Friday, July 22, 2005

Still More Dangerous Things

In his soliloque in the film "Patton" George C. Scott's title character gives a speech about how "Americans naturally love to fight." The scene, with Scott's gravelly-voiced Patton speaking in front of a gigantic American flag, is one of the best known sequences in the history of the movies. It is endlessly quoted and, even more often, parodied. It lends itself easily to parody since it is already something of a charicature -- an exagerated portrayal of a character already bigger than life.

But it is worth remembering that things like Scott's Patton speech stick one's mind because they include a fair measure of truth. I was reminded of this by the recent news coverage of the efforts to recover a Navy Seals team that had gotten into trouble in Afghan-Pakistani border. The story broke when a helicopter went down carrying a load of special forces types who were being brought in to support the recovery effort. One member of the Seals team was reported to have been recovered alive and then two bodies were recovered. That left one member of the four-man team unaccounted for. The local Taliban leadership issued a statement that the Seal had been captured. The conventional wisdom was that the Taliban story was false but it was troubling, nonetheless. When word finally came that the body of the Seal had been recovered and that "He had died fighting" it was oddly a relief. At least he had died doing what he wanted to do.

The kinds of things that Special Forces troops do are dangerous, no doubt, but people do dangerous things all the time -- just for fun. My initial idea for this posting was to compare the risks of Special Forces ops to various "extreme" sports, but the necessary data is difficult to assemble. People who are into extreme sports are seldom interested in compiling statistics about the risks involved, and is is reassuring, actually, that a bit of casual Googleing will not come up with statistics about where our Special Forces are deployed, and what they are up to.

But, despite the fact that I can offer no mathematics to justify the assertion, I will still hazard the observation that if Special Forces Operations were considered as an "Extreme" sport, it probably wouldn't be the most dangerous one.

If you look at the progression of dangerous sporting activities over time you find that improvements in equipment, training and technique do not necessarily make the sports safer. Instead, you find more people attempting more difficult activities. As the gear gets better people add to the difficulty of the things they attempt to hold the risk approximately the same. The idea is to find the edge of what is possible -- to see what you can do.

An example of this would be the use of gas mixtures for cave divers. The new equipment allows a diver to spend more time at greater depths with more compact equipment. This makes it safer to go into the same caves they have been diving in for years -- but it also makes it possible to explore caves that could not be explored before. Cave diving remains a dangerous sport but there are more caves available in which to practice it.

There are a certain number of people who are attracted to these relatively dangerous activities, not so much because they are dangerous as out of curiousity to see what sort of things are possible. During peacetime they are the ones who climb Mt. Everest five times or get into ice climbing -- sports that are quite dangerous, even with the best gear and training available.

Military service offers gear and training of sorts not generally available to civilians, and occasionally, an opportunity to see what can be done with them. It provides an outlet for those who occasionally like to spend some time on the edge of things with the added appeal of doing something that is generally considered needful. If you die when when the weather turns bad on your fifth climbing of Mt. Everest most people will think you are an idiot -- who needs to climb Everest five times? But if the remnants of the Taliban spot your parachute on the Afghan-Pakistani border your mom may get a call from the President.

People who rather like to live on the edge can tend to be a problem during peacetime. They are the natural warriors. A nation cannot survive long without them but they will never really fit in. Civilization needs them but they, themselves, are difficult to civilize.

Americans love peace. We spend a lot of time saying so to reassure our friends and allies. But, our enemies should be aware that we are OK with warfare, too. It gives an element of our society useful things to do. Dangerous things, to be sure, but they will seek those out anyway. And if you kill yourself in an avalanche snowboarding from a helicopter people will think you are a putz. But, if you are killed watching a mountain pass looking for Al Qaeda activity they will think you are a hero -- because you are.

Update: 28 July 2005

Here are a couple of paragraphs from Paradise a recent posting on A Day In Iraq -- a military blog written by "Michael", a young infantryman in Iraq. Michael's unit has been redeployed from a relatively comfortable location in one of the more peaceful parts of Iraq to a new location where there is considerably more for them to do.

In some demented way that anxiety is also what made me want to come here and out of the comfort zone that was Baquba. That boredom and comfort was nice because it came with the security of knowing you’re in a relatively safe place, which in turn pretty much guarantees a safe return home, something that all of us want in the end. When all is said and done, all we really want to do is go home to our wives, children, family, friends, and all the good things we take for granted in the land of the USA. But I didn’t sign up for this gig and get stop-lossed for over a year past my enlistment to be bored and comfortable, rotting away for another six months trying to retain a little sanity in the mountain of bullshit that was Baquba. We have purpose now. It’s good to have a purpose, a mission. As far as I’m concerned the mission in Baquba has pretty much been accomplished, something that you’ll rarely hear about in the news. Not that there isn’t still work to be done there, but it’s just not the kind of work I signed up for.

There is plenty of work to be done here though. There are full blown cut your head off terrorists running around this place, which is why I was looking forward to coming here. I can’t explain why, it’s just the way it is. I like to think we’re kind of on the front lines again, with the enemy right around the corner. Some people like to argue that we’ve brought terrorism to this country simply by our presence here. I hope so. Where would you rather terrorists be, roaming the streets of Ramadi or roaming the streets of main street USA? The difference is that we have lots of big guns and people that enjoy using them, especially if they’re really pissed off about eating the crap they serve us here, being served portions that would leave a small bird hungry, living on top of each other, having to burn our shit, or pissing in a tube stuck in the ground that takes a certain amount of talent and precision to actually make it in the tube.

It's an interesting couple of paragraphs full of tensions between conflicting ideas. Michael has clearly found a balance that works for him. He looks forward to going home -- but in the meanwhile, there are lots of big guns at his disposal and the satisfaction of a job to do.

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