Grossman, “On Combat”

“A band of US Army Rangers goes behind enemy lines, where each man, one by one, dies to save one young paratrooper: Private Ryan. To me that band of Rangers represents every American warrior who ever willingly gave his life to give us the freedom, the lives and the liberty that we have today. Those Rangers are the boys who fell at Lexington and Concord, and they are the bloody windrows of bodies at Shiloh and Gettysburg. They are trenches full of blood in the Ardennes Forest, and they are a bloody tide of bodies at Normandy Beach and Iwo Jima. They are the more than 300 police officers and firefighters rushing up the steps of the World Trade Center, and they represent the cop who died yesterday, alone and afraid on a dirty street, somewhere in America. That band of Rangers is every warrior who ever died to give us what we have today.

Private Ryan is us. He is every citizen who is alive and free today because two centuries of warriors have gone before us and purchased at the ultimate price what we have today.

Do you remember the end of the movie, when the last ranger, Captain Miller, lay dying on the bridge? He looks up at Ryan, he looks up at us, and what are his dying words? ‘Earn this. Earn it.’

Earn it. Be worthy. Don’t waste it. Two centuries of warriors look up from their graves in this dark hour, they look up from the rubble of the World Trade Center, and their message is, ‘Earn it.’ We can never truly earn what has been purchased at the ultimate price, but we can do our best. Our model is Private Ryan.

Do you remember the old man at the very end of the movie standing over the grave of his comrades with his grandbabies and his great-grandbabies bouncing all around him? He looks over at his wife, and says, ‘Tell me I’ve led a good life. Tell me I’ve been a good man.’

As a warrior, your mission is to man the ramparts of our civilization honorably and well in this dark hour; to retire honorably and well; to raise your grandbabies and your great-grandbabies straight, tall and true; to raise the next generation, straight and tall and true; to crack the bones and suck the marrow from every single day that you have been blessed with; and at the end of your days, to look into the eyes of your loved ones and say, ‘Tell me I’ve led a good life. Tell me I’ve been a good person.’

As warriors, we dedicate ourselves toward a lifetime of service to our civilization. We make the choice, the conscious decision to take the path of justice not vengeance, and life not death. Almost 2,500 years ago, the Greek poet and philosopher, Heraclitus, talked about making this choice.

The soul is dyed the color of its thoughts… The content of your character is your choice. Day by day, what you choose, what you think, and what you do is who you become. Your integrity is your destiny… it is the light that guides your way.

In my presentations I show a photograph of a young firefighter wearing his protective equipment and helmet. You can see vasoconstriction causing white areas around his eyes, nose and mouth, clearly the face of a frightened young man. The photo also shows several other people in the background, their backs to the camera as they scramble down a stairwell. What makes this firefighter – this young warrior – different from everyone else in the photograph is that he is going up the stairs. The photo was taken in a stairwell in one of the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001, where in one horrific morning 3,000 of our citizens died. Most of them did not have a choice that day, but there was a group of warriors – police officers and firefighters – who did. They were willing to go up the stairs, because that was their job, because that was what they were trained to do, but most of all they went up those stairs because they held the lives of any citizen in that building to be more precious than their own. ‘Greater love hath no man than this…’ They went up, but most of them did not come back down. Many lives were taken on that tragic morning, but some were freely given.

How can we equip ourselves, train ourselves, and prepare ourselves so that we will not be found wanting at our moment of truth? How can we ‘earn’ this? As warriors, we can learn, strive and prepare ourselves but in the end we can never truly earn it. None of us can ever be worthy of what two centuries of men like the frightened, courageous young firefighter in that photo have done for us. We can, however, strive to do our best, like Private Ryan, and dedicate ourselves, ahead of time to master survivor guilt and lead the full, rich and productive life that has been purchased for us at such a dear cost.”

LT COL Dave Grossman, On Combat: The Psychology and Physiology of Deadly Conflict in War and in Peace, Section Four: The Price of Combat, pp. 354-356

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