I took this photo a few years ago, while working on a project that revolved around the veteran suicide crisis, PTSD, and the struggles that combat veterans face when they come home from war.
Recent world events and my connections with the veteran community have had me thinking a lot about how veterans of the war on terror, and those who served in Afghanistan in particular, are feeling the last couple weeks, and it called this image to mind.
Regardless of how the withdrawal from Afghanistan has been or should have been handled, regardless of what President and their administration did or didn’t do, nearly every veteran I know or have talked to says the same thing about why they went:
To be the ones in harm’s way so that the rest of us here in the US wouldn’t be.
This photo is of a retired US Army Soldier who served two combat tours in Afghanistan. Those gloves, and the hands in them, have seen combat, they’ve seen battlefield medical extraction, they’ve tended casualties after a major Taliban assault and ferocious firefight on a forward operating base. And now, at home, those hands–and the Soldier to whom they belong–while finding ways to stay busy, always find themselves not only ready, but willing to go back.
Not for a President or Congress, but for the American people, and most especially, for their comrades-in-arms of all branches of service.
Especially right now.
This guy, and thousands of former and retired service members like him, would go to the line for anyone else in a US uniform. Right now, they’re all feeling the loss of the 13 service members recently killed in action during what was supposed to be a peaceful withdrawal while defending the airport in Kabul so that people could escape Afghanistan. And I guarantee you that the man in this image, and so many like him, would get on a plane and go back over there without hesitation if the orders came.
The full quote from the headline of this post is, “Si vis pacem para bellum” – “If you want peace, prepare for war.”
The idea there is that peace is only maintained by the threat of war. That would-be invaders or violators of a society, culture, or civilization are deterred primarily by the threat of superior force being used against them. In more recent history, that idea is summed up in the often-quoted statement attributed to Yamamoto about it being foolish to invade mainland America because “there would be a rifle behind every blade of grass”. In other words, those who would seek to do harm must be deterred from it by the threat of greater harm to themselves.
A counter to that thought is that the very notion of military strength invites challenge. It moves others to pursue greater heights of technological advancement for the sake of being able to make the most harmful war on others. Basically, everyone’s always looking for a bigger stick than the other guy has. And so it–as thousands of years of human history testify to–is an endless and brutal cycle of humans finding more efficient ways of killing each other. Whether or not it’s to take what’s wanted from someone else, or to protect what’s held from someone else doesn’t matter: the cycle perpetuates.
The problem is that there will always be a “bad guy” who wants to impose their will on others, and history has shown that there are plenty of those bad guys willing to use force and harm to do so. So much so that “si vis pacem para bellum” isn’t just a warning, but is practical advice to those would wish to live in a peaceful and free society.
And that’s what this photo is about, though I have to confess that at the time I took it, I didn’t know that.
Peace, liberty, safety, and justice are all dependent on the idea of social responsibility and the willingness of all members of a society to be active participants in maintaining those ideas and the behaviors that ensure them. Which also means that they’re dependent on some members of that society being willing to kill and die to preserve them. Even if it means going to foreign shores to become targets so that civilians at home aren’t.
Every combat veteran I’ve talked to has told me that they hate war. They don’t want to kill other people. They want to keep their friends and families and countrymen alive and safe. In combat, it’s not about their country, but about the person next to them. The real goal is directing overwhelming fire at the enemy so that they lose the will to fight and end hostilities. Those veterans are just as weary of the war on terror as most American civilians–much of the rest of the world–are. And in many ways more so.
But they’d still go back.
Not because they love the sword.
But because they love what it defends.