Editor’s Note: Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling is a national security, intelligence and terrorism analyst for CNN. He served for 37 years in the Army, including three years in combat, and retired as commanding general of US Army Europe and the 7th Army. He is the author of “Growing Physician Leaders.” Opinions expressed in this commentary are solely his.
The divisive dialogue regarding what to do about guns in America has also embroiled those serving in our military. This week, I was asked if I would share my thoughts about a soldier’s relationship with his or her weapon and how military men and women feel about the gun debate. While honored to provide some insight, I need to place a few caveats on what I share as a former soldier.
First, I don’t speak for all those in uniform. The branches of our military recruit from across America, and our diversity is part of our strength. The opinions of those in service span a wide spectrum and what I will relate are my opinions only.
Second, for over four decades I repeatedly took an oath to support and defend the Constitution, and this vow makes the US military different from any other military in the world. Still deeply believing in that oath, I unhesitatingly support the Second Amendment and find the words “a well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed,” to be brilliant in their succinctness and foresight. Given that, I also personally believe gun reform is not equivalent to banning guns.
Third, while I’ve had extensive experience firing weapons, I don’t consider myself a weapons expert. I fired a 12-gauge shotgun for the first time at the age of 11 with my dad nearby; he trained me on that weapon for hours, emphasizing safety, cleanliness, methods of adjusting aim, and all elements of trigger pull.
The next weapon I fired was on the qualification range at West Point during my first summer as a cadet. It was an M14, the weapon that replaced the M1 Garand of WWII fame; when I arrived at my first unit I qualified on the M16 – as I would do many times throughout my career – then later on the M4 prior to combat. There was also the requirement to qualify on three different types of pistols, machine guns of different caliber, and anti-tank weapons. Additionally, since I served on tanks, I qualified as part of a four-man M60A2 and M1A1 tank crew, and later as part of a three-man M3 Bradley crew.
My first true combat experience was Desert Storm. During that war, I saw the kinetic power of our Bradley crew when we engaged multiple tanks and trucks as we rolled across the battlefield of southern Iraq, especially when we became actors in the battle of the Medina Ridge. Enemy soldiers died in those engagements. I shot enemy soldiers at close range, once with a pistol. A decade later in Iraq, I was back in combat. On one occasion I was with a tank crew that engaged an enemy vehicle. Again, many enemy soldiers died. On another occasion, I was with a team of soldiers and we all engaged insurgents with our M4 rifles; again, there were casualties.
These experiences brought an awareness of the horrors inflicted on the human body by military-grade weapons. These weapons are designed to kill with effectiveness, destroy flesh and internal organs with high velocity rounds, require medical personnel in droves at the front line and at the rear so the logistics systems are stretched, and create gut-wrenching fear and psychological trauma that must be overcome by training, protection and leadership. Military-grade weapons are designed to do all this. Emotion overwhelms facts and reason.
I imagine this is what the students in Parkland experienced last week. And it was the same experience for those at the Pulse nightclub, at the concert in Las Vegas, Sandy Hook, and at myriad other places. The difference? My fellow soldiers and I had a reasonable expectation of trauma and chaos in combat. Civilians at these other places had the expectation of safety.
In the current debate, there is a competing dialogue between different groups of military personnel regarding these issues. The comments span the spectrum, from left to right. Some, like those who support #vetsforgunreform, believe military-grade weapons like assault rifles (no matter their name, manufacturer, or ability to use a single-shot, multiple shot, or automatic shot) should not be available to the public. These individuals believe increased registration requirements, proficiency training, limited accessibility, and banning of accessories like bump-stocks or high capacity magazines will help lower the incidents of gun violence. In some cases, they are right.
Others believe the Second Amendment is sacrosanct; they feel weapon collectors or aficionados should continue to have unlimited access to any and all variety of weapons for shooting, marksmanship, or display. These individuals cite specific researchers like Grant Duwe and examples of extensive studies that show previous weapons bans have done little to affect the tide of mass shootings (or domestic violence, gang exchanges, or accidental gun deaths). In some cases, they are right.
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Both sides remain in their respective corners. Like the rest of America, our military is deeply divided.
Perhaps it’s time for all of us – civilian and military – to show greater respect to one another. Listen more closely as we exchange facts, seek reason, and process emotion. Perhaps the students who have the most recent experience with trauma might help. As we so often have done in the military, let’s learn from the newest generation as they come off their battlefield.