A lifetime ago I was stationed in a dusty outpost in a backwater province in one of the dozens of countries American men and women have served in dusty outposts in backwater provinces. One afternoon one of the local officials we were working with brought a woman to the burnt out old government building that served as our office. She was distraught. Her nine-year old son had gone missing two days before. And she came to us for help to find him.
She’d gotten a few voicemails from the people who had taken him. She played one of them for us. My chief and I listened. I ignored my interpreter as he translated what he heard. I didn’t need to know what was said. I could hear fear in the voice of a young boy. And then the threatening tone of a man. And then silence.
We asked her what she thought we could do to help. And she said that she hoped we could find him. My chief told our interpreter that we’d see what we could do and he relayed the message to her as he walked her out the door. That work wasn’t why we were there. But my chief and I rounded up a few of the team and did a little work anyway. And we made a little progress and came to the conclusion that if we had a few resources, we could probably go get that kid.
Later that night, at our evening meeting with the commanders we reported to, we gave them the situation and asked for the resources. And we were turned down. None were available. And trying to give it a go without them was a non-starter. I walked out of the meeting room with my stomach in a knot. I thought of what it was going to feel like when that woman came back the next day. When I had to tell her we couldn’t help. When there was no way she would understand that I just didn’t have the resources. And that ultimately it wasn’t up to me. All she would hear was that we couldn’t help her find her son.
My chief and I shuffled silently down the hall and out the door. When I turned towards the mess hall—it was time for dinner—my chief turned the opposite direction, back to our building. I asked where he was going. And he looked back over his shoulder without breaking his stride and said, “I’m gonna go get that kid.” He was surprised I asked. He took a few more steps and stopped and turned back to me.
“You don’t have to come.”
Then he turned and left. I stood there for a few seconds in moral limbo. And then I pulled the tin of Copenhagen from my cargo pocket, packed it, threw in a dip and followed after him. I could have ordered him to stop. But I knew he wouldn’t.
A few days later the boy was returned to his mother. How we found him without using the resources or without blatantly disobeying orders isn’t important. But we did. I called my wife that night and told her simply that we had done something good that day.
My bosses weren’t wrong. They made the proper and prudent decision. We weren’t there to do that job. And they really didn’t have the resources I asked for. And the risk to go it alone the way we would have without them was far too high. And if I were them, ten times out of ten, I would have made the same call they did. Because from where they were sitting, it was the right call. Because from where they were sitting, they couldn’t hear the fear in that boy’s voice. Or see the pain in that woman’s eyes when she heard it. And none of them were going to have to live with it for fifty years after that boy’s body got fished out of the river with no head and hands the way the last two boys that went missing did whose parents never came to us for help.
But what my chief understood immediately, and showed me the way so I could follow, was that sometimes, when the strong are far away from the pain and the suffering of it all, burdened by the grave responsibility to get it so right for so many, they forget some things. They forget that woman and her son were the unprotected innocent. And we were the strong. And sometimes, when we turn our eyes away from them for too long, we forget that those who need us most, are the purpose of our strength.
The strong are not strong because we can protect ourselves. You can do that by running and hiding. By never taking bold risks. By locking out the others. The purpose of strength is to be strong for others. Not for ourselves.
There is risk and consequence in action. You may lose all you have and all you’re ever going to have. But there’s consequence to inaction too. Some things once seen must be met with action. Like the voice of a kidnapped child. Or the picture of a father with nerve gassed children. The erosion in the human belief that the human purpose on this planet is for others, and that the very cause of strength is for the weak, is far more destructive than any material risk we’ll ever face when we choose to act.
They are the purpose of our strength. But sometimes, it’s easy to forget why we’re strong.