A re-post for a friend who needs some encouragement.
We all have images in our mind’s eye that defines what we think a certain type of person or a certain vocation must be like. Very few members of John-Q-Public ever have the opportunity to see what an enlisted Soldier, an NCO, or an Officer of the Army is really like. Too much of our knowledge is formed by Hollywood and the TV networks, even in this age of alternate media reporting. Maybe more strides have been made during my lifetime to correct this problem than ever before. Yet, I think a fully-orbed view of who the citizen soldier “is” may be too much for people to grasp. Additionally I think it is too traumatic for them to grasp. Because, if they did then they would have to care, and if they cared then they would have to do something about it. By “something” I don’t mean carry a sign, write a congressman, or forward an email. No. I mean they would really have to do something tangible in the same manner as when your three year old says “please, I am hungry” — and the cost of actually doing something is for some of them too high. Far too high. So it is easier to idealize our Soldiers, our Officers, and the like by casting them in the role of sinner or saint. In that way the observers can embrace as much or as little as they can afford to embrace.
Since his return, we have talked at great lengths about Damon’s military experiences and how it has changed and impacted him – both in good ways and in ways that are not so good. One way it has impacted him for the better is a newly developed empathetic understanding of soldiers. The time he spent in TraDoc was enough for him to have developed a deep sense of appreciation and a personal connection to his “Brothers in Arms.” Soldiers generally are not iconic to other soldiers. Damon was processing in his quote above how the citizen soldier is often a blank canvas for super-ego projection, and how we tend to see soldiers more as an iconic figure than as simply another human.
There is a portrait in my den that is almost finished. It’s a portrait of Mike that Damon painted from a snapshot picture. The portrait displays Mike on his 21st birthday, dressed in his battle rattle, holding a weapon, and looking tiredly into the camera. His eyes, in both the picture and the painting, are very shadowed due to the angle of the lens and the relative position of the sun. It is not exactly the best lighting in which to see the details of a person’s face. Damon titled the work “Not just another pretty face.” He wanted to call it that because to our family Mike is more, so much more, than just a soldier.
I would never say “just a soldier” in a way to demean or degrade the position he has chosen, please don’t read that with the wrong tone nor take it out of context. When I say he is more than a soldier to us I mean he is our son, brother, friend, etc. He just so happens to be a soldier too. This is a hard thing to keep in mind in the praxis arena of “troop appreciation” for a lot of people. Mike and Damon both are many other things to many people. They also, through military service, have become a symbol for many people in many places. For some that symbol is malicious and for others it is saintly. For some the symbol is that of freedom and democracy, and for others it’s a symbol of fierce might. What ever the projections are there is always an element of symbolic sacrifice mixed up in the solution. Societal entropy of this mixture, due to past and present conflicts and their impact on our Country, has created an amalgamation of symbolism and realism that are forever bound together. The sacrifice is real. It is acutely real, but we have too often taken their sacrifice as our very own garment to wear. I have a problem with this aspect of things.
Mike’s sacrifices are his. He made them. He made the decision to join the Army at a time of war. I am very proud of him, but I do not think that his service exonerates me, or anyone else, from sacrifice. I still have a duty, an obligation and a responsibility to live my life everyday as a citizen of a Country that is engaging in a long and extremely taxing war. I am not exonerated from being mindful and from being a good citizen. I am not released of my responsibilities, both de jure and de facto, that tie and bind me to the law, my family and my neighbors.
The sacrifice a soldier gives is both esoteric and immediate to the individual. The perception of that sacrifice by others sometimes becomes iconic to the point of forgetting that under all of the armor the soldier wears also beats a heart of flesh. Their sacrifice is not minor or trivial, it is not a slogan, and it is most certainly not being made so that we can live a life void of awareness and consideration of our fellow citizens and disregarding toward our own democratic inheritance. Their sacrifices consist of time, labor, sweat and blood — both their own and their fallen friends. They are called “sacrifices” because these are the things that are given, willingly by them, that can never be restored to them or paid back to them. They, through their own work and sacrifice, make a collective deposit of freedom for the rest of us. They pay a mighty high price for this commodity that is often, even in a time of war, taken for granted.
I faced redeployment with great trepidation, as I have mentioned in previous entries. I wondered what people would see when they see a young man come home from Iraq. He is a returning soldier and citizen, but is it possible to look into his eyes and not see “just another pretty face?” Is it possible to look at the face of a soldier and see beyond the image of a procurator of freedom and democracy, and see the “papa” who is missing his little girl? Can we really look that father in the face and for a moment allow the floodgates of empathy to open up hell-deep as we imagine how it would feel to miss one, two or more years of our own child’s life and development?
What do you see when you meet a soldier or spy a man in uniform in public? Do you see shadows of them or do you see the substance of the human being inside the ACUs? Are we naming projected shapes in our Platonic Cave, or are we gauging our views of these men and women on the basis of what is real, which is the self-evident truth of their humanity. Symbols do not sacrifice, bleed, die or mourn, humans do — soldiers do. Symbols don’t long for home, safety and rest for a weary body, soldiers do. I think it is time to reconnect the symbol and metaphor to the tension that creates a critical awareness. When that tension is lost, and the living object takes on the lifeless regard of the actual symbol, then the metaphor is broken and is no longer effective.
The sacrifices of our soldiers make are not mine to claim. They do not sacrifice for me in the sense that they take all of my burdens of sacrifice on themselves. Their sacrifice and work keeps me free so that I can offer the sacrifice of mindful self-governance and compassion as a neighbor to my fellow citizens. I also have to hold tightly to the truth that not only am I free, but I have a duty and the responsibility to remain that way.