Shortly before I moved I went with some friends to a paintball course. Up to that time I had never experienced paintball. It sounded like fun. I was taken aback by the cost of the actual paintballs, but it was something of a farewell party, in my mind at least, and I didn’t want to hold back on the occasion.

We were required to wear face protection, and in this case the safety seemed adequate and not, as so often, out of proportion to the risk. I can easily imagine being hit in the eye in that situation, and easily imagine it being more traumatic than any fun is worth. But, in the event, wearing glasses and a cheap plastic face mask presents two surfaces to fog up. You cannot move the mask enough to clear the fog while on the field. It would hardly matter if you could; the fogging was worst when my breathing was heavy, or, in other words, any time sharp vision and quick reactions would come in handy. Not a time for polishing spectacles.

I tried advancing toward the enemy, and got out to where the paintballs were smacking loudly into the surrounding terrain. I crouched behind a shelter and listened to the rounds pound the side, staring at a blur of gray and brown that was all I could see through fog and plastic. Eventually I got shot and walked out.

Returning to the field, I tried taking a position high on the wall of our fort, behind the bulwark. Rounds hammered the wall. Through the tiny, blurred spot I could almost see out of, I could not spot any of the attackers approaching. I tried firing back in the general direction the shots were coming from, but my course-issued gun did not seem to reach that far. It seemed most peculiar to me, since physics should have given me the advantage, firing down while their volleys would have to fight gravity the whole way. But if they were using guns powered higher than allowed they could achieve greater velocities. I was hit, soundly, and walked out.

Walking out was not always easy. Face protection was not to be removed while in the field, and I literally could not see out of it at many points. ‘Walking out’ consisted of staggering in a direction I hoped was correct, typically being shot at all the while regardless of following the protocol for a deactivated player, and wiping at my mask or daring to peek out of it.

Our team in general seemed to be doing little better than I myself. I had no context for comparison, but the consensus seemed to be that the opposing team ignored hits, fired on deactivated players walking out, and had illegally high powered guns. I imagine such allegations come along with the game, but as well as I could judge there was a disparity between how willing our two sides were, overall, to ignore the rules.

Once again I tried a sortie. It was useless to try to cooperate with anyone, because I could not see well enough to cooperate no matter what they did. I took a circumspect route and hung back, trying to to come into range of fire before I could pick a target. I lay close to the ground behind a small hummock. My position seemed good, close to the action but not exposed, and the excitement wiped out what little vision I had carefully conserved that far. I was growing irritated with my lack of success of any kind at all, lack of prospect for any improvement, and general abuse of the rules and concepts of the game. I had been hit enough to know that it was not pleasant, and hit often enough when I shouldn’t have been to want to pay it back. I knew I was in a risky position but I also knew it was my best chance so far to actually score some hits.

Rounds began hitting the ground all around me and I returned fire blindly. In short order I was hit. I raised my hands, per the instructions to signal an acknowledged hit, and I rolled on my back and groped for the plastic plug for my gun that was also supposed to signal I was an deactivated player walking out. As a reward I was further pelted with paintballs. Suddenly I was more than ready to be hit by paintballs, a good many more and harder than I had taken thus far. I had I mind to take my gun over to the opposing force and show them that, if they chose to adopt the rule of war by taking every advantage and disregarding the rule of sport, I would gladly meet them on their terms by clubbing them but good with my rifle, and we would see whether their overpowered rifles could match me.

I had a flash of insight into what war is. War is something far beyond a juvenile rock-throwing contest, or whatever disorderly pathetic sort of brawl you want to compare to paintball; I don’t mean that I comprehended the totality of warfare, or its essence. But I had reached a point where diminished regard for my own safety and diminished regard for the worth of my opponent made me quite willing to invent retaliations for them on an exponential scale; a few minutes more of fulminating and I would have tried to round up a posse to walk systematically beat anyone found with an overpowered gun, or firing on a deactivated player.

I walked out again, and afterward made one last foray. Our base was overrun, and the referees had all they could do to keep the opposing force from shooting us as we walked on the field. I gave up; not from lack of will to try anything else, but from sufficient will to not try the various remedies I did think up.

We wound up dispensing our remaining ammo – a good stock of it, too, and dearly bought – to anyone who wanted it.

I found I do not like paintball. There is such a thing as holding your own life too dear, and on that account I do not mind the idea of pushing myself up against a fear until I find it no longer fearful (although it must be said a paintball is a small thing to fear). But for my part, in my moment of epiphany, I could not make any clear distinction between that heroic self-sacrifice we commend and a general wrath and lust for destruction directed by emotion and not under the control of any higher principle. A bullet flies from a rifle along a highly controlled path, but not under any moral constraint; and so too the ability to direct men firing guns is not the same as the control of a moral principle.

War is the flower of hatred. You cannot have the flower without the root, and you cannot be rid of the flower while the root abides. But hatred is not only the enemy of love; it is also love’s true defense. The God of love promises war on his enemies. The problem is not that men hate, but that men hate what they should love and love what they should hate. But I cannot claim to know the difference.