The Power of Compassion
How my experiences fighting in Afghanistan became the catalyst for peace
Between 2004 and 2012 I served in the UK’s elite Parachute Regiment. The “Paras” are a highly trained, highly motivated and highly aggressive combat infantry unit that form the spearhead of the UK’s Armed Forces. They are shock troops and are excellent at what they do – defeating the enemy.
During my time in the Paras, I fought in Iraq and Afghanistan. While the widespread destruction and devastation of Iraq opened my eyes to some of the terrible social consequences of war, it was the intensity of the fighting in Afghanistan that became the catalyst for significant change within me.
In the seven months we spent in the infamous Helmand Province, my unit suffered terrible casualties and experienced some of the most intense fighting UK troops had witnessed since the Second World War. And just because, as soldiers, we signed up for this level of intensity (and mostly craved it) it doesn’t mean many of us weren’t also traumatised by it.
Working through my trauma played a huge role in my transition from combat soldier to ‘peaceful warrior’, but that healing began a little later. The first step in this process was the introduction of the concept of having compassion for my enemy. And I promise you, accepting this was no small feat when that same enemy was shooting at me and killing my friends in front of my eyes. Embracing the truth that is the oneness of all humanity when engaged in the destruction of that humanity clearly didn’t happen overnight. The pain of losing my friends in such traumatic ways quickly led to anger and the desire for revenge. With these fierce emotions and blood-thirst the battle raged, inside and out. More sadness followed at the loss of even more friends and so the cycle of violence repeated itself.
Towards the end of our tour, the violence receded a little and afforded a brief period of reflection, even while the threat remained. I began to ask myself who the men were we had been fighting so viciously. Were they the terrorists and barbaric Islamic fundamentalists we imagined them to be? Some of them were, I’ve no doubt. But is that the only reality? I believe many of the men we faced were mercenaries or, speaking to some locals (I learned Pashto and spoke almost fluently at the time), some families had been forced to give over their sons under threat of having their crops burned and compounds destroyed. Whatever you believe, I doubt all the men who fought and died that summer were the crazed fanatics the main stream media had us all baying for. Is it not more likely the men on both sides were all quite similar? We also had our fanatics, our mercenaries and those who had no other choice within our ranks. Were we not just men doing what we thought was best for ourselves and others? We each had our different motivations for our actions but we tend to demonise our enemy’s motives only and rationalise our own.
The demonising of one’s enemy is so easy but it breeds only more hatred and fear, justifies and normalises brutality and only ever leads to the continuation of the cycle of violence in which we still find ourselves today. Whereas, compassion for one’s enemy helps us step out of that cycle of violence by exploring our similarities and understanding the motivations of others instead of blindly focusing on our differences in fear of what we may find.
Of course, talking about having compassion is easy. The hard part is practising it. I found an old military term helped me. In combat situations, commanders are often taught to, “Take a condor moment”. Simply take a deep breath and allow yourself to soar above the situation and view it from the perspective of the condor. This helps commanders compose themselves and analyse the battlefield objectively. It had always served me well, so I decided to practise taking condor moments when faced with stressful situations in everyday life. A good question to ask when “up there” is, what caused your antagonist to behave in this manner? The answer is usually Fear. We are often simply scared and find the best form of defence is attack. But, as I mentioned earlier, that only perpetuates the cycle of violence and aggression. Perhaps these condor moments will afford you the few vital seconds of compassion that will be the difference between responding from a place of fear or from a place of understanding..?
Compassion does not excuse violence or malicious behaviour. Compassion simply allows us to work with people. Real people, not demons. There are no demons. We are all just people.
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