Years back when I was in the Army, a grizzled NCO pulled me aside one day and explained something to me. Now, if you’ve ever watched an old Clint Eastwood war movie, or one of the many like it, you’ve heard this story before, so I’m not telling you something you probably already shouldn’t know. But I’m going to tell the story regardless, and even though you’ve heard it before, I’m going to explain how hearing the story doesn’t mean anything until you’ve experienced it. Anyway, it goes like this:
Two new lieutenants or two new privates come into a unit for the first time. They’re fresh out of combat training and ready for their first assignment. Soldier A is gung-ho and looking for a fight. Soldier B is scared of his or her own shadow and looks like the one most likely to run from a fight. And then shit goes down for the first time and the whole unit is under fire. Soldier A marches into the theatre of battle looking ready for the fight, but when the first shot is fired, finds he or she can’t even move, freezes and basically fails everyone, including oneself. Soldier B, realizing that Soldier A is under fire and unable to move, jumps into the fight, drags Soldier A from the battle and fights back oncoming forces in the process. Soldier B proves to the be hero, and Soldier A has disappointed everyone.
Trial by fire we call it.
People often tell this story, thinking it is specifically about battle but fail to understand what it actually means. It means that everyone lives within their own narrative and tells their own stories. But until something happens that tests one’s own abilities and shows that person that everything you’ve prepared for doesn’t explain a current dilemma, and you have to develop a new narrative based on walking through fire, you don’t really know how you will ever handle the stress of having to pull yourself out on the other side. Will you honor yourself and others? Or will you fold and prove yourself to be a complete failure? You can tell yourself you’re going to do one or the other, but until you’re truly tested, you never know what you’re going to do to get to the other side.
I’ve been fortunate, or unfortunate, to have had that test come across me a few times in my life. And each time has helped me to build upon my beliefs of what I thought might happen. So far, I’ve been lucky in that I’ve not had an encounter turn out to be the opposite of what I hoped it would be. Sometimes, the outcome hasn’t emerged as best as it could have, but at the same time, I feel confident in the sense that I’ve not humiliated myself or brought dishonor upon anyone else in my care. Sometimes, that’s all you can hope for.
So, let’s talk about Brett Kavanaugh. A few days ago, he was undergoing his trial by fire as he was made to face a past accuser and to confront a hostile Senate that wasn’t about to let him just play legal games when answering their questions. Instead of just owning up to simple failings in his past by saying: “Yes, I drank a lot, and I made a lot of mistakes back then, but I’m trying to be a much better person these days. That’s all anyone can do.” he took the frat boy-no consequences approach and from what could be seen just bullshitted his way through the entire confirmation hearing, hoping that partisanship would keep him from having to take any responsibility.
And that hurt a lot.
As a veteran, my one thought watching this whole disaster on the screen was that I’d never be comfortable under fire with this guy backing me up. To be even more blunt, I wouldn’t be comfortable getting drunk with this guy in a bar. This is that guy that breaks a crime while drunk and then blames you, even though you were throwing up in the bathroom the entire time, telling the cops he only had two beers.
The trial by fire moment in this man’s life put him in front of the nation and asked him to make the right decisions. To quote the grail knight in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade: “He chose poorly.” While he may still get a chance to get on the Supreme Court because of partisanship alone, most cases of trial by fire only get one chance to get it right. In a combat unit, he’d be that one soldier relegated to holding up the rear until the colonel can transfer him out of the unit where his actions won’t threaten to get any other soldiers killed. You rarely get a second chance to prove you’re no longer a coward. That first time is all a group of soldiers will allow; they may never trust you again.
While even if he was denied the Supreme Court pick, he’s proven he doesn’t even deserve the lofty position he already has, but he’s life locked into that position as well, meaning that he snuck his way into the elite unit and there’s really no way to usher him out. He’s now like that brigadier general who got his position by doing administrative work his entire career and once discovered to be a complete failure at combat is now being sent to some office in a corner of the Pentagon where he can’t affect anyone again, at least until someone can convince him to retire.
But I fear we’ve not seen the last of him yet.
And that should frighten a lot of people because the only reason this guy will ever be allowed a second chance is to fulfill a quota of people who just want a slot filled by someone on their side. And even they know he’s a horrible pick for the position they’re going to pigeon him into.
And the sad part is that there are so many other better people who should have been considered and seriously vetted instead of him. But they probably won’t be, so we’ll be stuck with him for decades.