One of the bravest men I have ever known was also one of the most foolish. While this is not an unusual combination, he did it in a unique, a very strange, and a very senseless way. After being in the field as a rifle platoon leader for over seven months, I was reappointed as A Company’s Executive Officer. In the normal course of things as XO, I assigned a young soldier as a replacement to the 2nd Platoon of A Company, my old platoon. After making sure he was sufficiently trained, that is another sad story that I will tell some time, I sent him to the field. When he came back from the field the first time a couple of weeks later I found out that well trained or not, he would not fire directly at the enemy.
He fired over their heads on purpose, even on point. Since his platoon leader, platoon sergeant and squad leader had all tried talking to him about this to no avail, some of his fellow squad members, who liked him, asked me to talk to him as well since he was literally placing all of their lives as well as his own at risk.
I talked to him about it for a long time during the three days or so they were out of the field for a routine stand-down. He had thought about it a lot, but he came to a very different conclusion from me. His mother’s training had made it impossible for him to participate in the taking of another human’s life. His father’s training on the other hand had made it impossible for him to try to avoid or evade in any way what he perceived as his duty. Therefore, he answered his country’s call (a draft notice); he even volunteered for Airborne School; he was well trained in the art and craft of soldiering by the Army; and in fact, he was an excellent shot on a rifle range. However, I, and his squad members knew that when he ran into an enemy that could tell the difference between effective and ineffective fire that he and those around him would have a problem, a deadly problem. It is the way of war.
Unfortunately, when his platoon ran into such an enemy during Tet III late in the summer of 1968 he was killed in action. I was saddened because he was a truly wonderful young man, but I was not surprised.
Under the law at the time, and probably still today if they ever bring back the Draft, he really had little choice. His views did not meet the guidelines set for a Conscientious Objector, so he had to go where the Army sent him. He was educated so he probably could have avoided the Infantry if he had really wanted to, but, probably because of his father’s training, he elected not to. During those three days, I used every argument a Jesuit education had provided-unfortunately to no avail. He would not kill—not to save himself, not even to save his fellow squad members.
Although he literally endangered everyone’s life, he was still well liked in the platoon. He really was just a nice kid; but he was also still a very young man that needed a little more exposure to life and then I think he would have made a better choice. It was just sad.
Some people really do have difficulty in “pulling the trigger” when doing so takes another human’s life.
My own experience was considerably different, I found killing in a sense “easy,” but also very costly over time. It is easy because the Army provided both excellent tools and training to do exactly that because it is the job of the Infantry. Originally, I had entered the Army expecting to make it a career. I left it because I liked everything about it — except killing people. Even when it is entirely necessary, and in every sense justifiable; even when it produces an importantly good result; it still hurts the killer to kill. Over time, it simply lacerates the soul to kill people. If you think about it; it is a good thing that it does.
I do not have an answer for what an honorable man faced with this young man’s kind of choice should do, but I consider that young man to be one of the bravest men I have ever met. I also consider him to be one of the most hardheaded and foolish.
Frankly, I blame now and I blamed then, his mother. She indelibly imprinted him with a view of life and morality that was romantic, utter nonsense, and it got her son, her only son, killed. However, when as Executive Officer I had to write her and her husband the “letter” after her son’s death I did not tell her that. I told her and her husband the truth—that their son had been a brave, even a courageous, young man and we were all very sorry that he was dead. The rest of the truth really made no difference anymore. He was, and would remain, dead.
Some who view the war in Vietnam think that the young soldier was playing in a rigged game that he could not win and that is answer enough for them. It is just another tragedy from a war that they believe never should have been fought. However, that is too simplistic an answer for such an important question. In war, good war—bad war, it really does not make a difference, a soldier must kill with an absolute absence of hesitation. If he does not, the enemy will probably kill both him and his fellow soldiers at some point because they will not hesitate. Therefore, almost all infantry training is directed at achieving this result; taking a nice young American and turning him into a reliable, un-hesitating, killer of men. And, the Army does this at least in part for the soldier’s own sake.
Based on my experience in the Army, it is clear that that good, realistic battle training can facilitate an appropriate, an infantry, response in combat. Strangely, probably the best, the most accurate description of the value of such training that I have ever read is set forth in the book “One Shot” (One Shot: A Jack Reacher Novel, by Lee Child):
“James Barr was a sniper. Not the best, not the worst, but he was one of ours, and he trained for more than five years. And training has a purpose. It takes people who aren’t necessarily very smart and it makes them seem smart by beating some basic tactical awareness into them. Until it becomes instinctive.”
Then, they become a soldier.
Except that the word “smart” is wrong. Good training teaches people the craft of the thing. Anyone, talented or not, can learn a craft, any craft. Only the talented that are fully versed in their craft can become brilliant, but anyone that knows the craft can beat even an otherwise brilliant player that does not know, or does not practice their craft.
When I was teaching in high school I compared this to the difference between two great basketball players, Michael Jordan and Allan Iverson. While Jordan is larger and you can’t teach size, from a purely athletic perspective Iverson is probably more talented, but the real difference between the two is that Jordan was always relentless in the pursuit of perfection of his craft as a basketball player and that made him the greatest basketball player ever. While Iverson was always a performer, a brilliant basketball performer, he was never a true basketball player because basketball is a team sport not a showcase for an individual’s talent.
Some jobs are inherently unforgiving. The Infantry is one of them. If all of the soldiers on your side are dead, it is hard to pretend that your side won the battle. In the best sense of the word this young man was a true gentleman, but that was just not enough this time.