Life, for human beings, is a constant struggle with paradox. One of the greatest of these paradoxes is the ever present threat, or reality, of war. The paradox of war is that while we are engaged in it, those who fight the wars are expected to remain moral.
Today's wars are not simply the story of victory through superior arms or combat training. Of course today's warriors must be trained in the arts of war. But they must also be trained in cultural sensitivity, and in ethics and moral choices in the midst of war. This latter training may be even more difficult, but it is ultimately necessary if we wish not only to win the wars we are in, but more importantly, to win the peace.
Some might say that the warrior has to be focused on the art of fighting a war, and this is, in part, true. Our military is second to none in this training at every level, and has shown the ability to gain the victory quickly as a result. But when the battles are won, the warriors must settle in to begin the efforts that are necessary to win the peace. How is this to be done?
The wars we are in today, and those like Vietnam and Korea in the past, have been fought in lands that are culturally very different from our own. At the very least the cultural differences and cultural sensitivities need to be taught to, and understood by, the modern soldier and Marine, so that the cultural "mistakes" that turn the local people against us may be avoided through basic knowledge and an educated, mutual respect for human dignity. This is not only valuable in the social arena, but it is also important for strategic military success.
The fact is that in these wars there are no "front lines" in the old, traditional sense. This was true in Vietnam as well. Our warriors engage on a daily basis with the regular, ordinary people of the local culture – as does the "enemy." We are in a war for the hearts and minds of the people of Iraq and of Afghanistan as much as we are in a war against Al Qaida, or the Taliban. Our ability to succeed has immense political, social, and military implications.
Soldiers know about discipline. It is their best virtue. They are capable of bringing the discipline they use on the battlefield to the efforts they also have to wage in order to win the peace.
Yes, I'm talking about very hard things here, but I'm not talking about the impossible. The natural instinct to fairness is inbred in us as humans, but we can also get so caught up in the immediacy of the battle's heat that we can, for a moment, easily lose our humanity in the immediate rush of lesser things like revenge. Our warriors need the training to be able to recognize and avoid these lesser tendencies too. That's the paradox these young men and women are forced to confront daily while serving over there.
Troops out on missions must do what they are trained to do to win the victory on the battlefield, but when the smoke has cleared they must also know how to win the peace.
Our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan have shown such things are possible. They have helped build schools for boys and for girls, they have helped the Iraqis begin to rebuild their broken infrastructure, and have cared for individual families, individual wounded children in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and more. They did this because it is in their human nature, and in the character for their American ideals.
Our military has shown great courage and grace under fire. We are rightfully proud of them. They make mistakes, like all human beings, and those mistakes find their way into the media more often than the noble work that they do on a daily basis over there. But they learn from their mistakes too.
Warfare is ugly. There is no way to paint it differently. The constant hope is that, after the suffering, the rebuilding of a new and healthier society can begin, and that the gods of war will be silenced by the nobler angels of our humanity. The soldier knows this better than the sunshine patriot, better than the ivory tower intellectual. No one is faced with the moral dilemmas of humanity more than the soldier. And no one desires peace and happiness more than the warrior who has seen the worst that mankind is capable of.
Our soldiers are the first to fight and die, but they are also the first to begin the rebuilding. Let's give them the training and the support they need to do that. When they come home to us again, we must help them reenter society gracefully. Most will come home and pick up their lives where they left off. But there will be some who will need our help more intensely and for a longer period of time. We must not forget them, or let them fall through the cracks. They suffered the paradox of war so that we might not have to. We owe them much for all that they have sacrificed and experienced.