1. not forming or contributing to a pleasing whole; discordant, dissonant, incongruous
Alcoholism, drug addiction, violent behavior, shattered relationships, and suicide. Far too often, these descriptions are applied to our modern warrior class; the warfighters who have struggled so mightily through the last 13+ years of war. Portrayed, often by themselves and their comrades, as broken, damaged people who are no longer suitable for civilized interactions, they wander; out of place, out of time, and often outside of normal society. They insulate themselves, sometimes to the point of isolation. The result is often tragic or, at a minimum, creates a mind that is no longer capable of coping with the outside world. This realization, which struck me a few years ago, has since weighed heavily on my mind. I believe it is a serious problem. I believe we have lost our “way.”
ALL WARFARE ALL THE TIME
How many combat veterans do you know who seem trapped in that time? Veterans who seem to lack the ability to talk about, remember, or reference anything else? We all know a few. They also seem to be the ones who struggle the most with the reconciliation of their experiences with the rest of their lives. They continue to live within that time, engulfed by its memory, unable to break free of the power it holds over them. These veterans’ lives often end in tragedy. They have fallen out of harmony with the rest of the universe.
Ancient warriors, and even those from an earlier time in modern history, seemed to have something that is lacking in today’s warrior community: Balance. Harmony.
As our society becomes more educated and informed, we are losing simple things that were an aspect of every life. We are losing a faith in a higher power. We are losing the very idea that things have meaning. We are losing the roots of our commitments and dedications to ideals. I think back to the veterans I have met from our previous wars, most notably, World War II. Those veterans fought and experienced some of the most brutal warfare in modern history. Korean War veterans as well. Those soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines seemed to have something we lack in today’s asymmetrical conflicts driven by terrorism and intolerance toward others. They believed in what they were doing. They felt compelled to fight the hordes of fascism and communism because they fully believed the future of our country, and even the world, was at stake. They had something to believe in, something to drive them on toward victory. Victory is not even a word used in relation to modern conflicts. We fight for… something. What is it? We certainly haven’t fought these wars with the objective of total victory over our enemies in mind. We fight for a negotiated settlement. This isn’t the nature of war. It is incongruous with the meaning of war and the state of being a warrior.
They also had faith. Ancient warriors believed their actions were approved of and guided by the gods. They all possessed a spiritual facet to their personality and their justification for being in a state of war. Peace and harmony were an integral part of the legendary warriors of feudal Japan and greater Asia. Samurai wrote poetry, sculpted works of art, painted meaningful works, and created beauty with their mastery of various art forms unrelated to death and destruction. They understood that for a warrior to be whole, they must possess a balance between war and peace; gentleness and violence; and possess a sense of generosity and courtesy. They believed in something. Something other than war for war’s sake.
“Why are you doing it? Why are you enlisting in the military at a time of war? If you don’t know, you need to think about it a lot more than you have. When you are cold, wet, hungry, tired, injured, and scared, you better have something to hold onto other than ‘I needed the college money’, son.” Those are the words of advice I have given to many young men and women who have asked my advice prior to raising their hand and taking the oath of service to this nation. I spoke those words to my own son before he enlisted. I spoke those words to the young man with whom I enjoyed New Year’s Eve dinner last night. They mean something to me because they were spoken to me by a veteran of Vietnam, minus the time of war part, before I enlisted so many years ago. He understood, and I grew to understand, that it had to have a greater meaning than just killing and dying over a piece of land or an idea. It required purpose. A warrior needs purpose – a purpose other than killing.
A warrior needs a balance to their life. As most martial artists know, most martial arts were called a “Do” or a “Way.” It was a holistic approach to life and death. The way of the warrior was a complex life and it required that you understand yourself- mastery of self – as much as it required that you understand the ways of war. I see little, or none, of this holistic approach to the warrior ways today. Warriors understand nothing but war. They train, discuss, study, and inundate themselves with nothing but the violence of their chosen lifestyle. They lack the balance required to be a mentally and spiritually well-rounded person, or warrior. They lack something greater than themselves upon which to believe.
Atheism is on the rise and, although I am a strong proponent of intelligence and rational thought, I wonder what atheists hold on to when they are in despair? Without a spiritual component to their lives, how are they able to reconcile the more brutal things they have encountered on the battlefield. What are they fighting for? I am not saying people should believe in nonexistent things simply for the sake of believing in something. What I am saying is that the modern warrior, just as the warriors of the past, still needs something to harmonize their spirit and balance their life. Do you have a hobby that doesn’t involve war? Do you have a skill that isn’t related to those skills you needed on the battlefield? Do you practice peace and harmony with those around you and the universe itself? To live your life in a constant state of imbalance, to be that inharmonious warrior, is a terrible strain on your psyche. I believe it is what leads to many of the problems within the veteran community today.
CAN WE CHANGE IT?
Yes, I believe we can. Have you learned a new skill? Have you gained a non-tactical hobby? Have you learned to show sympathy and generosity toward nature or those around you? We spend years, or even decades or our lives, learning the violence of the warrior way. How much time do we dedicate to creating a balance within our spirit – whether that means your immoral soul or just your mind on this plane of existence? Read a book – a book not about war. Learn a skill. Take on a hobby unrelated to the soldier-side of your mind.
There are places that can help. Programs such as The Valhalla Project, a 200 acre piece of land in the Ozark Mountains where veterans learn to do simple farming, animal care, and skills designed for self-sufficiency; skills that involve creating and maintaining life, not taking it. Other programs are out there and you can probably find something in your local community if you look. Try searching under categories that don’t include the words War, Violence, and Trauma. Get out of your self-imposed isolation from the outside world. Stop living in a constant state of violence, whether that be in reality, or in your mind and memory. Gain new memories and new insights that are unrelated to the things you wish you could forget. If you are continuously and aggressively forcing yourself to remember them, how can your mind ever rest from the horrific images it has absorbed? It can’t. Eventually, it will be overcome and, perhaps, the warrior becomes trapped in a time and space no longer in existence – a time and space that should not be forgotten but that needs to be properly categorized within your mind. It is what you experienced. It does not have to be what you are.
When I was 11 years old, I walked into a martial arts dojo operated by a stocky, little Korean man who couldn’t speak English. His hands were calloused and as rough as wood. His physique was as solid as the wall behind me. His demonstration of this ancient form of unarmed combat involved the shattering of stacks of wood and knocking assistants rearward as they held striking bags during his powerful kicks and punches. Through his assistant instructor, who also acted as an interpreter, he explained that he will teach us these things and will teach us how to defend ourselves and our loved ones. He promised to teach us skills that will translate to every aspect of our lives – courage, integrity, strength, indomitable spirit.
I was hooked. After many Chuck Norris and Bruce Lee films, I wanted nothing more than to learn the ancient arts of the warrior. Master Hwang accepted my small group of children as his students and said we would begin immediately. And, we did, but not where I thought.
Master Hwang adjusted his dobok, tugged on his belt (at the time, the highest legitimately ranked master level belt in the U.S.) and nodded with a slight grunt. Then, he bade us to do as he did. He bowed to the American flag, then to the flag of South Korea. He turned and bowed to us and we returned it as best we could. Then, he gracefully lowered himself to the floor and knelt with his hands on his thighs, eyes closed, a serene look crossing his face.
“First, you master yourself. Then, and only then, can you learn to master other things.”
I have yet to master myself, or anything else for that matter. That doesn’t mean I will stop trying. Neither should you. Embark on a new adventure. Bring balance and harmony back to the way of the warrior. You may find that life is not only worth living again but that it can be an amazing journey. First, you must master yourself.
Have a safe and peaceful 2015, my friends.