Thursday, November 01, 2007

Beauchamp and the Rule of Second Chances: Pass it Along

At Michael Yon

A few months ago a soldier wrote an article for The New Republic about his ongoing experiences as a soldier in Iraq. He wrote about the activities of his unit. And it was full of stories of how sadistic, cruel, uncaring they had become while deployed to war in Iraq. And for those soldiers who did not become sadistic, how apathetic they became to the violence and depravity around them. Almost like a Hollywood movie about Vietnam with all the expected stereotypes and more. And, as it turned out, completely untrue. Essentially, this soldier wrote the story, and as the editors understanding of war essentially came from Hollywood movies about the Vietnam war, the fact checking was rather spurious.

Now, as the article came out in a prominent forum, the real fact checking began. And in addition to the fact that the stories were false, one other fact that came out was the writer's name. And his unit.

So now we have a problem. Here is a soldier in a combat zone. And he has written an article in a major national magazine that depicts his fellow soldiers as a group of depraved psychopaths. Back in the states, there are individuals writing on internet message boards that he should be punished. Severely. The wolves were calling out for blood. And he is surrounded by the people whom he dragged through the mud. And they all have guns. And they regularly see combat.

So, his company commander gives him a choice. Does he want to transfer. And his commander tells him something else. He is welcome to stay. And he did so.

No doubt there was some awkwardness there. A soldier having to face people whom he had publicly painted as cruel dimwits, when none of the events he described. And it probably was not a pretty thing, of going to battle with people whose relationship is, well, not the best. But there are other realities here. And part of this is the nature of war.

As a society, we (Americans) are generally not a forgiving bunch. Our churches, which like to use words like 'grace' and 'reconciliation' feel free to throw people away (at least the churches I've been to) and forget them as if they did not exist. Our polity is one where perceptions replace truth. And many things are unforgivable. Where disputes are solved by demonizing.

But when life and death is at stake, there is another principle. You have to be able to trust that the person next to you will sacrifice on your behalf. Because you depend on them for your life. And you realize that person, just by being there, also depends on you for theirs. And there are many other things like this, even in non-lethal environments. The fact that there is a common goal overcomes mistakes.

Part of the way we have changes is the separation of our lives from reality. As a society, we have valued a buffer between ourselves and the world, and attempted to insulate ourselves from the pain, hurt, suffering. And along the way sacrifice, trust, and caring for one another have gone as well. There is a saying "no good deed goes unpunished." and a reality that those who would consider helping others, are told that to save a life, is to put your future at risk, and that it is better to turn away from the one in danger, and leave them to their own devices.

With this soldier, for all he has done wrong, there is an understanding that he is there. He still goes out into harms way, alongside others that he is trusting his life with. And they are trusting their lives with him. There may be no way to "pay" for his mistakes. But he is still a comrade in arms. And a very different reaction then "pulling out the hanging rope" for every mistake. It is a different attitude. One of the things observed with the number of soldiers who are coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan, there is now a large pool of people who are Heinlein's human being.

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.

So the question, are these enough people who can change a society by their presence? People who are not as self-absorbed, self-righteous, insulating themselves from their environment and others in their faux self-reliance that American society has become. Or will these returning soldiers become examples of people who remember what it is like to stand alongside people from all walks of life, and to depend on one another to succeed and survive.
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