Best Defense

We’re taught that ‘complacency kills’ in combat. But in peace, the lack of it does.

“COMPLACENCY KILLS” was the last thing we saw when leaving the wire in Iraq.

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By Douglas Jackson
Best Defense guest columnist

“COMPLACENCY KILLS” was the last thing we saw when leaving the wire in Iraq. Strategically placed and impossible to miss, the signs were at exit control points for every base, FOB, or outpost. The message was clear: “Let your guard down and you’re dead.” And while this mindset was intended to keep us alive in Iraq, it may be wreaking havoc at home.

Being hypervigilant makes sense in a war zone, especially in urban terrain with IEDs and an invisible enemy. Noticing something small but out of the ordinary and trusting your instincts could mean the difference between life and death.

But what about when you return home — is this something your brain automatically unlearns? Is complacency a completely bad thing if a likely threat no longer exists? It is defined as “ feeling of quiet pleasure or security.” And isn’t that something most of us desperately need?

Without stress, these stored cues and rehearsed responses are often invisible. Upon exiting the military, I wasn’t particularly sensitive to loud noises, didn’t have nightmares, wasn’t diagnosed with PTSD. But something changed when life became stressful for months on end, the survival mechanism took over, an instinct shaped by “COMPLACENCY KILLS.”

Our brains are actively storing/prioritizing stimulus that should be taken seriously, especially in a war zone. Loud metal doors, sudden bangs, barking dogs — this was the soundtrack of our night raids, the associations my mind made with danger. And so it was, nearly 10 years later when I was asleep and heard our dog barking with someone struggling at the door, that my brain connected dots that were not there. While it could have simply been an intruder, my mind anticipated being on the receiving end of our raids, of being completely overrun. I took a second to collect myself and prepared for a fight, only to round the corner and find my wife walking in, wondering why I had a crazed look about me. (Cue the panic attack.)

For months, maybe even years, I simply had not allowed myself “feelings of quiet pleasure or security.” But with this new realization I began making changes. I practiced meditation, ditched my smartphone, went to a silence retreat and didn’t speak for days. I even took up skydiving — something that triggered a fear response and was ultimately overcome through intentional relaxation. And then I went to counseling at the VA and realized how normal all of this actually was.

It would only make sense that practicing peace requires as much effort as preparing for war.

Doug Jackson was an infantry rifleman with 1st Bn 2nd Marines deployed to Iraq during the surge of 2007. He is a film school graduate and now works as a freelance photographer in Florida. 

Image credit: YouTube

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com.

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