Jury of my fears

Soldiers of the US 123rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team in Afghanistan, 2006

Soldiers of the US  Army’s 123rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team in Afghanistan, 2006

Rereading Sebastian Junger’s “War”, where he writes about being embedded with a US Army unit in Kunar Province in Afghanistan.

Not so much for military history this time — I am poor at geography and do not know where the Kunar Province is in relation to the rest of the war anyway — but for perspective.

In a chapter on fear, Junger talks about a military study to measure the cortisol levels in soldiers. Given intelligence that they are about to be attacked, cortisol levels in a platoon of soldiers actually became lower as the day that the attack was expected got closer. When the day arrived and the attack didn’t materialize, their cortisol levels rose.

They were still pretty stressed while waiting for the attack — they were at war — but the study suggests that known threats are more manageable than the fear of the unknown.

He cites a related study where it was found that fighter pilots are less stressed during mission days than on non-mission days, where the focus is on the responsibility of not crashing and killing their radar intercept officer (the guy who sits behind the pilot on planes that have them).

It makes sense, I suppose. Facing our fears is part of what makes us human, a point that Steven Pressfield also makes in “The Warrior Ethos“, what makes us more than just chimpanzees wraaa-ing in distress at something in the darkness. (Also, clothes and education, I guess, but that is not the point)

I am not a soldier, and am the farthest thing from one. I am a pretty fearful guy. It probably comes with being predisposed to asthma and to brooding.  As a child, I tended to worry about the thousand and one things that could go wrong. This has resulted in a permanent furrow on my brow and a mouth that is always downturned.

Recent years have forced me to face my fears though, and actually live through them. Death, abandonment, betrayal, failure, privation, poverty. I have known them all already, known them all. I have lived through them and emerged not stronger, necessarily, but perhaps harder. Leaner, less soft.

My greatest fears have come to pass and there is no longer any point in being afraid. What is the worst that can happen? Many things, certainly. But then, some of those things already have.

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