Military Review English Edition November-December 2015 - Page 126

To understand why immortality narratives are central to the profession of arms, it is essential to understand what Cave calls humanity’s “mortality paradox,” a psychological contradiction hardwired into every human: Our awareness of ourselves, of the future, and of alternative possibilities enables us to adapt and make sophisticated plans. But it also gives us a perspective on ourselves that is at the same time terrifying and baffling. On the one hand, our powerful intellects come inexorably to the conclusion that we, like all other living things around us, must one day die. Yet on the other, the one thing that these minds cannot imagine is that very state of nonexistence; it is literally inconceivable. Death therefore presents itself as both inevitable and impossible.2 Immortality narratives try to reconcile this dilemma. Various philosophies have explored the mortality paradox for thousands of years. Sigmund Freud explored the cognitive inability to imagine one’s own death and the resulting subconscious conviction of one’s immortality.3 The inborn will to live sharpens as an individual becomes more aware of his or her own mortality. For the soldier, this meeting with imminent death in battle can become a paralyzing confrontation. Australian war hero Peter Ryan describes the experience as leaving him “a shuddering mess of demoralised [sic] terror.”4 As danger and the threat of death approach, the first issue emerging for the soldier is how to stay alive. Survive The drive for survival is the first and most basic narrative, and it has a single, simple tenet: do not die. Unfortunately, avoiding death is also the most problematic. In his study, Cave illustrates the history of man’s obsessive search for a cure for dying through magic, alchemy, and even modern science.5 However, soldiers in battle have a comparatively simple dilemma—living forever first requires living until tomorrow. Army leaders often approach this narrative using two themes: that obedience leads to survival and that the medical system can save wounded or injured soldiers. When employed to satisfy the mortality paradox, these—like the fabled elixir of life—are false promises. The first theme proposes that soldiers who are skilled enough in battle, and who listen to and obey their leaders, will come home alive. Hollywood portrays this idea in the film Starship Troopers, when a young lieutenant shouts to a group of soldiers: “Remember your training, and you will make it out alive!”6 The lieutenant dies almost immediately after giving the advice. While darkly comical, the story highlights the fallacy. The military invests significant effort in developing both realistic training and smart leaders. These may improve soldiers’ odds of survival. Neither, however, can banish death’s power in combat because neither can banish the role chance plays in survival. For example, a veteran of combat in Vietnam described being surrounded by metal flying through the air in the chaos of battle. He said the only reason (Photo by Christopher Menzie, Veterans Affairs) anyone survived was dumb luck, Spc. Lyle Yantz and several other service members participating in Operation Proper Exit are greeted 6 December 2012 after arriving at Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan. Operation the grace of God, or both.7 On the Proper Exit brought severely wounded service members back to the theater where they other hand, a remark by a noncomwere injured to provide them with a first-hand progress update on the continuing mission and to help in their healing process. missioned officer in 2008 illustrates 120 November-December 2015  MILITARY REVIEW