#Essays on War: Oh, the Humanity

There is beauty in chaos, in war, in loss, in suffering. For all of our faults as human beings, we have nobility as well. I’ve seen this acutely in the Army during my career.

Most commonly, I’ve seen it on deployments. It’s the soldier who hands out shoes to barefoot Afghan children. It’s the medic who treats non-combatants or even insurgents with the same level of care my own soldiers receive. It’s the shared joy and smiles when an Iraqi sheikh rejoices at the birth of a son and the communal reverence and mourning at the murder of his friend, sharing emotion across religions, across cultures, and across a languages. Oh, the humanity.

Have you ever been on the floor of a Joint Operations Cell during a DUSTWUN (Duty Status, Whereabouts Unknown)? In 2005, as a lowly Captain in Afghanistan, I watched how the full force of the nation’s power came to bear when we lost communications with four Navy Seals. Nothing was spared:  drones, satellites, helicopters, planes, human intelligence assets, three-letter agencies, Air Force and Navy personnel and equipment, and allied partners. It was a symphony of expertise, of determination, of America’s best. Everything. Everything for four men. Oh, the humanity.

Joseph Ambrose, a World War I veteran, at the dedication for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. He is holding the flag that covered the casket of his son, killed in the Korean War. (Mickey Sanborn/DOD Photo)

It’s how we honor our dead. It’s the fallen comrade processions, ramp ceremonies, and moments of silence. It’s the Casualty Notification Officer and the Chaplain. It’s the military funeral with full honors for World War II veterans and a hundred Patriot Guard riders on motorcycles escorting the hearse. It’s handing a flag to the next of kin (some things I wish never to do again). It’s the professionalism of the men and women guarding the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. It’s the garrisons that conduct Runs for the Fallen. It’s how we ensure our Gold Star Families are taken care of. Oh, the humanity.

This morning I watched an inmate from the United States Disciplinary Barracks at Fort Leavenworth being escorted to his hearing. The young man was dressed in his Class A Uniform, his ribbons straight, shoes polished, and not a hint of stray lint anywhere. With the exception of the handcuffs and two Military Police Soldiers in close physical contact, you could have mistaken him for a candidate heading to a promotion board. I have no idea what crime he was accused of, but I was struck by the dignity to which we afford our own, even those who have broken our code of justice. Oh, the humanity.

It’s the firefighters who say thank you on 9/11. It’s the nice police officer who didn’t give me a ticket when I took an illegal turn off of Times Square in New York City while escorting a VIP. It’s the Wounded Warrior Project; Team Red, White & Blue; the Veterans of Foreign Wars; the American Legion; and a host of other organizations who still serve both the active duty and veterans. It’s the Family Readiness Groups. Oh, the humanity.

I’ve seen ugliness, horror, frailty, failure, and evil in my job. But, this November, I am thankful. I am thankful for the beauty I see in our profession. I am thankful for our humanity.

Chris Ellis is an officer in the United States Army. He has broad deployed experience including missions to Kosovo, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Kuwait. He holds a bachelor degree from the University of Washington, and master's degrees from the University of Kansas, the Command and General Staff College, and the School of Advanced Military Studies. His professional writing interests include ethics, science, and disaster preparedness. The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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