I often find myself thinking about life, death, and the strength it takes to face those things. As a veteran, people often ask me if I’ve seen combat. While I fought from a distance and fought war more in the manner of playing a video game or a game of chess, I did indeed participate in combat actions. I’d hunt people down, assess the level of threat they posed, and if I felt they crossed a certain line, I’d recommend those people to be terminated, starting what we in the Air Force called the Kill Chain. Minutes later, I’d listen or watch for confirmation of a kill or a denial of assets. On the other hand, my job was to also watch our own guys and ensure they were not ambushed or otherwise engaged by surprise, including by the surprise of a roadside bomb. Most of the time, we were successful in avoiding such hazards. Other times, we weren’t so lucky. Over 1700 coalition troops died during my tenure watching Afghanistan. Countless more civilians died. Such is the price of failure.
When I came home, people were understandably wary about the subject. I do find it rather respectful not to discuss in everyday conversation; some are certainly more sensitive and it may trigger flashbacks or panic attacks. I’m more nonchalant about the topic, but I still think back to some of my own failures and haunting memories. The responsibility of mitigating life and death is a lot to give a young person. People often wonder how I could deal with that sort of thing on a daily basis. How can anyone bear that responsibility and not show much strain?
This is where strength comes in, specifically strength of spirit. I don’t really think I have any, despite the assertions of others. This may sound slightly sadistic, but killing is easy. It’s no fun, sure, but that doesn’t mean it’s not difficult to do. I’m sure there are plenty of people who think they could never take a life, and certainly wouldn’t want to. They could do it though; everyone can do it if they have to. No, killing is the easy part. The hard part is getting over losing someone because you failed to get enough information, or missed a message, or failed to identify an IED.
My girlfriend has expressed interest in becoming a pediatric oncologist, and that’s something I wonder at. I know I don’t have the strength for a career like that. I often question how doctors and surgeons and nurses do it. Medicine is like the War on Terror; you’re in hostile territory (hospitals), surrounded by enemy combatants (germs) you cannot see, and do your best to detect the enemy and get the right tools to destroy them (treatment). Except in the military, your casualties are generally people who know they’re going into it to die, and you’ll get back if you’re lucky. In medicine, your casualties can be unexpected and completely innocent: babies with deformities, kids with cancer, a friend who becomes septic.
So how do you cultivate the sort of strength to deal with that? While I can’t rightly say for sure, it’s obvious to me that some people are just born with it. For others, it is gained through a hard life. However, the most important part of that strength lies in apparent weakness. When you realize failure is a possibility, or even a probability, you can empower yourself with that knowledge. Strong people lean on other strong people. When all seems lost and hopeless, lean on the Gods. Both “strong” and “weak” people are made stronger by cultivating a support network of family, friends, and trusted associates. Sometimes, it’s even best to reach out to complete strangers. Strength can be made; all it takes is an open ear, some kharis, and some xenia. May Ares and the other Gods give you strength.