The Ultimate Sacrifice: It’s not what you think.

On Friday of this week, we are honoring veterans, as we should be honoring them every day.  Even those who don’t support war have come to understand the vital need to support the soldiers themselves, to ensure that returning veterans have homes, jobs, support and medical care to enable them to thrive upon their return to society.  We often talk about their willingness to sacrifice, by which we mean, their willingness to die to defend our freedoms, our nation, our allies and our interests.  Certainly, we should thank them and honor them for this.  But thankfully most of them will not have to make what we call the “ultimate sacrifice.”

Stained Glass window honoring the Royal Air Force

RAF memorial stained glass window

However, I think most people are actually missing the more terrible sacrifice that we ask of our soldiers, without even thinking about it.  We are asking them to kill.

Many of our soldiers are returning home wounded and traumatized, not only in their bodies, but in their spirits, because of what we have asked them to do.  Science Fiction author David Drake talks about his own military experience at various conventions, and often recommends the book, On Killing, by Lt. Colonel Dave Grossman, subtitled, “The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society.”  Because we value our own lives, most people can grasp the significance of asking someone to die, but we so rarely recognize the other side of this blade:  that of killing another person.

Grossman points out that it’s not easy to overcome the inhibitions to kill human beings, and that much of combat training is focused on making it automatic to pull the trigger, to literally not think about what you’re doing when the moment comes to shoot and potentially kill someone.  That readiness is what it takes to make good soldiers, and yet it carries devastating psychological side-effects to deprive someone else of the life we hold in such high esteem.

This is the sacrifice we ask from our soldiers, not merely to be willing to die, but to be willing to kill.  To face another person who holds his life as dearly as you hold your own, who fights for his cause as fervently as you fight for yours, and, with calculated disregard for those values, to kill him in the defense of yourself, your comrades, and the nation you serve.  I am not sure I could do that, and I am duly humbled by those who can.

War may be described as a necessary evil.  Our soldiers, too, are necessary–but not evil.  They perform the acts they must because we have commissioned them to do so.  We may sit at home and feel victorious, or outraged, or sympathetic, but it is they who will come home bearing that cost.

Thank a veteran.  Consider supporting the Wounded Warrior Project and other services that support our returning veterans.

About E. C. Ambrose

I spend as much time in my office as I possibly can--thinking up terrible things to do to people who don't exist.
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