What Love Actually Is: A Military Family Perspective

…and the older you get, the fewer things you really love. And by the time you get to my age, maybe it’s only one or two things. With me, I think it’s one.”

– Sgt. 1st Class William James, The Hurt Locker

Valentine’s Day is upon us once again. Cupid draws his bow, pierces the hearts of unsuspecting dupes and romance blooms. We seek out the perfect tokens of our affections. We ponder the grand gestures that will convince our beloved that their hand is the only one we want to hold, their lips the only ones we want to kiss. Chocolates challenge New Year’s resolutions; the aroma of roses fills the house. Kisses begin with (someone asking, “Wanna fool around?”) ‘K.

What a wonderful and terrible occasion Valentine’s Day is…for some, a day to woo; for others, a day to rue. For a lucky few, romances begin. For others, romances flourish. For still others, romances rekindle. For the unfortunate, Valentine’s Day offers them stark souvenirs of loves lost, whirring days of embraces that exist only as memories. Of love affairs that have become withered. Or perhaps as a punishing reminder that their lives meander on…alone.

But Valentine’s Day is not a day of love. It may act as an occasion to express or celebrate your love. But it’s not a day about love. It’s a day for romance. For inflamed infatuations. For our hopes that fairy tales can come to life.

What Love Actually Is: A Military Family Perspective

Because love is something else entirely. It’s not emotional intensity; it’s not feverish passion or delirious uplift.

Love is a fundamental orienting principle.

Love is that thing that structures your life. It aligns your thinking. It calibrates your priorities. It governs your decision trees. Love is that mortar that binds you and the people and things you love. Love is embedded in the relationship you have with your beloved.

Love is the thing that insists that you exclude, flush or purge those things that interfere with or compromise that love. If something in my life undermines my ability to honor and cherish my love, that thing has to go. Love insists that “things that are not love” be banished from your life.

And this notion of love is probably the least romantic representation of love ever conceived. Nobody will ever make a fortune writing greeting cards that say things like, “My dearest, my everything, You will forever be my fundamental orienting principle.” Saying such things to our spouse on Valentine’s Day would probably earn you, at best, a curious look.

But hear me out: Consider Sgt. 1st Class James from The Hurt Locker.

His love was to bask in the honor of duty, to delight in the fear and awe that he inspired in his fellow soldiers, and the death-wish exhilaration of EOD work. The thing that structured his life and governed his decisions was feeding his adrenaline addiction.

Few milspouses would agree that this was an honorable love, or the love that they would want in their own lives. But if, as the poets maintain, we live for love, or that our greatest moments are those when love and life intersect, James illustrates what love actually is. James’ love, and when he felt most alive, was when he was hovering over death, a pair of wire cutters in his hand. James loved the intoxication he got from bomb disposal. Not his “wife,” not his kid.

He loved that rush, that narcotic of near-death experiences. The most jarring scene for me in The Hurt Locker didn’t involve James coming tantalizingly close to being obliterated by an IED. It didn’t involve chaotic firefights or slithering down threatening alleys in Baghdad. It was the scene, quoted above, in which James essentially tells his young son that he doesn’t love him. When he admits to his toddler that his fundamental orienting principle wasn’t his family.

Military families know a thing or two about love. Our love for our spouses orchestrates our days. It consumes our time, our career opportunities and any semblance of stability. Sometimes it siphons our sanity. It lands us in strange locations, often left alone to fend for ourselves and our families. It insists that we forego those comforts and security of our civilian counterparts. It demands that we recognize that Uncle Sam may not love our spouses, but he has claims on them. And we grudgingly accept it.

And we assume those tasks and challenges of military life, not because they’re fun. Many times, they’re not enjoyable or rewarding. But we buttercups suck it up. Not for the great times. Not for the thrills. Not for the shits and giggles. But out of love.

Don’t get me wrong: I cherish romance. Though Ma’am and I have been married for a while, I still try to infuse our marriage with those romantic moments we were able to enjoy before we had kids, before life really began for “us.” But romance is only related to love. It’s possibly an expression of love, but it’s not love itself. Perhaps it initiates or triggers love; perhaps it reaffirms love. But love insists on sacrifices. Love is sacrifice. Love insists that we shed or bury those things that compromise that love and shoulder those things which support and further it.

So on Valentine’s Day, go romance your spouse. Charm the pants off of him. Tell her that the fire that began long ago still burns…brighter than ever. And then the next day, and every other day, love him. Sacrifice for her. Show your spouse that flowers and chocolates are for amateurs, and that you don’t need a calendar to tell you on which day to express your love. Because that day is every day.


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