I spent more than a decade in the Army. As is typical of those in the military, I joined partly for patriotic reasons. “To serve my country,” as the saying goes. However, my entire outlook changed dramatically in three short seconds.
Throughout life we are presented with the idea that most issues of morality are easily dealt with. Communism is bad, democracy is good. Nazis are bad, the allies are good. Drugs are bad, the war on drugs is good.
Unfortunately, when we deal strictly in black and white, we entirely miss the human factor. We don’t see the reality that not only does life come in shades of gray, but it comes in a myriad of colors. It is an oversimplification to claim that every person who wears an enemy uniform is an evil person deserving of death. If the intricacies of human action are not reduced to the black and white of good versus evil, we will be forced to judge each individual by their own actions and this is not very conducive to war.
So it was that I found myself in Afghanistan. We were the good guys. The enemy was “terrorism.” The basis of this terrorism was Islamic extremism. Its face was that of the Arab.
The question which never seems to be asked, let alone answered, is how to determine which Arab is peaceful and which Arab is a terrorist? Obviously, if someone is shooting at you the answer becomes readily clear. But as we discussed above, life is not nearly that simple.
We had just landed at a remote base in the mountains of Afghanistan. As a helicopter pilot, I found myself in dramatically less danger than those on the ground, but as I was soon to find out, I was not immune from being put into dangerous situations.
I looked over my shoulder to see the ramp of our Chinook drop to the ground while the crew and passengers began to unload the equipment we were carrying. As I turned back to the front, my eyes landed on a man who suddenly appeared at a run from around the corner of a building roughly 50 feet in front of us.
The man was an Arab. His head was down, arms crossed over his chest, fists clenched. He was running directly at our aircraft. The man was a terrorist and he had a bomb strapped to his chest.
At this point, time slowed to a crawl. I’m fairly certain that my heart stopped beating.
I looked to my left, but the copilot had his head down while doing some paperwork. I looked in the rearview mirror, but the machine gun was sitting empty because the crew was unloading cargo. I considered yanking in power to take off, but was certain that I would injure or kill someone.
I looked back up as the terrorist was now roughly 40 feet away and still determined to kill us all. My only option was to hold the helicopter controls with my legs, pull my 9 mm sidearm, and shoot at the moving target through the side window. Not the most ideal situation.
Just as my hand reached the grip of my weapon, the terrorist’s progress had reached the edge of the rotor blades. The rotorwash hit him hard and ripped one side of his robes out of his hands. He slowed ever so slightly as he grabbed at his robe, pulled it back around his chest, and continued running past me.
I had nearly shot a man who simply tried to keep his robes from flapping around in the winds of the helicopter.
The severity of the situation didn’t really settle in on me until later that evening as I pondered the events of the day. If I had not been on the controls of the helicopter my reaction time would have been quicker and he would have been dead. If I had been on the crew served machine gun, he would have been dead. If I had been an infantryman on the ground, he would have been dead.
We rarely consider the effects of this type of accidental death. The effects it has on neighbors and friends and family. How many “enemies” are created because of simple mistakes? How many lives are destroyed because of the inability to determine friend from foe?
With a slightly different sequence of events a completely innocent man would have been dead. A son, a brother, a friend, perhaps a husband or a father. He would have been killed at the hands of the occupying forces and the family would likely have gotten nothing more than a “sorry.” After all, all’s fair in love and war. Acceptable losses and all that.
But it wasn’t acceptable. He had done absolutely nothing wrong and I wanted to kill him for it.
Not only do we rarely consider the effects these events have on the recipients, but we also try to trivialize the effects on those doing the killing – or in my case, almost killing. Short of being a sociopath, how does one live with the knowledge that he murdered another human being who was completely innocent of any ill intent? How can we keep up the façade of being the “good guys” when we’re put into an environment where we’re continually confronted with the potential to kill or be killed, without regard to innocence?
In the short span of three seconds, I almost became a murderer and, in the process, discovered my humanity.