“Because they stand on a wall and say, Nothing’s going to hurt you tonight not on my watch.”- Demi Moore as Galloway in A Few Good Men from 1992.
Today I was walking from the Badaro neighbourhood of Beirut back towards Achrafieh. On the road that connects those two neighbourhoods, lie several important buildings. There is the French consular mission and cultural centre, the Jesuit University and its new Youssef Tohme building (probably the greatest modern building in the city) and there is the Amn-al-am which literally translates as “General Security”. In fact, other than a cemetery, whose inhabitants are unarguably indifferent to a car bomb going off nearby, there is no building that does not merit a heavy Lebanese Army presence.
The time was late afternoon, the sun lit the city in an even cool light and the a chilly, humid breeze made me feel surprising cold. I was listening to the Freakonomics podcast, but since I’d left my headphones at home, was actually doing this by holding my phone up to my ear. I was also noticing the different types of soldiers. Some seemed like young recruits, they had Kalashnikovs slung around them, muzzles earthward and they wore fairly standard looking camouflage uniforms. Closer to General Security, they had some pretty mean looking compact and boxy machine guns and were wearing bullet proof vests.
One of them started walking purposefully towards me and I, realising there was no reason for him to want to talk to me, just kept walking, affecting a nonchalance that I only partly felt and keeping a corner of my eye on him while making an effort to show an averted gaze. I was not afraid, but his purposeful gait definitely left no doubt that something was going on. He suspected I had been taking photos with my phone. I offered to show him my photos-the most recent was a picture of a bottle of sake I had drunk and wanted to remember-he looked at them and then apologised profusely for having inconvenienced me.
I continued on my way, thoughts quickly drifting, as they do, and a couple of minutes later looked up and saw another soldier. He was standing, not looking particularly alert, but still, doing his job. I felt a surge of love for this man. In fact he was just a kid, maybe 20 years old, but as he stood with his heavy looking machine-gun, lazily scanning the area, I felt safe. I felt protected. And I loved him for it. I was surprised by the depth and quality of the emotion. I wished that my Arabic skills were adequate to know how to pass him in a few words some appreciation for what he was doing.
I was reminded of the scene from “A Few Good Men” from which the quote I started this post with is taken. It sums up in an emotional way what it is that a soldier can represent. For all his violent potentiality, despite the conditioning that has probably been applied to make him an effective killer, even considering that he may be machine-like in his willingness to execute orders and exercise obedience to the military structure, there is a nobility and an honour in him. After all, his brief is to defend the group, to be ready to sacrifice himself for his fellows and for the people who put him on the front lines.
The historian Joanna Bourke in her book ‘An Intimate History of Killing’ tells us that only a minority of soldiers on the battle field, even under fire, shoot to kill. Often they do not even shoot. The US Army has actually done studies proving that the majority of soldiers in a given firefight do not fire their weapons. Bourke argues that the vast majority of killing that does occur is done out of love for one’s fellow soldiers. It’s a fascinating collection of arguments and observations about circumstances that most of us only really know nothing about, most of us having been misinformed by movies written by people who also know nothing about war. I have no personal experience of killing or the military (thankfully) but, while I can imagine a fringe of military folk who are in it because they enjoy killing, I suspect most of them are motivated by nobler causes.
The Greeks considered that of all possible occupations, only soldiering and agriculture were honourable. To them, there was no doubt that a person engaged in those professions was providing a societal service (in contrast a shop keeper has to sell you things whether you need them or not). Nassim Taleb pushes the point further, he says “there is no such thing as a failed soldier, dead or alive (unless he acted in a cowardly manner)”.
Taking as a seed the idea that it is honourable to serve the group at ones own risk, Robert Heinlein, in Starship Troopers, imagines a world in which the only people considered citizens, and thus eligible to vote, are veterans of military service because they have proven that they understand the value of the group. It is pretty clear that he imagines an individualistic world, but one in which the individual’s interests exist in harmony with those of the group . This idea struck me, many of Heinlein’s ideas do, as brilliant. I would willingly vote for it right now. I would vote myself out of the vote! It must be worth a try given how poorly democracy’s seem to be at choosing their leaders.
In any case, whatever logic or arguments one could make on either side of this issue, my feeling of love for the man protecting me was real. Knowing that there really are crazies out there who really are blowing cars up and killing people and that he, whoever he is, was willing to stand that post and do his best to stop it, to keep me safe. Well…Thank you my friend.