The following video comes from StoryCorps, a brilliant non-profit that records, preserves, and shares the narratives of Americans across the country. They tend to be brief but powerful pieces, and the one below is no exception – it nearly elicited tears from my eyes, and gave me the chills.
Given my interest in war and human conflict – intertwined with any formal study of politics, history, and international relations – I’ve long wondered what it is like to involuntarily take a human life. From what I’ve seen and heard, it is one of the most haunting and psychologically devastating experiences imaginable, even in cases where you had no choice or weren’t at fault.
That said, war amplifies this horrific circumstance like nothing else. The greatest tragedy of most military conflicts is that young strangers who would otherwise have no reason to harm one another are forced to kill or be killed, as the soldier above did. It is an obvious but painful choice between losing your life and taking another’s. Its pits our natural instinct for self-preservation, perhaps the most powerful driving force imaginable, against our underrated capacity to feel empathy for one another. It’s a cruel and regrettable experience I hope never to have to witness, much less partake in.
War is awful enough in a macro analysis. But when one hears and sees individual accounts like these, it becomes daunting to imagine just how compounded the agony is. Thousands and millions of casualty figures are not just numbers – they each represent a human being, who once had dreams, experiences, interests, loved ones, a personality, and a mutual desire to live. Despite our best efforts to dehumanize the enemy, or to necessarily encapsulate war’s consequences in cold statistical data, we can’t get past the human element, the emotional and psychological toll that can’t be measured and often can’t be fixed.
Nor should we forget, given the valuable, if morbid, lesson first highlighted by American Civil War general Robert E. Lee:
It is well that war is so terrible, otherwise we should grow too fond of it.
Had there never been a war, I wonder what would have become of that Angel Soldier, or his reluctant and tortured killer? Where would the millions who perished in that conflict alone be? Private Robertson’s compassion and empathy are a bright light in an otherwise horrific and consistent example of humanity at its worst.