Profound lessons come from unexpected quarters. The military, throughout history, has always been a paradoxical social institution, the nexus of the most profound social solidarity but the vehicle of our most violent conflicts; the organization of our basest nature, but the cultivator of our noblest attributes; the realm of brutal action, but the narrative of transcendental philosophies (especially in Eastern philosophies and religions). Therefore, it is appropriate that the most poignant piece of writing I’ve encountered in recent times was an op-ed in today’s Denver Post, describing the ordeal of informing a fallen soldier’s family of the loss of their loved one (http://www.denverpost.com/opinion/ci_16653516).
While the author, Captain Michael Odgers, subtly imports some of the ideological glorification of war that sacrifice facilitates, it is only on the margins of his beautifully written and deeply felt piece. The thrust of the narrative is one of compassion, of feeling the pain of others and taking it on as your own, of knowing that their suffering is our shared burden. I’ve written often that this should form the cornerstone of our national ideology (see, e.g., Our Brothers’ and Sisters’ Keepers). How ironic that the most eloquent expression of the argument should come from the institution that is arguably most biased against it in other spheres of life.
Is the parent’s, the spouse”s, the child’s pain at the loss of their son or daughter, their husband or wife, their mother or father, any less when it occurs in other contexts? Is the compassion that Captain Odgers describes any less appropriate, any less essential, any less necessary to the definition of what it means to be a society?
Not all deaths, even in service to country, occur on the battlefield. Not only do police officers and fire fighters and other rescue workers die in the line of duty, but so do social workers, construction workers, miners, and others making their various contributions to our collective welfare.
But does, or should, our compassion require a down-payment? Must those who have suffered a loss be able to invoke some special claim before they merit our organized and institutionalized moral (and perhaps material) support? Leaving aside the fiscal issues of what we can and can’t afford for the moment, would it be so bad to be a society that cares so much for each and every member that we mobilize such instruments of compassion as Captain Odgers and Chaplain Andy whenever they experience such a loss, or whenver they experience such a need?
I do not deny that we live in a world of limited resources, and that all of our social policies have to be subjected to the cold reality of thorough cost-benefit analyses. But when we engage in those analyses, doesn’t it behoove us to include on the “benefits” side of the ledger the value of institutionalizing assistance for one another when we are in need? We can argue the subtleties within that context, the concerns about “perverse incentives” for instance, but there should be no doubt that what Captain Odgers and Chaplain Andy represent, the institutionalized but absolutely sincere compassion expressed on behalf of a larger society, is a good thing, and it would be just as good a thing in the broader context of a nation (or world) of mutually interdependent and caring human beings, expressing as much goodwill for one another as we possibly can, and making that a cornerstone of who and what we are.