I’m behind a tree no bigger around than my fist with branches breaking and dirt flying. In a fleeting moment I hardly ever share, a grin spreads across my face. At 18, this was the moment I had worked so hard for. I found myself staring at the face of death, yet I was calm, collected, and almost amused. At that moment, life had never been so simple, and for those who have lived that moment, some wish to never live it again. Yet for others, like myself, it is almost a calling. What is it about that moment that beckons us to risk our lives? I cannot speak for others but these are my thoughts. Thoughts I have shared with very few.
It took me years to find the words to explain what I found behind that tree. This idea I have held so dear to my heart, trapped inside because I could not summon the words that truly captured it. I came across a quote by Albert Pine last year, and his words described it for me: “What we do for ourselves dies with us, but what we do for others is immortal.”
I am not a warmonger wishing war on anyone, but the truth is, it exists. I fight not because I am a psychopath, not because I am sadistic. I fight to protect the innocent, I fight because others cannot. At that moment, and the moments I found myself in over the years, I saw others’ true selves, the deepest selves we can hide in society. That moment when death is staring you in the face is the most intimate moment in life, a moment you wish never to share with family and friends.
In that moment a man you all but despise becomes your best friend, your savior. It is true love, love for your fellow man. That moment forges bonds that last forever, bonds deeper than blood. There is nostalgia in war for some. It is a place of simple existence where it’s all or nothing, where the stakes are life or death. This is where it is all tested, where it all starts and ends, the human spirit, love, and hate. This is where medical advances take leaps and bounds with science and technology leading the way, all in an effort to kill and preserve lives at the same time. It is a single moment, with the most complicated origins over the simplest matters, with the most profound consequences.
Since I was a child, I have always had a sense of beauty in war. War is where human nature is shown at its best and worst in a single moment. The beauty lies in a pool of blood. Every bracelet is a reminder that life is fragile, and that some feel their life is worth giving up for a cause. The beauty lies with those who run towards the bullets, against all odds, to retrieve their fellow man from the battlefield. It is found in the medic who does not quit, blood-soaked and exhausted, he fights to their last breath. It is in the stories told, bracelets worn, and tears shed for those who do not make it, for those who paid the ultimate sacrifice. What can be more beautiful than sacrificing your life for another?
I miss those lost. I remember their faces, the good times we shared, and the bad. I remember those who made it, those who looked into my eyes, into my very soul, and pushed me beyond limits I thought were impossible to obtain. Why do some speak of war as if it were a beautiful mistress, and others like it is a hell on earth? Because it is both. That moment is hell on earth, and those living in that hell see beauty, not in the hell itself, but the triumph over it. The beauty and nostalgia are not in the hell itself, but the human spirit that conquers it. It is what you find out about yourself and your brothers-in-arms.
The beauty is in man himself. It is the moment we all cherish, the moment in fairytales, fables, and bedtime stories. It is the moment of good versus evil. It is the moment when man must conquer himself.
Jake Smith is a law enforcement officer and former Army Ranger with four deployments to Afghanistan.