Reflection on “What It Is Like To Go To War” (1)

The Marine Corps taught me how to kill but not how to deal with the killing. … There’s a sacred space where life and death play out. To be a soldier/killer is to be the priest in such a space and have to decide certain things about oneself and others. … There, one encounters feelings of responsibility and guilt. … Plus doubt? Confusion about past decisions? Current actions? … There’s a need for spiritual guidance, there. … Otherwise, one is inflicting meaningless death and terrible suffering.

The central question is how to be… what do you bring, who is this person you bring to the situation?

Saotome sensei often says the phrase, “To be or not to be”. After some time it became painfully clear to me that he was talking about the above. Endo sensei brings our attention to it by his mention of ‘heijoshin’ and continually urging us to sense, perceive, and know who/how we are in every moment.

The essential elements to tackle this issue are sensitivity and vitality/mobility i.e., continual movement/reflection/seeing with fresh eyes/examining thoroughly. These manifest physically as mobility, softness, and lightness/nimbleness. The person, more generally, is focused while attentive and engaged/connected with his surroundings.

As for soldiers:

(In response to such horrible situations) there’s the danger of numbing and creating ignorance in oneself. It’s important to bring meaning to the chaotic experience. With meaning, they can get through the experience with their sanity intact, and when in combat, it keeps them from doing more harm than they need to, and finally to adjust better when they return home.

(Regarding training usually young soldiers) You can’t force consciousness and spiritual maturity, but you can put them in situations where they can grow quickly. Facilitation.

Thus the importance of ‘initiation’. Two types: 1) preparing to fulfill a societal role and 2) accepting mortality. Initiation into the life you’ll live and into a life that is limited. in our culture, we go through initiation without guidance and unconsciously, often only partial initiations. A complete initiation leaves the person with a clear(er) sense of identity, rules, morals, philosophy, and connection to some thing/group that’s bigger; also, to the larger world/framework, and consequently one’s place in the world. Initiation e.g., a period of discipline/training.

Where ‘how to be’ and discipline cross: becoming someone who acts different from someone who is just at “default settings”. Perhaps more important: developing the awareness of what one’s “settings” are and that it’s possible to change them.

I imagine in military training the demands to change and become able to give more are very severe, and one unavoidably encounters the task of looking within to find that “more”, all in order to survive. It’s may be similar in sports and martial arts involving competition, where the end desired result does not accommodate one’s stubbornness or reticence. On the other hand, in a traditional martial art, where there is no one-time, single goal, the severity and demand must be based elsewhere – intrinsically, in the individual himself.

(It may also be in the teacher in whom the individual places faith (i.e., in meeting their expectations and demands), and even in the peer group with whom the the individual trains (e.g., meeting expectations as well as conforming). But psychologically, these latter cases involve a kind of “merging” of the self with these other entities. )

How does the change happen? The change, both in ability and the awareness that one can change their ability? Or even awareness that one can go beyond what one thinks one has currently, that there’s a “more”? In the severe case, one “just does it” and may learn through experiencing and noticing the results, and possibly reflecting back on the process. But the aim is the result. It is not to learn about the process.

put them in situations where they can grow quickly

Another way is to experience the result of success in smaller degrees, under more controlled, measured circumstances, and then reflect on it, gaining some insight about one’s current ability and, through bigger successes, the process of improving one’s ability.

Sometimes there’s an avoidable, sizable gap between the measured, learning successes/challenges and the “real” ones. This is where it is crucial to have at least some framework prepared for whatever success or failure happens, and some protocol to process afterward what happened. The preparation is the “initiation” mentioned in the book. It’s important also that the preparation is not to give the individual the mistaken impression that it will sufficiently encompass all possible paths and outcomes. Yet, it’s valuable to have a central, unchanging core.

As mentioned above, the initiation doesn’t have to be instantaneous – it can be done over a period of time. I think it might be an activity that the participant recognizes some significance of. That is, it’s a ritual, in which the person understands that they are doing something different from everyday life, so they can put themselves in, or understand that they should be in, a different state of mind. Like a rough map for them to look at once in a while, and remind themselves that they are on a bit more often during all the chaos that is actually happening.


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