Memorial Day Post: The Warriors Among Us

Several years ago, as part of a 9/11 commemoration, I wrote the following words in connection with a post I did about Lt. Brian Ahearn, one of the New York fire fighters who perished on that day:

My son, who is seven, is obsessed with superheroes. His current favorite is Superman. After all, when you’re a little boy, battling your way through the world, what could be more exciting than the possibility of being “faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound.” I’m bombarded daily with questions about Superman’s ability to withstand extreme temperatures, his flying speeds, his ballistic capabilities and, most importantly, his bravery. It’s here that my son and I run into a conceptual problem. My son thinks Superman is brave because he gets involved in situations that involve guns, and flames, and bad guys. I argue – and how can you argue this with a seven year old? – that the fictional Superman, while good, is not brave, because he takes no risks. Superman’s indestructibility means that his heart never speeds up, his gut never clenches, and he never pauses for even a moment to question whether the potential benefit from acting is worth the risk. In other words, if facing a gun is as easy as sniffing a rose, there is no bravery involved.

The truly brave person is the one who knows the real risks in a situation, but still moves forward to save people, to fight a good battle or to remedy an intolerable situation. The attacks against America on September 11, 2001, revealed the true superheroes among us – those New York firefighters who pushed themselves past those second thoughts, those all-too-human hesitations, and sacrificed themselves in the hopes of saving others. Lt. Brian G. Ahearn was one of those superheroes.

I’ve been thinking today about that moment of insight I had about courage and heroism, because I’m finally reading Marcus Luttrell’s Lone Survivor: The Eyewitness Account of Operation Redwing and the Lost Heroes of SEAL Team 10. I say “finally,” because the book came out in 2007, and it took me three years to gather my own courage just to read it — and I did so only because of the possibility that I may soon meet the mother of one of those “lost heroes.” Considering what her son did for my country, forcing myself to read a book about great heroism seemed like the least I could do.

Funnily enough, the book isn’t as painful as I thought it would be. This is partly because Luttrell, with novelist Patrick Robinson’s able assistance, has a wonderful voice. His is not a ponderous tome but is, instead, a human story of an East Texas boy who, buoyed up by patriotism and sheer grit, made his way through the insanity of SEAL training, and then found himself in Afghanistan, working to protect American interests and freedoms.

Luttrell’s upbringing, so different from my girly, urban, intellectual childhood is a story in itself. As for his descriptions of what men push themselves to do to become SEALS — well, I’d heard about it academically, but I’d never understood it viscerally.

To be completely honest, I still don’t understand it. As a card-carrying wuss, as someone who has always respected her personal comfort zones, and avoided challenging herself, I really don’t “get” what would drive young men, men in their 20s and 30s, to push themselves as hard as these men do. And the rewarded isn’t a glamorous job, a la Hollywood or Manhattan, with fame, wealth and women. Being a SEAL is the toughest job in the world, because SEALs end up doing the most dangerous jobs in the world, under the worst, scariest circumstances imaginable.

If you lack physical and mental will, not to mention the overwhelming training SEALs receive, you’re simply a statistic waiting to happen. But if you do have that stamina, one that resides as much in the mind as it does in the body (perhaps even more in the mind than the body), and if you have this amazing commitment to your team and your country, you can move mountains.

Or sometimes, as SEAL Team 10 so sadly demonstrated, the mountains turn on you. I am not giving away anything about the book, of course, when I tell you that Luttrell was the sole survivor of a firefight in the Afghan mountain ranges that ended up being the single deadliest day in SEAL history. Reading about the fight and the deaths of Luttrell’s team member, not to mention his own story of survival, is harrowing. I don’t want to say I cried, but I’ll admit that my eyes were leaking prodigiously. Knowing that this would be my inevitable reaction is part of why I avoided Luttrell’s book for so long. (To excuse myself a little bit, I also wasn’t sure I wanted to get too close to understanding what my father experienced during WWII, as he fought in some of the worst battles around the Mediterranean, including Crete and el Alamein. Sometimes, empathy can be too painful.)

But really, I shouldn’t have avoided the book. Yes, the deaths of LT Michael P. Murphy, Matthew Axelson, and Danny Dietz, as well as 16 SEALs and Nightstalkers, whose helicopter was shot down during the rescue mission, is heart wrenching, but the overall tone of the book is still uplifting. Luttrell’s deep patriotism, his belief in the mission (not any specific mission, but the SEALs’ overarching mission to protect and defend), his abiding love for the SEALs, and the message that there are those who are willing to protect us, often from ourselves, ranks right up there with the most cheerful “feel good” book you can find.

So many people live pointless lives and die meaningless deaths. One of the tragedies of the 6 million is that they were herded to death like cattle in an abattoir. I don’t blame them. They were ordinary people, living ordinary lives, when suddenly they were ripped out of normalcy, and without warning or preparation, sent straight to Hell on earth. Had I had the misfortune to be a Jew in Poland in 1942, instead of a Jew in America at the end of the 20th and beginning of the 21st centuries, that would have been me. Not just a short life that made no difference, but one that ended with a death that didn’t make a dent in the hide of my murderers.

Some people, however, seem to have bred in the bone and the heart the belief that they will not be ordinary in life or in death. Mercifully, these are people who don’t need the tawdry fame of Hollywood. They don’t need the quick fixes of drink and drugs. They don’t need to become bullies who control others, whether their control is exercised over a country or an office. Instead, they prepare themselves to serve causes greater than their own egos. Their lives have purpose and their deaths are never pointless.

Because the genesis of my post is Luttrell’s book, I’ve written this as an homage to the SEALs. Everything I’ve said though, can be applied equally to the men and women who have fought and, sometimes, died for America, beginning back in 1774. The fact that they didn’t do it at the level of pain and training one sees in the SEALs does nothing to minimize their courage, their patriotism and their sacrifices. They are the backbone of our country, the defenders of our freedom: “The truly brave person is the one who knows the real risks in a situation, but still moves forward to save people, to fight a good battle or to remedy an intolerable situation.”

(Luttrell is third from the right.)

Other Memorial Day posts:

Flopping Aces

Blackfive

Blackfive (yes, again)

Crossposted at Bookworm Room

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