Can We Truly Know Who We Are?

Delta Winds cover 2011Delta Winds: A Magazine of Student Essays
A Publication of San Joaquin Delta College


Can We Truly Know Who We Are? (A Soldier's Perspective)


Chad Hammerback

It's December, almost Christmas, and it's hot as hell. It's always hot in this coastal equatorial city. My combat gear does nothing but make the heat even more insufferable. After picking up our food supplies at the seaport, our convoy is winding its way through the twisted mess of streets on its way back to the university where our base is. While I'm normally the commander's driver in the lead vehicle, somehow I pulled gunner duty today. As such, I'm still on the lead vehicle, but manning the M-60 machinegun mounted to the roof of the vehicle. It's been an uneventful run, as the generally are, just the usual unsettling crowd of natives lining the road the entire way. You never know which ones are armed, which ones were dragging the bodies of our dead soldiers through the streets just a few months ago. That makes them all dangerous enemies. Because of that, we are under strict orders to never stop . . . for anything . . . under any circumstances.

But there is something in the road ahead and the driver begins to slow. I can hear the First Sergeant yelling at the Private to get his goddamned foot off the brake and drive, dammit! The 5-ton truck lurches as the Private punches the gas pedal in compliance with the order, and the engine roars as it responds sluggishly to the new command. We rumble on, unable to define the object in the road due to the glaring mid-afternoon sun and the heat haze coming off of the road. The crowd is too pressed in on the road for us to go around whatever is in the road, so we'll just have to go through it. Wouldn't be the first time. The image begins to sharpen, and I realize at the same time as the driver that it's not something in the road, but someone. The driver slams on the brakes at the last possible moment, and the entire convoy skids to a halt, trucks nearly piling into each other at the unexpected stop. Shit! This does not bode well. As the Private guns the engine of the truck to try to bully the person out of the way, I can hear the First Sergeant yelling at him. The person just stands there with his arms behind his back. The driver continues to try to bully him out of the way, but instead he reveals his hands and the AK-47 he was hiding. Fuck! This isn't good, not good at all. He points it at the truck as I begin to squeeze the trigger and bring the massive machine gun I'm manning to bear on him. My mind begins to catch up with all the information being processed, and I realize that this man in front of us is just a kid, no more than nine or ten.

In his poem "The Man He Killed," Thomas Hardy relates a tale of two infantry soldiers on opposite sides of the battle lines, staring each other down as they fire bullets at each other. Now, here I was smack-dab in the middle of my very own Hardy poem. For Hardy, his background dictates that the other soldier was his enemy, but Hardy ponders what may have been under different circumstances. Now, I was at a crossroads. Life and death weighed in the balance. I realized that who we know ourselves to be is transient. Life happens and forces us to re-evaluate our perspective. It alters the way we view our beliefs and ourselves or opens up a new awareness of self that didn't exist because we were never in a position that forced us to consider it.

So who was I? For me, during this time in my own history, I was a soldier in the U.S. Army. I was a member of one of the world's most elite fighting forces. I was an American badass. With that came a certain amount of cockiness. A "mess with the bull, get the horns" attitude. The military did a fine job harboring this attitude as well. Stuck in the African desert half a world away from home, we felt that anything and anyone not of the American westernized way of life was a threat to our freedoms and way of life. As such, this young boy was my enemy. Never mind that we were technically a non-combatant force attached to the United Nations peacekeeping force sent in to aid the innocent people caught in the middle of a violent civil war. This boy was still an enemy. The fact that he was aiming a weapon at us only reaffirmed that. And, if you see one armed enemy, there are, like roaches, hundreds more in the shadows that you don't see.

But was this mind-set really the truth of the matter? Perception is not flawless. This young boy was an enemy. As such, his actions only proved my expectations of him. Only a critical eye could see beyond the surface to the truth that lay beneath. It was time to think, not feel. The convoy that I was on was one of dozens of "chow runs" that took place each week. "Right of might" insured our continued nourishment as well as our American way of life in the form of Coke, Doritos, Oreos, and Snickers. We used the threat of violence to guarantee three squares and more a day. Meanwhile, countless millions around us starved. Does it not stand to reason that they would take a lesson from us and try to employ the same tactics? As I stood there, eyes locked on my enemy, other thoughts came to the forefront. I was a son, a father, and a brother to siblings about this boy's age. As I continued to stare this boy down, I began to see him from my new perspective. This boy was not my enemy; he was merely a starving child desperate for food.

As the title of Thomas Hardy's poem implies, one man dies while the other is left to ponder what might have been. My tale has a much different outcome. Seeing this young boy from a different perspective led me to roll the dice on a different tactic. Uncle Sam had trained me to kill, but I was not a killer. I was a humanitarian. Instead of riddling this boy with bullets, I offered up a crate of food, throwing it over the side of the truck, spilling oranges instead of blood on the ground. The boy threw his weapon down and made a grab for as many oranges as he could. Our convoy was moving again. As we rolled away, I looked back at the boy and did the unthinkable. Standing there in the gunner's nest, dressed in full combat uniform, I flashed him the peace sign. He grinned up at me, orange juice running down his chin, and gave me a thumb's up.

We are not static beings. We are ever changing. Who we are today is not who we were yesterday or who we will be tomorrow. Because of this, we must always be cognizant of the influences of the world around us. We must always think critically on our quest to discover the truth of who we are. It doesn't always take something as drastic as life or death for us to find our truths. Sometimes, it can be as simple as writing an essay for Mrs. Villegas' English 1D course, much as this one that helped to clarify many questions about myself that I've been harboring for over two decades. All in all, the only Truth that I know is that none of us will ever know ourselves. All we can do is continue to search, because there will always be more questions than answers.