Psychologist Amos Tversky, whose work on decision making with fellow psychologist Daniel Kahneman was recognized when Kahneman won the Nobel prize for Economics in 2002, was not your average intellectual giant.
Tversky, like almost all Israeli’s was also a soldier. Not just a soldier. He was an airborn commando. The first time Tversky actually landed in an aircraft, after parachuting into multiple combat zones during the Suez conflict in 1956, was when he flew to America to complete his PHD at the University of Michigan.
During the 1973 Yom Kippur War between Israel and the Arab Coalition, Tversky gave soldiers, fresh out of the unusually intense fighting of the conflict, a questionnaire. What they told him over and over again about their motivations for fighting was different than what they said during service entrance exams. When entering, most were eager to fight for Israel. The abstract idea of a nation. The flag.
Fresh from the fight, their answers were different. In the minutes and hours after they had made it out, it was clear, they weren’t thinking of a flag. They were fighting for their friends with whom they served. And their families in the town behind them.
An Israeli soldier, fighting with his childhood friends with his back to the town he grew up in, knows exactly what he’s fighting for in the moment he is fighting. It’s not abstract. It’s flesh and blood. It’s not nuanced.
But I didn’t need Amos Tversky to tell me that.
Fourteen years ago, I nearly killed every one of my teammates because I made a foolish decision in command. I ran us out of gas a dozen miles off the coast of Africa in the Indian Ocean with the closest friendly vessel more than a thousand miles away.
The memory I’ve gone back to, in the moments over the years when I can’t get to sleep or when there’s not enough worry in my life to tie me down, is clear. I’ve re-lived it a thousand times. I hear the whining of one of the engines of my 11-meter boat go silent. Then my chief call me from the other boat trailing a few yards behind to tell me they lost an engine too. As the unlikeliness of that coincidence starts to sink in, the last engine on my boat dies. As both boats fell silent, it hits me.
We’re out of gas. And we’re all dead men floating.
Of all the moments in my time of service, that’s the one that I can’t shake. Not being off the coast of Iraq during 9/11. Not the soup of post suicide bomb body parts in Iraq or sifting through daily reports of the enemy’s plans to kill me or my teammates. That one moment in the dark is still there. No shots were fired. No violence. No enemy besides the sea. Quiet. Peaceful. Just me, on a boat, alone with the thought that I’d just gotten my entire team, 12 men, killed.
I’m not haunted by the impact my decision had on the American way of life or the idea of lost freedom we failed to defend. I’m haunted by the feeling one has when he’s sure he’s just killed his brothers.
Clearly, we got out of it or I wouldn’t be here to write this. It was half miracle, half training. On face value, it’s a lousy war story. The deeper reality is that it is the war story though.
What we’re memorializing today is not an idea. It’s not an acknowledgement of sacrifice. It’s not a day to celebrate the freedom that sacrifice bought. Sacrifice and freedom are words but spoken from the mouths of the living, have no meaning. Today is the day we remember people.
Flesh and blood.
We remember the people no longer with us. The ones who didn’t get out of whatever pinch they found themselves in. Today we remember the men and women who served with them. The friends that couldn’t save them. The commanders whose decisions, good bad or otherwise sent them to their end.
Today we remember the children without fathers or mothers. The parents who sent their children off to war and were given back a neatly folded flag in the place of a life that could have been.
If you do one thing on Memorial Day, find a Veteran’s cemetery and go there. Spend some time among the dead. Read their head stones. See the names their parents gave them. Teenagers. Twenty year-olds. Row by row. Spend some time with the mess of sadness and pain that lives between the rows of tidy headstones. Resist the urge, if only for a moment, to worship at the alter of heroism. Not because they’re not heroes. They are. But focusing on their heroism often saves us from the task feeling the loss.
Today is for the heavy lifting of loss.
Today is a day to spend some time with the flesh and blood of war.