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Applying Epictetus’s Philosophies Luke Volkomener Life in a combat unit, simply put, is one crisis after another. You are constantly putting out fires while others are being started. Some of these problems are trivial administrative discrepancies while others may cost lives. My way of coping with these continuous stresses was to boast “one crisis at a time” or “we will cross that bridge when we come it.” Most of the time this strategy works, but war often complicates and, as Epictetus glar- ingly points out, sometimes one crisis at a time just isn’t enough. Considering how Epictetus spent his youth as a slave, it’s not surprising that he would develop the phi- losophy that “all external events are determined by fate, and are thus beyond our control . . . Individuals howev- er, are responsible for their own actions.” On a visit to my therapist’s office, I discussed some of Epictetus’s phi- losophies and how they may apply to what happened to my unit during my third combat deployment. Epictetus believes we suffer because we try to control what is not controllable and/or we neglect to control what is within our ability to control. I was leading my platoon up a street in Baghdad, Iraq, clearing the road of Improvised Ex- plosive Devices (IEDs) as an elderly man stepped out with blood completely covering his clothes. He desperately pleaded for help as he explained that a group of militia set his house on fire and shot his family as they fled the building. His family was executed because he would not pick a side, fight for the Americans or fight for the insur- gents. In most situations the next course of action would be natural, but with two contradicting orders, one from our battalion and the other a general order given to every soldier in Iraq, we were stuck in a bit of a moral dilemma, something Epictetus would have an opinion on. The decision we faced was to continue our mission up the street, call in an infantry unit to take care of it, and attempt to engage them from one or two streets back until they arrived. Option two was to enter into the housing area, off mission and against a direct order from the battalion, and force an engagement with these insurgents. Though I intently wanted to chase down those insur- gents, I chose to stay on mission and follow the battalion’s order. I believed my choice was for the greater good, but the infantry unit that was in charge of that area refused to send in anyone, and more buildings were set on fire while the shooting continued to echo in the increasing distance. Applying Epictetus’s reasoning, you could say that the “fate” for that neighborhood was for those insur- gents to go down that street killing those civilians. The reason those people suffered was because they did not take control of a situation that they themselves could have controlled. At the same time, many in our platoon still suffered because we felt like we didn’t take control of what we could have controlled. After that day, that street dramatically worsened with IEDs and complex ambushes. My squad alone earned more than half the company’s purple hearts on that single street. The battalion’s answer to the growing threat was to abandon this route and the people on it. Eight months later I was able to go back down that street again as the battalion reopened the route for clearance. I was expecting to see the same blown-out windows, destroyed buildings and sidewalks, and an al- most nonexistent population. Instead I saw dozens of people on the streets cleaning up the trash, repairing shop windows, laying in new red brick sidewalks, and painting murals on the grey concrete barriers we had construct- ed to isolate the insurgency. The people of that street had woken up and decided to take control. Every street had armed guards who would watch the neighborhood 24 hours a day. When it was once typical to find or be blown up by one, two, or three IEDs followed by a complex ambush with RPGs and small arms fire, now you would go down the street and nothing would happen. Epictetus might say that it was predetermined for that street to endure that traumatic event in order for them to change their present course and find happiness. He may also say that any action we could have taken would not have changed the course of what was to happen, but would have just caused more prolonged suffering. 13
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