When you are in a heavy gunfight and you are terrified to the limit of your capacity to function, you will be fighting to live, and for your love of the man or woman beside you. Not for America.
In these moments, patriotism will feel like a cheap lie, America will be far away, and America will be an abstraction. If your family is far from you, even they will be an abstraction to you in these moments, when milliseconds can feel like an eternity.
Your comrades beside you are immediate and real. After your own self survival, they are the reason why you fight when others hide. They are also the means of your salvation, for if you fight bravely and compel them to follow your example, the odds rise that you will all survive.
Those who train armies learned this millennia ago. Patriotism is a strong emotion, but it is not stronger than the fear of death when you are faced with mounting odds that you are already a walking dead man.
So I will explain the secret.
Accept your death, embrace the inevitability of your death, and fight like you are already dead. Pray only to be brave and to be worthy of the warriors beside you. Pray only for this and for no more. Your God will hear you.
Pray for a good death, so that you can rest in peace and honor, and be commemorated for your steadfast heart and for your bravery.
Never betray your comrades. That shame is the worst fate imaginable. Remember that the swordmaster Miyamoto Musashi told us that the way of the warrior is resolute acceptance of death. Fight like you are already dead. This is the secret. It is also the way to survive.
When there is a time of peace to think about what happened to you, you will realize that patriotism is an artifice used by old men to send young men to war. This does not invalidate patriotism. It does put it in its appropriate place. We are not fools, we are warriors, and we call things by their true names.
Volunteer for war because you are a warrior of the American praetorian class. Do not worry about the morality of your wars. Your leaders and your politicians are not worthy of your sacrifice, so do not concern yourself with this.
Worry only about your own honor and pray to never fail your comrades. Pray for nothing else. Then go to war with a pure heart, and fight like a controlled berserker. Fight like you are already dead, and know that if you die, it will be a good death.
As Ranger George Conrad taught me in my youth, the ideal death for an airborne Ranger is to die with empty magazines, your grenades exhausted, and smoke curling from the melted barrel of your weapon.
The blood of your enemies should be on your bayonet, and your thumbs should be sunk deep into the eye sockets of the worthy adversary who overcame you. Surrounded by corpses, this will be a good death.
If you survive against all odds, with your honor intact, you will know the secret.
Nothing in this life can be sweeter.
But make no mistake, and do not expect that patriotism will be strong enough to beguile you beyond fear. It is not strong enough. You will know fear and you will understand cowardice.
So when you know that you will be dead within the next few heartbeats, embrace your death and pray to be brave. Then fight like you are already dead. This is the secret. Do not hesitate.
As we learned in our youth at the Infantry School on Fort Beginning, there are two kinds of people in this world: the quick, and the dead.
There is no stranger satisfaction in this life than knowing that you should be dead, but that you were spared for an unknowable reason. You will never understand why you did not die. So cease trying. Just love every moment of your life, and live gloriously because better men than you cannot.
Remember them. Commemorate them. Never forget your dead. But live the life that they cannot live, live with dignity and honor because there is nothing in this life that is better than to be alive when you should be dead, and most of all, to know that you were brave when others buckled.
Never wallow in guilt. You will never understand why you lived when others died, so waste no time trying. Instead, live hard, live well, be dedicated to discipline and to honor, be kind to women, to children, to noncombatants and to animals, and be merciful to those that you vanquish on the field of battle.
In this way, you illustrate your self-control, your discipline, and your professionalism.
Be a good friend and an implacable enemy, be present in every moment, because only someone who survives the distorted infinities of combat understands how miraculous that each breath is. You know the fragility of life. So celebrate it.
When others are overmastered by their fear of death, do not condemn their cowardice or feel contempt for them. Pity them, and demonstrate the way of the warrior through your strong example.
Fate may give them an opportunity to harness their shame and to ascend to the acceptance of death that is your secret. Help them, and show them the way. Death commandos following a calm, competent leader win battles.
Enjoy patriotism. But know it for what it is. And never expect that it will sustain you when you are at the uttermost fringe of life, living what Kierkegaard called a margin experience, like combat. Only God can sustain you in these moments. Remember this, and you will not be misled, or disappointed.
Love your comrades and fight with bravery and the certitude that you are already dead. Many others showed you the way. If they can do it, so can you.
Set a fine example for your subordinates, and display serene competence under conditions of chaos. As the master Sun Tzu taught us, this is the acme of excellence. That is your place.
Do it for your own self survival and for the love of your comrades. There is no better thing in life. Only the combat veteran knows this. There is only one way to learn it.
Consider yourself told. Because I just told you. If you wish to know this for yourself, there is only one way.