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.