Blindly Leaping

Dialogue on Human Freedom (Onboard a C-130 Hercules. Forgetting, for the moment, the impossibility of actually having a conversation inside a flying C-130.)

Private First Class (PFC) Goodin: I can’t wait to be free of this airplane.

Sergeant First Class (SFC) Monti: Aircraft, Goodin. Aircraft. Civilians have airplanes. This is a C-130, and if you’ll look past the rust and dust and the shaking, and that hole in the skin over there where the moon and clouds come through, you’ll see there’s not a damn thing wrong with this bird.

PFC Goodin: Roger, Sergeant. Still, the sooner I can get my knees in the breeze, the better.

SFC Monti: Feel free to call me by my first name.

PFC Goodin: Really?!

SFC Monti: No.

PFC Goodin: How many jumps do you have, Sergeant?

SFC Monti: This is number 66. I have freed myself – thank you very much – from various types of aircraft a total of 65 times. Tonight I make jump number 66 on my 44th birthday. Though I’m not sure that, if asked, the pilots and jumpmasters would agree that my freedom, on those occasions, was entirely up to me. The pilots flew me, and the jumpmasters told me when it was time to get up and head for the door. All in all, I’m really just doing what other people tell me to do, when and where they tell me to do it.

PFC Goodin: But none of those people made you join the Army. None of them made you choose airborne school, or to be a forward observer instead of a cook or a tanker. You were free to make all those choices yourself.

SFC Monti: I suppose I was. Though every choice has a past and a future, and it’s arguable that every choice we make is the only one we could have made, unless we were to change our past or adjust our expectations and desires for the future. For instance, I’m going to exit this aircraft tonight because, in the past, I became a paratrooper, and in the future I want to remain one. Choosing to jump tonight is the most seamless reconciliation of that past with that future.

PFC Goodin: When you say it like that, it sounds less like freedom, and more like duty.

SFC Monti: Yes! Duty! We’re soldiers after all. And we have those seven army values, don’t we: Loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity, and personal courage. Now, I don’t know it for sure, because it isn’t in the Soldier’s Manual of Common Tasks from basic training, or even in the Leader Development manual you’ll be studying soon enough, but I believe those seven Army values (duty among them) are to be used in service of freedom. We are seeking a kind of freedom here tonight, freedom from this aircraft, as you said. And part of our mission is to preserve freedom for those who have it, and secure freedom for those who don’t. But you say duty, and I can’t help but thinking that duty and freedom are pretty near opposite one another. We’re free to do as we please, but we must do our duty.

PFC Goodin: Sure, Sergeant. But we’re also free to not do our duty if we choose, don’t you guess? I mean, there’ll be consequences in any case, but that don’t mean we can’t do it. Or not do it. Or – you get my meaning.

(The two jumpmasters shout the warning: TEN MINUTES!)

SFC Monti: I do get your meaning. Would you say it’s your duty to jump out of this bird tonight?

PFC Goodin: Yes, I think so.

SFC Monti: Well you have ten minutes to know so. Ten minutes to decide if it is your duty to get up and achieve that freedom you were looking forward to. You’ll be off this retiring Hercules, having, if I understand you to this point, gained your freedom only by doing your duty.

PFC Goodin: That’s a pretty shitty way to put it, Sergeant, but yes.

SFC Monti: You felt rather free when you spoke to me that way, didn’t you? And you were right to, though I can tell by your face that you won’t be sure of that until you’re free of me, too.

PFC Goodin: The sooner the better, if I can speak freely (again), Sergeant.

SFC Monti: Indeed you may. And that even helps us a little, because now you’ve added safety to our definition. Really, it was there all along, as you want to be free of this C-130 because you consider it to be safer off of it than on it. So freedom is a destination, then. A safe place. A haven. And so far, we can’t have it unless we make our way to it, and we can’t do that without fulfilling our duty to something along the way. But I can’t help but wonder now: if freedom means getting off this bird, are you not free while you are on it?

PFC Goodin: Of course I am, Sergeant. We’re all free here. But that’s, like, capital “F” Freedom. Braveheart, and all that. I’m just sayin’ that I want to be free of this airpla- aircraft, in a not having to worry about it anymore kind of way. Whatever the case, as far as me and freedom and flying around in here with you, Sergeant, well, I’m more sure than ever that I’ll feel a whole lot free-er when I ain’t anymore.

SFC Monti: Seems to me that you might be considering being free of something the same as being rid of something. You’ll be rid of this aircraft, and of me, and of this conversation soon enough. But you’ll drift to the drop zone with your head crammed into your k-pot1 with me and my words. You’ll assemble with your platoon and drink this conversation from your canteen. You’ll be tossing shovelfuls of Sergeant First Class Monti and his rant about freedom out of the fastest foxhole you ever dug. You’ll be rid of me and rid of this conversation, but I don’t bet you’ll be free of us anytime soon. Heck, you’ll be waddling towards another jump in a week or a month, so you aren’t free of that, either.

PFC Goodin: You’re killin’ me, Sergeant. I’m ready to surrender. It’s the only way to freedom that I can see at this point.

SFC Monti: Oh, my! We’re going to have to pray for bad weather or a stuck door to prolong our flight, now that you’ve gone and added surrender to the conversation.

PFC Goodin: (mumbling) Me and my big mouth.

SFC Monti: You’d agree, then, that we can surrender our way to freedom?

PFC Goodin: What? No –

SFC Monti: Listen: We’ve already said that freedom is safety, right? Combined with duty? It seems almost inevitable that surrender comes from a person doing his duty to gain the safety of himself and those for whom he is responsible, right? Why else surrender, except to salvage what safety may remain to you? In military terms, surrender means saving the lives of those who remain on the losing side. Surely, saving lives is a duty as high as any other. So, if we have surrendered, we have done our duty to save lives. And hey presto: Freedom! Capital F! Right, Goodin?

PFC Goodin: I dunno, Sergeant. Surrendering seems like it lands people in prison a lot of times. Your duty’s done, and if it isn’t a very bad kind of prison, you’re safe. But it’s still prison, and I can’t call that freedom.

SFC Monti: You do like to complicate things, don’t you, Goodin? Let’s skip a bit, forgetting for now whether it matters to whom or to what you surrender, and grant, then, that prison isn’t freedom, as it’s rather obvious that prison is something a person seeks always to be free from. I think we could pick that apart for a while, too, but the jumpmasters are getting fidgety, and must be about to give the one-minute warning. See that? Even now, confined to this rickety missile, we await our jailers’ commands on our quest for freedom from this bird.

PFC Goodin: Hang on, though, Sergeant. What you just said: if this bird is our prison, and the jumpmasters are our jailers, then we can only be free if our jailers allow it.

SFC Monti: Sounds like you aren’t comfortable with that.

PFC Goodin: I’m not. I may not know my jailer, but I know he can’t tell me whether I’m a free man. He can let me out of jail, but he doesn’t have the power to make a whole human being free or not.

SFC Monti: I’m going to have to attach you to my platoon if you expect to start talking about where freedom comes from. I don’t think we can tackle the God topic before the light turns green and we commit ourselves to the clouds.2 I’m content for now to wonder what freedom is, and here you are trying to expand into how we get it. Ambitious, but unrealistic right now.

(The jumpmasters give the command: ONE MINUTE!)

SFC Monti: And there it is. You have one minute to decide if you are free. To decide if you are going to shuffle to the door with the rest of us, dutifully obeying commands, and exit this high performance aircraft because you are a free man, or because it is the only way that you can become one. Or, whether you are so free that you can choose not to jump at all.

PFC Goodin: Well I can’t choose not to jump, Sergeant.

SFC Monti: No?

PFC Goodin: No. Think about everybody else. There’s 32 of us on this side of the plane, and you and me are pretty near the front. If I don’t jump, that’s gonna hold up you and everyone else behind me.

SFC Monti: First of all, don’t be so sure that I couldn’t find a way to persuade you out that door. Second of all, are you telling me now that the duty you’ve been talking about only exists because of all these other jumpers? That in order to be free, you have to see to everyone else’s freedom along the way?

PFC Goodin: At least not get in the way of it. But I’m free to do that, too. I’m as free to screw this jump up as I am to help it work. But if I use my freedom to mess things up, I’m going to lose it pretty soon.

SFC Monti: You can’t seem to pull your duty out of your freedom no matter what you do. Are you saying that we have a duty to exercise our freedom responsibly?

PFC Goodin: Yes, Sergeant. And the light’s amber, so we’re going any second now. I wonder though: is there any time that we can enjoy our freedom without being burdened by duty?

SFC Monti: Maybe when we’re dead!

(And the jumpmasters give the command: GREEN LIGHT! GO, GO, GO!)

Notes:

1. K-pot: Kevlar helmet
2. before the light turns green: When the aircraft is in the proper place over the drop zone, a light at the exit door turns from amber to green, and the jumpmasters send the paratroopers out.

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