It is that time of year again when I am reminded of my brief service in the U.S. military. For four years, I worked in satellite operations for the Air Force. It doesn’t happen often, but people sometimes people insist on including me in their statements of Veterans Day gratitude.
I don’t feel terribly deserving of any gratitude. Like most people who enlist, I joined the service in order to escape poverty rather than with any high ideals of preserving democracy. My time was spent talking to far away people about their electronics, a surreal job in which I had to troubleshoot problems in my mind’s eye that someone more educated and experienced was already seeing in their literal eye, then instruct them how to fix it. Later, I wrote operations manuals for how to do this rather abstract job. It was my first experience with differential diagnosis, and it served me well later in life when it was time for graduate school.
One of the programs we worked on was Navstar GPS—the thing that lets your cell-phone tell you your location, but also the thing that lets our military park Cruise missiles at specific addresses. We worked on some other things too, but they were not for public consumption. Even though I don’t know anything you can’t read in Jane’s Defense Quarterly, I can’t tell you about them.
After the Air Force, I worked a few years in retail while going to college, part one. Then I worked human service jobs: direct care for adults with disabilities, and later with adults in severe states. During this work, violence is part of the deal. People are out of control or cannot express their needs any other way, so we encounter violence, no matter how good we are at our jobs. After a hundred or so assaults, and after leaving the field, it occurred to me that none of the people who ever tried to hurt me actually succeeded. This began my path to passivism.
Nowadays, I look back with regret on that military service, knowing that the programs I worked on had the chief aim of killing people more efficiently. I can only take solace in the fact that killing people with greater efficiency reduces civilian casualties, allows less collateral damage, and can shorten conflict. These machines aimed at war save lives, in a back-handed sort of way.
I didn’t do anything especially heroic. I was never closer than thousands of miles from any conflict. The blood on my hands is figurative at worst. I didn’t sacrifice years of my life; the Air Force helped me become independent, grow up, and form an identity, accepted me at my weakest, and let me out into the world stronger and better. I don’t like to be noticed or recognized on Veterans Day.
On the other hand, my passivism is enabled by my strength. I recognize I am in no special danger from others. In the unlikely event someone on the street decides to attack me, I know I have already survived many such attacks with no harm done. My passivism is cheap. It costs me nothing. It is like going on a hunger strike during a famine.
I also know that the peacefulness in which most of us live is enabled by the strength of our military service in the same way.
What does a real veteran sacrifice? They sacrifice their stance of peace so we can have ours. They work with outdated hardware and software leaving them few post-service career opportunities. They get blood on their hands so ours can remain clean. They deploy so we can stay home. Move every few years so we can grow up and grow old in the same town, if we so wish. And during conflicts, they go into harm’s way, look other men in the eye, and pull the trigger.
This is a great and terrible sacrifice even for those who don’t realize what they have given.
I hope for a day when we can have a peaceful stance towards the world, and the world has a peaceful stance towards us. And I feel the deepest gratitude.
— Jason Dias