On reserve duty and philosophy

At least once a year, I find myself on reserve duty, returned to this very situation of frustration and tense anticipation.

January 12, 2015 19:51
3 minute read.
Israeli soldiers.

FOR SOLDIERS, long periods of waiting are accompanied by the awareness of the possibility of sudden, extreme danger.. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)


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Ludwig Wittgenstein and Franz Rosenzweig wrote their greatest philosophical works during World War I, while John-Paul Sartre wrote his philosophical tractate Being and Nothingness during his imprisonment in a German POW camp in France during World War II. There are many more examples of philosophers who produced ground-breaking ideas during their time in the army. Why is this? What occurs during war and in the army which gives rise to the philosophical muse?

Almost automatically – and mostly because of movies, such as Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan – we associate the military and war with explosions, fierce battles and a general chaotic intensity. We might also infer that these extremely dramatic events have a monumental effect on the psyches of all who participate in them, and stir within certain individuals deep emotions and thoughts, resulting in the creation of philosophical masterpieces. But if this is true, when did they ever find the time to write these intricate – and sometimes very long – masterpieces?

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No, as anybody who has actually served in the military realizes, it is not the drama of war that leads to greater philosophical creativity. As Stephen Crane points out in his Civil War novel Red Badge of Courage, the majority of a soldier’s time, even during war, is spent waiting, sitting around in a state of anticipation, frustration or boredom, contemplating nothing and everything. Reading newspaper headlines about RPGs fired at an army jeep on the Gaza border makes it all seem very exciting and graphic, but we tend to forget that that very jeep for the past six months had been doing that very same patrol, day and night, anticipating attack every time but regulating those emotions with monotonous routine.

Waiting in a queue for the bank teller is tedious, but though it can be Kafkaesque, lacks the prospect of a sudden confrontation with mortality. For soldiers, on the other hand, long periods of waiting are accompanied by the awareness of the possibility of sudden, extreme danger. Combat in this sense is a relief, which although both exhilarating and horrible, and for most soldiers constituting a fraction of their military service, is cathartic when it finally arrives.

Philosophers thrive in these conditions, because they have both time to reflect and a sense of urgency stemming from constant awareness of their own mortality. These conditions in large part explain the radical changes people – and particularly philosophers – can undergo during army service, when they are forced, by the sudden glut of free time and seemingly proximate mortality to reflect upon their past and future actions, which could have direct relevance to their current situation.

This was certainly the case for the French-Algerian philosopher Albert Camus, who while in the French resistance during World War II departed from his pure metaphysical philosophical investigations and became more active in ethical debate, writing directly against idealism and beginning to construct his moral existentialist view. Eventually winning the Noble Prize for literature (in 1957), Camus continued to remain consciously aware, never returning to his earlier, “clean” philosophy.

At least once a year, I find myself on reserve duty, returned to this very situation of frustration and tense anticipation. Wearing a uniform, my hands greasy and black from gun oil and soot, a clarity of thought comes over me, inducing me to rethink certain things. But this newfound clarity has its price – besides physical exhaustion, that is. I become too conscious of my surroundings, the people beside me and those far away. There is so much suffering from so many angles, and I still haven’t found the ability to cope and transcend. Therefore, like the greats before me, I find myself writing.

The author has a BA in Philosophy from the Hebrew University, and is currently in the philosophy master’s program at Tel Aviv university. At the moment, he is serving in Samaria in a combat reserve unit.

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