On Death, Celebration, and Seriousness

The first time I questioned my decision to join the Air Force was in basic training, but it wasn’t while being smoked by some screamy, sadistic TI (Training Instructor), who were mostly cartoonish, amusing, and annoying. It was when they sat us down to watch a hype video of bombs being dropped and detonating on buildings and vehicles, ending lives over a metal soundtrack. If you’ve never seen one of these awful productions, imagine a YouTube highlight reel of lives being snuffed out violently over Drowning Pool’s “Let the Bodies Hit the Floor”.

I had thought I was joining a serious profession burdened with a tragic and unfortunately necessary task for the defense of our nation and the lives of others, but this behavior told me that I was in the company of unserious people having a good time, dehumanizing their adversaries. I wondered at first if this wasn’t intended to be a test of our degree of moral outrage. The videos made me sad and sick inside, not because I doubted the cause or mission, but because I think that death is always death, and every instance, no matter how necessary, is a tragedy. I thought perhaps they were trying to weed out any who don’t have the stomach for war and thus cannot be relied on to be one of the cogs in a machine built for death. One of our TI’s once honed in on the fact that I had fairly long hair for a guy and originated from California. TI’s are like improv artists; they love to customize their hazing to the audience. He thought it would be fun to have me shout “I’m a peace activist” over and over in front of everybody in my flight. It wasn’t particularly embarrassing for me. It was weird, but I felt sad for this man who felt like declaring an affinity for peace was something to be embarrassed about.

This might sound strange, but I honestly have always thought that the whole purpose of war is to enable peace. What other cause could there be? In my mind, there is no justification for ending lives besides that ending them might set the conditions for more lives to be saved. We fight so that the fighting might one day end. We kill because there are those that seek to disrupt peace so long as they are breathing, because they have invited other dogmas to supersede the sanctity of peace.

Though I am certainly no activist, I do believe in peace. I wonder if perhaps we should care more whether the leaders and members of our military do as well. Couldn’t an affinity or lust for war be considered a conflict of interest?

The ending of human lives, to me, is the most unfortunate and serious responsibility. It necessarily stains and damages us. It is an act that we might never be cleansed of. It is also unfortunately necessary at times. It strikes me as extremely important that we take on such a burden with seriousness.

The intentional and premeditated celebration of violence is, to me, a signal that someone ought to be disqualified from the task. It is not a fucking game. It is not fun. There is possibly no more serious task in the world. Though some might see our task as purely righteous, and our opponents as purely evil, I am a believer in James Carse’s definition of evil in the book Finite and Infinite Games – which he describes as “bringing the infinite play of others to an end in unheard silence”. Killing is thus never purely righteous and always in one way evil. It is an evil that we take on only out of necessity. It is a choice we make when there are no other choices, and never the first or only tactic we should employ. I think we should be wary of anyone incapable of this cognitive dissonance, because it is a necessary component of our profession.

Basic Training wasn’t the last time I encountered those videos. I walked out of a number of commander’s calls when leaders decided to show these musical sizzle reels of bombs landing on compounds in Iraq and Afghanistan to the unit. They wanted us intel Airmen to feel close to the violence, and they wanted us to be excited about that. I walked out, several times. At that time, now years into my enlistment, I wondered if I belonged here. I wondered about my fellow Airmen and it made me doubt the rightness of our cause. With eyes so giddily fixed on the means, what end could there be but more of the same?

When I deployed to Afghanistan in 2011, I assisted very closely with the ending of lives that I believe needed to be ended. We would watch the operations occur live and there was a period during which cheers would go up when the moment came- when the life was ended. It made me sick, and sad, and filled me with doubt.

At one point a new commander came in and the first time he heard cheers, he was furious and immediately put a stop to it. He insisted on absolute silence during operations. He insisted on seriousness in those moments. I was so grateful.

I still feel somewhat like an outlier at times on this subject, but I think it’s important for leaders in the military to not take the easy route and hide the seriousness of war behind a video-game veil, behind unserious sports metaphors and cartoonishness. I think we should recognize the tragedy and humanity of our adversaries. I think failing to do so puts the rightness or our actions at risk. I think failing to do so puts our mental health at risk.

Violence is not ever to be celebrated, and its misapplication is not to ever be tolerated. Perhaps what we are seeing with the inability to curb sexual violence among our ranks and the intolerable rates of war crimes perpetrated by our troops is an extension of these failures…

2 thoughts on “On Death, Celebration, and Seriousness

  1. Death is an unwelcome stranger in the room of any context in which the application of extreme (kinetic) force is implicit. Even while technology allows us to distance ourselves somewhat from the facts, it never changes the reality that the video streams and post-facto assessments measure.

    It may be a little silly, in some regards, but where the masters of various lineages in martial arts assert that winning without fighting is the highest art – it is so obvious as to be painful, perhaps. What we may do just as well to investigate is what it is about violence and institutionalised, administrative and/or large-scale organisational applications of such force that is so normative, so expected and endemic of this era

    Can we win without fighting? Quite plausibly, but it definitely depends quite substantively on how one defines victory and, indeed, conflict itself (or the assumption that conflict is or must be inevitable).

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Fantastic post Daniel. As a defense contractor, I’ve briefly encountered similar depictions of war and violence – it’s sickening to think of these actions, events in a glorified manner. It does discredit, diminish, and devalue the whole purpose of our military

    Liked by 1 person

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