Small Wars Journal

Our Nation Fights Its Young Men

Sat, 06/27/2015 - 4:11pm

Our Nation Fights Its Young Men

Keith Nightingale

Throughout our Nation’s history, our population is allowed to grow old because many of our young do not.  This is the constant well on which we must draw to retain what we build and wish to pass on.  Their story, short as it often is,  is worth some reflection.

Wordlessly and with quiet dignity they cover the ground assigned by that moment in our history-be it  sandy dirt, deep jungle muck, brilliant white beach or frozen rock hard hills.  They follow their peers, their predecessors and our collective past and future.  They do it because they are what we are.  They have a special quality not found in those who only watch-they bear our burdens and gain a special grace they only realize with time.

They work and perform with a stoic demeanor understood and known by all who walked in similar boots on similar paths.  They gain a lasting bond with a group of previous strangers that no degree of peaceful associations can either match or break.  Individually and collectively, they struggle to suppress and perform above those visceral primordial survival messages of cowardice that reside in us all.  Each rises above himself to serve that very small group of his immediate association.

Each builds a formula of coping.  Swagger, tattoos, specific language, guttural calls of association, parts of clothing and a studied indifference to death and the act of killing.  These are but self-inoculations of mental pharmacopeia designed to suppress the latent always present deep seated fear of either dying or failure to perform within the select company of the immediate family.  Sometimes in a rare moment of isolation, he will seek solace in a quick prayer to be supplicant to a force greater than himself. 

The young come from all aspects of our society drawn by a sense of honor and a deep desire to be part of something larger than themselves.  For some, joining is an initial act of impulse with only the most basic self-induced rationale.  For others, it is an escape for a seemingly better world and for all it is a decision to join a new and very strong family.  Association trumps fear and as a Nation we benefit immensely from its residue.

Once joined and subject to the historical associative aspects of military training, they see the sense of honor, duty and pride and most all-of the magnet to serve their fellow soldiers in arms.  They are only peripherally aware of being part of a larger uniformed organization.  They are acutely aware of their position within the very small group of associates that form the immediate unit.  For these people, personal honor and professional performance are the driving factors.  From this small component, our Nation as a whole has immensely benefited.  The old build the Nation, the young preserve it.

In distant lands and sometimes for seemingly ambiguous or not fully understood causes, they serve their sense of honor and organizational necessities.  Lips are cracked, eyes hollow and red veined with emotional conjunctivitis, lesions, blisters, hunger, loneliness, parasites and a thousand other personal indignities are borne with stoic discipline-the thought of  separation is suppressed for that of participation-participation within a small group of young men who have become immensely more important than any other for this brief moment in time.  These are people the young live and die for.

In the rawest sense, they bear the collectively displayed  filth of dirt, dysentery, blood, blisters, fungus and disease.  They bear immense loads of the practical necessities of combat without question and share whatever good or ill is of the moment.  They suppress that which would stop a mortal not in their environment.  They march, fight and exist because everyone around them does.  They are young and do not understand they hurt and feel too badly to stop. They feel they must endure that which they cannot control.  Here, they choose to have no choices. They are what they have made themselves.   

In the course of their work, some pass into another world-the silent and unaging life after death.  A death most honored by their presence and the favor of their fellow’s thoughts that reward their participation and service.  In time, memories fade as age moves the surviving young into the twilight forest of the mind and a sense of lasting comfort in being part of something deeply and viscerally honest and good.  As each of them follow the well-beaten path of all of those that served and slip silently into the opaque fog of time-their places are always taken by a young soldier who moves quietly and carefully into that same enshrouding foggy mist of our time.

About the Author(s)

COL Nightingale is a retired Army Colonel who served two tours in Vietnam with Airborne and Ranger (American and Vietnamese) units. He commanded airborne battalions in both the 509th Parachute Infantry Regiment and the 82nd Airborne Division. He later commanded both the 1/75th Rangers and the 1st Ranger Training Brigade.