Vets Know Why They Sacrifice
The veterans we honor each November 11, have much to teach us about the price of freedom and the value of service. But those who have served under fire are mysteries to me and to all of us who have never known the perils of combat. How, when the air around you is thick and hot with fire and bullets, do you find the courage to move in the direction of the fight? How does a person override their own sense of self-preservation to face danger and manage to lead others into the battle, with them? The military teaches its recruits about chain of command and unquestioned obedience to authority. But I've always wondered, in combat, are those things sufficient to drive soldiers in the direction of their duty?
In WWII, my father-in-law, Lou, was a sergeant and mortar squad leader in the 36th Texas Division that fought all through the mountains in Italy and finally marched into Germany in 1945. By the end of the war his division had suffered 27,345 casualties. He came away with a Bronze Star, and a Purple Heart for his service. So when the movie, Saving Private Ryan, came out in 1998, he and I went to see it together and afterward, it was clear that the realistic battle scenes had stirred old memories and feelings. I had to ask how he had ever summoned the courage to not run away from such danger? Was it old-fashioned patriotism or was it the cause of defeating Nazis and the evils of fascism, or was it just a deep respect for military authority? He told me, “I never thought of those things while I was in it. I just wanted to get home. But you did what you did for your buddies. You couldn’t let them down.”
Other vets I’ve talked to have expressed similar feelings. In those critical moments, it’s not the cause and it’s sure not the pay that pushes them into the fray. It’s the people they care about. Their buddies.
Too many organizations devote all their focus to transactional matters: here’s what we give to you in return for what we expect from you. But real shared success is less about the transaction and more about the strength and quality of the connections and relationships between people. And like it or not, relationships succeed or fail based on how connected and valued the people in them are made to feel.
Institutional trust is in decline. Trust is broken. The level of trust in virtually every major institution that once enjoyed unquestioned authority is at all time lows. Government, education, churches, law enforcement, banks, corporations, the media, you name it, all have lost authority as institutions.
At one time most people were expected to respect the badge, the office, the company, or the denomination. Those institutions wielded authority. But scandals and corruption that have come to light through 24-hour news cycles and citizen journalists armed with social media have led us to question old institutions and fed into a mass cynicism that makes every institution suspect.
The authority that institutions once enjoyed has shifted in a way old combat vets like my father-in-law would have understood. It now resides almost completely in the individual relationships. I may not trust the police, but I can come to trust the officer whose name I know because he has put in the time to build connections with the people in the neighborhood. I may not trust the mega-corporation I work for but I might feel a deep loyalty to the manager or coworker who remembers my kids' names and whose transparency and fairness and small acts of kindness and recognition have convinced me that I can count on her because she provides a sense of belonging that I need and that builds a trust and an indebtedness that compels me to be willing to sacrifice for her.
So what has replaced institutional authority is relational authority. In other words, the buddies you trust and the ones who know that they can trust you. Maybe that sounds fluffy and unserious but if it does, that's probably because a deeply ingrained cultural notion that softness equates to weakness and authority should be unemotional.
But authority of pay grade or rank or seniority or hierarchy of any kind isn't actually real. It's just an agreement. When enough people agree to abide by the idea, it seems real. But when trust erodes, the illusion of institutional authority evaporates. The results include people staying home from church, not turning to the police for enforcement, not complying with the rules, not pledging loyalty to the brand, not voting the party line and not being there for one another when--metaphorically or literally-- the shooting starts.
In the moments when sacrifice and leadership is needed, no noble cause or flag or authority will ever be as powerful a call to sacrifice and service as the bond of trust you share and the debt you feel for your buddies. Ask any vet.