The effects of combat on the psyche (part 8)
by, 04-02-2011 at 08:33 AM (455 Views)
What Have I Learned?
What I learned in my year in Iraq is that in chaotic systems, human life has no inherent value to it. We are no different than the rocks and trees, or any other animal that roams this earth. In war, a life is a fleeting entity that is terrified and focused on its own survival in a gruesomely utilitarian manner. All other values that our society believes in are trumped by this savage desire to live. When we hear about atrocities that arise in a combat zone, can we really be surprised? A soldier’s value is negated when they are told to kill and die. In this environment, can anyone be expected to retain the values that the soldiers are supposedly fighting for? In rare cases, this may be true, but for the most part, this is an illusion. When a person is placed in a combat zone with no clear reason as to why the combat is taking place in the first place, how can they be motivated by the “greater good?” These disillusioned soldiers have nothing to fight for other than their own lives and the lives of their brothers in arms. When thrown into an environment where they care about nothing other than their own survival, it is hypocritical to believe that they will act with all of the strengths and virtues that the United States professes to possess.
When I got to Iraq, I first thought that the value was taken from human life and that we had been reduced to this existence. But then, after living this way for some time, I realized that this value never existed in the first place. I watched humans behaving no better than dogs. Reduced to such a savage and primal state, I realized that it was a de-evolution of human nature. All of the more beautiful and intricate aspects of human life have at their foundation this simple savagery. When exposed to the chaos of combat, soldiers experience a sort of regression that strips them of their higher faculties of compassion and they are left to re-form themselves based on the utilitarian necessity of survival.
I realized that my value was taken from me, but through personal reflection, I am learning how to regenerate the ability to be a functional and compassionate human being. This has given me a profound appreciation for my family and friends. Our society tends to take the glories of love and compassion for granted. If we are lucky, we are raised receiving an endless stream of unconditional affection. Then, when we are adults, we tend to take this affection and care to be a standard and continue to share it with others. But this is done unconsciously, and compassion is thought to be just the way things are. The underlying chaos is all too soon forgotten. I wish more than anything that there was a way I could teach people this truth first hand, but I can’t. The illusory nature of compassion’s universal character is a tragic myth that has poisoned our perceptions of military action. Violent compassion is an oxymoron that our country sadly seems to accept unquestioningly. When we act violently, we are contradicting the elementary nature of compassion, opposing our stated compassionate goals.
So, where does the value of human life exist? I would avoid the definitions supplied by religion, as any religion’s definition would necessarily contain all of the absolute, totalitarian and dogmatic claims that tend to cause more conflict than they have ever settled. What I am looking for is a secular definition that can be shared by any human being, regardless of their beliefs.
Through my studies of my mind in and out of a combat zone, I have concluded that the value of human life comes from our ability to be compassionate. When I choose to love and respect another person, and they choose to love and respect me, we enter into a realm rich in the entire spectrum of human emotions. By being compassionate, we expose intimate and delicate aspects of our psyches to others and then refuse to do anything that would compromise their emotions. I think of it as an emotional synchronization, where emotions are shared between people in a perfectly mutual way. In compassion, no one is held in a higher state over the other. It is pure equality. Charlotte Joko Beck writes about this issue using the metaphor of ice cubes. (Beck, 1993) She believes that people are all comprised of emotions that she alludes to as water. The average person is tied up in his or her own emotional net of insecurity and fear. This emotional rigidity she equates to being an ice cube. (I like to think of camaraderie as building a fort out of ice cubes.) However, through compassion, we can approach another person in a non-threatening manner as an equal. The compassionate person is then thought of as a puddle. When this puddle interacts with the ice cube, it causes the ice to melt a little bit, becoming more like a puddle itself. Ice cubes are very rigid and separate things whereas puddles flow together to make an even greater puddle. This has been the message that has been taught by every major world religion, but people assimilate this teaching as ice cubes and assume that sometime perhaps after their own death they can join the puddle of humanity. This is a way of thinking that saddens me. Compassion needs to be expressed here on earth, here and now in our society today. There are just under three thousand dead coalition soldiers and thirty thousand dead Iraqi civilians who I am sure would have wished that this compassion could have been implemented in this life.
I fear that our society has taken compassion entirely for granted. Perhaps not compassion in it entirety, but maybe the actual requirements and prerequisites for compassion and its relationship to chaos and order. I see compassion as the next step of ordering human beings not into a greater society, but into a greater organism where all people are unified together just as the cells of the body form something far greater than their sum. I see compassion as the bond that can tap the incredible potential that our species possesses. We must also keep in mind the chaos that exists just under the surface of our existence and the all too human state of suffering that we must all live with. Recognizing this, we can suffer together as a species and create a world where the alleviation of suffering is our greatest priority. I think that when we forget the suffering that exists in the world, we forget the need for compassion. We also need to recognize the difference between how people bond together in chaos and in love.
Compassion can only come about when people can stop being afraid. I find it saddening that our news media spouts an endless stream of misfortune and misery when it could focus more on the little things happening in our communities that are brining people closer together under love and compassion. Instead, we are taught to be afraid so that we only come as close together as my platoon did in Iraq. We came together not under compassion, but under fear. This fear is devoid of compassion and only looks to annihilate and destroy. This chaos will only bread more chaos as we have tragically seen in the increase in insurgency in Iraq after the first year of occupation. What we have to show for our hostility and violence is an increase in hostility and violence. The longer our country is banded together through fear, I worry that our society will become the very manifestation of fear and hatred that it originally set out conquer. It has been said from an early age that violence conquers all but violence. This is a message that has seemingly fallen on deaf ears. Compassion is the only thing that will ever eradicate violence. I believe that it is our compassion that is the definitive trait of being human. Our intelligence has done wonders for our race as well, but it is also responsible for the greatest tragedies our planet and species have ever encountered. It isn’t our thinking that makes us unique; it is our compassion.
I have come to this conclusion because I have had my compassion stripped from me. I felt all of the beauty of life sapped from me and tossed into the vacuum of chaos that dominates the combat zone. When I returned home safe, I watched my compassion be reborn. I wish there was some way to have every American experience this without risking their lives or sanity. In this light, I see a lot of merit in Heinlein when he proposed that only soldiers should be allowed to lead a country, because only the person who has suffered the horrors of war should be responsible for damning thousands of others to death, disfigurement and a lifetime of terrifying memories. I question what our real message to the world is when we choose to strip a country of its value by dropping bombs on it and invalidating its people’s right to their humanity. What is it that we say to the world when we spend billions of dollars on killing when that money is desperately needed in American schools and American health care? What values are we really endorsing when we kill over 2600 American soldiers over the façade of “bad intelligence” that the administration hides behind? War invalidates the lives of our soldiers, the lives of whomever we are invading and the values that we as Americans insist we stand for.