"Dude, you get to blow up stuff": The moral awakening of a Navy man

We had become so desensitized to death we laughed at violent YouTube videos. I wanted more than blind patriotism

Published September 15, 2014 11:45AM (EDT)

  (AP/Wong Maye-e)
(AP/Wong Maye-e)

I remember standing in a dark, cramped room in a military processing center just outside Chicago in the summer of 2003. I was waiting to take the oath of enlistment after signing up to join the Navy. I casually accepted the offer of Missile Technician handed to me by the Navy classifier. The generic and brief job description was overly technical for my liking, as I never considered myself adept at mechanical life – the auto mechanics class in high school was a requirement, but I found absolutely no joy in it. The classifier assuaged my misgivings with a reassuring, “Dude, you get to blow stuff up and see the world.” Sold. Where do I sign?

I was 18 and remarkably sure of myself and my world view. Earlier, I had joined in the bloodlust and desire for vengeance after the 9/11 attacks and cheered as the news media played video of American bombs and missiles shattering an already desolate Kabul. I didn’t question the logic. Al Qaeda had hurt us, and we were going to hurt them back. The Taliban, Afghanistan and the Afghan people were just small objects on the periphery of the collective American rage. I participated in debates leading up to the Iraq invasion and attempted to persuade recalcitrant doves that not only was invasion the right thing to do, it was the only sensible option we had. I cited Saddam Hussein’s use of chemical weapons against Iran during the 1980s and against the Kurd and Shia population in the aftermath of the first Gulf War. I was oblivious to the irony in the argument that the United States should invade and dismantle the political apparatus of another country because of weapons that we had provided to them just two decades prior.

This story isn’t so much about my experiences in the Navy, but rather the difficult marriage of patriotism and militarism with humanity and morality, and how it evolved during my decade of service. However, a little background information might be helpful. I had a very stereotypical boot camp and training experience where being called an “individual” was meant to be insulting. I spent nearly five years on a ballistic missile submarine home-ported in southeast Georgia where I was responsible, along with my division, for maintaining and operating the most devastating weapons system ever built – Trident II Submarine Launched Ballistic Missiles – and the only nuclear weapon meant for use in a first strike. I conducted eight deployments and held progressively increasing responsibilities as I quickly moved through the ranks. During my final years in the Navy, I was assigned to a training facility where, as the senior instructor, I designed intricate scenarios where submarine crews reacted to simulated political conditions that resulted in the exchange of nuclear weapons. I evaluated the ability of these crews to rapidly and accurately process orders from the president, prepare the weapon system and then pretend to destroy the world.

Getting on with the story. So what was my big revelation in life? Am I one of those horror stories that keep conservatives up at night – the perfectly righteous young Republican warped by the pesky liberal factory that is academia? Not quite, although pursuing a graduate-level degree in history, Middle Eastern history in particular, replete with stories of toxic Western colonialism, coups d’état, support of dictators, fomenting civil wars, and other sorts of political interference did not help. My education, maturity and the progression of the wars led me to believe I was wrong for supporting the invasions in Iraq and Afghanistan, but changing your mind in hindsight about some foreign policy issues does not necessitate a major existential crisis. I would have to say that my experiences with death, both direct and otherwise, changed me.

I remember the week that death and my personal views toward it began to seriously affect me. It started when a colleague committed suicide during a long weekend. It wasn’t anything too shocking. This was probably the twentieth or so person in my extended community who had killed themselves, and later I stopped counting once that number passed 30. After a short but somber memorial service, I went to the office with my division and did what we usually did when there wasn’t anything to do – cruised the Internet until it was time to leave. This particular day, someone decided to bring up YouTube videos of air attacks in Iraq and Afghanistan. For about two hours, we watched AC-130 gunships tearing human bodies to pieces with their cannons, bombs and missiles obliterating houses and buildings, and snipers shooting insurgents in the head. Somewhere in the middle of this particularly graphic form of entertainment we were indulging in, I found myself paying more and more attention to my friends and their reactions to the videos. The laughter, hooting and exclamations about how “awesome that head shot was” or “dude, did you see how far his leg flew away” seemed perfectly normal to us. To all of us. We had just attended a memorial service to honor a fallen comrade, and now we were reveling in death in all its glory.

The severity of the shift in attitudes genuinely shocked me and prompted me to think about how and why my perceptions of death varied depending on the circumstances. During my sea-duty time onboard the sub, I knew that an actual nuclear exchange was highly unlikely, but it was still a possibility that we rigorously trained for. The thought that we could, at any moment, receive orders to instantly destroy thousands upon thousands of lives was not particularly troubling for any of us. Occasionally, someone would make an oblique reference about how cool it would be to turn some Middle Eastern country into a “glass parking lot,” but it was never said with an appreciation of the devastation it would truly bring. Another poignant example was when people checked onboard who, for lack of a better description, just didn’t fit in. They might have had hygiene issues, had some sort of social foibles, or were determined to be just plain weird. These young sailors were quickly ostracized by the rest of the crew. We would take bets on when they would crack, if they would try to hurt themselves, if they would survive the patrol, or how quickly their ill-advised and quick marriage to a new girlfriend would fall apart. It was all very amusing to us.

I know this all sounds quite terrible, and I fully expect some angry comments from veterans, especially from those with whom I served. However, I do not think this is a military-specific issue. There simply exists an atmosphere within the military that promotes a hyper form of a very real social phenomenon where we devalue the lives of “the others” – those who we feel are just not like us. The strong sense of esprit de corps and unit cohesiveness naturally discourages individualism and a rejection of everything that is not “us.” It is why we can empathize and mourn a tragedy that hits home while mocking and cheering an AC-130 blasting away insurgents. It is also why we are able to remain surprisingly ambivalent to things that should shock us a great deal – drone strikes that kill innocents, renegade soldiers murdering entire families in Afghanistan, or labeling the deaths of dozens of Palestinian children by Israeli missiles simply collateral damage. We find ways to justify these actions in our minds to absolve ourselves of guilt. They shouldn’t have been there in the first place. They started this war. We have a right to defend ourselves. All of the above are excuses we use to rationalize why we feel differently when bad things happen to these “others,” especially when we are the ones doing it. No one would dare say that they didn’t care about drone strike victims because they are Muslim or Arab, at least not publicly; but, at the end of the day, we ignore these victims because they are not like us.

This realization disturbed me a great deal, and I was thoroughly disgusted with myself. I never intended to make the military a career, but these issues, and the desire to do something meaningful with my life, gave me a heightened sense of urgency to leave the Navy. Once my enlistment drew to a close, I signed some paperwork, had a brief award ceremony and a going-away dinner, and then I was done. For those of you who have never experienced the military, separating is a considerably larger shock than one would expect. Your social circle disappears rather quickly. I still have a great number of friends from the Navy, but you do lose some contact once you lose the inside knowledge of their deployments and where they are stationed. A large majority of the skills you acquire while in the military will never translate to civilian life (there are some exceptions – nuclear reactor operators and mechanics, for example). Therefore, unless you are continuing in your same field for the DOD or a defense contractor, you are essentially starting your life over when leaving the military. I planned a great deal before separating, so I left with two degrees and a fairly certain grasp of what I wanted to do and where to do it. Many service members leave with considerably less.

My new life is still unfolding, but in my studies I decided to focus on Iran, because there was so much talk about Iran being “the next battleground.” In school, I took classes on Iranian history and culture and even took three months of leave to attend an exhaustive Persian language immersion program. I met some wonderful people and discovered that I loved Iranian food and music. More importantly, the conversation about Iran changed for me. It was no longer about some cartoonish “axis of evil” country that occasionally makes absurd claims to wipe Israel off the map and its goofy, Holocaust-denying former leader, but rather a real country with real people. Knowing their language and culture opened an entirely new world to me and has enriched my life. It has also had a residual effect of introducing Iran to my friends and family, who are only infrequently annoyed when I offer the Persian translation for words or phrases (the Persian word for greed is hers, by the way).

Maybe that’s the point. By learning as much as we can about each other, and sharing that knowledge, we diminish the barriers of “otherness.” We will still be different from one another, but perhaps we can find it within ourselves to be more open to empathy. In the next few weeks, I am flying to southern Turkey to spend time with the children displaced by a conflict that has taken a backseat in the news because of current events. The civil war in Syria is still raging and has killed at least 150,000 and displaced millions. The length of the conflict, lack of a distinct opposition, and our general unfamiliarity with the area and its people have all helped foster a general sense of apathy. Even if there isn’t much we can do on the political aspect of this conflict, there are still things we can do to help. I’m bringing four or five dozen sets of colored pencils, coloring pads and bubble wands with me to the refugee camps. Small comforts for children who have lost nearly everything, sometimes even their parents. I would like to learn and share their stories in hopes that actually seeing human faces attached to the tragedy of Syria would drive us to care more, and maybe even do more. The Navy opened up the world to me. But by quitting the Navy, I could finally engage in it.

By Keith Gentry

Keith Gentry enlisted in the Navy from Chicago in 2003, and was stationed in Kings Bay, Georgia for nearly a decade. He currently resides in Washington DC and is pursuing a second Masters degree in International Peace and Conflict Resolution.

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