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A Recipe for Disaster?
March 27th, 2012

I don’t have an answer here.  But if you know me at all you know that that won’t stop me from asking the question.  This time around the question is: How on earth do we train hot-headed young men to be cocky, trained, killing machines, and then expect them to simultaneously demonstrate prudence and cultural sensitivity?

A pair of stories in this vein have caught my attention recently.

The first incident was the more horrific.  Early this month a US soldier opened fire on Afghan civilians, killing 16.  It boggles the mind, really.  How on earth could this happen?  And yet, when you think about it further it seems even more curious that it doesn’t happen more often.  We take young men, at the most aggressive, arrogant moment in their lives.  It’s the moment when they are technically adults, but still mere adolescents in so many ways.  We train them about the enemy.  We ship them off, thousands of miles from home.  We place them in shockingly stressful situations.  We arm them.  And then we expect them to exercise sound judgment and restraint.

The second incident was alarming, but mostly for its stupidity.  A pair of helicopter pilots in a remote region of Afghanistan were showboating and buzzing an outpost building.  On their rapid descent they lost control of the aircraft, crashed to the ground, and then flipped the helicopter a few times before it finally stopped.  It is either by the grace of God or crazy dumb luck that no one on board or on the ground was killed.  Here again is another example of something that initially seems alarming.  But after pondering all of the contributing factors perhaps we should be surprised we don’t read more stories like this.  Why wouldn’t headstrong young men, stranded in remote mountains, and trained to make amazing pieces of machinery do amazing things, want to have a little fun with their skills every now and then?

It all sounds like a recipe for disaster, and yet to a certain extent we can’t afford to have it any other way.

We need these men (and women) to be confident, even cocky.  We need them to be fearless.  We need them to be able to see a situation in the stark contrast of black and white when the moment comes to pull the trigger.  They are doing a job that most people are unwilling to do and that requires traits that aren’t always easy to muster.  In the words of Colonel Nathan R. Jessup, “…deep down in places you don’t talk about at parties, you want me on that wall! You need me on that wall!” And he’s right.  We do.

But while we need our military personnel to be able to stand on a wall, we also need them to understand cultures highly different from our own.  We need them to exercise deference and nuance in dealing with people whose assumptions about Americans are likely not favorable.  We need them to respect customs they don’t share and gods they don’t worship.  And we need them to do this in their early twenties and with guns in their hands.

It is an incredible testament to our military and the respect for its chain of command that these kinds of disasters don’t happen more often.  Thankfully most decisions are coming from older, more experienced, and more level headed officers.  And thankfully most younger troops seem to hold their authority in sacred esteem.

Perhaps some of these disasters are par for the course.  I don’t know whether to be disgusted that they happen at all, or grateful that they don’t happen more.  As is the case in most situations that are streaked with grey, I think I feel a little of both.

2 Responses to “A Recipe for Disaster?”

  1. Rebecca Says:

    They also need outlets for blowing off steam because these combat tours are just too much for them to handle. Although horrific the killing spree that one man went on, I can’t help but feel a twinge of sympathy for him for the stress and mental/emotional trauma that he was under after four combat tours. And yes, I too am surprised it doesn’t happen more often which leads me to believe the military is trying to do its best by these men and women.

  2. Cathy Says:

    I find it interesting that we will allow our men and women to go off to war and kill at an age that is still considered to young to responsibly use alcohol. Where is the logic in that?