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The Missing Man formation after the single plane has left.

When a pilot dies, there is a special formation that is flown over his or her funeral.  “The Missing Man” is a standard, four-plane “V” arrangement that flies at low altitude.  When it reaches the site of the service, a single plane abruptly pulls up and leaves formation, flying straight up into the sky until it disappears, and the remaining three planes fly on with a space between them where the missing plane once flew.

I cried when I read about this.  So did my wife, when I described it to her.

I learned about it while reading Tom Clancy’s Every Man a Tiger.  It does not feature Jack Ryan saving the world or fighting to avenge plots against his family.  Rather, this book is written with a guy named Chuck Horner, a United States Air Force General that served during the first Gulf War.  It is as much a character study of the man as it is an exploration of air power in war, and in doing both it provides a unique insight into the humility and humanity of a man that had to take the lives of others in a direct and indirect capacity.

In effect, this book – and the poignant moments of respect and dignity in it – points out a great debate that rages in me: I don’t know how I feel about the preparation and execution of war.

I’ve heard almost every argument for and against that there is to make.  I have known people that have come from active warzones, soldiers that have been sent overseas, and unswerving pacifists.  I have read books on almost every major armed conflict fought in the last three millennia.  But I am still left with the uneasy sense that I can’t quite place my values with any certainty.

I am not of the starry-eyed notion that there is anything noble or glorious about war itself.  Killing is killing.  I imagine that there are no trumpets playing when a soldier dies on the battlefield, and I doubt that there is any moving cinematography to show the sacrifice of life when someone’s head gets blown off.  It is human brutality at its most visceral.  In that sense, I know that I can never blindly believe that sending boys and girls off to die for king and country is anything more than an exercise of power and manipulation by small men in big chairs.

At the same time, I know that there have been many times in history when very bad people did very bad things, when they rampaged into other countries to kill and destroy, and no amount of diplomacy would stop them.  When, in World War II, my uncle’s father flew as a tail gunner in the Lancasters over Europe, he was an active participant in a military effort that was waged against a force with unquestionably evil intentions.  There isn’t any gray area there for me.

But what about now?  Where do I fit my unabashed excitement at being at the Canadian War Museum with my desire to see peace reign over all the earth?  Why can’t I get my fascination with tanks and fighter jets and machine guns to jive with the very obvious fact that these things have all been designed to kill people?  How do I stand behind the Canadian men and women that go to Afghanistan while I loathe the confused and ineffective intentions of the Canadian government that sends them?

What does Chuck Horner think about all of this?

If you are going to kill someone, you better have a good reason for it.  And if you have a good reason, then you better not play around with the killing…  You are faced with the ever-present reality that you are out there killing other people, and that is very bothersome, especially if you really believe the stuff they taught you in church.  You are stuck with a contradiction: “Thou shall not kill.”  But you are killing.  The only way to resolve the contradiction is to try to do it as humanely as possible.  That comes from knowing why you are at war, and then to fight is in such a way that it is over as quickly as possible and everyone can go home and live in peace.

I have no pithy conclusion to offer on this one.