Austin Bay

In our broken world, the uneasy quiet that passes for peace anywhere on the planet is usually fragile, a blessed moment where goodwill and armed vigilance restrain our violent imperfections.

The necessary combination of goodwill and armed vigilance is a paradox that frustrates hardened cynics and dreamy utopianists. The cynics deny the existence of goodwill. As these bitter souls see it, "goodness" is a delusion or possibly a genetically driven calculation based upon anticipated reciprocity. Bah, humbug -- it's all selfishness, pal.

As for armed vigilance, the utopianists flee that responsibility. Oh, they support coercion, in order to change human nature. If the utopianists can just get the economics right, or the sex roles right, or the right people -- their people -- in power, then human nature will change and paradise on Earth obtains. But armed vigilance suggests guard duty on a permanent basis, a vision of peace that requires police. Why, that's not paradise.

In the mean time the responsible make do with hopes of eventually doing better.

Goodwill and armed vigilance both require sacrifice. Goodwill, as in "goodwill towards all men," strikes me as radical generosity offered without the expectation of reciprocity. That's sacrificial good, where rewards are uncertain or -- good heavens -- spiritual.

The sacrifice armed vigilance requires also has a spiritual facet: necessary commitment. Anyone who has ever worn a uniform and spent the Christmas holidays guarding the motor pool, flying a mission or dodging bullets understands the commitment.

Extending goodwill often entails physical risk -- the emergency relief worker entering Pakistan after a devastating earthquake faces a variety of physical threats, terrorists, diseases, aftershocks. Medical personnel working for Doctors Without Borders run extraordinary risks in the world's hardest corners, from Darfur to Afghanistan.

Armed vigilance, however, demands physical risk and always entails physical sacrifice. That's common sense and common knowledge, but a visit to a military hospital always reveals the uncommon courage behind such sacrifice.

In mid-November, on the return leg of a trip to Afghanistan, I visited the U.S. Army hospital in Landstuhl, Germany. Landstuhl is a stop for wounded Americans and American allies on their way from Afghanistan and Iraq to other medical facilities. I spoke with several soldiers, including two Polish soldiers wounded in Iraq and a Special Forces master sergeant wounded in Afghanistan while training Afghan soldiers.

Austin Bay

Austin Bay is the author of three novels. His third novel, The Wrong Side of Brightness, was published by Putnam/Jove in June 2003. He has also co-authored four non-fiction books, to include A Quick and Dirty Guide to War: Third Edition (with James Dunnigan, Morrow, 1996).
Be the first to read Austin Bay's column. Sign up today and receive delivered each morning to your inbox.

©Creators Syndicate