Sunday, June 8, 2014

giving and taking orders

What makes a good soldier?

I suppose those who have been there will know far better than I, but that doesn't stop me from speculating.

This weekend, my younger son is/was off on Cape Cod doing his once-monthly weekend stint with the Army National Guard. The National Guard trains its troops for two weeks in the summer and one weekend a month for the rest of the year over a period of six or eight years. They are backup troops to regular army forces.

This weekend as well marks remembrances of the June 6, 1944, D-Day landings by the allies during World War II. The TV has been full of documentary footage and commentary about the allied counterattack against Nazi Germany, which, during the preceding five years, had rolled up much of western Europe.

The assault on Normandy was a bloodbath. More than 150,000 American, British and Canadian troops came from the sea and assaulted dug-in German positions. Guesstimates place the number of allied dead at over 4,000 and the total casualties at something in the neighborhood of 10,000. It's largely guesswork but whatever the count, documentary films verify that the lapping ocean was literally red with blood and the bodies littering the shore were complemented by those bobbing in the water.

Bits and snippets of the TV stick in my mind:

-- The navy ships bombarding the shore were afraid they might be grounded and so stood away ... so far away that the salvos of rockets and shells did not reach the German lines, but instead landed among friendly troops. When they realized what was happening, the captains brought their ships in close -- and the hell with grounding -- to aid the troops that were getting mauled.

-- One man who survived the day said he was just a plain soldier, someone trained to take and obey orders.

-- And one unquantifiable statistic showed that the officers and non-commissioned officers charged with giving orders were frequently killed under the same withering fire that claimed their men. This meant that the confusion of the mayhem was redoubled: Who will lead when the leaders are gone?

And it was at this point that it occurred to me that a good soldier is often trained to take and carry out orders but that without the ability to give orders, s/he is probably not yet a very good soldier. It may be a delicate matter, but the fact remains -- the ability to give orders is a necessary aspect of the willingness to take them.

And I think the same is true in spiritual life. Taking orders is part of the training ... but so is giving them.

1 comment:

  1. The ability to give yourself an order and follow it is central to practice, much less to being a grown up. I read in history that this was part of the upbringing of the children of Sparta, Rome, etc. But as a culture becomes wealthier, it becomes more lax and less disciplined generally. Americans are a drive thru/couch culture it seems.

    Headlines say the U.S. has wrestled with an issue in the Bergdahl affair. The question that we leave no man behind vs. we do not make deals with terrorists. Bergdahl struggled similarly with contrasting ideas, that america is the good guy vs. following orders he felt made americans the bad guys. The national struggle will be a political football. Bergdahl's struggle will be left out of the discussion of what to do with him.

    I doubt i'd make a good soldier. To create a soldier really requires some disciplining, so that he will follow orders quickly and without question. If someone becomes a soldier, and finds themselves in a situation where questions arise, the question becomes, did the programming fail, or was the situation too horrific for a reasonable person to live with. How many cases of PTSD result from the latter.