Posted in Fragile Life, Insight, Takes a Village

Veterans Day-talking to sons about soldiers & war

Gonzales, detail,

“Why do they have to keep their eyes facing forward?” my sons ask while viewing the film, Annapolis.

“They have to keep their focus,” I answer, though what do I know of soldiers or navel academies?  My best guess is that the “Mid-shipman” in this film is trying to see if he can provoke the plebes to react, testing their strength in the face of anger or fear.

I don’t typically share movies about soldiers with my sons, but we are heading to my father’s new home in Annapolis for Thanksgiving and I thought this DVD would lend a sense of place.

As a young teen, I lived on the army base at West Point. I watched soldiers run in the woods behind my house in full fatigues with heavy backpacks and boots–in the heat of high summer. I saw their heads shaved in the courtyard outside the barracks when they arrived as plebes, and I was there the year that the first women were admitted to the Academy. I watched soldiers march on winter weekends in the cold snow, paying off demerits. I saw them faint in summer pageantry. I knew that plebes couldn’t date. I’d eaten in their mess hall and saw that there were hoops to jump through even before you got your food.

Despite this up close view of soldiers, I don’t have much appreciation for war. I’d like to see our military be more creative with their talents and resources.

I know the whole question of war and peace is not perceived that simply, but I did stumble upon something that shed some light inside my own troubled heart.  It came from the question my boys asked: Why do they have to keep their eyes facing forward?

That question stayed with me all evening, and was there again the next morning when I woke.  Within it, I began to explore a deeper understanding of military training.

The idea of “facing forward” teaches presence to what is right in front of you–without letting yourself be distracted by what might be going on–inside of you–fear, anger, exhaustion, and no doubt, self-doubt.

In this way, military training was in some ways very Zen, although I’m not an expert there either.

Despite spewing insults, assaulting weather and pain, great fatigue, and whatever else the human mind can conjure up in the form of suffering, soldiers are required to remain present to the task at hand.

I don’t how they’re able to carry this type of presence into the battlefield, but I’m sure it serves all who do. With deep presence, there can be no resistance, no fear, no need for escape.

I wonder, however, what are they able to salvage from their experience when they come home? What presence remains?

Fedotow, detail,

From what I know of veterans, they simply can’t remain present to all they saw or did or endured. They turn away. And in that action they reap heaps of punishment on themselves, becoming their own drill sergeant. Or they become their own enemy, and take their own life–or the lives of fellow soldiers–which seems to have become commonplace.

But what if they were able to keep looking forward? What if their training included such presence after their service? What would come of that?

Great healing I suspect. In being present, even to that which horrifies us, we release and soften and accept, and then all there is… is love.

This truth is echoed in the lives of soldiers who “live” to share their stories and fight their way toward peace. And in that discovery, each lends his voice to those who proclaim the futility of war.

With this clear vision, the soldier’s amazing ability to focus could be taken into the world in service–in the kind of service, that he doesn’t have to turn away from when he comes home–in the kind of service that she can look in the eye without shame or hatred–in the kind of service that can change the world, one heart at a time. One soldier at a time. One pair of eyes looking straight forward at a time.

I recently viewed the premier of the film, Taking Root, a documentary about Wangari Maathai, the Kenyan activist, awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her environmental action in her country. Wangari was present at the viewing, along the filmmakers who are from our town.

In the great breadth of her life’s work, Wangari convinces the military that their job as protectors, includes the land, and so they too join her campaign in planting trees.

Bosch, detail,

This shift of thinking around protection is just a drop in the empty bucket of terror, but this is how change is watered.

As I revisit this piece of writing following the rise in military suicides, a child of our own arrives in Iraq. He’s not a biological son, but a son of my community, a young man I’ve watched grow up.

Joseph came to this country from Ethiopia as a boy, and has now been sent across another sea as an American soldier.

I know his beautiful spirit.
I know “some” of his pain.
I know he lost most of his family to AIDs.
I know he watched both parents and his grandmother die.

Though Joseph was welcomed into our tiny rural community with open arms, he faced racial hatred when he went to high school in the neighboring town. Perhaps becoming a Marine after graduation was his way of finding place. I know that his childhood dream was to return to his native country and help the children there. He wanted to buy a farm and raise cows, like those he tended in his family farm in the mountains of Ethiopia.

Carpaccio, detail,

But America doesn’t fund those kind of dreams–not for teenage boys.

Instead we train them to kill others in far away places and then expect them to return “home,” and live as if it never happened.

These same crimes would land Joseph in jail in the states, and it is he who will have to come to peace with that discordance.

And it is WE, who hold the responsibility of sending our children to such places of anguish outside–and inside–themselves.

And so the military will hire more therapists and increase spending to support soldiers with their mental health or their missing limbs or lost comrades or visions of death and suffering while the rest of the country will worry about our incomes and the economy which relies so heavily on perpetuating this machine of hopelessness and cruelty.

My invitation then is for each of us to find a soldier’s strength–to face forward in our lives and do the work that needs doing. And to let that work be of service to others–the kind of service that lends itself to other “drops” of change… until the bucket of terror is tipped over, and we have watered a lush new world.

Kelly Salasin, November 2007

2012 update: More US soldiers are losing their lives to suicide than from enemy forces, the Pentagon reports… at a rate of about one per day, with 18 attempts daily.

2013 update, from Remembering American’s Veterans in 2013

  • Veterans account for 20 percent of national suicides.
  • An estimated 22 veterans committed suicide each day in 2010, according to a report from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
  • Nearly 35 percent of deployed service members experience symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, according to Stanford University estimates.
    • 27 percent of Army soldiers met the criteria for alcohol abuse in three or four months after returning from Iraq, according to a 2011 study by the National Institute for Drug Abuse.
    • A 2009 Pentagon health survey found that one in four soldiers had abused prescription drugs.
    • Combat veterans are 31 percent more likely to begin binge drinking than service members who do not experience combat.


Lifelong educator, writer, yoga & yogadance instructor.

6 thoughts on “Veterans Day-talking to sons about soldiers & war

  1. Another thought, if I may…

    If military training included what you call “presence after the task at hand,” it would be very poor training for combat.

    The blind obedience to orders is all that makes a fighter effective. It saves people’s lives. It is not meant to, nor is it useful to, better them.

    Many soldiers have become great humanitarians, but it is through lessons learned in war. Lessons about all kinds of suffering and the action needed to address it. Basic training is not the place to build humanitarians.


    1. Your thoughts echoed here by Isabelle Allende, from her novel, The House of Spirits:

      “The military were a breed apart, brothers who spoke a different dialect from the civilians and with whom any attempt at dialogue would be a conversation of the deaf, because the slightest dissent was considered treason…”

      “Soldiers are not made to shine in times of peace… War is the soldier’s work of art, the culmination of all their training, the gold medal of their profession… a chance to put into practice what they learned– blind obedience, the use of arms, and other skills that soldiers can master once they silence the scruples of their hearts.”


  2. Respectfully, Kelly, I must tell you that your concept of “presence” is not as relevant as you make it.

    Military training is not Zen. It does not teach us to free ourselves from fear or fatigue or anything else. It teaches us only that we damn well better act in [i]spite[/i] of anything we feel or know.

    The drill sergeant’s job is to make sure we feel absolutely miserable and scared – and then make sure we know we can act in that state.

    It is 0 per cent mindfulness and 100 per cent simple gut obedience. Not the mind overcoming itself, but instinct and habit overcoming the mind.


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