Thirty years ago I was an Army Reservist. Most of my weekend drills and two-week annual trainings were at Fort Huachuca, Arizona, a small base just a few miles north of the border with Mexico.

I was a tank gunner on an M60A3 Main Battle Tank and heard the phrase “GUNNER – COAX – TROOPS!” frequently. It was the command my tank commander would call out when we came across the simulated infantry targets scattered throughout our tank gunnery practice ranges.

When I heard that phrase I’d reach over with my left hand and select the “coax” button, which would slave the optical sights and the thermal night-vision sights to the M240 7.62-millimeter machine gun mounted alongside, “coaxially”, the 105 mm cannon. I would yell “IDENTIFIED” when I saw the troop targets, he would yell back “FIRE!” The moment my cross-hairs were centered on the targets I would yell “ON THE WAY!”, pull the triggers on my controls and unleash a flurry of bullets downrange, leaving the plywood training silhouettes splintered and sagging on their supports as we moved off in search of larger targets.

In addition to the M240 7.62mm machine gun and 105-mm main gun there was another weapon at our disposal: the M85 .50-caliber machine gun, mounted on top of the tank in front of the tank commander. Like the main gun, we were not allowed to use that weapon against troops. It was supposed to be used against equipment – aircraft, personnel carriers, trucks, etc., but we were taught not to use it directly against people.

The same went for the main gun: using a 105mm cannon directly upon people, we were taught, was considered inhumane. We had limits in place to protect our own humanity, our own souls, from the level of destruction we had at our fingertips.

Being young soldiers, of course, we always joked about the loopholes in that directive and claimed that canteens, helmets and belt buckles were technically “equipment” and were fair game as targets.

We were taught linguistic tricks to white-wash the idea that our tank was built to kill people. We engaged “targets”. We shot “troops”, not people. Our mission was to neutralize “equipment” – things, objects, stuff. We didn’t use phrases that emphasized the impact our weapons would actually have. We didn’t say “Gunner, shoot all those people over there in the chest”. We detached from that to protect ourselves, to protect our humanity.

The border with Mexico in the 1980’s was just as much as an issue as it is today, if not more so, with apprehension levels of illegal crossers 3-4 times higher than today.

I remember a small white blimp floating lazily half a mile above us most days when we were on the tank range. It had a long umbilical cord stretching from its pale belly to a ground station below that fed radar information back to observers monitoring the border. It was part of a chain of identical units policing hundreds of miles of desert.

I remember frequently seeing Border Patrol vehicles roaming the highway between Fort Huachuca and Tucson, patrolling back and forth to apprehend anyone who managed to slip through undetected by the blimp.

And I remember wondering why the US Government didn’t use our battalion of 56 tanks to help out. We were sitting right there and could have easily deployed out through the desert and used our optical and thermal sights to scan for vehicles and illegal aliens on foot.

But even then, in my young, testosterone-soaked imagination, I knew how bad that would look on the world stage, especially if by some chance we were actually issued rounds.

Can you imagine how bad that would look if by chance the decision would have been made to place us out there and we had shot up a car full of people trying to sneak through? At that point it would not matter if we had “won” and protected the border that day.

We would have lost.

We would have traded away our goodness. We would have sold our souls to protect ourselves from not very much of a threat.

We have limits to protect our humanity. They aren’t solidly defined, obviously, and to say exactly where those lines lie is probably one of our greatest challenges as human beings.

Protecting ourselves is important.

Protecting our borders is important.

Protecting our humanity is most important of all.

And we must be careful to not trade our goodness away to pursue greatness.

“In recognizing the humanity of our fellow human beings we pay ourselves the highest tribute” – Thurgood Marshall

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