There's lately been a lot of talk in the blogs I read about Rush Limbaugh's comments about soldiers who oppose the war in Iraq. Media Matters has a transcript of the radio show in question, and it's clear that Mr. Limbaugh and his (second) caller really honestly believe that there is an essence of soldiery that causes a soldier to wish to kill and die- because that is what it is to fight- and also, I think, to wish to obey orders without question. This attitude is not so uncommon among other published opinions that I've read, particularly the opinions of those who support the war, but not only them.
I've encountered this idea before, but never been able to put it into words quite the way I'm thinking of it now.
I finished reading, just this morning, Wolfskin, by Juliet Marillier. One of the main characters is a Viking warrior, a devotee of Thor who lives to kill. Marillier writes of the red battle haze that takes over a berserker in the heat of combat, the insanity of blood hunger that causes men to kill without mercy, without thought for their own safety or even knowledge of what they do. These warriors were formidable in battle but nevertheless didn't live long; four or five years of service was about what they could hope for before being taken to Valhalla by Valkyries to sit at the hand of God.
This image of the Warrior is not at all like what I knew of soldiers while I was in the Army. The best of them, the ones who had seen combat, lost friends and killed, were quiet men. The sergeant who was head NCO of the ROTC program at UW who was a part of the unit that lost men at Mogadishu, the drill sergeant at Fort Jackson who was a Marine sniper, before, the Army Ranger officer in my Korean class who dropped out to deploy to Afghanistan, were all men I respected. They were dangerous and hard, and not very happy, but above all they were professional. They didn't lust for battle. They knew better; all their efforts were devoted to training, preparing, not because they loved death but because they hated it. They knew that if such a thing must be done, it should be done with skill, to keep their comrades alive and to settle the conflict as quickly and decisively as possible, for everyone's sake.
These men have more in common with my father, who is a good man and takes joy in his work, than with a Viking berserker, but I think that many people in America do not know this about soldiers. Maybe this is because of the much lamented disconnect between the military and the rest of society due to the volunteer nature of our military; perhaps its just part of human nature to be eager to see other people as alien and unlike oneself. For whatever reason, it seems to me that people who argue that withdrawing from Iraq would be an insult to the honor of our soldiers do not know what a soldier is.
I think that if everyone knew that soldiers are not death-demons by nature, the argument over withdrawal from Iraq would be very different. If a soldier is a hunger to fight for honor or vengeance, then perhaps it is right to keep soldiers in the middle of a battle that can't be won. But if a soldier is only a man with complex motivations, who is willing to fight if it is necessary but who hates to kill for no reason, then we- the people of America who nominally run this place- have betrayed them horribly.