Last night MSNBC ran its documentary "For God & Country: A Marine Sniper's Story" which tells the story of Matt Orth, a 22-year-old war veteran of both Afghanistan and Iraq. The footage consisted mostly of interviews with Orth as he chronicled his experiences in combat, as well as return to civilian life.
In watching Orth's story, I thought it was interesting when he remarked that he and his fellow snipers did not talk about the larger implications of their killings in their training or among one another on the battlefield. If that's the case, that's clearly a taboo that should be broken. One deserves to be morally and mentally armed as one goes into combat, if only to reduce the likelihood of developing unearned guilt later down the road. One needs to fully think though just what it means to kill another human being, and why, in certain contexts, morality demands that one kill.
And from what I could tell (and not unlike many veterans), Orth suffers from being unable to fully reconcile his life in civilized society with his life on the battlefield. For example, when Orth says sees a parked car, his first thoughts drift toward it being a roadside bomb. He notes that in America, people who murder even one person are sent away to prison for life, yet here he is a man who has killed hundreds of people-in supposed opposition to society's cherished norms. The obvious implication that Orth makes is that he is a murderer, yet he clearly is not a murderer, in the same way that an executioner who puts to death a criminal on death row is not a murderer. The work is protecting America's freedom against its enemies is grisly and draining, yet justice demands it.
So why then the emotional hang-up? It think its source is that few people back home in America ever put in the effort to understand the gravity and the impact of the choices that men like Orth have to make in order to achieve their mission on the battlefield. For example, Orth says he has drifted away from most of the friends he had prior to her service with the Marines. One gets the sense that none of these former friends would ever think to approach him to say, "time and time again, you had to make brutal life and death decisions in order to survive (and you have to carry the weight of decisions that went badly), and I understand and respect you for it." I doubt that such an acknowledgement of the life of a solider would even show up on their radar.
One also hears about the negative effects of "dehumanizing" one's enemy, but in Orth's case, I see the exact opposite-Orth has humanized the enemy to the point that I think it clearly takes away from his own well being. For example, several times he asks if the men he shot said good by to their children that day. So what if they didn't? These enemy men made a deliberate choice to act against America in pursuit of their vile and irrational cause. They created a universe where our men would have no choice but to strike them down. No solider who engages such an enemy should lose a night's sleep as a result of his actions.
And thus one can see the negative fallout from Orth's perception of what constitutes heroism. In the documentary, Orth repeats the mantra that a hero is someone who sacrifices for others, yet how awful it must be for him to realize that if he did sacrifice himself for others, they are utterly clueless about it, and that most of them refuse to put in even the modicum of effort it would take to understand him on his own terms. The irony is that Orth says that he values his relationships all the more, because he is intimately aware of how easily life can be squelched away, yet only a few in his circle seem to be able to respond in kind-and in this, one sees the gulf between the protector and the protected.
By trade, snipers have to make life and death decisions on the battlefield, and they are unusual in that they must individually stalk their targets (and thus their interaction with their opponent is often more intimate than someone who simply drops a bomb from a plane). Nevertheless, the net reasoning and the net result for both the sniper and the aviator the same. In battle, our armed forces exist to kill the enemy and compel him to surrender his cause. Such a task demands a stout heart-and head.
And as a grateful people, I think it falls upon us to help such people develop the tools that they need to return to the peaceable and fulfilling lives that they so deserve. As Orth's story aired, I could not help but say to myself that a little bit of rational egoism would go a long way for this young hero and the others like him.