Rationalism Under Fire: Reflections of How America’s ‘Poor and Stupid’ Solved Complex Issues in Combat

Andy Wolf (center right) and members of Bravo Company 2nd Battalion 16th Infantry Regiment in Iraq during "The Surge" in 2007.

In a tumultuous time when- by chance or design- American citizens threaten to tear the Republic in two with social, political and racial division, I cannot help but look upon the American people without letting loose a heavy sigh of disappointment.

My disdain doesn’t go unnoticed, either.

I was recently asked by one of my friends about where I felt I fit in the current scheme of things, a near-thirty year old college student dropped into the current melee between factions upon factions of demographics who are constantly at each other’s throats. “If you could do anything different with your life’, he inquired, ‘what would it have been?”

“Simple’, I quipped curtly. “I wish I had been killed in combat.”

Now that might sound a little extreme, selfish and in need of further examination, so allow me to explain myself.

You see, as a young Kentuckaseean who was plucked from my rural home to spend a large portion of my life overseas, I was always the minority, even in places where the population was predominantly similar to me in appearance (though as a teenager in China, this was not the case). I was always a minority because I was, first and foremost, an American. It wasn’t always easy- from 2001-2006 in particular, it was not a good time to be an American overseas. Despite that, I spoke lovingly not of my country, but of my Republic– a truly exceptional place where everyone could accomplish what they dreamed of, regardless of race, religion or social status. I believed in the idea of America, defending the flag from being burned in the 2003 London protests against the Iraq War (which my father recalls ended up in us being shuffled off by Police to a safe place), putting up with endless ridicule and criticism of my Republic by my European and Asian classmates and eventually returning home with the intent of graduating high school in order to enlist- to fight in the “War on Terror”, despite being opposed to the conflict. In my mind, Americans were being asked to go and therefore I must- if for no other reason than to hypothetically replace the burial plot of someone who might cure a great disease or discover a new form of energy. In early 2007, I got my wish and was deployed to Iraq for fifteen months during the “Surge”.

When I served with the men of my unit, I did not truly appreciate our diversity because to be honest, I never really noticed. You see, in my eyes, I was an American. I served with Americans. I lived in filthy, carcinogen-ridden bombed out factories with Americans. I shared food, water and ammo (sometimes all in low supply) with Americans. I fought on rooftops and in alleyways alongside Americans. I held onto other Americans and got them through the moment, as they did for me.

Was there racism among us? Not really. Sure, we threw racial slurs around the way English teachers throw around punctuation. Heck, we embraced those racial slurs- they were terms of endearment. Racial differences were a joke to us. So what if you were black or white, a Jew or an atheist. We could have cared less where your family came from- if anything, we embraced it. We taught each other foreign languages we knew, we played jokes on each other (being from the South, I got a lot of Klu-Klux Klan references). None of that was offensive because it was all so absurd to contemplate. We had homosexuals in our ranks during ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ and nobody thought anything of it. When someone tried to make something a ‘race’, ‘religion’ or any other kind of issue, it was unanimously shut down by the rest of the unit.

The message was clear: We were Americans. If you were with us, you were one of us. If you were one of us, you’d never find anyone outside of that group who would love you more than we did. We were all brothers, inseparable…

Then we came home (but not really).

All of a sudden, we aren’t Americans anymore. We found ourselves suddenly not brothers- society arbitrarily split us up by race, religion, social background and sexual orientation. We come home and realize we aren’t allowed to be as close as we are. Some of us can’t say certain words, while some of us can. The jokes we played on each other are now horrifying and punishable offenses. Some of us are coddled, others told to ‘check privilege’. We find that the media is now catered to some of our ethnicity, as if being black, white, Asian or Hispanic somehow is more important than being an American, something that at times was the only identity we had.

We all faced discrimination and overcame it. My chief medic found himself on the wrong end of racist white police in Kansas for being the darkest corner of the room- he is now a Doctor. One of the guys, unable to find a job, applied for food stamps to feed himself. He was denied over and over, eventually being blatantly told in hushed tone that it was most likely due to his gender and paler complexion. Eventually, he ended up hunting and fishing through the winter. He is now the head of Public Relations for a communications company. Some were not so lucky- many committed suicide after coming home and continue to do so, to the point where we stop asking “why?”, instead wondering “which one of us is next?”

But despite the small victories of being a stranger in your own homeland, the problems at home remain. In recent times, I quietly reflect upon the absolute solidarity experienced with my comrades and I laugh. I laugh at the irony in the fact that the demographic once considered the ‘poor and uneducated’ part of society that couldn’t make it in the ‘real world’ (although this was disproven) seems to be the only demographic (and a generation of their own, splintered from their own generation) who managed to not only figure out the solution to race relations, but did so under constant combat conditions. Under threat of life and limb, the white high school-educated enlisted kid from the South found himself glued to the hip of the black college-educated officer who left the inner city of NYC. The Chinese-born private found himself alongside a Polish-born specialist. The Jewish medic from the Southwest found himself bearing witness to what I can only assume were the final utterances of a dying Christian from the Deep South.

I think of these things and I laugh. I laugh until I turn on the news, read my social media feed or walk onto a college campus. I see Social Justice Warriors fictionalize everyone by things as minuscule as race, orientation and gender. I see politicians and the media stir acid into old wounds for votes and profit. I watch people hypocritically express outrage when one race kills another but fall apathetically silent when the same races slaughter countless more of their own.

I think of these things and I let out a sigh of true despair. I look at how we as a society do everything in our power to individualize and tear each other apart, when my comrades and I did everything in our power to become one and come home together (or die together).

I think of all this and truly wish I had died in battle. If I die peacefully today in my homeland, I will die a white, straight, Libertarian cisgender male from the South who wasn’t religious and never got to finish college. While I am not apologetic for any of that, the thought of having died violently on foreign soil- as an American who never had to live to see his beloved Republic “die by suicide” (as foretold by Lincoln in his Lyceum address) seems a much sweeter ending.

While these sentiments ring true, it still cannot be denied that something went right in those cramped city streets a world away. We as a culture of combat veterans understand something that our civilian contemporaries cannot and it is our nothing short of our duty (be it a vain attempt or no) to lead by example. It is a tireless effort in a seemingly endless battle- but being veterans of endless wars and expecting the announced arrival of 40,000 reinforcements, it seems a duty befitting of our caliber.

While fair-weather activists shirk duty the moment it becomes unprofitable or inconvenient, we carry on our duties.

After all, we understand that only in death does duty end.

(Author’s Note: as of December 2015, I actually did get to finish college.)

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  • Andy Wolf

    Andy Wolf is an Appalachian native who spent much of his youth and young adulthood overseas in search of combat, riches, and adventure- accruing decades of experience in military, corporate, first responder, journalistic and advisory roles. He resides in North Carolina's Blue Ridge Mountains with his K9 companion, Kiki.

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