Occasionally, just occasionally, when you’re reading, a phrase jumps out at you, and it catches you momentarily. You stop at the phrase, and are forced to think by the power of the expression. The phrase remains with you, for days, weeks, perhaps for ever. The phrase may occur anywhere in a text, but as in poetry, it has the power to compel you to rethink, to realign your thinking. Sometimes it’s the simple beauty of the expression (see post The cat of the musical world, 7 May 2011) or it’s just a new word (post Servitization, 27 May 2011). Sometimes it’s the sheer simplicity of the meaning.
A feature story on the BBC website caught my attention. On the website it was given the short heading “Nerves of steel“, and was about the men who defuse second world bombs in Berlin today. The bomb disposal expert interviewed, Ralf Kirschnick, won’t allow his picture to be taken – it might build up the ego, and thus the expert may become slightly less careful. He won’t mention how many bombs he has defused – it might give rise to friendly competition, increasing the risk. He has to shut out all aspects of personal life (argument with the wife) when doing the job. But that’s precisely what it isn’t. As the power of the story’s end puts it, “If it was just a job, you would die.”
Of how many other jobs can you say that? I thought about the soldier’s job, especially those in active zones. That would seem to qualify as ‘not just a job’. However, not long ago I was discussing injuries and death in combat zones with an active soldier. He gave gruesome details of the injuries, “worse than death”, suffered by some colleagues: cases of all four limbs being blown off, sex organs shredded to dust, and yet the medical help is so expert, these colleagues live. “Not for me,” he says, “put a bullet in my brain if it happens to me.” And so why does he do it? “Well, it’s a job like any other,” he says. “If you get the right equipment, it’s just a job. We all know the risks, and we sign on.”
Maybe that’s the difference. A soldier signs up, knowing that in a fight it’s kill or be killed. That’s the risk he’s prepared to take for the job. A bomb disposal expert has no such intention: he (and rarely she) ‘signs up’ to stop explosions, to stop death. He has no intention to die.
But I was recently reading about the Battle of the Somme, when the British Army lost nearly 60,000 men on the first day of the battle, 1 July 1916 (and how many injured?). As we approach the 95th anniversary of the senseless slaughter, did those 60,000 think it was just a job?