Sunday, July 22, 2007

Life is simple. Civilization is complicated

Two Marine reservists were discussing their Iraq experiences the other day. One works in the bike shop. The other rides with the local group.

Days before, I had said to the first one, "I wish I could feel there was some kind of guiding intelligence, some well-thought-out plan for what we're doing."

"There isn't," he assured me. He shook his head.

The second one always has a positive attitude. He does not seem to be someone who considers things too deeply.

As they chatted, the first Marine said that he'd go back to Iraq if he wasn't married.

"But then you get there and you go, 'why the fuck did I do this to myself?'" he said.

The second Marine said he'd had a good time on his fairly short tour.

"I kept saying to myself, I'm living the dream," he said.

Living the dream?

Combatant types enjoy the combat itself. Maybe some of them prefer to dress up and patrol around without a lot of hostile action, while others like to mix it up more. Neither of these guys goes around picking fights when they're at home. They're both people I would want on my side if something did break out. But how are you supposed to feel about people sent by their government into a dangerous situation when they seem to be having fun in it? The fate of nations and the vast sweep of political and philosophical forces means nothing to the fighters in the fight. Some don't care as long as they can get a job fighting. Others are just too busy trying to survive the challenges of each day to give any thought to a bigger picture.

We present this black-and-white notion of what we're doing and the people we're using to do it, but they don't react as uniformly as they are dressed and told to march. Some discover the experience traumatizes them. They come back recounting the horrors. At the other end of the scale, some people, even some who have been blown up, shot and mangled, accept it, even praise it.

As a civilization, we get selected groups to do things in the name of all of us, but each sub group is made up of smaller units all the way down to the individual. No leader can say with perfect confidence that every follower represents the same values at all. This is true of all participants in a conflict. Life itself may be a simple matter of finding food, shelter and whatever companionship one desires. Mix all those simple lives into something called a nation or an ideology and you get fundamentally insane activities like wars or political parties. It's hard to wave the flag when you don't know how the person looking at it will interpret it. It's hard to know how to treat a veteran when you don't know how they view themselves. You can't even say they all did it because they thought it was a great and noble thing to do. Some of them just like the line of work.

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