Tag Archives: army

Sicario, Excitement and Paying Your Dues

Recently a trailer for the movie “Sicario: Day of the Soldado” came across my Facebook feed. It was not a typical trailer. Typically a movie trailer shows clips from the movie with pulse-pounding soundtrack, and possibly a deep, gravelly, middle-aged male voice-over. This trailer had scenes from the movie, but it had explanatory subtitles explaining how the movie related to real-life drug wars. It explained that the movie demonstrated how cartels bring a complicated reality to south and central America, and that the violence that erupts between them is more like a guerrilla war, or even a conventional war, than it is like U.S. gang violence. When that violence spills over onto American soil two of the movie’s characters (who I gather were adversaries in the first film) will join forces to “start a war.” My assumption is that they were trying to aggravate violence south of the border in hopes that it would either draw the violence away from U.S. soil, or provide a reason for U.S. forces to engage in the war outside the U.S.

I don’t have much taste for war movies, or even crime movies, anymore, so up until now the trailer was disquieting but not particularly memorable. But it was the last line that really got me thinking. The final scene of the trailer had the words, “Come experience the excitement in theaters.”

Seriously? That’s what this is about?

I mean, I knew that’s what this was about. It’s an action film, designed to be exciting and to convince people to spend money to experience that excitement, ultimately in order to make money for the directors, producers, actors, investors, etc. Money is the goal, sex and violence sell. Of course they want you to come and experience the excitement.

I just didn’t expect them to be so… bald about it. So obvious.

Essentially the movie makers are selling an experience of adrenaline. In that sense they are no different than the makers of Call of Duty, Medal of Honor, Battleground, Halo, or any of a thousand combat related video games. They are trying to simulate the excitement of combat in a marketable package, i.e. a package that involves no risk of bodily injury or death, no heat, dust, sweat, boredom, no training, no discipline, no obedience, no separation from family…

… see where I am going with this?

I will not deny that war is exciting. Having spent some time in war myself, I acknowledge that some of the most exciting moments of my life have occurred in war, formed of the level of adrenaline, focus, clarity and just sheer aliveness that, for most people not saints, only occurs when your life is in jeopardy. I will go further and say that a young man could do worse than make a career of pursuing that excitement. It is not excitement that I am against, it is cheap thrills.

Violence, like sex, excites because it is a matter of life and death. We were made for life and death, for real struggle, real investment, real risk and real growth. That is, we were made to fight real bad guys to rescue real good guys (both physically and spiritually). We were also made to make real love that forms real relationships and real babies. There is a proper place for both sex and violence in art, namely to illustrate the truth of these realities and to inform our choices about them in the real world.

The problem with video games and action movies is not that they are realistic and exciting, but that they are not real. When you go to a movie theater to watch people get killed on the big screen you invest nothing of yourself. You feel the rush and roller-coaster, and you may even have a significant emotional event, but when that experience is over you have not changed. You are still the same person you were before the movie. You may have a new appreciation of some topical issue of the day, you may be emotionally moved, you may have had a spiritual epiphany, but unless that mental and emotional reaction is translated into decision, and from decision to action, and from action to habit, it has not changed you.

It is necessary to bear this in mind when watching war movies. If you want to experience the excitement of a firefight, or of fighting a fire, or of digging up IED’s, then pursue that. Join the military, or the police force, or the fire department. Suffer through basic training, put in thousands of hours at the gym, thousands of miles on your feet, training-for-ruck-marches-imagethousands of rounds on the range. Obey the orders of those appointed over you, deny your own inclinations, place yourself at the service of your team. Learn to be faithful in little things. Make your bunk, sweep your floor, scrub the platoon’s toilets. Do maintenance on your vehicles and equipment, take pride in them. Endure the boredom of sitting in a firing position all night, or of driving down dusty roads 12 hours a day. Accept the banality of having to answer to idiots and power-trippers who are in charge of you only because they have been in a few months longer. Miss your chance for a “real” fight time and time again, and still keep showing up to work, putting in your time, taking pride in your performance. Volunteer for harder, more difficult assignments, accept greater responsibility.

Sooner or later you may get your chance to enjoy the adrenaline rush. Or maybe you won’t. But if you pay your dues for enough years you will gain something better. You will learn that excitement is not an end, but a byproduct. It is something that happens when you are engaged in meaningful work, because meaningful work in this world is always risky, but you will not pursue the excitement anymore, you will pursue the meaning.

This is something you will not get from action movies or video games. You can only get it from life.

Images: PD-US

Lessons in the Chinook

Man’s curiosity searches past and future
And clings to that dimension. But to apprehend
The point of intersection of the timeless
With time, is an occupation for the saint–“

Today was a jump day. I had to jump out of a Chinook. This is one of the occupational hazards of my day job, that periodically they require me to parachute from an aircraft while in flight. It is one of my least favorite parts of the job. I hate heights. I’m also bigger than the average guy so I fall faster and I always hit hard. Jump days also suck up a lot of time.

Today for instance, we started at 0800, with rigging our rucksacks. Then the prejump brief, a quick break to get measured for some new gear, and before you know it, it’s eleven and we are rushing to the hangar to hurry up and get our chutes on so we can make our hit time. Hurry up and rig, then, Oh, wait, someone forgot to do some paperwork so everyone sit down for an hour in harness and ruck. Then hurry up again to get out to the bird that’s spinning up on the tarmac. We take off and start heading to the drop zone, but wait! The pilot and crew have some trainees on board so they are going to do some certification tasks. So we land and sit for thirty minutes. Then we take off and fly nap of the earth, zooming along a river bed, up over the banks and the treeline, down into the clear, banking, turning, diving and climbing like a rollercoaster. Then finally we level off and begin the pass over the drop zone. Everyone goes into the familiar routine, “Standup, hookup, check static line, check equipment, sound off for equipment check.” We got all the way to “Standby!” before they called the winds at 15 knots. So we circled and checked again. Still 15 knots. So we circled again. Still 15 knots! So we all sat down while we circled once more, or maybe twice more. Then “Standup, hookup, etc. Again.”

This time we jumped. I came screaming down fast as a load of bricks again, but landed in a nice, soft muddy patch so it didn’t hurt too much. The winds were high enough that my chute didn’t deflate and actually dragged me for a few inches before I popped both of my releases.

Then we jumped back on the bird, they buttoned up the ramp, and we took the scenic roller coaster route back. I had missed lunch because we were sitting in harness all day, so my stomach was already empty and queasy. With the ramp shut it got hot and stuffy, and the stale air smelled like diesel fumes and hot metal. I could feel my stomach bouncing around and my cheeks going pale. The other guys said I looked “even whiter than usual”. The whole flight back I was focusing on not throwing up. It’s all about breathing, and trying to relax.

It was on the return flight, I think, that the quote at the top of this post came into my head. It is from T.S.Eliot’s “The Four Quartets”. (The Dry Salvages, lines 199-203. No, I didn’t know that from memory. I looked it up when I got home.)

I admit that I was pretty frustrated today. I couldn’t help but think about all the other places I wished I was, the other things I wanted to be doing, the other people I would rather be spending time with. The frustration continued on the way home, with every traffic light, speed limit and even the other drivers adding to that sense of loss. I wanted to get home so I could begin doing other things that I actually care about. But T. S. Eliot’s line kept returning to my mind. “The point of intersection of the timeless/ with time, is an occupation for the saint.”

My mind was in New York, in South Carolina, In Virginia, in Panera Bread or Pho’ Tai in Tacoma. What was on my mind was the past (the fun I had last night) and the future (upcoming weekends, get-togethers, leave, even the fact that I’m getting out of the army in a couple of years.) I was not in the present, which is the only point of intersection of the timeless with time. So I was not living as a saint would live.

Over the course of the day this has been my ongoing battle, to be present in this time, because this time alone is real. God is found only in the present, never in the past or the future. Leave time in September, as much as I look forward to it, is not what I have been given. It does not exist. I have been given this moment, with the smells, the heat, the headache, the noise, the nausea. The thick, numb feeling of my whole body from hours of bombardment with rotor noise is the gift I have been given. This is my calling, this moment, right here and now. The infinite presence of God is an intolerable notion sometimes, because it means there is no mistake. If I have been following Him, then here is where He has put me. And He did it on purpose. Dwelling endlessly on phantasms of where I wish I was is a sheer waste of precious time, time given me to become a saint. That time spent in discontented grumbling is time horribly unredeemed, unredeemed because I refuse to surrender it for redemption. Time is the stuff of which my eternity will be formed. Let me think twice before I spend my time grumbling.

Here and now and nowhere else is sanctity to be found. Here there are rosaries to be said, praises to be offered, petitions to be made, and redemption to be shared in. I have been given these inconveniences as a share (infinitesimal, but all I can handle) in the suffering that Jesus undergoes for the redemption of my family and my friends. As my mother used to say, “Offer it up!” Offering it up is nothing more than allowing Jesus to make you a partner in His redemptive suffering, a little co-redeemer if I may use the phrase. But to do that I must be present.

So while on the outside the story of my day went much like the paragraph above, a series of routine delays and inconveniences, interiorly my day was pretty much a volley of my mind, bouncing back and forth between irritation and resentment, and peace and gratitude. Going all in an instant from impatient muttering to prayers of thanksgiving, maledictions upon my fellow-man grudgingly reforged into prayers for my loved ones. A long, constant effort to drag my mind back from where it drifts to the call of God in this moment.

An occupation for the saint–
But no occupation either, but something given
And taken, in a lifetime’s death in love,
Ardour and selflessness and self-surrender.
For most of us there is only the unattended
Moment…”