imagining the enemy through the sights of my son's weapon

by Rich Moniak

They moved in unison
like dancers in a ballet,
the spider, twenty inches from my rifle,
the VC, twenty feet farther out, in line,
each slowly sliding a leg forward.
I let the man take one more step
so as not to kill the bug.

… Food for Thought: 3 A.M., by David Connolly

This morning it’s way too easy to imagine my son’s eyes sighting along the barrel of Connolly’s weapon. On Saturday Michael (left) boarded a flight with other young men and women from the 1st Stryker Brigade eventually destined for Iraq.

The news media didn’t cover these soldiers’ departure like they did a week earlier. But then it wasn’t a soldier’s story either. It was a unique political angle to the presidential race. Private Track Palin, the now famous son of Alaska’s governor and Vice-Presidential candidate, is part of the 1st Stryker Brigade.

Michael sees Private Palin as another soldier who has never seen combat. He’s not following the campaign coverage in the news. He always reminds me that he’s not political. He especially refrains from discussing the merits of the wars with me. It’s not that he avoids the subject to stay true to a soldier’s image. It’s personal more than political, and at times about nothing but survival with the same kind of cold hearted focus Connolly remembers from Vietnam.

I know Iraq isn’t Vietnam, despite the historical comparisons made for the sake of political debate. But Connolly explains many of the soldiers from that war were as apolitical as Michael.

“We had no political understanding of that war. We had no historical understanding of the people of Vietnam – very cursory, if at all. I was the only man in my training platoon who even knew that the French had fought there before us. Nobody even knew about the first Indochinese war.”

And he remembers more than just the American soldiers who were unbound to the politicians’ causes. He said most of the people he met in South Vietnam “just wanted their rice bowl filled every day and to raise their kids and to live.”

None of this matters to Michael, just as Connolly’s spider wasn’t a threat. He’ll need a cold hearted view of his enemy to protect himself physically and emotionally. Who is that enemy that would take my son’s life? I look to Connolly to try to understand:

“What I tried to do there was to give you this vision of looking down my rifle and the feeling of how hard-hearted I was at the time, that I could put this spider's life up above my contemporary. He may have been my enemy, but I'm sure he was a 19-year-old kid too.”

Michael’s true contemporary would be 28-years-old and unconcerned with the political nature of the war. He’d be thinking about marriage more than an election. Is he fighting only for the sake of survival? Would he pause to let a spider pass before shooting?

Through Connolly I’d felt drawn into wondering about the mind of ‘the other’. It’s not us against them, but rather he and I alone in my imagination.

Reasoning interrupted those thoughts as I tried to understand where they were leading me. But if my intellectual side was seeking attention, who inside me was imagining?

Imaginational intelligence resides in the heart: “intelligence of the heart” connotes a simultaneous knowing and loving by means of imagination.
… James Hillman, from the essay ‘the thought of the heart’.

I’m thinking about the enemy because I love Michael, but am I imagining with my heart by trying to look deep enough to imagine this other’s heart? Is this the opening to loving one’s enemy as Jesus, Buddha, Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. all preached?

Who in Iraq is my contemporary? Is there a father there imagining the father of a soldier who is coming armed to oppose his son? He’d understand that Michael would prefer to find friendly Iraqis when he arrives there and never have to use his weapon. He’d know that not all American soldiers are committed to the politics of the mission they were sent to support.

We who know our soldiers as sons and daughters understand it’s wrong to stereotype them as politically or racially motivated just because they are serving in our military. Similarly we should know that the opposing fighters in Iraq and Afghanistan aren’t all terrorists, radical Islamists, and insurgents who hate our freedoms. If military family members can open our hearts to wonder who is on the other side, maybe we could help others learn to engage their imaginational intelligence to realize that war is not the answer.