A couple of years ago, I was working for the summer in DC at a major law firm when a friend I have known since first grade came to visit. He is now a young adults pastor at a large church in California, and he was in town for a conference with the senior pastor from the church. As is customary, I played DC tour guide for a bit, and took them to Arlington National Cemetery for the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. While we were making our way through the cemetery, the senior pastor mentioned that he had recently seen the movie Black Hawk Down. He was genuinely moved by the film, but there was one feature that clearly troubled him: they kept going back. Why did the soldiers keep going back for those who were already dead—risking their lives for lives already lost? I had not seen the film, and so I could offer only cursory comments. In fact, I did not see the film until I arrived in Iraq and embedded with the troops.
It was good that I did see it relatively early into my time here, because it proved to be essential viewing to understand the jokes thrown around before missions. Hardly a raid goes by when one of the soldiers does not suggest that another soldier really doesn’t need the ceramic plate in the back of his body armor, or doesn’t need night vision goggles because the mission will only take a few hours, thereby mimicking ominous lines from the film. (I cannot speak to whether those two details occurred in the real life events depicted in the film.)
Having now seen the film, and having spent weeks with soldiers in the field, I can say that the answer to the senior pastor’s question is clear: because the soldiers fight not just for their country, but for each other. Indeed, a 2003 survey of U.S. combat troops fresh from the field found as much. (In addition, “Dr. Wong and his fellow researchers also found that soldiers cited ideological reasons such as liberation, freedom, and democracy as important factors in combat motivation. Today’s soldiers trust each other, they trust their leaders, they trust the Army, and they also understand the moral dimensions of war.”) To this end, I still recall chatting with Spc. Hart from the 1st Armored Division soon after I had gotten into country. Spc. Hart was 22-years-old, and by my recollection hailed from Arkansas. He was just a few weeks from going home, or so he thought (the 1 AD’s tour got extended for 6 months in order to take care of al-Sadr’s forces in Najaf). During his year, he had received a graze wound from a ricocheting AK round and a Purple Heart. Moments after arriving in Baghdad, he had been involved in an ambush involving RPGs and small arms fire at Saddam Mosque that rattled the men so badly that the fight, now a year old, was still fresh in their eyes. And along the way, he had learned something very important, which he passed along to me with a sort of stern resolve: “You know there are guys you can trust with your life.” This was not some sort of a cliché, or a misty hypothetical, but something which had been tested in battle when, for example, Spc. Dettwiler of Hart’s unit risked his own life to pull two fellow soldiers out of an ammo truck after it had been hit by enemy RPG fire. To spend any time with the soldiers is to better understand that they trust each other with their very lives—and that they trust their fellow soldiers to bring them home if things go wrong. This is why they go back.