Do you know what a soldier is, young man? He's the chap who makes it possible for civilised folk to despise war.
~ Alan Massie, A Question of Loyalties
The feeling about a soldier is, when all is said and done, he wasn't really going to do very much with his life anyway. The example usually is: "he wasn't going to compose Beethoven's Fifth."
~ Kurt Vonnegut Jr., City Lights
We don't think much about the soldier. We think about the men and women of our armed forces, the families they leave behind, the equipment they are or are not given by the State. We think about the rightness of their mission, or the probable chances of success. It has become a common phrase of our times that we all "Support Our Troops", but we think little of what that means, beyond their pay and benefits, and whether or not we send them to battles worth fighting or not. But what of the individual soldier, who goes where he or she is told, to do the job they are assigned by leaders they will likely never meet?
So why do they do it? Because they have faith that they are not monsters. They have faith that these monstrous duties are in service to noble ideas, put forth by the leaders of noble nations. And that is the compact that we as citizens of a democracy have made with them. We tell them that not only can they do these things, but that they must, and that they are righteous. To that compact we have as a nation offered established rules, such as the Uniform Code for Military Justice, and have ratified treaties, such as the Geneva Conventions. It is those rules, those laws, those treaties which allow us to tell our soldiers that they can do what we order of them and that they can still maintain honor, and integrity, and that one day they can return to their homes and communities with their virtue intact.
I myself have seen war. I have obeyed orders to attack strangers. And I have seen what happens when those boundaries that allow men to be soldiers and still remain men are violated. So I hope you will believe me when I say that when you claim too much of a man's soul in service of the sense of personal responsibility they feel for the safety and well-being of the society of which they are members, you are stripping them of their status, their self-awareness that they are honorable members of a good society. It is possible to take away all that a man was, and all the promise that his future held, without leaving him dead or broken upon a battlefield.
When we hear of the acts ordered of and committed by units such as Task Force 6-26, it is a common reaction for us all to deplore the acts committed in our names. It is a good reaction, and a sign that we are a people of morals and values that go beyond our own instincts for survival at any cost. But usually, we think little of the cost to the men and women who are ordered to commit those acts. We think little of what has been done to them in our name, and what they have done in service of us.
They were soldiers once. They were proud and honorable men and women who took it upon themselves to protect all of us and our way of life. Do you think they are proud today? Do you think they will come home with their honor intact?
Otto van Bismark, no stranger to ordering men into battle, said, "Anyone who has ever looked into the glazed eyes of a soldier dying on the battlefield will think hard before starting a war." To that I would add that anyone who has seen the eyes of a man who has followed his orders down the path to inhumanity would think hard before giving that order again.
Nearly everyone here despises our leadership for many reasons. But I would like to add this one to the list of grievances: do you suppose our leaders have thought hard about what they were ordering our young men and women of the armed forces to do? Do you suppose they thought about what they were asking from our soldiers, and what it cost those soldiers to do as they were ordered?
There are many in America today who have little sympathy with those we torture and torment. They are our enemies, they say. They would do worse to us if the situation was reversed. Maybe so. But those young men and women who we have turned into torturers and inquisators, they were soldiers once. What are they now?