When people find out I am a veteran of the United States Army, they will often ask me, "Why did you join the Army?" I like to turn the question back on the speaker, "Why did you not join the Army?" The responses are often varied and often pithy. My favorite responses are generally from Marines. I am, however, always interested as to why the questioner wants to know why I served my country. Is it to help prove or disprove their own stereotypes about the American soldier, or is it because they really want to know?
The question, however, reminds me of another I'm asked in another part of my life, "Why do you climb?"
I will borrow my response to that question from Art Davidson's masterful book -148 Degrees: The First Winter Ascent of Mt. McKinley:
Occasionally, I'd return from these outings so dreadfully sunburned or skinned up from scrambling...that friends would shake their heads and ask that question which has always made mountain climbers shudder: "Why do you climb mountains?" It's usually hard for a climber to reply because usually there are a number of very personal reasons why he loves to climb, and he's apt to be cautious about describing the simple joys of the mountains, like a sunrise seen from a lonely ledge of rock, because his words can never quite express what his experiences meant to him (p. 11)
For me, when I read Davidson's writing, I all of a sudden knew why I climbed: because it was so much like being a soldier. A few replacement words, to me they read as near similes, and the passage could describe my experience as a soldier:
I'd return from the war, so dreadfully sunburned or skinned up... friends would shake their heads and ask that question which has always made soldiers shudder: "Why are you a soldier?" It's usually hard for a soldier to reply because there are a number of very personal reasons why he loves to be a soldier, and he's apt to be cautious about describing the simple joys of being a soldier, like a sunrise seen from a lonely outpost, because his words can never quite express what his experiences meant to him.
In trying to respond directly to the question, however, Davidson concludes about the particular winter ascent on page 217 of his book that:
We solved none of life's problems, but I believed all of us returned with a new awareness of some of its realities. Each of us may have realized in his own way, if only for a moment, what Saint Exupery spoke of as "...that new vision of the world won through hardship."
I, and I think many other combat veterans, feel the same way about our own time in war. What of life's problems did we ever really solve? What of those simple joys of being a soldier? Of my own as an individual, I generally created far more problems than I solved in going to war, but I'd still sign that paperwork, or rather have my Dad sign that paperwork when I was 17. However, as soldiers, sailors, Marines, and airmen, we can also ask what of our own Nation's problems did we solve, and this is a key difference between service members and climbers.
As a Nation, did we really prevent further mass terrorism? Did we help to spread democracy? Did we make the world a better place? All of us who have served have our own answers to these questions. These answers may be as different between soldiers as they are from the pundits, politicians, and generals who normally ask and answer these questions on our behalf.
What is true, however, is Saint Exupery's statement about the "new vision of the world won through hardship." We certainly have that new vision as veterans. The challenge is in making that a vision of not just hope, but benefit for our future.