"Why would he go?"
Recently, a relative called from Salt Lake City to talk about the tragic death of Utah Army National Guard Maj. Brent Taylor (who in civilian life had also served as mayor of North Ogden). She was sad at his passing, but wanted to know why he would leave behind his wife, seven children, and city — exposing them all to the possibility of life without him. How could he do that?
I should know. As a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army, it’s a question I’ve grappled with before, as I’ve watched friends make that decision, and have made it myself.
So near Taylor’s loss, I acknowledge the risk I run in misstating his reasons or revisiting a painful decision. But the public desire to better understand the military mindset seems important enough a civic imperative that I'll hazard the former in favor of the latter.
Why go “over there”? We should first note the vast, impersonal forces that drove Taylor to Afghanistan. Over time, American political consensus has led us into both a commitment in Afghanistan and avoidance of conscription. We also face a post-9/11 global resource-to-requirements challenge that has led us to make operational use of the reserve components. That demand is what pulled a major from the Utah Army National Guard to Afghanistan.
He was also biologically pushed. Harvard professor E.O. Wilson’s “theory of eusocial evolution” finds that while natural selection remains predominant, human development favors traits that “introduce highly cooperative behavior into the physiology and behavior of group members.” This suggests soldiers serve because they’re hard-wired to sacrifice for society’s greater good.
Which makes sense. National defense and public safety are possible only because good people willingly suspend self-interest. Imagine how many fires would burn on if firefighters were unwilling to leave their families to fight them. Same goes for soldiers.
But what about Taylor? Of course, I can’t speak to specifics — but I can pull back the curtain on my own family’s recent experience with a similarly difficult decision.
In late 2014, two months after our younger daughter was born, our then-3-year old daughter had her first seizure (a condition that’s continued since). The next week my career manager requested I leave my family behind for a year-long assignment in Korea. (Even during the North’s nuclear testing, a year in Korea was safer than my previous tours in Iraq, a fact that eased my family’s burden somewhat. Yet on a practical level, to a family, a year apart is essentially the same regardless of where the Army said it needed me.)
I chose to go.
To be closer to family for support, my wife and daughters lived near Salt Lake City that year. Despite that help, frankly, it was a terrible 365-day stretch for all of us in too many ways to record here.
That said, painful as it is to write, I'd do it again. And here's why. When you're in the Army, it’s beyond a job. You feel a duty, in the middle of your marrow, to the country. To serve, even when it hurts.
And we take it seriously because the stakes are so high. For example, if Maj. Taylor, or someone like him, didn’t go to Afghanistan, would so many Afghans have voted in recent elections? Would as many girls have gone to school? If, as Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” then containing and rolling back the perverse Taliban ideology is a step to creating the world any parent would want for their family’s future.
When I left, I held onto a fundamental faith that my wife and I had built a firm enough foundation that, if something happened, our girls would be dented and scarred but alright in the long run.
We took comfort in the expression that “it takes a village” to raise a child (or seven) — always mindful that someone must protect the village, and what that duty means for the protector’s family.
I never knew Maj. Brent Taylor. I wish I had. But I think we shared a final faith. He believed, now that the worst has come, his village would lock arms around those loved ones he was compelled to leave behind for the common good.
And — to North Ogden and Utah’s credit — I think he was right.
Lt. Col. ML Cavanaugh, Ph.D., is a non-resident fellow with the Modern War Institute at West Point, and can be reached at MLCavanaugh.com. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of West Point, the Department of the Army, the Department of Defense, or any agency of the US government.