As I think back on my basic training in the Army, I find myself focusing on two instructors I was fortunate to have in some of classes. The first one was our instructor in firearms (and particular, the .45 calibre pistol which we, as potential Military Policemen, were required to master). I cannot remember his name, but I remember the impression his appearance made on me. He was a huge man, with a big, booming voice—sort of an epitome of an Army Sergeant, tough, bluff, and capable. He walked up to the front of our class (we were seated in bleachers on the firing range), held up a pistol, and said: “Do you see this? It’s an ugly thing, and I hate it. Once I retire I will never touch one again. But it is something that as a soldier we might need to use. And if you need to use it, I want to make sure you use it right, and respect it for what it is.” He then proceeded to begin to introduce us to the basic of marksmanship with the .45 calibre pistol.
The other instructor, while physically very different, still somehow seemed to fit the ideal of the Sergeant. He was thin, short and wiry, and spoke in a calm voice that made you somehow relax. He was waiting for us as we filed into the bleachers on the range, and after we were seated held up a rectangular green object and said: “Today I am going to teach you something terrible. I’m going to teach you how to kill a group of people as quickly and efficiently as you can. You will learn to do this with the M18A1 Claymore mine, a standard-issue directional anti-personnel mine. But I don’t want you to forget what a terrible thing this is. My superiors might not want to hear me say it, but I think you ought to think about how awful it would be to kill other people. But if we have to, we want to do it as carefully as we can.” He then proceeded to show us how to position the mine to set up what is known as the “kill zone”, a cone shaped pattern in which ball bearings would be projected out by the explosion, essentially cutting into ribbons any living thing in its path. Such skills are useful in setting up ambushes, for example, when you want to position the mines so that all areas where people might be or run to are “covered”.
I thought and thought about what my instructors said, both then and across the years, for they had a amazing resonance with something I had come across in another area of my life. Every since I was about eleven years old I had been reading the classic Taoist text, the Tao Te Ching. And that day on the range, as I listened to these two sergeants talk, I realized something with complete clarity that I had read in the Tao Te Ching, but had not fully grasped. In Chapter 31 we find the following:
Fine weapons are ill-omened tools.
They are hated.
Therefore the old Taoist ignored them.
Weapons are ill-omened tools,
Not proper instruments.
When their use can’t be avoided,
Calm restraint is best.
Don’t think they are beautiful.
Those who think they are beautiful
Rejoice in killing people.
Those who rejoice in killing people
Cannot achieve their purpose in this world.
When many people are killed
We feel sorrow and grief.
A great victory is a funeral ceremony.
The words of my instructor in the .45 pistol rang in my mind, and seemed to connect with what Lao Tzu had written: “Do you see this? It’s an ugly thing, and I hate it . . . But it is something that as a soldier we might need to use. And if you need to use it, I want to make sure you use it right, and respect it for what it is.” And the same thing with what my other instructor said: “Today I am going to teach you something terrible. I’m going to teach you how to kill a group of people as quickly and efficiently as you can . . . I don’t want you to forget what a terrible thing this is . . . you ought to think about how awful it would be to kill other people. But if we have to, we want to do it as carefully as we can.”
If we have to. If it’s necessary: “Weapons are ill-omened tools/When their use can’t be avoided,/Calm restraint is best . . .” (Tao Te Ching). Taoists aren’t pacifists, then, but they don’t seem to be very warrior-like either, I mused. But then here are two warriors telling me the same thing! I thought about the .45 pistol and the Claymore mine: “Don’t think they are beautiful./ Those who think they are beautiful/Rejoice in killing people.” My instructor’s words, in his twangy mid-western accent chimed in: “You ought to think how awful it would be to kill other people.” And then the ancient book again: “When many people are killed/We feel sorrow and grief.” Mourning the death of your enemies.
Across the years since then (this would have been in the 1970’s) I have thought and thought about Lao Tzu and my two sergeants in Basic Training. I would spend eighteen years in the National Guard and Army Reserve, and going from the rank of Private (E-1) to a Captain in command of his own detachment, I would have a lot of time to think about it. And I was fortunate to miss any actual combat, though I constantly trained for it and trained others. The use of power—the proper use of violence—was a constant preoccupation.
After the first Gulf War, which I did not participate in through chance (I had left military service a year before to work on my Ph.D. , and they never got far enough down on the Reserve lists to call me up, since it was over so quickly). And I remember thinking about my fellow soldiers (and my friends among them) as I followed the news, and wondering: Is this necessary? Or could it have been avoided? And when I watched “embedded” reporters on television giving one of their “reports from the battlefield” I had a lot to think about, too. There was one reporter I recall, we decided to anchor his report around our tanks, which was one of the primary weapons systems we used in that war. He proceeded to clamber all over it, go down inside it, and they even let him drive it and fire off a round! He was so enthusiastic, so obviously exited and enchanted, and the tankers stood around politely and calmly leading him through their deadly business. “Don’t think they are beautiful.”
And then the so-called “Road of Death,” when the Iraqi troops fled Kuwait and we caught them with our fighter aircraft on the road in their vehicles, trying to get away. If you remember the news (or look it up), it was a slaughterhouse, full of burned out cars and dead bodies strewn across the landscape. All those dead Iraqis, their corpses charred and twisted by the flames: “When many people are killed/We feel sorrow and grief.”
And then the great Victory Parade when the war was over, once again seen on television. A grand procession down the streets of New York, with the general and select troops marching along, and confetti, and marching bands. But this is not right, I thought, there is something wrong here. I wanted to shout at the screen. I wanted to ask whoever planned that parade, whoever set it up: “Don’t you know? A great victory is a funeral ceremony. War and its weapons should only be used when there is no other choice—and even then, it is a terrible thing, an awful thing, damn it! Awful not just because our soldiers died, but even worse, because they had to kill people!”
I have come to think that the real reason to honor a soldier (or a police officer) is not because they risk their lives, but because they risk something even more precious—their souls. I believe it is a profound truth that to harm someone else is ultimately to end up harming yourself where it counts the most, in your psyche, your soul. As awful to kill as to be killed. All use of violence and power involves a sort of tragedy, and to use power and commit violence—even for a very good reason—is to inevitably damage yourself. That is why we should honor soldiers, who take up the ugly tools of power “when their use can’t be avoided.” That’s why we don’t think those tools are beautiful or “rejoice in killing people.” That is why we feel saddest of all when we find it necessary to take part in the use of violence; why it is especially true when you are a soldier and participate in power, and so “when many people are killed . . . feel sorrow and grief.” A parade after a great victory in war would then be something very different indeed, something quite striking. We would be in mourning for our enemies as well as our friends. For “a great victory is a funeral ceremony.”