The depths of why

[Note this post originally appeared on the Art of Product War the stand-alone site for which I have discontinued, I am reposting it here backdated to the same date]

One Marine Veteran’s musings on memorial day.


Left to right: LtCol Benjamin Palmer, LCpl Justin Wilson, Sgt Christopher Hrbek

It’s the deepest one-word question there is. The direct connection to our feelings. The concept that defies our command of language in favor of our emotions.

For many Americans Memorial Day passes without a thought of why it exists. It’s barbecues and beers and mattress sales. For many others a cursory nod, a ‘thank you for your service’ is enough. Others go to the other extreme, lionizing, placing on a pedestal, abstracting to the heroic beyond the human those who have died in service of our nation. Others, sadly some of them veterans, try to impose guilt for these facts on those people that choose not to plumb the depths of these whys. But for many veterans Memorial Day passes with some more heart-wrenching whys.

Why him? Why not me? Why did those rounds impact three feet in the direction they did? Why were those wires incorrectly connected? Why was that IED packed with little enough explosives in my case but too much in hers? Why am I blessed to lay down each night with my wife, to watch my children grow, to have children at all? Why is the world denied his presence, husband-ship, fatherhood, mentorship, leadership? Why didn’t I anticipate better? Warn faster? Act more cautious? React faster? Why did we take that route? Path? Step? Action? Why were we in that village? Province? Mission? Country?

These particular whys have no good answers. They are immensely unproductive unless carefully managed. They can be good reminders to be grateful for the simple pleasures, breakfast with loved ones, conversation in the car, a cool drink on a hot day. The most productive why I’ve found is to ask why our brothers and sisters made the choice they did to serve by our sides, knowing the risk they took on.

It’s often said that when the bullets start flying and explosives start detonating its not about god and country or mom and apple pie, it’s about the man (or woman) next to you and that’s it. And that’s true. But something drove us to sign up in the first place, and that why is worth considering. For some it might be economic opportunity, it might be escape, it might be education. But in my experience among Marines it very rarely was. The vast majority of the time we join not just to protect those we love, or our way of life, but the deeper ideals that allow our way of life and the freedoms we enjoy. Most of us are drawn to the Mission.

The Mission of the United States Marine Corps is to fight and win our nation’s battles and to make Marines to do so. We have nicely nested whys up and down the chain of command. The mission of the USMC Rifle Squad is to locate, close with, and destroy the enemy, and to repel his assault by fire and close combat. Many veterans who have experienced this alignment later find themselves missing the clear purpose it provides, and the camaraderie and leadership it creates. But fighting and winning our nations battles serves a deeper why as well. Why do we fight and win our nation’s battles?

The oath of office we take holds a clue to the next why.

“I do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God.”

So it’s not just a collection of practices, culture, freedoms, people, or the current politicians we’ve elected to lead us in government that we protect. It is the very framework we have created we swear to protect. The document set to strike a careful balance between the need for central governmental strength without imbuing excessive power that accretes and becomes tyrannical and oppresses the people. A noble purpose and cause no doubt, but we still haven’t yet arrived at bedrock, at the depth of why.

Why have such a document in the first place? What is the bedrock of why? Where could we look for that?

Before arranging the constitution many of the same founding fathers put pen to paper to explain why they and their comrades had taken up arms against the British Government, which had, in their view, become oppressive. The beginning of that document, the Declaration of Independence, outlines the offenses of the leader who no longer met his obligation to the led. Chief among his failings is the failure to recognize what the flawed founding fathers wrote, but failed to fully apply.

“that all men [modern understanding being humans- regardless of sex, skin color, condition of birth] are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness”

Thus we see the purpose of that drastic action, to secure and protect the rights of the people.

Once those early leaders succeeded in winning the independence, they worked to build a nation. An enduring entity that could continue to secure and defend those freedoms. There were several failed attempts. A collection of independent states that were later confederated wasn’t sufficiently centralized and coordinated to fulfill its purpose, its why. As the framers of the constitution penned the founding document to succeed that previous attempt, they laid out why they were doing so. The Preamble of the constitution contains the why behind our nation as it exists today.

“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

And that’s the why. That’s why they wrote the constitution, why we swear to support and defend it, why we join to protect it, why sometimes our brothers and sisters die doing so. Why we wear bracelets with their names on them and plant flags on gravestones on the last Monday in May.

And we forget. Sometimes this can be harmless, like when we just enjoy a day off of work, barbecues and mattress sales. Sometimes it’s not harmless. Sometimes the politicians running to try to lead us start losing touch with why we did all this.

This isn’t about blame, remembering why is hard. ‘Whats’ are easy. Higher taxes or lower taxes? More or less redistribution of wealth? More or less intervention in other nations? More or less personal liberties or control? Economic liberties or control? Finding ‘the whats’ that divide us is far easier than recalling, articulating, explaining, ‘the whys’ that unite us.

It is not the barbecues and sales that are disrespectful, it is the atrophy of civic engagement, of civil discourse, of assumption of good intentions. It is the dehumanization and demonization of those who disagree with us that disrespects the memory of those that gave their lives in defense not just of our freedoms, but the framework for how they are secured, protected, managed, edited and shared.
What is it that we can do? To honor their memory, to improve our own lives, to fulfil the why of their sacrifice and that of our national founding? We can reflect on why.

We can reflect on their why. On our collective why as a nation. We can consider how applying a framework of purpose and people can improve our own personal, work and civic lives. Simon Sinek’s Start with Why books give a good framework to do this for ourselves and our work. The Constitution and Declaration and Federalist Papers can help us understand the why in the founding of our nation. There are some good books that others have been recommending this Memorial Day to ponder why people might put their lives in danger for these ideas.

Finally, I’d ask you to ponder the why overall, to be mindful of the brevity of life, the preciousness of it. Lie in bed a few moments longer with someone you love, watch your kiddo splash her face into the water for the 237th time as she gleefully shows you her new courage. Savor the barbeque and cold drinks with friends and the day’s respite from work. Remember that there are some who don’t have these opportunities, who chose to place themselves in a position to lose these chances.

Remember why.

[For more on these specific Marines who gave their lives in defense of our greater why you can look here. ]


One response to “The depths of why”

  1. […] some of my fellow Marines today. I posted on my new site The Art of Product War [edit later moved here] because I think it has a lot to do with purpose in work and in life. It’s not about me and […]