What does war have to do with the meaning of life, or rather, can life still have meaning when faced with such atrocities? Such questions have famously been answered by Viktor Frankl (a holocaust survivor) in his book Man's Search for Meaning.
In contrast to Viktor Frankl's experience in concentration camps, and his ultimate conclusion that life can still have meaning under such circumstances, it was interesting to find an example of a colonel in WWII giving a short speech about meaning to a group of glider pilots before they were to undertake a very dangerous mission in Burma. The speech went something like this:
So, if those guys have got that kind of heart and they got that kind of guts, it's up to us to get them in there so that they can do their jobs and get them in there right (in reference to the men the glider pilots were going to fly in behind enemy lines). Tonight, your whole reason for being, your whole existence is going to be jammed up in a couple of minutes and it's going to balance it there and it's going to take your character to bring it through. Now, nothing you have ever done before in your life means a thing. Tonight, you're going to find out you have a soul. Good luck. - Philip Cochran
That is one hell of a speech, and understandably, it was given to rally the pilots behind a cause—to get them to focus on the daunting task ahead of them. However, most would reason that the idea that a life lived could be rendered meaningless, and that a single decision or action one takes in a moment (like a day on the battlefield) could be the complete summation of all meaning in a life, well—most would reason the idea complete rubbish. Sure, these decisions and actions made on the battlefield can add meaning or even value to life, and can even change the course of history, but it does not render everything a person did previously in life as meaningless.
In light of what Viktor Frankl stated about meaning, in light of his thoughts that there are three ways a person can create meaning:
1) by creating a work or doing a deed
2) by experiencing something or encountering someone
3) by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering
what we see here if Viktor Frankl is correct, is that absolutely these brave soldiers can create meaning in the moment. But again, it is doubtful, despite Philip Cochran's speech, that when faced with such moments of importance, a life in contrast could be considered meaningless.
With that said, what do you think? Was Philip Cochran correct? Or do you believe he said what he said, not out of belief, but rather to inspire his troops to live in the moment, to focus on the task ahead of them and nothing else? Did Philip Cochran talk about meaning elsewhere?
I couldn't find a video of the speech online, however, the speech can be found on disc three of the WWII with Walter Cronkite series.