Memorial Day Post: The Warriors Among Us

[I'll keep this at the top through Memorial Day.  Scroll down for lots of new posts.]

Several years ago, as part of a 9/11 commemoration, I wrote the following words as part of a post I did about Lt. Brian Ahearn, one of the New York fire fighters who perished on that day:

My son, who is seven, is obsessed with superheroes. His current favorite is Superman. After all, when you’re a little boy, battling your way through the world, what could be more exciting than the possibility of being “faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound.” I’m bombarded daily with questions about Superman’s ability to withstand extreme temperatures, his flying speeds, his ballistic capabilities and, most importantly, his bravery. It’s here that my son and I run into a conceptual problem. My son thinks Superman is brave because he gets involved in situations that involve guns, and flames, and bad guys. I argue — and how can you argue this with a seven year old? — that the fictional Superman, while good, is not brave, because he takes no risks. Superman’s indestructibility means that his heart never speeds up, his gut never clenches, and he never pauses for even a moment to question whether the potential benefit from acting is worth the risk. In other words, if facing a gun is as easy as sniffing a rose, there is no bravery involved.

The truly brave person is the one who knows the real risks in a situation, but still moves forward to save people, to fight a good battle or to remedy an intolerable situation. The attacks against America on September 11, 2001, revealed the true superheroes among us — those New York firefighters who pushed themselves past those second thoughts, those all-too-human hesitations, and sacrificed themselves in the hopes of saving others. Lt. Brian G. Ahearn was one of those superheroes.

I’ve been thinking today about that moment of insight I had about courage and heroism, because I’m finally reading Marcus Luttrell’s Lone Survivor: The Eyewitness Account of Operation Redwing and the Lost Heroes of SEAL Team 10.  I say “finally,” because the book came out in 2007, and it took me three years to gather my own courage just to read it — and I did so only because of the possibility that I may soon meet the mother of one of those “lost heroes.”  Considering what her son did for my country, forcing myself to read a book about great heroism seemed like the least I could do.

Funnily enough, the book isn’t as painful as I thought it would be.  This is partly because Luttrell, with novelist Patrick Robinson’s able assistance, has a wonderful voice.  His is not a ponderous tome but is, instead, a human story of an East Texas boy who, buoyed up by patriotism and sheer grit, made his way through the insanity of SEAL training, and then found himself in Afghanistan, working to protect American interests and freedoms.

Luttrell’s upbringing, so different from my girly, urban, intellectual childhood is a story in itself.  As for his descriptions of what men push themselves to do to become SEALS — well, I’d heard about it academically, but I’d never understood it viscerally.

To be completely honest, I still don’t understand it.  As a card-carrying wuss, as someone who has always respected her personal comfort zones, and avoided challenging herself, I really don’t “get” what would drive young men, men in their 20s and 30s, to push themselves as hard as these men do.  And the rewarded isn’t a glamorous job, a la Hollywood or Manhattan, with fame, wealth and women.  Being a SEAL is the toughest job in the world, because SEALs end up doing the most dangerous jobs in the world, under the worst, scariest circumstances imaginable.

If you lack physical and mental will, not to mention the overwhelming training SEALs receive, you’re simply a statistic waiting to happen.  But if you do have that stamina, one that resides as much in the mind as it does in the body (perhaps even more in the mind than the body), and if you have this amazing commitment to your team and your country, you can move mountains.

Or sometimes, as SEAL Team 10 so sadly demonstrated, the mountains turn on you.  I am not giving away anything about the book, of course, when I tell you that Luttrell was the sole survivor of a firefight in the Afghan mountain ranges that ended up being the single deadliest day in SEAL history.  Reading about the fight and the deaths of Luttrell’s team member, not to mention his own story of survival, is harrowing.  I don’t want to say I cried, but I’ll admit that my eyes were leaking prodigiously.  Knowing that this would be my inevitable reaction is part of why I avoided Luttrell’s book for so long.  (To excuse myself a little bit, I also wasn’t sure I wanted to get too close to understanding what my father experienced during WWII, as he fought in some of the worst battles around the Mediterranean, including Crete and el Alamein.  Sometimes, empathy can be too painful.)

But really, I shouldn’t have avoided the book.  Yes, the deaths of LT Michael P. Murphy, Matthew Axelson, and Danny Dietz, as well as 16 SEALs and Nightstalkers, whose helicopter was shot down during the rescue mission, is heart wrenching, but the overall tone of the book is still uplifting.  Luttrell’s deep patriotism, his belief in the mission (not any specific mission, but the SEALs’ overarching mission to protect and defend), his abiding love for the SEALs, and the message that there are those who are willing to protect us, often from ourselves, ranks right up there with the most cheerful “feel good” book you can find.

So many people live pointless lives and die meaningless deaths.  One of the tragedies of the 6 million is that they were herded to death like cattle in an abattoir.  I don’t blame them.  They were ordinary people, living ordinary lives, when suddenly they were ripped out of normalcy, and without warning or preparation, sent straight to Hell on earth. Had I had the misfortune to be a Jew in Poland in 1942, instead of a Jew in America at the end of the 20th and beginning of the 21st centuries, that would have been me.  Not just a short life that made no difference, but one that ended with a death that didn’t make a dent in the hide of my murderers.

Some people, however, seem to have bred in the bone and the heart the belief that they will not be ordinary in life or in death.  Mercifully, these are people who don’t need the tawdry fame of Hollywood.  They don’t need the quick fixes of drink and drugs.  They don’t need to become bullies who control others, whether their control is exercised over a country or an office.  Instead, they prepare themselves to serve causes greater than their own egos.  Their lives have purpose and their deaths are never pointless.

Because the genesis of my post is Luttrell’s book, I’ve written this as an homage to the SEALs.  Everything I’ve said though, can be applied equally to the men and women who have fought and, sometimes, died for America, beginning back in 1774.  The fact that they didn’t do it at the level of pain and training one sees in the SEALs does nothing to minimize their courage, their patriotism and their sacrifices.  They are the backbone of our country, the defenders of our freedom:  “The truly brave person is the one who knows the real risks in a situation, but still moves forward to save people, to fight a good battle or to remedy an intolerable situation.”

(Luttrell, the sole survivor of the SEALS pictured here, is third from the right.)

Other Memorial Day posts:

Flopping Aces

Blackfive

Blackfive (yes, again)

American Digest

Kim Priestap

Michelle Malkin

Mudville Gazette

Florence American Military Cemetery (slow-loading, so don’t worry if nothing happens right away)

Noisy Room

NewsBusters

Hot Air

JoshuaPundit

Radio Patriot

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  • http://home.earthlink.net/~nooriginalthought/ Charles

    Yes, Lone Survivor is a fantastic read and you are, of course, spot on with the fact that most of us cannot even begin to imagine what drives these young men. 

    (SPOILER ALERT – I was in an accident and broke one of the same bones that Luttrell did.  I was in so much pain that I could not even move, and yet he, with other injuries as well, climbs down the mountain – Wow!  Now, that’s guts!)

    Just this afternoon, I finished reading A Captain’s Duty, the story of the pirate hijacking of the Maersk Alabama, which I highly recommend reading.  It is a true story with a happy ending (well, okay, not happy for the pirates; but happy for everyone else).  Navy Seals are involved in that too. 

    Reading these true stories and many others I cannot help but wonder, where the hell do these guys come from?  What makes them so extraordinary? And, finally, I am glad that they are on our side.  We cannot thank them enough.

  • FunkyPhD

    Book, I read Lone Survivor a couple of years back.  A great companion to it is Sebastian Junger’s new book War, which follows a company of Army paratroopers through a year’s deployment at a firebase in the Korengal Valley in Afghanistan, the next valley over from where Luttrell’s SEALs landed.  Junger makes the point that Luttrell’s guilt over not killing the teenaged goatherds who probably tipped off the Taliban to SEAL Team 10’s presence might be misplaced, because the Taliban always know where American soldiers are in the Hindu Kush.  Still, Luttrell’s decision not to kill the goatherds says something about American soldiers–it’s hard to imagine the Taliban, or any other soldier, for that matter, hesitating to get rid of possible informers in the course of a commando mission.  But the  Americans decided to err on the side of sparing lives, on the off chance that the goatherds wouldn’t inform on them.  It turned out to be a fatal decision.
    I read as many combat experience books as I can.  I’m about your age, I think, and I don’t regret anything in my life–except my never having served in uniform.  If I could live my life over again, I’d join some branch of the armed services.  Because I didn’t, I must always hold my manhood a little in question.
    From Boswell’s Life of Johnson:
    We talked of war. Johnson: “Every man thinks meanly of himself for not having been a soldier, or not having been at sea.” Boswell: “Lord Mansfield does not.” Johnson: “Sir, if Lord Mansfield were in a company of General Officers and Admirals who have been in service, he would shrink; he’d wish to creep under the table.” Boswell: “”No; he’d think he could try them all.” Johnson: “Yes, if he could catch them: but they’d try him much sooner. No, Sir; were Socrates and Charles the Twelfth of Sweden both present in any company, and Socrates to say, ‘Follow me, and hear a lecture on philosophy;’ and Charles, laying his hand on his sword, to say, ‘Follow me, and dethrone the Czar;’ a man would be ashamed to follow Socrates.

  • SADIE

    We are all called to duty to be warriors during our lifetime. We battle illness, we battle with heartache, we battle with friends who are ill or aging parents and many times we battle to protect and defend our children.
     
     
    We are born ordinary. Sometimes circumstances define our level of valor. We will never know the heights of mercy and compassion among the 6 million, because it died with their souls.
     
    The risks of war are clear and the loyalty and love of country are profound. It’s not knowing the risk or having the training and still taking the step forward to do what must be done that also merits the word – bravery. My words are not intended to diminish the beautiful post, only my attempt to share my definition of it as well.

  • http://ymarsakar.wordpress.com/ Ymarsakar

    “But really, I shouldn’t have avoided the book. ”
     
    I think when you were younger and less mature, you couldn’t have handled it. But now that you have some more wisdom, you can take experiences, even painful ones, and make them positive. Enhancements to life rather than barricades. This is true resilience.
     
    Also, people can manipulate emotions and destroy lives using things in books. Luttrell, however, isn’t one of them. So you know you’re in good hands. You can trust that they won’t pull your emotions in a way that will harm you or make you feel less secure.
     
    I think if you live amongst the Left, with their moralistic preening and thought police, it is reasonable to be on guard at having your emotions tugged in so extreme a fashion. But it all depends on the people doing the pulling. Some you can trust to take care of you. Others are predators.

  • http://ymarsakar.wordpress.com/ Ymarsakar

    “To be completely honest, I still don’t understand it.”
     
    It might help if you were ever a young male trying to test himself against the world ; )
     
    Evolution wise, nature has placed instincts within men, young men, to test themselves. It was a way to get rid of the weak and to demonstrate the true future leaders of the tribe back then. The tribe got the benefit of the rewards if the young men succeeded and the young men would get killed if they failed. A good bargain, all in all, for the tribe.
     
    Love is also something motivating people to take risks. If you love your tribe and your people, you’ll take risks on their behalf. But human nature is such that young men will take risks anyways, regardless of whether they love something or not. Because there is a lot of social status involved in one upping each other which plays into that whole evolution business.
     
     

  • Mike

    As usual I am in awe of the people who write here so I will just add a few quotes and hope that that is enough.
    A Veteran – whether active duty, retired, national guard or reserve –
    is someone who, at one point in his life, wrote a blank check made
    payable to “The United States of America”, for an amount of “up to
    and including my life.”

    That is honor, and there are way too many people in this country who
    no longer understand it.

    — Author Unknown

    “For those who have fought for it, freedom has a flavor that the protected will never know.”

    “We sleep safe in our beds because rough men stand
    ready in the night to visit violence on those who
    would do us harm.” GEORGE ORWELL

    “If you can read this, thank a teacher….If you are reading it in English, thank a Marine.”

  • Mike

    Sorry about the above.I have no idea how that happened.
     
    Mike
     

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  • suek
  • SJBill

    I’m not sure how many of your readers live near Cupertino, CA.
    The Veterans’ Memorial, http://cupertinoveteransmemorial.org/,  is dedicated to two pictured in your post above: Matt Axelson and James Suh.
    Tomorrow is a great day to pay respects.

  • http://photoncourier.blogspot.com David Foster
  • jj

    We were young.  We have died.  Remember us…
    We have done what we could.
    But until it is finished it is not done…
    We have given our lives.
    But until it is finished, no one can know what our lives gave…
    Our deaths are not ours, they are yours, they will mean what you make them.
    They say, whether our lives and our deaths were for peace and a new hope
    or for nothing we cannot say.
    It is you who must say this.
    We leave you our deaths.
    Give them their meaning.
    – Archibald MacLeish

  • suek
  • suek

    And yet another – though this one isn’t exactly Memorial Day caliber…
     
    http://www.washingtonexaminer.com/politics/Dems-interested-in-gays-and-spending-not-Afghan-war—-95220374.html

  • SADIE

    though this one isn’t exactly Memorial Day caliber…
    ..but it is certainly worth remembering.

  • rockdalian

    From 2007, I heard this today on the radio for the first time.
    Memorial Day – Arlington (Trace Adkins)
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wOih0MHNmZU
    A youtube user added pictures.

  • SADIE

    The ABC News report on the rainout of President Obama’s planned Memorial Day speech in Illinois noted that Obama had been criticized for not staying in Washington to go to Arlington National Cemetery. But ABC provided a ready excuse, subtitling its report “Obama Not First to Skip Arlington on Memorial Day” and asserting that George W. Bush “did not attend in 2001 or 2002.”

    Don’t miss the political cartoon at the bottom of the article.
    http://www.americanthinker.com/blog/2010/06/abc_bashes_bush_on_memorial_da_1.html

  • suek

    What _would_ they do if they didn’t have Bush to blame!!

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  • JD

    I could not watch “Saving Private Ryan” when it first appeared. I knew from the previews and the discussions about the opening scenes that it would take me way out of my comfort zone. My Father was a Marine and fought in the Pacific from just after Guadalcanal to just before Okinawa. He rarely spoke of it, but he had and endured through out his life the trauma of opposed landings and close quarters fighting.
    Some accounts of our military men, particularly of the ‘Boots on the Ground’ are hard to read.  One book that spoke to me was “The Remains of Company D” by James Carl Nelson. It covered the experiences of American troops in the First World War. We lost a Great-Uncle in that war, he is buried in France. My Father was a Marine, my Grandfather was in the Army during the Philippine Insurrection, my Uncle was in Korea.
    I was one of the last drafted for Vietnam, and they threw me back at the induction physical as being too heavy. I came home with mixed emotions about this. But what stunned me and still does, was the heartfelt relief my usually taciturn Father had, that I was not going to war. That more than anything before or since told me how His war had been.
    Dad died in 2010. He still had nightmares even as he lay dying. And his memories of his life before and after the war had faded, but the War stayed with him. He died at home with my sister and I caring for him. I learned more in that last six months about His war than I ever knew.
    JD