- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Col. Keith Nightingale, U.S. Army (Ret.)
Best Defense professor of ground combat studies
Study a photograph of infantry soldiers at a battlefield service. It is all about choices in the darkest of mortal moments. No one does what is required to take this ground without having a profound inner moment and point of personal decision:
I have to believe in God who got me through this night.
I cannot believe in a God who would permit what I have just lived through.
After an extended and highly lethal assault to take the position, part of the force is convening for a moment with their God in the cathedral they just claimed. The broken trees, churned earth, and demolished bunker attest to what these troops have just seen and done for a prolonged period of time. They are the survivors and they have become believers, if they weren’t believers already.
Combat or the lull thereafter forces deep, lasting personal choices that are glued to the inner core of the combatant for the remainder of life and are as hard and unyielding as the persons who made them.
Not shown are those others, now alone with their thoughts and reflections, absorbed with the horror of the night and their personal role in the outcome. Both the believers and the unbelievers are of the same body, but they have acquired vastly different souls. That is the conundrum of combat. It forces deep visceral life changes for all who participated.
These relative positions are not good or bad. They are just what is and what will be, and we need to appreciate that. Each participant addresses mortal experiences in his or her own way. It is as immutable as is the concept of a belief in a higher being or the rejection of such.
It is a truism that there are no atheists in foxholes, but perhaps the better term is a non-chooser. Grunts, who arrived in battle with only a cursory religious aspect if any, quickly became fervent converts or fervent heretics. Combat does that. Chance is too obvious and luck too ephemeral.
In the darkest part of the night, rent with explosive flashes, crossing tracers, exploding grenades, and the deep, visceral sounds of the intimately, mortally engaged combatants struggling to snuff out as well as to save life, the participants find solace in a higher being or in the supreme strength in their own being. Some will be even closer together or farther apart as day emerges. The fortunate ones who were allowed to see the next day are pictured here. They are gathered to give deep, profound thanks for whatever permitted them to see the light of that day and the promise of more. They are firm believers.
On the line, unseen, are others who harbor grave misgivings regarding a God and have come to believe that their life is simply as it is lived, and that luck and nature will dictate the final outcome. I believe in myself and I believe in my unit. Nothing else matters at this moment. Those seen gather to wish their absent companions the salvation and succor that belief brings to the living. They also come to reinforce the internal strength that belief in a greater force and purpose may bring.
Others mourn the loss of their friends as the luck of the draw. The reservoir of individual chosen strengths will guide them through the future and hopefully preserve their existence in this world. It works for both choices. They all gather on the hard-won land of mortal conflict to honor that which brought them through then, and hopefully will again.
There are no choices not made in the land of the grunt.
Col. (Ret.) Keith Nightingale commanded four infantry companies, three battalions, and two brigades. These units included two tours in Vietnam, the Grenada invasion, and several classified counter-terrorist operations, including the Iran rescue attempt. He was a founding member of the 1-75th Rangers as well as one of the original members of what is now Joint Special Operations Command and U.S. Special Operations Command. Nightingale has written numerous articles on the infantry in both Vietnam and the Desert Wars. He is a member of the Ranger Hall of Fame.
Photo credit: U.S. National Archives