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Guest Post: Coward in a Family Full of Heroes

(Today's post is a guest post by longtime reader Matty P. If you would like to guest write for us, please check out our guest post guidelines. We look forward to publishing reader posts on future Tuesdays.)

I never served in the military.

While this is true for the vast majority of our country, I realize that the rest of the country isn’t a part of my family. We’re a military family. Dad served in the Special Forces (and yes, he did teach me to capitalize that) in Vietnam. Mom treated wounded soldiers as a nurse in Vietnam, at one point one of the highest ranking women in the US Army, one day away from a star. One brother deployed three times to active conflicts and one flies missions over them. There are multiple Bronze Stars and Purple Hearts present at our family gatherings. I, on the other hand, lounge in comfort and relative safety.

In my family, I am a coward.

It’s not that I wasn’t interested in the military. To be honest, I was groomed for it. I held my first gun when I was seven. I was taught knife techniques when I was a freshman in high school. Dad always promoted situational awareness wherever we went. For father/son time, we took martial arts lessons. I took to all of it like a fish in water. To me, it seemed like the things a father should teach a son. With my parent’s status and connections matched by my grades, I was a shoo in for West Point.

But I never went. I knew the option was there, but I never even applied. Something bothered me. And it took me awhile to figure out what.

Clearly it wasn’t the culture. I was familiar with it, experienced it. Though military life can be hard on a family, my own immediate goals did not include a family, but education. Further, the extreme personalities that can be found in military culture I found to be a stereotype of poorly made war films. While I had experienced the gun-ho, ultra patriotic, abrasive, uber-Christian, meat-head grunt type; I found this to be in equal proportion in the military as it was on the college campuses. In reality, the men and women I’ve encountered that serve are no different from the rest of the population with the notable exception of wanting to serve their country.

What truly gave me pause was the question on whether I could take a life. The common question: could I or couldn’t I? Perhaps better phrased: should I or shouldn’t I? Raised a good Christian--hell, even President of my youth group, I believed that killing, no matter the circumstance is a bad thing. The bible says so. There are explicit passages on this and forgiving enemy. Yet, my brothers and my father taught me that you protect those who cannot protect themselves. That honor is in action and that the greatest act one can do for another, is lay down his life. A sentiment also explicit in the Bible (reference John 15).

As much as I battled back and forth on the morality of action I may never have to take, the unsettling truth became apparent. I was comfortable with the moral implications, a moral grey for me that while never good, the taking of life could be justified in extremis. Thus, my dilemma wasn’t that I could never take a life. The problem was, I’m almost sure I could and would. And I would probably sleep soundly the following night. Everything I believe highlights the sanctity of life. As Eric has said, it should break your heart to kill and I was afraid it wouldn’t. That’s why I’m a coward, because I refused to put myself in a position to find out.

four comments

What does your family think about your POV?

I enjoyed reading this but I am having trouble seeing the moral calculus that you’re using to denounce yourself as a coward. You didn’t say that you were afraid of being killed, horribly maimed, or left physically unharmed but mentally suffering from guilt. You didn’t join because you were afraid you would enjoy it too much.

I don’t understand how you can imagine enjoying it, yet be afraid of that state of being.

@ Jeff- I wouldn’t say that I’m not afraid of being maimed or killed; just no more afraid than the average person. Nor do I fear that I would enjoy killing. The title of coward, other than for admitted shock value, is for the general consensus in my family and many military families that if you are capable of service, you serve or you’re generally considered a coward. Perhaps this would best be explained in another post, but from what I have experienced, there is a general consensus that if you don’t serve but enjoy the same freedoms, you’re a coward. The exact phrase I have heard from numerous retired SF guys is, “You couldn’t spare four years for your country?” It’s part of the same mentality the Eric and Michael discussed; that if you haven’t served, you shouldn’t be able to criticize.

Some former military and non-military personel just called Michael C and me cowards for not serving, but criticizing a soldier. Which is funny, because Michael C did serve.

Jeff, I actually think that the ability to kill is a way neglected discussion about being a soldier. We think about ourselves as Americans—will I come back?—but not what it means for soldiers to take another life. A lot of PTSD is rooted in those memories, from what I have read.

On to Eric C and Matt’s points about using the label coward, it is overused in our discourse. Often soldiers use it towards people who criticize soldiers. Basically, the “war is war is film” example from yesterday. If you haven’t served, you can’t question. But we disagree with that.