In 370BC a Greek Army ventured into Mesopotamia, lured into supporting a claimant to the throne by the promise of money and booty. How the Greeks managed to extricate themselves from a hopeless situation in what is now Iraq and Syria is the subject of the famous account, The Anabasis of Xenophon. “Anabasis” means “a journey out of.” The story is that Cyrus, the pretender to the throne of the Persian empire, is killed by his rival and the Greeks find that they have backed the wrong faction. This, of course, sounds familiar. We are now in the same position as Xenophon, the wise and courageous soldier who leads the Greeks out of the trap. But unlike Xenophon we have no exit strategy to free ourselves from the Iraqi and Syrian quagmire.
No doubt about it. We are stuck in Mesopotamia, not to mention Afghanistan. In my opinion it happened because we misunderstood the desires of those countries to create communities according to their own rules. The same for our tragic misadventure in Vietnam. The task for us now is to extricate ourselves by rediscovering our own rules for community. I don’t want to make too much of the analogy but the lesson is clear. Xenophon’s Ten-Thousand fought and won their battles and survived the long journey out of the desert by the unity forged in comradeship. They were a small army, but they acted more like a community, a nation on the march through hostile territory.
Community is essential. This is true in both the military and civilian spheres. Armies imbued with comradeship, the military equivalent of community, win battles against much stronger foes. Civil societies succeed, but only if they are true communities. During this season, when we honor veterans and the society they have protected, it’s good to reflect on this. Philosophers have described community in many ways. It’s useful to read what they say, especially those who write about human communities from the experience of war. J. Glenn Gray, the eminent Colorado College philosopher, in his book The Warriors: Reflections on Men in Battle says this about the communal spirit, what he calls “love as concern:”
The characteristic mood that accompanies love as concern is neither deep joy nor unrestrained grief, so often typical of erotic love. Concerned love knows relief and it knows anxiety in its depths, but seldom does it put everything at stake on the preservation of this or that life or treasure. Its care is for the whole and not the part.
The essence of community is a love concerned with the whole. Concerned love leads to the building of community after the destruction of war. Fortunately for human beings, most soldiers are not made into habitual killers by war, even if they are soldiers who have killed. They are capable of living civilian lives after war. Gray, the WWII veteran, is correct about this, even if many veterans doubt it. Other writers have sought to define community. Sebastian Junger, who was an embedded journalist with the 173rd Airborne Brigade in the Korengal Valley of Afghanistan and made a documentary about the experience entitled “Restrepo,” defines “concerned love” in a different way, the way of male bonding. In
his book, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, Junger discusses a type of love among soldiers. The men form the ultimate in male bonding, a brotherhood which only men in battle can form. Hardship, such as war, enables soldiers to transcend selfishness. Junger knows from first-hand experience that the bane of modern armies, PTSD, would not exist if soldiers preserved that brotherhood when they return to the civilian world. Unfortunately, combat veterans lose this protection all too quickly. This Veterans’ Day, we should provide veterans the chance to re-enact the communal love of their small units, which existed in our society before we lost our tribal identity.
A good example of communal love is The Warrior Storyfield in Longmont. A group of veterans and artists formed a “tribe,” a sculpture project that gives the unspoken experience of war a voice through the creation of huge iron statues of a dragon, representing homo furens, the ferocious warrior, and the phoenix, representing the resurrection of human love in the soldier when he comes home. Closer to home we have the Veterans Community Dialogues, to be held on November 7.
Joe Barrera, Ph.D, is the former director of the Ethnic Studies Program at UCCS and a combat veteran of the Vietnam War.