by Stacey Warde
I’ve spent most of my adult life studying the ways of a warrior and unlearning the ways of war.
I grew up during the Vietnam war in the midst of air fighter squadrons, the roar of jets blasting and taking off from El Toro Marine Corps Air Station, and the whoop-whoop of Chinook helicopters from another base closer to home, all done in readiness for war.
My formative years were steeped in war talk.
I heard the nightly body counts from Walter Cronkite and wondered why that was so important.
I learned that the “good” guys don’t always win, that not everyone likes war.
Countless Marines, sailors, and soldiers from all over the country patronized local bars and liquor stores, returning to their quarters drunk and happy. They looked strong and tough, if not a little weary.
They were boastful and rowdy and rash, belligerent and angry. More than once as a teenage boy I had to fast-talk my way out of a fight with one who always wanted me to know for some reason that Marines will kick your ass.
It wasn’t until much later that I learned the difference between a tough guy, or even a soldier or a Marine, and a genuine warrior.
By warrior, taken mostly from the Japanese samurai tradition, I mean one who has mastered himself. He has honed himself like his sword—sharp, swift, capable of delivering blows. His spirit is strong and generous. He rises above and prevents conflict. He doesn’t oppress others. He is kind and quick and steady. He is fierce and formidable.
My understanding of the best warrior is the one who stops conflict before it begins. He has the skills, training and heart to care enough to confront without rancor or bellicosity or violence. That way, few people get hurt and precious resources do not get squandered or destroyed or taken.
Fortunately, I’ve avoided combat and kept my fisticuffs to a minimum. I know plenty of guys who love to fight. I’m not one of them. I may be combative, but I try to avoid bloodletting as much as possible.
I began my fascination with war, as most American little boys do, growing up with war. I had barely started grade school in 1965 when a family friend shipped overseas to Vietnam, a jungle dangerous and dark, full of mud and men in black pajamas who wanted to kill you. He showed me black-and-white polaroids of him and his buddies camped out in the middle of the jungle, their army issue socks and skivvies hanging on a clothesline behind them. They stood together, arms around shoulders, cigarettes hanging from their mouths, crooked smiles. I stared at the photo, studying the detail of plants behind them, which I’d never seen before, and the spooky darkness between their massive leaves.
“Did you kill anyone?” I asked him earnestly, wondering what lay beyond the jungle darkness.
He took the polaroid from my hand, gave me a squinty look. “We don’t like to talk about that, son.”
A boy in this country discovers quickly that he’d better learn how to fight because, one way or another, there’s a bully or a commie or a terrorist who’s coming after you and you’re going to have to show him you’re not afraid, you won’t back down, and you’ll do what it takes to knock the bejesus out of him. You have to take a stand, or find someone who will take it for you.
I scrapped with most of the boys I grew up with. We argued, pushed, shoved and sometimes fought. As I grew older, the gaming and roughhousing got more risky, bloody and brawling, so I decided to pursue wrestling, organized and competitive, and learned quickly, as dad liked to say, “There’s always going to be someone who’s better than you, son.”
Still, it was as important as ever to develop a killer instinct, to go after blood if necessary, to make it on the mat against other wrestlers, and eventually to make it in the world. More than a killer’s instinct, I learned how to endure, how to give and take a beating, to experience pain. This has always made me think twice about getting into a fight, unlike many of our leaders.
My interest in the combat arts grew as much from curiosity as it did from environment, from growing up in the U.S., where militarism and warcraft permeate nearly every aspect of our culture. I wanted to know it as well as anyone else. I didn’t want to just play but be a soldier, and I was encouraged by friends and family to do it.
Joining the Army at 17 made sense because, like so many other young men at the time, I had nothing else going for me, and I could reform myself, study a craft and improve my limited opportunities. It became a rite of passage, where boys become men who learn the art of warfare.
In 1976, the Soviet “threat” kept spreading across the globe and I signed for a three-year stint as an Army Ranger to contain it; we were a light infantry strike unit whose mission was to destroy enemy communications and supply lines. We trained for terrorism and kidnappings, and conducted rescue operations in the desert. We drilled and trained hard, preparing for any likely scenario involving terrorists, guerillas and regular combat troops. We were given plenty of opportunities for honing our killing capabilities.
I took a course in explosives from Sgt. “Boom Boom” Mattoon, Ranger demo expert, and an advisor in the 1967 Arab-Israeli Six-Day War, to broaden my kill potential.
“I got da record for blowing up da most churches in Vietnam in one day,” he boasted. “So listen up, and listen good!”
He demoed the explosive magic of C4, a putty-like substance kids would love. Roll it up in a little ball, or light it with a match and cook your meals and it won’t explode, but stick a blasting cap in a brick of it and you can take out a church.
“I love war, let’s kill somebody!” a newbie to the unit said after “Boom Boom” detonated a charge.
You could always count on at least one person, usually someone who’d never seen combat, someone who didn’t really know what they were talking about, to make these comments. They were usually the first to wash out of the Ranger unit.
Even my father, as I was preparing at 17 to go into active military service two days after my 18th birthday, advised me: “Son, you either kill or be killed.”
Not many days later at a seedy hotel in Los Angeles, dizzy from the realization that in the morning I’d get on a bus to the airport with dozens of other young recruits and fly to New Jersey for basic training, I found a pay phone on the street and in tears pleaded with my mother, “I don’t want to go!”
“It’s too late now, son. You made your decision.”
The military did not train me to be a warrior. I learned that much later. I learned instead how to be a tactician, how to plan an attack and kill. It takes so much more to be a warrior, to be a voice of reason in the heat of combat, to see the futility and stupidity and waste of war, to be diplomatic and prevent war from happening in the first place.
Unfortunately, we don’t have that in this country.
Rather, we have warmongers, not warriors, who love to talk about killing and war. They talk a big talk, men of dubious reason, lacking humility, pounding the war drums, who have no experience as warriors, and lead others into hell. Don’t listen to them. Listen to the ones who have mastered themselves, the true warriors, who know how to stop war before it starts. §
Stacey Warde is publisher of The Rogue Voice.