Today on National Public Radio (NPR) was broadcast an interview with Donovan Campbell, a lieutenant and platoon commander in the Marines, a Princeton and Harvard Business School graduate, who served in Iraq in 2004 and has written a book, Joker One, about his experiences.

Something the lieutenant said about how he learned to cope with the constrant threat of wounds and death and the weight of responsibility he bore for the members of his unit struck me. What eventually kept him from being paralyzed by fear of constantly-threatened death was the thought experience taught him to embrace: that he would not be going home, that sooner or later, before his tour in Iraq ended, he would buy the farm. His acceptance of the inevitability of his death in the line of duty did not deaden him, as his interviewer suggested, but rather liberated him. It liberated him to focus on his daily duty and not worry about the future. It freed him from fear to function as his men’s commander and do his best by them to get them through their tour of duty alive and in one piece.

The acceptance of death freed Lieutenant Campbell. It also freed another officer in another service, Captain Solzhenitsyn of the Red Army. Arrested in 1945 for incautious remarks about the Great Leader in a private letter, he was interrogated and imprisoned for eight years. Years later in his Gulag Archipelago, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn reflected on his own experience and that of many others he had interviewed of the Soviet interrogation system, which was designed to extract a confession from you whether you were guilty or not and to get you to implicate other innocent people as well in the hope of saving yourself and your family. How can one stand up and maintain one’s honesty and integrity in the face of a relentless, pitiless process of sleep deprivation, starvation, and torture brought to bear against one to compel the bearing of false witness against oneself and others? The answer is that of Donovan Campbell.

So what is the answer?  How can you stand your ground when you are weak and sensitive to pain, when people you love are still alive, when you are unprepared?
What do you need to make you stronger than the interrogator and the whole trap?
From the moment you go to prison you must put your cozy past firmly behind you.  At the very threshold, you must say to yourself, “My life is over, a little early to be sure, but there’s nothing to be done about it.  I shall never return to freedom.  I am condemned to die – now or a little later.  But later on, in truth, it will be even harder, and so the sooner the better.  I no longer have any property whatsoever.  For me those I love have died, and for them I have died.  From today on, my body is useless and alien to me.  Only my spirit and conscience remain precious and important to me.”
Confronted by such a prisoner, the interrogation will tremble.
Only the man who has renounced everything can win that victory. [A.I. Solzhenitsyn, Gulag Archipelago, Vol. 2, “The Soul & Barbed Wire”; chapter, “The Ascent”]

Christian life in the world is properly governed by the same attitude. St. Paul says “I die daily.” St. Antony the Great comments on St. Paul’s words in his advice to his disciples:

‘Wherefore, children, let us hold fast our discipline [askesis, ascetic discipline, life of self-denial], and let us not be careless. For in it the Lord is our fellow-worker, as it is written, “to all that choose the good, God worketh with them for good.” But to avoid being heedless, it is good to consider the word of the Apostle, “I die daily.” For if we too live as though dying daily, we shall not sin. And the meaning of that saying is, that as we rise day by day we should think that we shall not abide till evening; and again, when about to lie down to sleep, we should think that we shall not rise up. For our life is naturally uncertain, and Providence allots it to us daily. But thus ordering our daily life, we shall neither fall into sin, nor have a lust for anything, nor cherish wrath against any, nor shall we heap up treasure upon earth. But, as though under the daily expectation of death, we shall be without wealth, and shall forgive all things to all men, nor shall we retain at all the desire of women or of any other foul pleasure. But we shall turn from it as past and gone, ever striving and looking forward to the day of Judgment. For the greater dread and danger of torment ever destroys the ease of pleasure, and sets up the soul if it is like to fall. [St. Athanasius the Great, Life of Antony, 19]

The man who lacks this perspective will cling to life by any means, compromising any principle, ducking any duty just to survive. Christ speaks of the man who ‘gains the whole world but loses his soul’–and this is indeed the cost of clinging to life and the things of this world above all else. At some prices, to live is a luxury we can’t afford.

Patrick Henry asked, “Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery?” For many, chains and slavery and worse are worth it to prolong their existence under the sun just a bit longer. But a true man, a Christian man, an honorable man understands that there are some things worse than death [a major theme in the Harry Potter series].  A man’s clinging to life is sometimes the only leverage his enemies have against him; embracing death is liberation. And as death will come for us all, we must embrace it and not delude ourselves that we shall escape it. Sooner or later, it will come for us. May it not find us craven before it in that meeting.

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Published in: on Thursday, 5 March, 2009 at 22:45  Comments (1)  

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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. Wonderful article! Thank you.

    M.M.


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