The “sir, yes sir” business, which would probably sound like horseshit to any civilian in his right mind, makes sense to Shaftoe and to the officers in a deep and important way. …he has come to understand the [military] culture for what it is: a system of etiquette within which it becomes possible for groups of men to live together for years, travel to the ends of the earth, and do all kinds of incredibly weird shit without killing each other or completely losing their minds in the process.
–Crytonomicon by Neal Stephenson, chapter 11
Since I transferred to a different department at my company, I meet a lot of people with military background. My company has no relation to the military industry, but it just happens to hire a lot of military veterans. When I meet such people, I like to talk with them and hear their stories from Afghanistan, Korea, Japan, Vietnam, Iraq, etc.1
I’m not just talking about the American military, though. When I lived in Ireland, one of my friends was Danish, and all Danish men have to serve in the Danish military. Men in South Korea also must serve in the military, so I learned a lot about the Korean military from friends.
When I was in college, though, I thought very differently. I was young, intellectual and probably a little arrogant. I hated the US for all the bad things it did in the past (real or perceived), and I also criticized the military a lot. I remember writing a letter in my University newspaper criticizing the military, and getting into an argument across several issues with someone who supported the military. I was maybe 20 years old (15 years ago), but I was sure I had all the answers.
Over time, my views have gradually changed. The main reason is that as I grew older, and learned from Buddhism, I began to see people as human, and not stereotypes. This sounds really simple, but is hard to do. When we encounter people who are different from us, we tend to make quick judgments about them. Smart people do this too. If we hear that someone is a different religion, or has different political views, or a different ethnicity, we create a barrier in our mind, and put distance between them and us.
On the other hand, if you try to see other people as human, with the same fears and desires, it changes your attitude a lot.
So, when I met all these men and women who served in the military, I realized that I had been wrong. I judged military veterans for political reasons, but that is unfair. They did not choose to go abroad and fight unpopular wars. They risked their lives and did their duty. Some of them are still active in the military, and others are glad to leave that life. But each one has a different viewpoint, different background, and different stories. What united them was they each one is human, and each one fulfilled their duty.
These days, I have a lot more respect for the military than I did before. When I meet a co-worker or a stranger who is a US military veteran, I try to shake their hand and say thank you for serving our country. I feel their appreciation, and it makes me feel a lot better too. It also makes more friends.
If I was “right” all the time, I would probably have fewer friends. It’s better to know when you are wrong and learn again.
But this isn’t just about the military. In the department I work in now, I meet a lot of different people who are not computer engineers. I meet electricians, military veterans, single moms working to feed their children, hipsters, intellectuals, etc. For each person I meet, even if I don’t like them, I try to see them as human.
When the Buddha was still alive, his disciples were very diverse. Many of the monks were religious ascetics even before they met the Buddha (Shariputra, Mogallana), some were nuns (Kisagotami, Patacara), some were kings (King Pasenadi, King Bimbisara), some were laymen (Cunda the Silversmith, Anathapindika), some where warriors (Yodhajiva) etc.
The point is that the Buddha was open to students of many backgrounds. You can’t really choose your parents, your ethnicity, or how you were raised so it’s unfair to judge other people for being different.
1 The stories are not always positive. That is all I will say.