Tuesday, February 22, 2011


In November 2004 my brother along with thousands of other Marines, soldiers, and military personnel breached the city of Fallujah, Iraq. He called us on average of once a month, but we were able to follow the exploits of his battalion by the news. In addition to being unable to shower for several weeks and having to sleep in a sitting position for the same amount of time, he recounted to us with cheerful resolution that he was probably not going to return in one piece or at all.

Upon returning stateside in the Spring, he was able to fill us in on little vignettes of terror that dominated his battlefield concerns like the total lack of evidence of enemy casualties in pitched battles where they watched the enemy go down. Or insurgents trained in the agile art of Parkour (an art-form which, incidentally, ended up being the 2004 Internet sensation), scaling fifteen-foot+ walls with ease. Or belligerents, hyped up on heroin and sustaining multiple, gangrenous wounds (including sniper shots to the head) laughing maniacally while being taken into custody.  

Many accounts like these have been told, illustrating the abnormal bent the mind must take to survive out-of-the-ordinary situations. One cannot argue that a "bending'' of normal societal protocol must occur deep within the soul of the warrior if he is to fulfill his or she her part in the overarching objective. It has been ascertained that Viking wars lasted no more than fifteen minutes once opposing sides made contact. Biblical battles, I am certain, were some of the shortest wars, precisely because the "Black Flag" (No prisoners. Total destruction) was given precedence.

Solzhenitsyn says that "A person who is not inwardly prepared for the use of violence against him[self] is always weaker than the person committing the violence" (Gulag Archipelago). Surely, a legitimately aggressive and deceptive state of mind is fitting for combat personnel that might not be unacceptable for the rest of us.

In On Killing (The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society), Lt. Col. Dave Grossman says that only 2% of American military personnel actually enjoy killing and that many of those could be ranked amongst the psychologically imbalanced. Sun Tzu says "To capture the enemy's army is better than to destroy it", and elsewhere, "The reason troops slay the enemy is because they are enraged." (Art of War). The reality is that humans have a natural revulsion towards taking the life of a fellow human being, enemy or not.

Thousands of soldiers, marines, airmen, and others have done their share of taking lives, but that happens largely within the constraints of and according to the strictures of the objective. The objective is paramount and dictates the extent of harm done. That is very different than taking life for personally motivated reasons or for personal gain, though, indeed, war is personal for each participant.

In combat all actions and resources serve the attainment of the objective. Even normal bodily functions like eating, sleeping, and hygiene. Though the objective can be closed upon in increments and by missions, it cannot be secured unless certain criteria are met, insuring the verifiable completion of the objective. All effort is funneled, all resources contribute towards, and all machines are attuned to victory. 

With military combat the terror comes at the beginning. The discomfort, the writing of wills, the prayers, the shakes, the hyperventilating is all preparatory to the incremental steeling of blood and stubbornness of resolve with the culmination of joy, agitation, exhaustion and relief at the accomplishment of the objective.

Reality TV anxiety is very different than combat anxiety. In Reality TV each contestant begins the game having theoretically secured the objective. He now needs to play the game in order not to lose it. In The Bachelor all 30 women are already married to Brad: they just need to be the only one to survive the game. In Deal or No Deal Howie has already given each opponent one million dollars: each just needs to hazard correct guesses in order not to lose it. In Hell's Kitchen, Chef Ramsey has already given 250K and the job title to each person: each just needs to not lose them by making stupid choices. 

In Reality TV optimism, enthusiasm, and excitement come at the beginning, significantly diminishing with each elimination round, and finally culminating with disappointment for most and relief for one: relief that it is over and the nascent realization that you didn't really have to do everything you did in the first place.

I think Suzzane Collins has it right in her Hunger Games trilogy. Katniss, the heroine, must not only ruthlessly kill to survive in the arena, but she must play to the omnipresent cameras which are aimed at encapsulating her inglorious breakdown. That structure funnels Katniss into an exponentially increased, internal pressure by the inordinate suppression of normal human responses. That pressure is expected to morph with each new hour with each new camera angle with each rigged trial until she eventually cracks to the delight of all who are watching. 

No wonder seemingly normal citizens go postal on each other: we are just waiting and itching to watch each other explode over the minutest of things. Well, with that attitude we just might get our wish. Just hope that you aren't in the vicinity when it happens.

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