It was Remembrance Day recently around the world.
Remembrance day this year was filled with amazing conversations for me amongst a few friends, one of whom had written a book about his experiences in battle. This book, highly recommended, is “The Battle on the Lomba” by David Mannall, MMM. The day brought to memory my many friends who had passed away in service of their – my – country. People whose voices I knew, forever stilled. People whose friendship had been dear to me, forever gone.
I remember being 17, 18, and 19 years old, and hearing the news of their deaths. It was traumatic back then, but having lived so little of life ourselves, perhaps the poignancy was lost on us. We felt the pain, yes, and we mourned their loss, but the tragedy of a life unlived was to some extent lost on those of us who had not yet lived our own.
I knew some details of how some of them had died. One shot in the air descending as a paratrooper. One while defusing an anti-personnel mine. And some in the heat of close battle, in a hail of bullets. I have experienced moments where my mortality has been brought home to me. I have had a loaded gun pointed at my face by someone who wanted to use it. And I have, on one occasion, felt the fear of being shot at. But I wonder what it must have been like for my friends, to face a wall of bullets aimed in their direction by professional soldiers. I can never know that feeling.
It may seem inane, but I remember clearly a line from a science fiction movie, where a soldier, played by Kurt Russell, was asked what he felt in battle. His response was “Fear. And Discipline.” All men fear. Soldiers fear. I don’t believe anyone stares death in the face and does not fear. And yet, some have conquered that fear with discipline. And soldiers are not alone. Police officers in many countries do it. Firefighters all do it. Sea and mountain rescue people all do it; and many others besides. And I respect those acts of courage.
Nature is not malign, though, as people are. It does not seek our deaths. It exacts a severe price for stupidity, this is true. But in battle, another human seeks our death in order to win a safe return to their family and we seek their death in order to win a safe return to ours. In many ways, this is an unspoken and torturous battle within; that starts only when we take aim for the first time at another human being. We become a taker of life. Not just offering to give our lives, we have to be willing to take life as well.
So the combat veteran is an alloy of extreme opposites, perhaps. An alloy with a very short half-life – one that only exists only while in the furnace of battle. One part willing giver of life, one part willing taker of life. One part utter selflessness (it’s me, for them), one part utter selfishness (it’s me, or them). And the only environment hot enough to sustain the union of those two elements in an uneasy peace, is the heat of battle. Perhaps the unravelled lives of some veterans, post conflict, are evidence that in a life lived away from the heat of battle, these two opposing elements, forever forged together in battle, and forced to be one, are still, and will always be, at war.
We talk of the “ultimate sacrifice”, and that it is. All of us love life. We happily live day to day, embracing the hope of tomorrow, the promise of the future in our children’s eyes, the pleasure of living life without the immediacy of its last moments… We love to live, and yet there are times where certain individuals embark on a course of action which says there is something more important than life itself. For those of us who have never done that, there are no words.
And these are the same ones who have also required of others, the ultimate sacrifice. That is partially, perhaps, why veterans of conflict do not talk about it, except maybe to each other. They are similarly forged; in the same fire, between the same hammer and the same anvil, in a process that we know nothing of. Both givers, and takers, of life. We who live under the shelter of their protection, cannot simply identify with them and slap them on the back, and say thanks. There is so much more to the gift they were prepared to give us on the battlefield. There was also the unspeakable price they were willing to exact from others, to do that.
This is probably, in many many ways, an inarticulable tension; an unspeakably mysterious burden that we civilians cannot ever share. For us, the beneficiaries of such unselfishness, perhaps the appropriate response is the respect of gratitude, of silence instead of cheap words, and the deep appreciation of what we have been given as a result, and the cost of that gift.
To do it justice is impossible, but there is a transaction that happens when someone freely lays down their right to live, to offer someone else the freedom to do so. And, in addition, when they shoulder the burden of taking a life to afford us that same protection, they stand unique.
It forever sets apart those who stand on the wall, from those who dwell in safety behind it.