In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo murders, I’ve been getting a lot of email from my friends and colleagues. The messages are mixed, but there’s an overwhelming theme of righteous wrath, of the need to puff up and strike out to show . . . I don’t who, when you consider that the perpetrators are now all dead save one, that they can’t do this to . . . us (whoever us is).
It bugs me that I might strike people as the kind of guy who would agree with that sentiment, so I wanted to do some public exploration of how I feel about this. I’ve written before about how I feel about violence, and on the consequences of killing. Both are things I take very seriously.
Since I was a small boy, being a “warrior” has been a major component of my self-image. I grew up in a less enlightened age of rigorous gender policing, and for me, “warrior” and “man” were synonymous. To fail to act as one was to fail to act as the other. The cultural mores you take on as a child stick with you into the grave. You can break those bonds intellectually, but it’s harder to shake them in your heart. So, yes, being a warrior is important to me, but it’s equally important to define what being a warrior means.
When I was a kid playing Paladins in D&D, this is what a warrior looked like:
He was a lone hero, acting as an individual. He advanced fearlessly into impossible odds, heedless of the consequences, for he knew his cause was just. He would suffer no stain on his honor. He would right wrongs swiftly and mercilessly. He left the complex thinking and moral handwringing up to the politicians and weak of heart. His was a warrior’s path, headlong into the darkness and damn the consequences.
That conception of a warrior was formed before I joined the military and actually learned what war was about. It is a valid conception, but it is also an obsolete one. The Paladin I roleplayed was taken from D&D’s medieval landscape, based on its historical counterpart: a world of illiterate warbands, a land where the collecting of heads and ritual suicide weren’t considered untoward. It is absolutely a valid conception of what it means to be a warrior. If you live in 1233.
Officer candidate school introduced me to the modern conception of a warrior. It introduced me to an idea known as “military bearing,” a warrior’s sangfroid. The mission was placed over the man. Teamwork over the individual. The word “passion” comes from the Greek pathos, which means “disease.” Modern militaries esteem “logic,” from the Greek logos, vaunting a cold-minded professionalism over individual heroism. I’ve said before that modern warriors don’t like heroes. Heroes make for grand gestures. The kind that lead to bad decisions. The kind that get people killed.
So, no. I don’t want to make anyone pay for Hebdo. Because my conception of being a warrior has evolved. Here’s what they look like to me now.
There are no individuals here. They work as a team, each understanding the value of the other, each knowing that success is impossible unless everyone works together, unless everyone does their job. They don’t get angry, no matter how they are provoked. They don’t get flustered, no matter how dire the circumstances. They are cool under fire. They understand that complex thinking and ethical handwringing are important, even essential, not as some intellectual exercise, but because modern war is complicated, and you need to use your head if you’re going to win. They exercise sober judgment, patient as spiders, and just as deadly.
Some might call them weak. Some might yell that they are emboldening a dedicated enemy through their inaction. They’d just smile and nod. Because they know what they’re capable of. Because they shown it before. Because they’ve learned the price of rushing in headlong. They’ve seen Vietnam. They’ve seen Iraq. They’ve learned. They don’t need other people to call them warriors. They know who they are in their hearts.
So, no. I don’t want to retaliate against anyone. Because modern warriors think strategically. I know it is in the best interests of my nation and the world for there to be accord and harmony among all faiths and all peoples. I learned from 9/11. I saw that the mufsidin want to drive a wedge between the ummah and the rest of the world, and the best way to do that is provoke violent reaction on our parts. They have won two major victories this way, and with Hebdo, game for yet another.
And I don’t want to give them that. This is the difference between macho bullshit and military bearing, between impotent chest thumping and the professional warfighter who acts deliberately to win the fight.
Aristotle famously said that “the law is reason, free from passion,” but the truth is that most professional disciplines operate that way.
When I read Petty Officer Luttrell’s account of Operation: Red Wings, I couldn’t help but be struck by his description of a conversation that occurred between himself and his shipmates: PO Axelson and Lieutenant Murphy. They were all of them shot to hell, huddled at the bottom of a ravine with the enemy in possession of the high ground, with one of their own (PO Dietz) dead and behind the enemy skirmish line. They were outnumbered at least four to one as far as they knew, taking withering fire, running low on ammo. In short, they were doomed.
To hear Luttrell tell it, they didn’t spend a lot of time getting wrapped around the axle about their dire situation. Instead, they discussed a plan: to get to the high ground, to bring the fight to the enemy under better conditions. In the end, as we now know, LT Murphy decided that the best move was to sacrifice himself to get to the high ground where he could get comms to summon the Quick Reaction Force. It reminded me of a similar scene from Bowden’s Black Hawk Down, where the officer in charge of a Humvee convoy orders one of the sergeants to get in the Humvee and drive.
“But I’m shot, Colonel!” The sergeant is almost in tears.
The officer doesn’t miss a beat. “Everybody’s shot. Get in and drive.”
That’s the kind of warrior I strive to be. In the wake of what’s happened in Paris, it’s the kind of warrior we need most.