Death in Groups

What is the value of your life? Not a life, but your life. Would you con­sider your­self ex­pend­able?

The last time I al­most died, it was over a miss­ing shot­gun. I was in Afghanistan at the time, some­where closer to the bor­der with Pak­istan. The roads are rough, par­tic­u­larly when there aren’t any, and dur­ing our trav­els we would oc­ca­sion­ally have to stop and re-se­cure our cargo. Dur­ing one such stop, it seems a weapon was left on the bed of the truck and then fell off some­where. It was dis­cov­ered the weapon was miss­ing, and then we were or­dered to go back out and find it.

It’s im­por­tant to rec­og­nize early on that there was no ex­pec­ta­tion of suc­cess here—this was a pun­ish­ment. It was more than three hours’ travel, through moun­tains and river valleys. Spot­ting a shot­gun through the ar­mored win­dow was not likely. Up the chain of com­mand went the ob­ser­va­tion that driv­ing up and down the same road a bunch of times is a bad plan con­sid­er­ing we were in Afghanistan. Down the chain of com­mand came the or­ders to go out any­way. It was clear that we were ex­pected to op­er­ate con­tin­u­ously un­til we were at­tacked, or the higher ups re­lented. Every­one knew. Every­one knew that ev­ery­one knew. It was com­mon knowl­edge. Th­ese are mo­ments that test men and their oaths: we looked at one an­other in grimly, see­ing the hubris and stu­pidity at work; there was talk of re­fus­ing to go.

We went.

The fourth time we cov­ered the ground, ~300lbs of home-made ex­plo­sive went off un­der the back tire of the truck I was in. Where there should have been a sound there was a mighty shock­wave, and ev­ery­thing went silent and in slow mo­tion. The world was queerly bright, and I won­dered why the smell of dust was so strong. Then I saw my arms float­ing in front of me, and the tied down equip­ment only held by its ties; I knew what had hap­pened, and what was next. I thought very clearly: “This part is go­ing to suck.”

Every­body lived—the new trucks have all kinds of tricks for dis­pens­ing with ki­netic en­ergy, so ev­ery nut and bolt on the thing blew off and they found one of the tires 400 me­ters away. Those weighed 700lbs or so, with the wheel in them; we made a game of try­ing to flip one in our camp, and per­haps a quar­ter suc­ceeded. Three of us left in a he­li­copter, my­self in­cluded. One or more of us would prob­a­bly have died but for a se­ries of re­cent changes: we stopped hav­ing a rear gun­ner (three weeks); we left the emer­gency hatches cracked in or­der to avoid over­pres­sure (two weeks); we made sure our seat­belts were as tight as pos­si­ble (that day). Whether we would die was not sub­ject to our con­trol. That miss­ing shot­gun can be had for about $650. Last I checked—re­ally checked—that was at the ob­ject level what I was will­ing to lay down my life for.

Guess the num­ber that is 23 of the av­er­age of all guesses. Among ra­tio­nal guessers, that num­ber is 0.

Gam­ble your life for the value that is less than the av­er­age of all gam­bles. Among war­riors, that value is noth­ing.