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November 02, 2009

The Joyful Warriors

For some reason in the middle of the night I found myself thinking of a letter from a commander to the son and daughter of a fellow Marine:

Ray and I had a conversation late May in 2004 while we were deployed to Iraq. He spoke of why he fought. He fought to give the people of Iraq a chance. He fought to crush those who would terrorize and enslave others. He fought to protect his fellow Marines.

The last thing he told me that day was, "I don't want any of these people (terrorists) telling my kids how to act, or how to dress. I don't want to worry about the safety of my children." Kiana and Alek, your father fought for many things, but always remember, he fought for you.

As you fight this battle we call life, you will find your challenges greater, your adversity larger, your enemies more numerous. The beautiful thing is, you will grow stronger, smarter, faster, and you will overcome the obstacles in your way.

No one could've better prepared you than your father.

The letter was remarkable in many ways but most notably for its tone. There was little sympathy extended to two now-fatherless children, little time wasted trying to assuage hurts that cannot be healed by hushed, reverent voices or comforting words. It did not so much urge Ray Mendoza's children to mourn him as challenge them to live up to his memory.

The phrase 'joyful warrior' came to mind, and with it a piercing sense of just how unacceptable the juxtaposition of those two words has become when used as anything but a colorful metaphor. A politician can be a joyful warrior - politicians wield nothing more deadly than carefully calibrated words. An actual warrior, on the other hand, is expected to feel slightly ashamed of what he does for a living. He cannot love it, lest he be reviled by those with more elevated sensibilities.

Tony Perry used a different phrase: unapologetic warrior.

During the month long battle in Iraq earlier this year for the Sunni Triangle city of Fallouja, no combat unit did more fighting and bleeding than Echo Company, and during it all--from the opening assault to the final retreat ordered by the White House--Zembiec led from the front. He took on the most dangerous missions himself, was wounded by shrapnel, repeatedly dared the enemy to attack his Marines, then wrote heartfelt letters to the families of those who were killed in combat, and won the respect of his troops and his bosses.

It was the time of his life, he acknowledged later, for by his own definition Zembiec is a warrior, and a joyful one. He is neither bellicose nor apologetic: War means killing, and killing means winning. War and killing are not only necessary on occasion, they're also noble. "From day one, I've told [my troops] that killing is not wrong if it's for a purpose, if it's to keep your nation free or to protect your buddy," he said. "One of the most noble things you can do is kill the enemy."

For his Marines, Zembiec asks for respect, not sympathy, even as one-third of his 150-man company became casualties. "Marines are violent by nature--that's what makes us different," he said. "These young Marines didn't enlist to get money to go to college. They joined the Marines to be part of a legacy."

He knows talk like that puts him outside mainstream America and scares the bejabbers out of some people. Modern America is uncomfortable with celebrating those who have gone to war and killed their nation's enemy. Maybe it's because American military hardware is thought to be so superior that any fight with an adversary is a mismatch. Then again, people who feel that way probably have not stared at the business end of a rocket-propelled grenade launched by an insurgent hopped up on hatred for America.

Or maybe, like so many attitudes of the press and public toward the military, the queasiness about unabashed combat veterans is traceable to public opposition to the Vietnam War. A cynic I know says that although Americans remember Sgt. York from World War I and Audie Murphy from World War II, the only heroes most remember from Vietnam are Colin L. Powell and John McCain. One helped fellow soldiers after a helicopter crash, the other was shot down on a mission and survived a horrendous POW experience. Neither is known for killing the enemy.

Where does it come from? This moral squishiness? This desperate need to believe our own hands are spotless and our way of life cost free?

...it isn't killing that makes us monsters. We are exactly that same kind of creature, whether we have ever killed or not.

The moral problem of 'the clean hands' is that it is an illusion. It makes people believe they are better than they are, and therefore that others can also be better than they can be. It creates a class of people who feel clean, because they have never felt blood on their hands.

Yet all these things arise from things buried deep in the genetic code. You cannot walk away from them. The failure to experience these things does not mean you would not react to them in just the same way as everyone else: it only means that you cannot understand how you would react, and how others do.

The man with clean hands is just the same as the hunter. It is only that he does not know it. He does not understand that part of his soul, as it lurks beyond his experience. He comes to believe that there is a kind of human that is and can be clean: perhaps that sweet, aged lady on the corner, who in her youth broke necks every night before dinner.

Failing to understand what Man really is, he opens himself more than is wise, and defends himself less. The man with the clean hands believes in diplomacy but not the force that makes diplomacy viable. He believes in staying clean, because he believes it makes him better than you. He does not understand that it only makes him blind.

There is another problem with the clean hands illusion: it doesn't just blind us to important distinctions. When we come to fear our protectors more than those who want to destroy everything we cherish, it leaves us defenseless.

I have often wondered if it isn't war that causes PTSD, but the homecoming so long and so anxiously awaited? What was, over there, a natural and healthy response becomes - back here - cause for remorse and recrimination? What a shame if it is we who do that to our warriors, and all because we cannot face our own fear.

The fear of what lies within each of us?

Posted by Cassandra at November 2, 2009 04:35 AM

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An actual warrior, on the other hand, is expected to feel slightly ashamed of what he does for a living. He cannot love it, lest he be reviled by those with more elevated sensibilities.

There is a joy in anticipation of fighting and winning a battle, and a joy in the knowledge that you're performing your duty, which is to defend those and that which you love.

There *is* joy in doing that. If someone of "elevated sensibilities" fails to understand that, there is an important part of him that is lacking...

Posted by: BillT at November 2, 2009 06:53 AM

A family friend of ours is a psychiatrist who does research at Harvard. She was peripherally part of a team that studied PTSD, using veterans of American wars and then jointly with Moscow University using Russian veterans. They found exactly what you said, Cass. The biggest influence on mental illness when returning from war was the belief back at home of the war's legitimacy.

Was it worth it? Do people think what you did was worth it? That seems to be the defining factor. According to their research, anyway. One of the Moscow University researchers stayed with us for a week nearly 8 years ago when the study was in its beginning stages and it was an eye opener to talk to her.

I'm not sure if the study was published in English.

Also, something struck me on Sunday when I was listening to the Gospel Reading at church (the Beatitudes). Blessed are the peacemakers... Why is it assumed that Jesus was only speaking of diplomacy (for lack of a better description)? And now that I've had that thought, I can't stop wondering - someday I'd like to ask Him.

Posted by: airforcewife at November 2, 2009 07:33 AM

I can see where there might be several factors involved but I've always thought that a lot of it was people's attitudes towards war and soldiers. I would think that people would have some adjustment to deal with regardless, but that not feeling what you'd done was understood, appreciated or approved of would make that adjustment 10x harder.

Posted by: Cassandra at November 2, 2009 08:13 AM

You're right. Remember when half the US Navy and Marine Corps rushed out to apologize for General Mattis?

Posted by: Grim at November 2, 2009 08:26 AM


Remember the first gentile upon whom the Lord ever extended his blessing and grace was the Centurian; a man who understood duty and honor. He recognized that Jesus understood him as well. Christ declared this Roman officer had the greatest faith of all in Israel. Tradition is that it was this same man who led the soldiers who crucified Him. At the foot of the cross he became the first gentile to proclaim Jesus the Son of God.

Not only does the Lord respect warriors I think He is a warrior. How else could King David be "a man after my own heart"? The highest archangel in Heaven bears armor and a sword to slay the wicked and defend the righteous. His name, Michael, means "He who is like God".

Posted by: RCL at November 2, 2009 04:15 PM

Interesting. I wonder if the statistics show any correlation between marital/relationship status and PTSD (and other disorders), i.e., are veterans with strong personal support less likely to have issues after coming home?

Posted by: MikeH at November 3, 2009 10:14 AM