Sometimes the most impactful books are the ones you didn't mean to read. For some reason that I can't remember anymore, I copied a book called "On Killing" onto my ebook reader when I first bought it. It sat on the reader for eight months before I found myself unable to sleep and without any books I actually wanted to read. So I began to tackle the 400 page opus on being a soldier.
The book took me a month to get through. It's dense, thorough to the point of being repetitive, and mostly irrelevant to civilians. But it's not totally irrelevant to me: my brother Taylor is going to Afghanistan tomorrow.
He joined the military about a year ago. The decision was made without any input from the family and without much notice either. "I'm thinking of joining the Army" evolved into him being issued fatigues in a blink of an eye. Soon he was off to basic training.
Taylor is a private person, which means that I never really understood what drove him to join. Reasons were given, of course, but none that seemed to justify such a drastic decision. I figure that the real reason is something personal; that he felt he had to do it for some reason or another.
I may not understand why he joined, but through reading "On Killing", I've come to understand a bit of the reality of being a soldier. I'd never really given it much thought, which naturally caused me to oversimplify it in my head.
Most soldiers, according to the author, don't want to kill. It's against our nature to kill our own species and we avoid it at all costs. In World War I, the vast majority of soldiers actually avoided killing enemies, either by not firing at all, or firing over the heads of the enemy. Since then the military has improved their conditioning exercises, and the firing rate is now above 85%. My brother will fire at, and probably kill people, whether he wants to or not.
I don't really understand the war we're fighting, and I'm not totally sure the soldiers do, either. But I want to put that conversation aside and focus on the soldiers, which is something I hadn't really done until recently. I didn't think of them as individuals, but rather a bunch of people I didn't know, emotionlessly doing their job just like the checkout clerk at Wal-Mart.
But that, of course, isn't accurate. In "On Killing" I learned that there are two main factors in how psychologically traumatized a soldier is: the distance from the kill and the support back home. Knifing someone in the kidney is extremely traumatizing. Dropping a bomb from a plane isn't very traumatizing at all. My brother is a sniper, so I'm selfishly glad that he's pretty well removed from the intimate details of the killing. On the support side, I realized that it's important to separate my ambivalence or default contempt for the war from the pride I have for my brother.
When faced with fact that real-life Army isn't like the Army on movies (or recruitment videos), he rose to the challenge. He was consistently at the top of his class and is one of the most respected soldiers in his group. Of the four kids in my family, Taylor is the most selfless. He doesn't just talk about helping other people; he actually does it. When my other brother wanted a scooter, but couldn't afford it, Taylor paid for half of it with his Army signing bonus and loaned him the rest of the money. If I was in the Army, he's the kind of person I'd want to have around me.
This post is for Taylor. I feel helpless and a little bit guilty; my life is relatively easy, but his is about to be difficult for a while. All I can do, which makes almost no difference at all, is to show my support. So, Taylor, I love you, I'm proud of you, and I can't wait to see you come back in December.