It is beginning to feel like we're building a culture of warrior worship. Today our politicians and media trip over themselves to laud our brave troops. Perhaps this is heartfelt. Perhaps it is done because of the guilt for treating Vietnam Veterans so poorly. Or maybe it is done out of fear of political reprisal. In any case, it seems to me excessive, dangerous, and even unfair to those troops.
It is true that civilization would collapse were it not for people willing to risk their lives to protect us from fires, criminals, and enemy soldiers. Sam Harris points out that a single psychopath with a knife could theoretically wipe out an entire town of pacifists. It is likely that Hitler, Mussolini and Tojo would have conquered and then divided the world were it not for the resistance of brave soldiers. Tyrants are not checked by their own conscience: they are checked by the courage of others.
But it is worth remembering that the reason that soldiers had to bravely protect our way of life is because soldiers attacked it. Decades after World War 2, we can see that Germans, Japanese, and Italians turn out to be not so very different from Americans and British and Canadians. Architects from any country design buildings and soldiers from any country follow orders to attack. The great thing about soldiers is also the awful thing about soldiers - they are willing to destroy lives and towns in order to accomplish their mission.
We took a relative to dinner about two years ago. He was my cousin's nephew, a Marine serving in Iraq. He'd been injured in the attack on Fallujah and was getting treated at the Navy Hospital here in San Diego for a grenade wound. One of the things that he shared was a tale of how they drove through Iraqi cities in their armored vehicles. They would drive down the middle of the road and Iraqis were expected to get out of the way. If a vehicle followed too closely or didn't move - and ignored their gestures to move aside - they would "light it up" with machine gun fire. He seemed to me, at the time, just a kid too obviously excited with power to understand or appreciate either the moral issues or public relations consequences of this policy. (It is easy to speculate that such a policy would save American lives in the short term and cost them longer term as more Iraqis began to sympathize with insurgents fighting to rid the country of American troops.)
I say this not to paint the kid or his commanding officer as evil. I suppose that after I'd seen fellow soldiers killed by vehicle attacks I, too, would be eager to stay safe. If you are going to risk an innocent life, would you rather it were the life of your men or the life of a stranger? I mention this just to remind you that soldiers with guns are not an obviously or always good thing.
We could vilify soldiers and not have them when we need them. We could deify soldiers and not question their willingness to kill. Either is dangerous.
It seems to me that the only sustainable view of soldiers is one of ambivalence. These are real people who have volunteered for the job. Soldiers throughout history risk their lives; for this they deserve to be considered guardian angels. Soldiers have also been willing to kill and destroy; for this they deserve to be considered brute animals. They can, in the same act, protect one way of life and destroy another. But even to confess ambivalence about soldiers is to be a social pariah, it seems. I can imagine no mainstream politician or media outlet admitting to such ambivalence, admitting to a feeling of wariness towards a group willing to kill in order to do their job. And none of them seem willing to entertain the notion that the soldiers themselves, foreigners wandering around with guns, might themselves be the problem.
Until we can honestly express ambivalence, it seems to me that we can’t even begin to talk intelligently about how a military force could be used (if used at all) in the battle against the ideology of extremism.
And this is perhaps why soldiers most deserve our empathy: they are willing to sacrifice a life and willing to take it – simultaneously exhibiting a principled bravery and an animal instinct that the rest of us can’t even begin to comprehend. Pretending that they are only saint is to ignore that they are actually human. And perhaps by pretending that they are not like the rest of us it is easier to send them away from home and family on poorly-defined missions for far too long. A feeling of ambivalence is, it seems to me, the only way to be fair towards the very real human beings who we ask to simultaneously serve as angels and animals, forcing them to risk losing touch with their own humanity so that we can enjoy the comforts of civilization that makes us so human.
Finally, there is one last reason to call for ambivalence in place of worship. A society that worships warriors is dangerous.