my friend, the ex-Marine. Always respectful of his comrades in arms, he said something about death yesterday that I’ve been mulling over ever since. “People always ask, usually in a bar, did I ever kill anyone over there. I was an infantryman, what is there to say? To be with someone as they die, that is so personal. It’s probably the most intimate experience anyone can have.”
This young man, who says he loves world religions, may or may not be representative of thoughtful soldiers assigned to the killing fields. One can only hope. I have witnessed death two times face to face; my mother, my grandmother. I am struck with how simply this young man captured the essence of attending someone’s death. Yes, to be part of the ending of a life, as professional, lover, relative, or warrior, is very, very intimate.
In Karl Marlantes' memoir, “What it is Like to Go to War,” he expresses the wish that troops were better prepared to shoulder the burden of taking lives. Fortunate soldiers eventually leave the fields of battle to become part of society, and he’s concerned with how poorly some are able to make the shift, especially after what they’ve done, or had done to them. He reflects on the dead and dying, whether of enemies or friends, and the effect of the horrors on young, still developing psyches. It’s a subject he’d taken up before in the fictional work, “Matterhorn,” where he describes warriors engaged in ritual in an attempt to cope with having killed:
“The chanting went on, the musicians giving in to the rhythm of their own being, finding healing in touching that rhythm, and healing in chanting about death, the only real god they knew.”
Marlantes thinks the military and the public need to find rituals and ways to acknowledge the pain of war both as both victim and oppressor. I can’t do justice to his view here in little Chico, without a warrior’s experience myself. But I am familiar with many of the great works he cites in defense of his opinion that once upon a time, ages ago, death was a serious occasion. To the point that “stories of desecration in war is as old as time itself” – yes, Hector’s body was humiliated and dragged through the field thanks to the rage of Achilles, to cite a famous fictional example. Even so, Homer’s epic has been reflected upon through the ages for many reasons that I can only hope are still relevent today.
Marlantes doesn’t believe that reflection on the part of soldiers is encouraged by anyone, at least not to the extent it should be. His memoir describes what he believes is the price we’ll be paying as we engage in wars where action takes precedence over thought. (I have pretty much given up the thought that we are winning anything). We need to act, perhaps; we need to think, always, else we give up too much as death becomes a god, the only reason for praise or celebration in battle (unless, of course, it is us doing the dying). I mean, think of what happened on that awful video. Soldiers kill insurgents during battle. And the soldiers get the humanity sucked out of them.
Oh, lucky us. With agents of destruction becoming so far removed, with drones being operated from Nevada, our culture is shifting and detaching from crucial realities of war, especially of death. What we saw in the video on the news reveals the tragedy of people who can’t see what is before their eyes. A victory in some sense, perhaps, but as we now know, no cause for rejoicing because of all that has been lost. It’s a literal shame.
No matter how many of us humans die, our problems always seem to follow us.