reflections

Friendship and Loneliness

Friends

I recently re-blogged one of my first posts on Carrying the Gun, called The Last Letter WarI was still in graduate school at the time, and I was getting nostalgic for the feeling that letter writing and receiving brought during my first deployment, which was pretty austere. In that post, I lamented the fact that due to the rapid spread of connectivity and smartphones, future wars would likely not depend on good old fashioned mail the way we once knew it. In that, something would be lost – solitude, loneliness, and a deep yearning for outside contact. I admitted though, that all that nostalgia would be lost on a soldier sitting on his cot, waiting weeks or months for a letter that may never come – he’d choose the internet in a heartbeat because it is better, easier, and instantaneous.

A couple of years later, I wrote a piece imagining what it might be like to deploy in the current media landscape, where a soldier’s actions are almost instantaneously captured and beamed across the world via the internet at the speed of light, dissected, critiqued, and discarded before the soldier makes it back to his camp. It was a dark thought, especially the idea of having a bunch of snarky twenty and thirty somethings share thoughts on your behavior from the comfort of their computer chairs or porcelain toilets, in 140 characters or less.

Now, I am living in that future.

I tend to find myself reading things that bleed into one another – articles that may or not be related, but share common themes. I don’t know if this is a product of my mood at a given time, which makes me more likely to click and follow through on reading one thing rather than another, or simply a random occurrence that seems to happen pretty frequently. Over the past week I’ve been thinking about those two posts while also having read a number of articles and essays on the topics of friendship, loneliness, and civility. They all seem to be connected, somehow, so I thought I’d share them here. The common denominator in them (with the exception of The Hermit) is the rise of social media as a disruptive force – disruptive, in this case, not necessarily being a “bad” thing (although it might be – the jury is still out).

It started with this article in GQ (The Strange & Curious Tale of the Last True Hermit) about a man who remained hidden in the woods of Maine for almost thirty years. It is a fascinating story, and especially so in today’s interconnected world, where this phenomena seems exceptionally rare. The author, who continually tries to tease out of Chris Knight (the hermit) why he did it – only comes close to an answer when discovering what it is that he missed about his exile, now that it had been taken from him.

“What I miss most,” he eventually continued, “is somewhere between quiet and solitude. What I miss most is stillness.” He said he’d watched for years as a shelf mushroom grew on the trunk of a Douglas fir in his camp. I’d noticed the mushroom when I visited—it was enormous—and he asked me with evident concern if anyone had knocked it down. I assured him it was still there. In the height of summer, he said, he’d sometimes sneak down to the lake at night. “I’d stretch out in the water, float on my back, and look at the stars.”

While scrolling through my Timeline on my Facebook, looking for a certain picture, I came across an article I shared from the Chronicle of Higher Education titled Faux Friendship in 2009. In it, William Deresiewicz discusses the changing nature of friendship, and especially the loss of the “romantic” friendship, as in, that single friend with whom we are almost cosmically linked. Instead, we have replaced “information for experience.” Think about the throngs of outstretched hands at concerts (or any event) clutching glowing smartphones to “capture” moments they aren’t really experiencing to be shared with others who don’t really care.

Now we’re just broadcasting our stream of consciousness, live from Central Park, to all 500 of our friends at once, hoping that someone, anyone, will confirm our existence by answering back. We haven’t just stopped talking to our friends as individuals, at such moments, we have stopped thinking of them as individuals. We have turned them into an indiscriminate mass, a kind of audience or faceless public. We address ourselves not to a circle, but to a cloud.

Deresiewicz wrote another article for the Chronicle titled The End of Solitude, which is very closely related to Faux Friendship, but worth reading on its own.

The goal now, it seems, is simply to become known, to turn oneself into a sort of miniature celebrity.

Strangely, I was also pointed to this article called How to Be Polite which feels somewhat related in that it discusses the demise of civility, mostly due to the rise of social media and a more interconnected world.

People silently struggle from all kinds of terrible things. They suffer from depression, ambition, substance abuse, and pretension. They suffer from family tragedy, Ivy-League educations, and self-loathing. They suffer from failing marriages, physical pain, and publishing. The good thing about politeness is that you can treat these people exactly the same. And then wait to see what happens. You don’t have to have an opinion. You don’t need to make a judgment. I know that doesn’t sound like liberation, because we live and work in an opinion-based economy. But it is. Not having an opinion means not having an obligation. And not being obligated is one of the sweetest of life’s riches.

Just before I was ready to post this piece, I came across this Mashable article, The Most Connected Man is You, Just a Few Years From NowThe subject obsessively tracks everything he can track with whatever digital tracker exists, creating a cyborg-effect.

“Everyone wants to know if they will be like me in the future, but everyone is already like me; they just don’t think about it like that,” he says. “Your phone is already collecting information about you and your life. If you use a credit card or a car GPS system, you’re already being tracked. But that’s Big Brother. When you take control of it yourself, that’s Big Mother, and that relationship is nurturing, kind and not controlling.

And lastly, just for fun, is this edit of celebrities at the VMAs, looking more and more like citizens of the Hunger Games’ Capitol, ignoring the party going on around them in favor of the pitch-and-toss happening on their smartphones.

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reflections

Homies at War

Homies

A couple of weeks ago, I came across this short documentary at Vice about the guy who made millions of dollars in quarters selling small plastic figures in New York supermarkets. They were called “Homies,” and in the early 2000s, they were wildly popular in New York City.

In March 2003, I deployed to Iraq. My mother worked at a supermarket at the time, and like most supermarkets, it had quarter machines near the exit. One of these machines kept “Homies.”

My mom would send me care packages full of the things I asked for – magazines, food, video games – and then drop in a handful of Homies. It was a strange thing to pull out of a box in Baghdad, but for some strange reason, they became popular in my platoon. I handed them out as I got them and guys set them up around their sleeping area or kept them in their pockets for good luck. A few guys taped a homie to the front sight post of their rifles until someone yelled at them for it.

It was strange to see this documentary, with the guy that once hit it big with his homies now struggling to pay his Verizon bill. Meanwhile, Iraq too has fallen apart, struggling to keep the lid on a dangerous extremist march on Baghdad.

iraq ten years ago, reflections

Killing time at Hotel California (October 21, 2003)

Welcome to Hotel California

[Update (May 14, 2014) - I'm raising money for Operation Supply Drop - a charity that sends video games to deployed troops - by playing video games for 24 hours straight on May 17. All this week, I am reposting some of my favorite milgaming articles as a way to celebrate #8BitSalute. Please help me reach my goal donating (click here) or sharing this post]

Note: I originally posted this last December. I’m reposting it here because this is where it fits in the “Iraq: Ten Years Later” thing.

Also, a shorter, sexier version of this was published at Vice.

Late summer 2003

Baghdad

We’ve been here long enough to understand that we’re not going to find out when we’re going home until it’s actually time to go home. It sucks, but we’ve accepted it. This actually helped develop a positive attitude to the deployment experience. We’ve moved past complacency and we’re now focused on improving our condition.

We were doing the “highway mission” for what seemed like an eternity. Gone were the patrols, snap TCPs, night raids, and even the dreaded all-day cordon and searches. All we knew was the highway. A squad would insert somewhere along one of Baghdad’s busy highways and establish an LP/OP, usually for a 12 hour period before being relieved by another squad. 12 hours on, 24 “off.” That “off” time was filled with weapons maintenance, guard duty, “hey you” details, “hey you” missions, chow, rest, and personal time. It was a pretty unexciting time during the deployment.

Then, one day, our platoon was tasked with sending two rifle squads to Baghdad International Airport (BIAP) for a mystery detail that would last for at least a week. 1st and 2nd squads were chosen (I was a team leader in 1st squad). Without knowing exactly what we were doing, we packed our gear and loaded onto a truck while the rest of the platoon looked on with envy. Their 12 hours on 24 hours off just became 12 on 12 off.

Besides the Green Zone, BIAP offered the most luxury to deployed soldiers in Iraq. It was the enlisted man’s Green Zone. Sprawling and unorganized. Going to BIAP for a grunt, however short, was a welcome respite from life outside the wire. BIAP had a Burger King, a massive PX that was routinely re-stocked, and a first-rate Dining Facility (DFAC). Soldiers would eagerly volunteer to accompany the XO as extra security on his runs to BIAP to secure supplies, just for the chance to use one of BIAP’s facilities. Risking it all for some fast food.

After speeding through Highway 8, we passed the winged statue that welcomes you to BIAP. Passing through numerous checkpoints, our eyes turned towards the center of the airport at the tallest structure on the premises, a multi-story sand colored building. On its side was draped a canvas sign that some unit had placed there that read “Welcome to Hotel California.”

Our truck snaked its way to the center of activity near the Hotel California and the aircraft hangars. Our platoon leader (PL) and platoon sergeant (PSG) left to link up with whomever they were supposed to link up with. This left the rest of us with some free time to explore.

The Burger King was the obvious first choice. Earlier in the summer, our PSG brought back a single Whopper from a trip to BIAP. That Whopper had to be shared with the entire 36 man platoon. Each soldier took a tiny bite and then passed the sandwich to the guy at the next cot, this being repeated until it disappeared. As silly as it seems, that single bite was amazing. The line at the BIAP BK was ridiculously long. Wait times of over three hours were the norm, and by the time you made it to the window, having it your way was unlikely since most of their in-demand supplies had most likely been exhausted. Still, there was something about having fast food that did wonders for morale. Soldiers often joked that when they got back home they would go get fast food at 0200 in the morning on a weekday, just because they could.

Next was the PX, which was housed in an old sheet metal hangar with an extremely high ceiling. This PX sold a little of everything, but the in-demand items were junk food, magazines, and electronics. Items would sell out almost as soon as they were put on the shelves. Soldiers stationed at BIAP obviously had the best chance of snagging prized items, which became a point of animosity for line troops who only got a few minutes to pass through and pick up whatever was left.

The DFAC was amazing. It was called the “Bob Hope” DFAC and a few months later President Bush would fly in and help serve Thanksgiving Dinner there. For a unit that subsisted on an almost exclusive diet of Meals Ready to Eat (MREs) for months, the sudden availability of normal food instantly raised morale, while simultaneously stiffening disdain felt towards the lucky ones who had permanent access to it. Each meal presented the customer with multiple choices. You could eat healthy or go to town on french toast, cakes and ice cream. After eating at the DFAC, trips to Burger King happened for the novelty of it or if you happened to pass by and noticed the line was short.

Eventually, our short tour of the amenities ended and our two squads found ourselves sitting in the briefing room of an aviation unit. We would be relieving a couple of line squads from a sister unit. The expressions on their faces suggested they were not happy to go. An officer in a flight suit came in to brief us. Our two squads would serve as an emergency Quick Reaction Force (QRF) for the Baghdad area. If someone needed a coupe of rifle squads in a pinch, we would load up on Blackhawks and be inserted wherever we were needed.

QRF hangar

It was an awesome mission template. No guard duty, no nonsense. Just waiting for a call to come down that would move us rapidly to a friction point via UH-60s and do the work of infantrymen. In the meantime, we had some of the finest facilities that OIF-I had to offer at our fingertips.

Our home would be the seventh floor of the Hotel California. Besides the first floor, the rest of the building seemed abandoned. In a painful file, we slowly climbed the seven flights of stairs with all of our weapons, ammo, rucksacks, body armor and personal gear. Once we finally made it to our floor, the two squads quickly scurried looking for the best spot to drop rucks and claim real estate. This was an extremely important moment. Finding a good nesting spot could lead to a relatively comfortable stay, whereas a poor spot could ruin the entire experience.

Once everyone had claimed their spots, we began to explore the floor. It looked like this floor housed office space for Iraqi travel agencies. Most of the furniture was gone, but there were still some desks and cabinets with travel brochures and travel information suggesting a time before the war when Iraqis traveled for leisure. The tall windows were blown out, which let in a welcomed cool breeze that kept the air temperature much lower than outdoors. From our floor, we could see out over the sprawling airport all the way to where it met the beginning of Baghdad proper. A darker haze sat low in the sky there.

The spartan conditions of OIF-I brought out the latent talents of many soldiers. Amateur electricians became local superstars, and we were fortunate to have a couple with us for this mission. After only a few minutes of messing around, they managed to get some lights on and jerry-rigged some electrical outlets. With that, the opportunities for what was possible expanded exponentially.

With electricity, freedom from details, and an unknown amount of free time, it took little deliberation to decide that we needed to buy a television and an Xbox. Before our first night was over, we had both, with four controllers and a copy of Halo: Combat Evolved. Under warm amber lights, both squads gathered around the television while the amateur electricians put the finishing touches on their setup, connecting wires and double checking their work. With everything ready, the television was turned on followed by the Xbox. Before anything appeared on the screen we heard a loud pop. Smoke started to rise from the Xbox. Our eagerness to start our game time blinded us to the reality of circuitry outside the US. The Xbox would only operate on a 110 circuit, and we plugged it into a 220 circuit. We were completely bummed, especially the guy who shelled out the big money for the Xbox.

It was late and the PX was closed, so we decided that we would go back to the PX first thing in the morning with the Xbox and try to exchange it, under the premise that we plugged it in and didn’t work (which was true).

With our second Xbox in hand, we again gathered around the setup, eager to get our game on. This time we plugged the Xbox into a small orange transformer that was supposed to downgrade from 220 to 110.

It worked!

The Xbox started up and the Halo title screen flickered on the television as we simultaneously heard a pop. Smoke rose from both the Xbox and the orange transformer, which was now hot to the touch. Apparently the small orange transformer was only capable of handling small electronics, not the heavy-duty power needs of a modern gaming machine.

Two Xbox’s down, but determined to make this work, we devised a new plan. One of us would go and try to exchange the second (!) fried Xbox while I scoured BIAP for a transformer powerful enough to work the system. Strangely, the PX had no problem accepting a second fried Xbox from the same guy in two days and exchanging it for a third, brand new one. Meanwhile, I spent the better part of the morning creeping around BIAP, looking for heavy-duty transformers. After asking around, I learned that there was a hole-in-the-wall store on BIAP run by Iraqis. The store was actually right next to Hotel California, but you wouldn’t know it unless someone had clued you in. Behind a blank door was the store, and the shelves were stocked with local food, jewelry, painting, and other souvenirs. Stowed away in the corner were a bunch of metal boxes of various sizes. These were the transformers. Although I could have settled for a smaller model, I didn’t want to disappoint the squad. I bought the biggest transformer they had which weighed at least thirty pounds and could have powered a home.

Transformer in tow, I made the slow ascent to the seventh floor. When I walked in with the transformer I received a hero’s welcome for delivering the goods. With more transforming power than we could ever need we once again setup our system and carefully turned the power on, expecting another sizzle and pop. This time, we reached the main screen and were greeted the heroic title music of the Halo series.

The next two weeks became an in-country orgy of gaming madness. We were never called for a QRF mission. We spent our days bringing to-go plates up to the seventh floor and playing 4-way Halo tournaments all day long. We gave each other terrible nicknames like “Fat Elvis” and “Mercutio.” If someone got on a hot streak, we changed the game to something we called “The One” (a nod to the Matrix, which we were all a little too obsessed with at the time) and played 3 vs. 1 until all was restored.

We’d play straight through mortar attacks, glancing briefly outside the window to make sure the rounds weren’t walking in too close to our seventh floor retreat.

Those two weeks seemed to last forever as we settled into our new norm of hot showers, good food, video games all day, and the only threat of work being a high-speed mission that would whisk us directly to the ultra-elusive enemy, where we would close with and destroy him. When our PL and PSG showed up to pick us up, we reluctantly packed up our gear and wore the same sad faces of the guys we relieved two weeks earlier. Our leadership could sense that we had been getting over, especially as we loaded a couple of big screen televisions into our dusty truck to be brought back to our humble firebase where they’d be useless.

The platoon bay.

The platoon bay.

Arriving back at our company firebase, the rest of the platoon glared angrily as we settled back into our old spots in the platoon bay. Our gifts of Red Hot Cheetos were welcomed, but it didn’t change one of our most basic rules: if you got out of the firebase, you were getting over. This was especially true because the platoon had to accomplish the same amount of work with half of the guys. And word had spread quickly that we were living the high life at BIAP, despite our assurances that it wasn’t that great.

We would only spend a few more weeks at our company firebase before moving to a larger consolidated Forward Operating Base (FOB), complete with a DFAC of its own and four man rooms. There, all of us would get to enjoy the high life a little bit.

But nothing will beat those two weeks at Hotel California.

reflections

Military Meditation

Around the time I started to transition out of the Army, I started to get very interested in “productivity.” I followed blogs like lifehack and 43 Folders. I kept reading articles about and by people like David Allen and Merlin Mann. I developed my own system for “getting things done” and have revised and revised over the years to get to where I am now (it’s still a monster,  but it’s my monster).

Somewhere along the way I came across Gretchen Rubin. I found her through her blog, The Happiness Project, which later became a best-selling book. In it, she describes her journey on finding happiness through self-experimentation. It’s a fantastic book which I eagerly read when it came out and have given as a gift a bunch of times.

Fortunately, Gretchen maintains her blog and posts pretty regularly. She frequently posts interviews with people in the field of whatever it is she is researching at the time. Right now, she’s writing a book on ‘habits.’ Back in February, she posted an interview with ABC news correspondent Dan Harris.

Now, if you are a very close reader of this blog or you know me personally, then you are already aware of my fascination with early morning news television. Wherever I am, I’ll always watch the local news, mostly because it is often extremely awkward, and then if I’m around, I’ll stick around for the highly-polished national news. It’s hardly news anymore – it’s more like BuzzFeed – just a mashup of some news items with some celebrity stuff and viral videos. It’s supposed to wake you up, I guess. Anyway, my preference is Good Morning America, and I usually only get to see it on weekends, when Dan Harris is on. I have always liked Dan Harris. He’s done some good war reporting. He’s also pretty dry and can be sarcastic.

So when Dan Harris popped on Gretchen Rubin’s blog, it was, for me, one of those weird intersections in life of people I admire.

In the interview, I learned that Dan Harris meditates and just wrote a book aggressively titled “10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works.

As someone who has flirted with meditation before (more on that below), I pre-ordered the book and shortly thereafter, shipped off to the National Training Center.

After returning home, I finished up one book and then jumped into Dan’s book.

I’m not reviewing the book here. I’ll just say that it was really good. Funny, well-written, and practically helpful. If you’re interested in meditation, mindfulness, or the drama that goes on behind the scenes at ABC news, you will enjoy the book.

In it, he refers to the Marine Corps’ experiments with teaching meditation to marines as a way to make – better marines. For its part, the Army has embraced “resiliency” as not just a thing you should be, but an entire methodology for teaching and living (meditation in the classic, Buddhist tradition is not currently part of the instruction, though).

When I was going to college in New York, I learned about a guy named David Wagner who was offering free meditation sessions to veterans. At the time, I was organizing the City College Veterans Association and wanted to see what it was all about. Like Dan says in the book, meditation’s biggest problem is bad public relations. The stereotypical meditator is the touchy-feely hippy who is lost in his own world. There is probably no subculture of people that might be more skeptical of meditation than the military – with your “dip and velcro and all your gear.”

I met David in his Manhattan office. He was about my height, with a full beard and dark, wavy hair. He smiled widely as he greeted me, but wasn’t overly friendly. As we walked into his office, I looked around the room and saw a sticker that read “Fuck the Naysayers.” We sat down, and he excitedly shared with me a theory he had about war veterans, based on things he has read and his own study of meditation. I’m paraphrasing here – it’s been over five years since this conversation – but he explained that there is a deep inner understanding that meditation practitioners work to achieve through years of patient work. He spoke about Greek mythology and the notion of the warrior achieving enlightenment through combat. We discussed the overwhelming feelings that overtake a person the first time bullets fly overhead. His theory, is that at that moment, a person is fully present – which is one of the goals of meditation, after all. The fear and excitement of combat supercharges a person into the here and now by necessity. That soldier has touched that deep inside ‘thing’ for a moment, and then the adrenaline goes away and Dan’s ‘voice in the head’ comes back and takes over.

You know that half second of chest-constricting terror that happens when you see the demon’s faces for the first time in The Devil’s Advocate? That’s apparently how war feels, constantly. -@babyballs69

David believes that through meditation, veterans can recapture that feeling of being completely present – the exhiliration of combat (without the fear) through meditation, and ultimately, be a better person.

I liked what he was saying, and it made sense. What I especially liked is that David wasn’t approaching help for veterans as a charity case to address PTSD – which I’ve seen over and over again when it comes to doing anything for veterans. While meditation might help veterans with PTSD (I haven’t seen the research), David was more interested in using meditation as a way to build the next-greatest generation. To put it plainly, his thought was that through the crucible of combat, veterans achieved something that most people will never achieve – a kind of self-enlightenment that was actualized, and then locked away, deep inside the body. Through meditation, that “thing” could be unlocked.

The classes were free, so what did I have to lose?

I met with David over the course of a couple of months and began meditating. It’s was a frustrating process, because it takes real discipline and buy-in. Over those months, I sometimes meditated regularly and sometimes stopped for long periods of time. David was always nice about it when I said I hadn’t meditated in awhile, pointing out that if I looked at a chart of my life, I was still meditating a lot more than I had over the past twenty seven years. During that time when I was meditating regularly, I felt good, and strangely, it manifested itself in the gym – I was working out harder than ever.

In my last year at City College, I tried connecting more veterans with David and meditation. I pushed, but it was too hard a sell at the time and required a lot more energy from me than I could give to make it happen. It’s unfortunate, because I think David is really on to something. As Dan’s book points out, the research is there. Meditation is not just some lovey-dovey cosmic thing – it’s proven by science to improve a number of things. In Dan’s case, he claims to be at least 10% happier. Not a bad return on the investment.

So, I leave this all here for you to pick through and think about. I know I’m convinced.

 

reflections

Conquering as Virtue

yushan_young_genghis_khan

Recently, I sat talking with another officer about what a deployment to Afghanistan in 2014 might look like, especially in its historical context with the writing on the wall making it close to the end of the war, if not the end. What, I thought, is the driving force of a young soldier going to Afghanistan in 2014?

In 2001, it was revenge. In Iraq, 2003, it was pre-emptive defense (or so they said). In the years leading up to today, it was some form of chasing down the last remnants, battling out the long slog, “surging,” mopping up, “setting conditions” or some other conglomeration of words that hinted at elusive victory.

A deployment in 2014 will likely look very different than other deployments. The 2d Cavalry Regiment is currently rolling through a sleepy deployment where the most exciting thing in months can be *almost* getting to fire an illumination round. The – workout twice a day and evenings at Green Beans coffee – kind of deployment.

OBL is dead and whether we stay in Afghanistan past 2014 is up in the air.

What then, motivates a soldier to fight?

I started thinking that maybe it is the mechanical aspect of war, the fight itself. There is certainly a pull to it, especially for young men (and women) who want to prove themselves in battle. But sitting there in that conversation, mind buzzing with caffeine, I thought back to my own experience. Getting shot at was not fun – at all. I felt exposed and on the brink of destruction.

But afterwards! Afterwards was amazing. The feeling of escaping death. Looking it in the face and winning. Not wanting to do it again because it felt so close, but wondering if I could.

Back in my office, I said, “No, it’s not the mechanical fight, running a battle drill and surviving that provides the pull.”

We discussed what it must have been like for soldiers in ancient times, wielding sword and shield, fighting face to face. Slashing and hacking. No, while romantic in hind sight, having an extremely short life expectancy couldn’t have been very “fun.” While there were certainly some who relished the actual fighting (as there are now), we agreed that most ancient soldiers probably loathed it and feared it.

But, what they had that we don’t was the Virtue of the Conqueror.

That is, winning the battle and winning the war was virtuous in its own right. It was generally understood. Conquering was a virtue. Invading, advancing, reaping reward for your people – that was valued in and of itself.

For the modern American soldier, conquering is not a virtue. Outside of military bases, there are no banners hailing the conquering hero, or even welcoming them home. War, now, is an afterthought. Something “over there” that really needs to end soon so we can get this country back on track, or so they say.

Without the Virtue of the Conqueror, the whole notion of “why we fight” is so much trickier today. If this were ancient times and we served in an army of conquerors, it is doubtful that Vietnam vet turned Hollywood screenwriter William Broyles would have felt the need to pen “Why Men Love War” or British Iraq vet turned journalist would write “Iraq is always with you.” It was much easier to explain the whole thing when everyone just understood that you went to war to win and bring victory. That’s it.

So, as always, I offer nothing that brings us closer to understanding why, but I do posit that without the Virtue of the Conqueror, it is easier to understand why we have such a hard time reconciling it now. I like the thought of two ancient grizzled veterans getting drunk in a dank tavern, discussing the meta-physical elements of war, wondering “what it all means.” But I’m not sure they had to do that because they were too busy celebrating victory or dead.

Incidentally, Jill Sargent Russell posted ‘The Art of Victory‘ on Kings of War yesterday. It’s a good post that I think is talking about the same thing I am, but in a more academic way.

reflections

A good article on the 10th Mountain in Afghanistan that gets so much wrong

Multiple Deployments? PTSD? Deployments linked to suicide? Oh please!

Multiple Deployments? PTSD? Deployments linked to suicide? Oh please!

Saw this article from the Washington Post making the rounds a couple of days ago: In Afghanistan, redeployed U.S. soldiers still coping with demons of post-traumatic stress. It’s about soldiers in the 10th Mountain Division who are currently fighting in Afghanistan. Not sure why I decided to read it – I think someone said it was an important article so I jumped in.

It’s a good article, but one of two things are happening here: either the journalist doesn’t understand the nature of the modern, all-volunteer military (doubtful), or he’s taking advantage of the fact that most Americans certainly don’t.

They have served as many as seven combat tours each, with the accompanying traumas — pulling a friend’s body from a charred vehicle, watching a rocket tear through a nearby barracks, learning from e-mail that a marriage was falling apart.

But a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder is not a barrier to being redeployed. Not when the Army needs its most experienced soldiers to wrap up the war. Instead, the Army is trying to answer a new question: Who is resilient enough to return to Afghanistan, in spite of the demons they are still fighting?

The first paragraph is catching. Seven deployments! That’s pretty incredible, and probably unfathomable for someone reading this who has not served in the past ten years. It’s incredible to me – as someone who has served!

But it is the second paragraph that had me leaning in and wondering where this article was going. Not when the Army needs its most experienced soldiers to wrap up the war. What is he talking about there? That sentence is making it seem like these men were forced to go overseas, specially selected, when they certainly were not. Stop-loss as a policy has ended. These men chose to stay in the Army, which is admirable. They are not victims of the Army preying on their war experience to close this thing out. The Army is not having any problems recruiting or retaining its soldiers. These soldiers chose this, proudly.

The author then goes on to list some soldiers and the problems they faced upon redeploying from previous tours. All good stuff.

Later, he writes this:

His commanders and his subordinates said Borce is an impeccable leader, the kind of soldier his unit needs here in Ghazni province. He was chosen to redeploy. He followed orders. But he acknowledges that he was still reckoning with what he had already been through, even as he boarded the plane for Afghanistan in January.

Chosen? Again, this line makes it seem like the Army singled him out, which the article is not substantiating. It appears that Borce wanted to go, despite dealing with readjustment issues. The Army “chose” the 10th Mountain Division, of which Borce was a member. That is all.

Further on, he writes this:

“The mentality was that you had to be hard. There was no concern for behavioral health, even though at the time I had a lot of issues,” he said. “Some of the stuff I saw really messed me up.”

That mentality has changed, he said, and for plenty of reasons. Last year there were 349 suicides among active-duty U.S. troops, more than the 295 Americans who died last year in Afghanistan.

I’m pretty sure that this was the line that compelled me to write this down and make sure I responded to this here. It was just a few weeks ago that a study came out confirming that deployment factors are not related to the spike in military suicides. If you didn’t know that, you would probably buy in to the popular narrative that deployments are related to the military’s suicide problem – which the studies show is not the case.

Lots of people like to write about the “veteran as victim” narrative and the civilian-military divide. While there was some good stuff in this article, I got the sense that it painted the soldiers in this story as victims of their own professionalism. They are professional soldiers, capable of coping with multiple deployments – that is a good thing, and worth writing about. The style and juxtaposing though, hints at things that don’t exist, and to me, that does nothing to inform the public of the reality of what is going on with their military, but rather only reinforces tired old narratives that don’t want to die.

iraq ten years ago, reflections

The Great North East Blackout of 2003 and the Fury of the Veteran (August 15, 2003)

I was leaning against the locked door that leads to the next car of the F train, hands in the pockets of a new $300 leather jacket I just 20130816-152046.jpgbought with war money. I was home on mid-tour leave from Iraq. It was December, 2003. Saddam Hussein would be captured in a few days. I was heading to Manhattan from my parents’ home in Queens for some fun.

There were plenty of seats available but I didn’t want to sit. I wanted to watch. The light above me was out, casting my corner a little darker than the rest of the car. I leaned there, rocking back and forth, straining my abdominal and leg muscles to try and stay as still as possible, enjoying the way my back lightly slammed against the thick glass of the door, over and over again. I watched the silent, tired commuters sitting there, all bundled up for winter, listening to music, reading, sleeping, staring into space.

Not caring about the war in Iraq.

My mind raced back to Baghdad and the thought that somewhere out there, right now, some young American soldier like me was experiencing the worst terror of his life. Right. Now.

The train rocked to a stop at 169th street in Queens and the conductor said something inaudible. The bell rang and the doors opened, and then closed. No one got off and no one got on.

As the train lurched out of the station and got back up to speed, the rumbling drowned out anything but the conversation happening in my own head. I shouted to myself internally how these people had no idea what was going on over there, what we were doing for them. Look at them, they don’t even care.

I thought back to the summer.

August 15, 2003.

“Did you hear about this blackout back home?”

I shifted barely on my cot, turning towards the source of the question. I felt my damp skin lightly peel away from the canvas.

“No, what blackout?” I responded.

“Apparently there is a big blackout all over the north east. Everyone’s bitching about it.”

“New York, too?” I asked, propping my head up in my hand as I lay on my side, suddenly a bit more interested.

“Yeah, they’re bitching the most.”

I laughed slightly.

“Waah! I’ve got no electricity and now I can’t go to work for a few days!” another soldier interjected from across the bay, overhearing the exchange.

“What do they have to bitch about? It’s like a 120˚ here and we don’t even have air conditioning. Plus, people are trying to kill us!” came another soldier, piling on.

“If they only had to do this for a couple – no, if they had to do this for like, one day, they’d stop their bitching.”

August 3, 2013. From Disgrunted Vet, a poem by Nathan Allen Hruska:

No, my countrymen would rather
regurgitate their professor rhetoric,

upgrade to the newest smartphone,
complain to their overpaid therapist,
blog about their first world problems,
while my friends are dead, or still dying.

How can I love my flag so dearly
and hate my country so deeply?

I started this blog post wanting to write about the blackout of 2003 from my perspective as a miserable soldier in Baghdad. I have been recounting my deployment for my blog and this was a unique moment in the deployment.

The theme of the post was going to be of the “oh you think you had it bad” sort. We were infuriated that anyone back home would complain about having a power outage when we were overseas in a terribly austere environment that was significantly worse. We were bitter and jealous, but also feeling entitled.

I don’t know if it has always been this way, but this generation of veterans – myself included, as per my internal tantrum on the F train – likes to compare any inconvenience that civilians might complain about to our current or worst possible circumstance, and then self-righteously declare that those people back home have no right to complain because at least they aren’t experiencing what we’re experiencing.

This, I think, is probably one of the byproducts of being constantly reminded – mostly by ourselves – that we’re a part of the “less than 1%” who serve in the military. Then there are the predictable interruptions in sporting events and political speeches to “recognize the service and sacrifice of our military.” All nice gestures that have become robotic and meaningless through forced repetition.

Like Nathan writes about in his poem, and like I experienced on the F train while on leave, I think at some point we (veterans) can’t help but compare what we’re experiencing and what we’ve experienced to the candy-laden reality we see in the media. It can be maddening.

But it’s also unfair.

When Nathan writes about his countrymen preferring to update their smartphones than honor their war dead, it’s not an actual thing that is happening, just as when I stared hard at the tired New York commuters with hate, for – I don’t even know what. They just weren’t experiencing what I experienced, and it made me angry.

We roll our eyes at constantly being called heroes and blush at the unsolicited ‘thank you’s’ at the airport, yet we get outraged if someone complains about a power outage without mentioning how bad we have it on the frontier.

All that said, I think this is all part of the process of “transitioning,” a word that gets thrown around a lot in veteran circles without ever being really discussed. You can’t just read this blog post and suddenly understand that it’s okay to let people complain about losing their power, or to ‘ooh and aah’ over a new smartphone, all while American service members are fighting and dying overseas. I think, “transitioning” is a process that does not have a set timeline or result. Every veteran’s experience will vary. And it is a thing that has to be experienced as an individual. And that’s okay.

But seriously, you have no idea how hot it was in Baghdad 2003 and you have no right to complain.

iraq ten years ago, reflections

War Music of 2003

Not gonna get us

One of the neat features of having satellite radio is the year of the current song is sometimes shown on the display. Like most people (I imagine) I can’t help but associate years with important events. When I see a song come on with the year 1969 displayed next to the title, I can’t help but think the context for the song is the Vietnam War – either a reaction to or an escape from. This, of course, isn’t always the case, but my mind instantly goes there. It doesn’t matter the year, I try to make some kind of connection.

Whenever I see 2003 I’m always  reminded of the fact that I wasn’t in America, I was deployed. I was not around to hear the song get released, hyped, and played out. Songs that came out in 2003 have a special meaning for me, but unlike when I see 1969, I don’t think the songs of 2003 are reactions or escapes from the Iraq War.

They completely ignore it.

The songs of 2003 seem so far removed from what I was experiencing, but, I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing. These songs are a reminder that life goes on, war or not. While I was at the center of the universe, the rest of the world enjoyed themselves, from the window to the wall, my milkshake brings all the boys to the yard.

Most of these songs I didn’t hear until I got back home. They make me think of Iraq.

More than any other song, Hey Ya is my war song.

Our interpreter, M, was a big fan of 50 Cent. M was in his fifties, but loved to greet us with one liners from 50 Cent songs.

Patrol music.

I didn’t learn about this song until December when I was going on leave. An NCO was telling me he was going to get ‘crunked’ and I had to ask him what that was.

This was M’s favorite.

I remember standing in full body armor and helmet after a patrol, watching this on our day room television and being completely entranced.

 

reflections

Why men love war (William Broyles, Esquire, 1984)

Photo by Charlie Haughey. Click the picture to go to his Facebook page.

Photo by Charlie Haughey. Click the picture to go to his Facebook page.

Credit where credit is due. I read this wonderful piece in the Guardian by British soldier turned journalist James Jeffrey. He happens to be living in Austin which isn’t far from me, so I got brave and emailed him and we met for breakfast at a Mexican restaurant and talked about war and writing. A pretty surreal experience. An American ex-soldier turned new officer eating a Mexican breakfast with an ex-British Army officer ex-pat in Austin, Texas. It was wild.

Anyway, he referenced an article that he linked to in his article. I didn’t click the link the first time I read his piece. He was emphatic about how good it was so I read it when I got home.

It is it.

There it is.

It’s hosted on some .edu domain. I checked to see if I could find it on esquire.com’s homepage (I couldn’t) so I am posting it here, for posterity.

Why do men love war? Read this, and read no more.

Esquire, November 1984

Why Men Love War

by William Broyles Jr.

Esquire November 1984 CoverI last saw Hiers in a rice paddy in Vietnam. He was nineteen then–my wonderfully skilled and maddeningly insubordinate radio operator. For months we were seldom more than three feet apart. Then one day he went home, and fifteen years passed before we met by accident last winter at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington. A few months later I visited Hiers and his wife, Susan, in Vermont, where they run a bed-and -breakfast place. The first morning we were up at dawn trying to save five newborn rabbits. Hiers built a nest of rabbit fur and straw in his barn and positioned a lamp to provide warmth against the bitter cold.

“What people can’t understand,” Hiers said, gently picking up each tiny rabbit and placing it in the nest, “is how much fun Vietnam was. I loved it. I loved it, and I can’t tell anybody.”

Hiers loved war. And as I drove back from Vermont in a blizzard, my children asleep in the back of the car, I had to admit that for all these years I also had loved it, and more than I knew. I hated war, too. Ask me, ask any man who has been to war about his experience, and chances are we’ll say we don’t want to talk about it–implying that we hated it so much, it was so terrible, that we would rather leave it buried. And it is no mystery why men hate war. War is ugly, horrible, evil, and it is reasonable for men to hate all that. But I believe that most men who have been to war would have to admit, if they are honest, that somewhere inside themselves they loved it too, loved it as much as anything that has happened to them before or since. And how do you explain that to your wife, your children, your parents, or your friends?

That’s why men in their sixties and seventies sit in their dens and recreation rooms around America and know that nothing in their life will equal the day they parachuted into St. Lo or charged the bunker on Okinawa. That’s why veterans’ reunions are invariably filled with boozy awkwardness, forced camaraderie ending in sadness and tears: you are together again, these are the men who were your brothers, but it’s not the same, can never be the same. That’s why when we returned from Vietnam we moped around, listless, not interested in anything or anyone. Something had gone out of our lives forever, and our behavior on returning was inexplicable except as the behavior of men who had lost a great – perhaps the great – love of their lives, and had no way to tell anyone about it.

In part we couldn’t describe our feelings because the language failed us: the civilian-issued adjectives and nouns, verbs and adverbs, seemed made for a different universe. There were no metaphors that connected the war to everyday life. But we were also mute, I suspect, out of shame. Nothing in the way we are raised admits the possibility of loving war. It is at best a necessary evil, a patriotic duty to be discharged and then put behind us. To love war is to mock the very values we supposedly fight for. It is to be insensitive, reactionary, a brute.

But it may be more dangerous, both for men and nations, to suppress the reasons men love war than to admit them. In Apocalypse Now Robert Duvall, playing a brigade commander, surveys a particularly horrific combat scene and says, with great sadness, “You know, someday this war’s gonna be over. ” He is clearly meant to be a psychopath, decorating enemy bodies with playing cards, riding to war with Wagner blaring. We laugh at him–Hey! nobody’s like that! And last year in Grenada American boys charged into battle playing Wagner, a new generation aping the movies of Vietnam the way we aped the movies of World War II, learning nothing, remembering nothing.

Alfred Kazin wrote that war is the enduring condition of twentieth-century man. He was only partly right. War is the enduring condition of man, period. Men have gone to war over everything from Helen of Troy to Jenkins’s ear. Two million Frenchmen and Englishmen died in muddy trenches in World War I because a student shot an archduke. The truth is, the reasons don’t matter. There is a reason for every war and a war for every reason.

For centuries men have hoped that with history would come progress, and with progress, peace. But progress has simply given man the means to make war even more horrible; no wars in our savage past can begin to match the brutality of the wars spawned in this century, in the beautifully ordered, civilized landscape of Europe, where everyone is literate and classical music plays in every village cafe. War is not all aberration; it is part of the family, the crazy uncle we try–in vain–to keep locked in the basement.

Consider my own example. I am not a violent person. I have not been in a fight since grade school. Aside from being a fairly happy-go-lucky carnivore, I have no lust for blood, nor do I enjoy killing animals, fish, or even insects. My days are passed in reasonable contentment, filled with the details of work and everyday life. I am also a father now, and a male who has helped create life is war’s natural enemy. I have seen what war does to children, makes them killers or victims, robs them of their parents, their homes, and their innocence–steals their childhood and leaves them marked in body, mind, and spirit.

I spent most of my combat tour in Vietnam trudging through its jungles and rice paddies without incident, but I have seen enough of war to know that I never want to fight again, and that I would do everything in my power to keep my son from fighting. Then why, at the oddest times–when I am in a meeting or running errands, or on beautiful summer evenings, with the light fading and children playing around me–do my thoughts turn back fifteen years to a war I didn’t believe in and never wanted to fight? Why do I miss it?

I miss it because I loved it, loved it in strange and troubling ways. When I talk about loving war I don’t mean the romantic notion of war that once mesmerized generations raised on Walter Scott. What little was left of that was ground into the mud at Verdun and Passchendaele: honor and glory do not survive the machine gun. And it’s not the mindless bliss of martyrdom that sends Iranian teenagers armed with sticks against Iraqi tanks. Nor do I mean the sort of hysteria that can grip a whole country, the way during the Falklands war the English press inflamed the lust that lurks beneath the cool exterior of Britain. That is vicarious war, the thrill of participation without risk, the lust of the audience for blood. It is easily fanned, that lust; even the invasion of a tiny island like Grenada can do it. Like all lust, for as long as it lasts it dominates everything else; a nation’s other problems are seared away, a phenomenon exploited by kings, dictators, and presidents since civilization began.

And I don’t mean war as an addiction, the constant rush that war junkies get, the crazies mailing ears home to their girlfriends, the zoomies who couldn’t get an erection unless they were cutting in the afterburners on their F-4s. And, finally, I’m not talking about how some men my age feel today, men who didn’t go to war but now have a sort of nostalgic longing for something they missed, some classic male experience, the way some women who didn’t have children worry they missed something basic about being a woman, something they didn’t value when they could have done it.

I’m talking about why thoughtful, loving men can love war even while knowing and hating it. Like any love, the love of war is built on a complex of often contradictory reasons. Some of them are fairly painless to discuss; others go almost too deep, stir the caldron too much. I’ll give the more respectable reasons first.

Part of the love of war stems from its being an experience of great intensity; its lure is the fundamental human passion to witness, to see things, what the Bible calls the lust of the eye and the Marines in Vietnam called eye fucking. War stops time, intensifies experience to the point of a terrible ecstasy. It is the dark opposite of that moment of passion caught in “Ode on a Grecian Urn”: “For ever warm and still to be enjoy’d/ For ever panting, and forever young. ” War offers endless exotic experiences, enough “I couldn’t fucking believe it! “‘s to last a lifetime.

Most people fear freedom; war removes that fear. And like a stem father, it provides with its order and discipline both security and an irresistible urge to rebel against it, a constant yearning to fly over the cuckoo’s nest. The midnight requisition is an honored example. I remember one elaborately planned and meticulously executed raid on our principal enemy–the U.S. Army, not the North Vietnamese–to get lightweight blankets and cleaning fluid for our rifles repeated later in my tour, as a mark of my changed status, to obtain a refrigerator and an air conditioner for our office. To escape the Vietnamese police we tied sheets together and let ourselves down from the top floor of whorehouses, and on one memorable occasion a friend who is now a respectable member of our diplomatic corps hid himself inside a rolled-up Oriental rug while the rest of us careered off in the truck. leaving him to make his way back stark naked to our base six miles away. War, since it steals our youth, offers a sanction to play boys’ games.

War replaces the difficult gray areas of daily life with an eerie, serene clarity. In war you usually know who is your enemy and who is your friend, and are given means of dealing with both. (That was, incidentally, one of the great problems with Vietnam: it was hard to tell friend from foe–it was too much like ordinary Life.)

War is an escape from the everyday into a special world where the bonds that hold us to our duties in daily life–the bonds of family, community, work, disappear. In war, all bets are off. It’s the frontier beyond the last settlement, it’s Las Vegas. The men who do well in peace do not necessarily do well at war, while those who were misfits and failures may find themselves touched with fire. U. S. Grant, selling firewood on the streets of St. Louis and then four years later commanding the Union armies, is the best example, although I knew many Marines who were great warriors but whose ability to adapt to civilian life was minimal.

I remember Kirby, a skinny kid with JUST YOU AND ME LORD tattooed on his shoulder. Kirby had extended his tour in Vietnam twice. He had long since ended his attachment to any known organization and lived alone out in the most dangerous areas, where he wandered about night and day, dressed only in his battered fatigue trousers with a .45 automatic tucked into the waistband, his skinny shoulders and arms as dark as a Montagnard’s.

One day while out on patrol we found him on the floor of a hut, being tended by a girl in black pajamas, a bullet wound in his arm.

He asked me for a cigarette, then eyed me, deciding if I was worth telling his story to. “I stopped in for a mango, broad daylight, and there bigger’n hell were three NVA officers, real pretty tan uniforms. They got this map spread out oil a table, just eyeballin’ it, makin’ themselves right at home. They looked at me. I looked at them. Then they went for their nine millimeters and I went for my .45. “

“Yeah?”I answered. “So what happened

“I wasted ‘em,” he said, then puffed on his cigarette. Just another day at work, killing three men on the way to eat a mango.

How are you ever going to go back to the world?” I asked him. (He didn’t. A few months later a ten-year-old Vietcong girl blew him up with a command-detonated booby trap.

War is a brutal, deadly game, but a game, the best there is. And men love games. You can come back from war broken in mind or body, or not come back at all. But if you come back whole you bring with you the knowledge that you have explored regions of your soul that in most men will always remain uncharted. Nothing I had ever studied was as complex or as creative as the small-unit tactics of Vietnam. No sport I had ever played brought me to such deep awareness of my physical and emotional limits.

One night not long after I had arrived in Vietnam, one of my platoon’s observation on posts heard enemy movement. I immediately lost all saliva in my mouth. I could not talk; not a sound would pass my lips. My brain erased as if the plug had been pulled–I felt only a dull hum throughout my body, a low-grade current coursing through me like electricity through a power line. After a minute I could at least grunt, which I did as Hiers gave orders to the squad leaders, called in artillery and air support, and threw back the probe. I was terrified. I was ashamed, and I couldn’t wait for it to happen again.

The enduring emotion of war, when everything else has faded, is comradeship. A comrade in war is a man you can trust with anything, because you trust him with your life. “It is,” Philip Caputo wrote in A Rumor of War “unlike marriage, a bond I that cannot be broken by a word, by boredom or divorce, or by anything other than death.” Despite its extreme right-wing image, war is the only utopian experience most of us ever have. Individual possessions and advantage count for nothing: the group is everything What you have is shared with your friends. It isn’t a particularly selective process, but a love that needs no reasons, that transcends race and personality and education–all those things that would make a difference in peace. It is, simply, brotherly love.

What made this love so intense was that it had no limits, not even death. John Wheeler in Touched with Fire quotes the Congressional Medal of Honor citation of Hector Santiago-Colon: “Due to the heavy volume of enemy fire and exploding grenades around them, a North Vietnamese soldier was able to crawl, undetected, to their position. Suddenly, the enemy soldier lobbed a hand grenade into Sp4c. Santiago-Colon’s foxhole. Realizing that there was no time to throw the grenade out of his position, Sp4c., Santiago-Colon retrieved the grenade, tucked it into his stomach, and turning away from his comrades, and absorbed the full impact of the blast. ” This is classic heroism, the final evidence of how much comrades can depend on each other. What went through Santiago- Colon’s mini for that split second when he could just a easily have dived to safety? It had to be this: my comrades are more important than my most valuable possession–my own life.

Isolation is the greatest fear in war. The military historian S.L.A. Marshall con ducted intensive studies of combat incidents during World War 11 and Korea and discovered that, at most, only 25 percent of the men who were under fire actually fired their own weapons. The rest cowered behind cover, terrified and helpless–all systems off. Invariably, those men had felt alone, and to feel alone in combat is to cease to function; it is the terrifying prelude to the final loneliness of death. The only men who kept their heads felt connected to other men, a part of something as if comradeship were some sort of collective life-force, the power to face death and stay conscious. But when those men cam home from war, that fear of isolation stayed with many of them, a tiny mustard seed fallen on fertile soil.

When I came back from Vietnam I tried to keep up with my buddies. We wrote letters, made plans to meet, but something always came up and we never seemed to get together. For a few year we exchanged Christmas cards, then nothing . The special world that had sustain our intense comradeship was gone. Everyday life–our work, family, friends–reclaimed us, and we grew up.

But there was something not right about that. In Vietnam I had been closer to Hiers, for example, than to anyone before or since. We were connected by the radio, our lives depended on it, and on eachother. We ate, slept, laughed, and we terrified together. When I first arrived in Vietnam I tried to get Hiers to salute me, but he simply wouldn’t do it, mustering at most a “Howdy, Lieutenant, how’s it hanging” as we passed. For every time that I didn’t salute I told him he would have to fill a hundred sandbags.

We’d reached several thousand sandbags when Hiers took me aside and said “Look, Lieutenant, I’ll be happy to salute you, really. But if I get in the habit back here in the rear I may salute you when we’re out in the bush. And those gooks a just waiting for us to salute, tell ‘em who the lieutenant is. You’d be the first one blown away.” We forgot the sandbags and the salutes. Months later, when Hiers left the platoon to go home, he turned to me as I stood on our hilltop position, and gave me the smartest salute I’d ever seen. I shot him the finger, and that was the last I saw of him for fifteen years. When we met by accident at the Vietnam memorial it was like a sign; enough time had passed-we were old enough to say goodbye to who we had been and become friends as who we had become.

For us and for thousands of veterans the memorial was special ground. War is theater, and Vietnam had been fought without a third act. It was a set that hadn’t been struck; its characters were lost there, with no way to get off and no more lines to say. And so when we came to the Vietnam memorial in Washington we wrote our own endings as we stared at the names on the wall, reached out and touched them, washed them with our tears, said goodbye. We are older now, some of us grandfathers, some quite successful, but the memorial touched some part of us that is still out there, under fire, alone. When we came to that wait and met the memories of our buddies and gave them their due, pulled them tip from their buried places and laid our love to rest, we were home at last.

For all these reasons, men love war. But these are the easy reasons, the first circle the ones we can talk about without risk of disapproval, without plunging too far into the truth or ourselves. But there are other, more troubling reasons why men love war. The love of war stems from the union, deep in the core of our being between sex and destruction, beauty and horror, love and death. War may be the only way in which most men touch the mythic domains in our soul. It is, for men, at some terrible level, the closest thing to what childbirth is for women: the initiation into the power of life and death. It is like lifting off the corner of the universe and looking at what’s underneath. To see war is to see into the dark heart of things, that no-man’s-land between life and death, or even beyond.

And that explains a central fact about the stories men tell about war. Every good war story is, in at least some of its crucial elements, false. The better the war story, the less of it is likely to be true. Robert Graves wrote that his main legacy from World War I was “a difficulty in telling tile truth. ” I have never once heard a grunt tell a reporter a war story that wasn’t a lie, just as some of the stories that I tell about the war are lies. Not that even the lies aren’t true, on a certain level. They have a moral, even a mythic, truth, rather than a literal one. They reach out and remind the tellers and listeners of their place in the world. They are the primitive stories told around the fire in smoky teepees after the pipe has been passed. They are all, at bottom, the same.

Some of the best war stories out Of Vietnam are in Michael Heir’s Dispatches One of Heir’s most quoted stories goes like this: “But what a story he told me, as one pointed and resonant as any war story I ever heard. It took me a year to understand it: “‘Patrol went up the mountain. One man came back. He died before he could tell its What happened.’

” I waited for the rest, but it seemed not to be that kind of story; when I asked him what had happened he just looked like he felt sorry for me, fucked if he’d waste time telling stories to anyone as dumb as I was.”

It is a great story, a combat haiku, all negative space and darkness humming with portent. It seems rich, unique to Vietnam. But listen, now, to this:

“We all went up to Gettysburg, the summer of ’63: and some of us came back from there: and that’s all except the details. ” That is the account of Gettysburg by one Praxiteles Swan, onetime captain of the Confederate States Army. The language is different, but it is the same story. And it is a story that I would imagine has been told for as long as men have gone to war. Its purpose is not to enlighten but to exclude; its message is riot its content but putting the listener in his place. I suffered, I was there. You were not. Only those facts matter. Everything else is beyond words to tell. As was said after the worst tragedies in Vietnam: “Don’t mean nothin’.” Which meant, “It means everything it means too much.” Language overload.

War stories inhabit the realm of myth because every war story is about death. And one of the most troubling reasons men love war is the love of destruction, the thrill of killing. In his superb book on World War II, The Warriors,J. Glenn Gray wrote that “thousands of youths who never suspect the presence of such an impulse in themselves have learned in military life the mad excitement of destroying.” It’s what Hemingway meant when he wrote, “Admit that you have liked to kill as all who are soldiers by choice have enjoyed it it some time whether they lie about it or not.”

My platoon and I went through Vietnam burning hooches (note how language liberated US–we didn’t burn houses and shoot people: we burned hooches and shot gooks), killing dogs and pigs and chickens, destroying, because, as my friend Hiers put it, “We thought it was fun at the time.” As anyone who has fired a bazooka or an M-60 machine gun knows, there is something to that power in your finger, the soft, seductive touch of the trigger. It’s like the magic sword, a grunt’s Excalibur: all you do is move that finger so imperceptibly just a wish flashing across your mind like a shadow, not even a full brain synapse, and I poof in a blast of sound and energy and light a truck or a house or even people disappear, everything flying and settling back into dust.

There is a connection between this thrill and the games we played as children, the endless games of cowboys and Indians and war, the games that ended with “Bang bang you’re dead,” and everyone who was “dead” got up and began another game. That’s war as fantasy, and it’s the same emotion that touches us in war movies and books, where death is something without consequence, and not something that ends with terrible finality as blood from our fatally fragile bodies flows out onto the mud. Boys aren’t the only ones prone to this fantasy; it possesses the old men who have never been to war and who preside over our burials with the same tears they shed when soldiers die in the movies–tears of fantasy, cheap tears. The love of destruction and killing in war stems from that fantasy of war as a game, but it is the more seductive for being indulged at terrible risk. It is the game survivors play, after they have seen death up close and learned in their hearts how common, how ordinary, and how inescapable it is.

I don’t know if I killed anyone in Vietnam but I tried as hard as I could. I fired at muzzle flashes in tile night, threw grenades during ambushes, ordered artillery and bombing where I thought tile enemy was. Whenever another platoon got a higher body count, I was disappointed: it was like suiting up for the football game and then not getting to play. After one ambush my men brought back the body of a North Vietnamese soldier. I later found the dead man propped against some C-ration boxes; he had on sunglasses, and a Playboy magazine lay open in his lap; a cigarette dangled jauntily from his mouth, and on his head was perched a large and perfectly formed piece of shit.

I pretended to be Outraged, since desecrating bodies was frowned on as un-American and counterproductive. But it wasn’t outrage I felt. I kept my officer’s face on, but inside I was… laughing. I laughed–I believe now–in part because of some subconscious appreciation of this obscene linkage of sex and excrement and ‘death; and in part because of the exultant realization that he–whoever he had been–was dead and I–special, unique I me–was alive. He was my brother, but I knew him not. The line between life and death is gossamer thin; there is joy. true joy, in being alive when so many around you are not. And from the joy of being alive in death’s presence to the joy of causing death is, unfortunately, not that great a step.

A lieutenant colonel I knew, a true intellectual, was put in charge of civil affairs, the work we did helping the Vietnamese grow rice and otherwise improve their lives. He was a sensitive man who kept a journal and seemed far better equipped for winning hearts and minds than for combat command. But he got one, and I remember flying out to visit his fire base the night after it had been attacked by an NVA sapper unit. Most of the combat troops I had been out on an operation, so this colonel mustered a motley crew of clerks and cooks and drove the sappers off, chasing them across tile rice paddies and killing dozens of these elite enemy troops by the light of flares. That morning, as they were surveying what they had done and loading the dead NVA–all naked and covered with grease and mud so they could penetrate the barbed wire–on mechanical mules like so much garbage, there was a look of beatific contentment on tile colonel’s face that I had not seen except in charismatic churches. It was the look of a person transported into ecstasy.

And I–what did I do, confronted with this beastly scene? I smiled back. ‘as filled with bliss as he was. That was another of the times I stood on the edge of my humanity, looked into the pit, and loved what I saw there. I had surrendered to an aesthetic that was divorced from that crucial quality of empathy that lets us feel the sufferings of others. And I saw a terrible beauty there. War is not simply the spirit of ugliness, although it is certainly that, the devil’s work. But to give the devil his due,it is also an affair of great and seductive beauty.

Art and war were for ages as linked as art and religion. Medieval and Renaissance artists gave us cathedrals, but they also gave us armor sculptures of war, swords and muskets and cannons of great beauty, art offered to the god of war as reverently as the carved altars were offered to the god of love. War was a public ritual of the highest order, as the beautifully decorated cannons in the Invalids in Paris and the chariots with their depict ions of the gods in the Metropolitan Museum of Art so eloquently attest Men love their weapons, not simply for helping to keep them alive, but for a deeper reason. They love their rifles and their knives for the same reason that the medieval warriors loved their armor and their swords: they are instruments of beauty.

War is beautiful. There is something about a firefight at night, something about the mechanical elegance of an M -60 machine gun. They are everything they should be, perfect examples of their form. When you are firing out at night, the red racers go out into tile blackness is if you were drawing with a light pen. Then little dots of light start winking back, and green tracers from the AK-47s begin to weave ill with the red to form brilliant patterns that seem, given their great speeds, oddly timeless, as if they had been etched on the night. And then perhaps the gunships called Spooky come in and fire their incredible guns like huge hoses washing down from the sky, like something God would do when He was really ticked off. And then the flares pop, casting eerie shadows as they float down on their little parachutes, swinging in the breeze, and anyone who moves, in their light seems a ghost escaped from hell.

Daytime offers nothing so spectacular, but it also has its charms. Many men loved napalm, loved its silent power, the way it could make tree lines or houses explode as if by spontaneous combustion. But I always thought napalm was greatly overrated, unless you enjoy watching tires burn. I preferred white phosphorus, which exploded with a fulsome elegance, wreathing its target in intense and billowing white smoke, throwing out glowing red comets trailing brilliant white plumes I loved it more–not less –because of its function: to destroy, to kill. The seduction of War is in its offering such intense beauty–divorced from I all civilized values, but beauty still.

Most men who have been to war, and most women who have been around it, remember that never in their lives did they have so heightened a sexuality. War is, in short. a turn-on. War cloaks men in a coat that conceals the limits and inadequacies of their separate natures. It gives them all aura, a collective power, an almost animal force. They aren’t just Billy or Johnny or Bobby, they are soldiers! But there’s a price for all that: the agonizing loneliness of war, the way a soldier is cut off from everything that defines him as an individual–he is the true rootless man.

The uniform did that, too, and all that heightened sexuality is not much solace late it night when the emptiness comes.

There were many men for whom this condition led to great decisions. I knew a Marine in Vietnam who was a great rarity, an Ivy League graduate. He also had an Ivy League wife, but lie managed to fall in love with a Vietnamese bar girl who could barely speak English. She was not particularly attractive, a peasant girl trying to support her family He spent all his time with her, he fell in love with her–awkwardly informally, but totally. At the end of his twelve months in Vietnam he went home, divorced his beautiful, intelligent, and socially correct wife and then went back to Vietnam and proposed to the bar girl, who accepted. It was a marriage across a vast divide of language, culture, race, and class that could only have been made in war. I am not sure that it lasted, but it would not surprise me if despite great difficulties, it did.

Of course. for every such story there are hundreds. thousands, of stories of passing contacts, a man and a woman holding each other tight for one moment, finding in sex some escape from the terrible reality of tile war. The intensity that war brings to sex, the “let us love now because there may be no tomorrow,” is based on death. No matter what our weapons on the battlefield, love is finally our only weapon against death. Sex is the weapon of life, the shooting sperm sent like an army of guerrillas to penetrate the egg’s defenses is the only victory that really matters. War thrusts you into the well of loneliness, death breathing in your ear. Sex is a grappling hook that pulls you out, ends your isolation, makes you one with life again.

Not that such thoughts were anywhere near conscious. I remember going off to war with a copy of War and Peace and The Charterhouse of Parma stuffed into my pack. They were soon replaced with The Story of 0. War heightens all appetites. I cannot describe the ache for candy, for taste: I wanted a Mars bar more than I wanted anything in my life And that hunger paled beside the force that pushed it, et toward women, any women: women we would not even have looked at in peace floated into our fantasies and lodged there. Too often we made our fantasies real, always to be disappointed, our hunger only greater. The ugliest prostitutes specialized in group affairs, passed among several men or even whole squads, in communion almost, a sharing more than sexual. In sex even more than in killing I could see the beast, crouched drooling on its haunches, could see it mocking me for my frailties, knowing I hated myself for them but that I could not get enough, that I would keep coming back again and again.

After I ended my tour in combat I came back to work at division headquarters and volunteered one night a week teaching English to Vietnamese adults. One of my students was a beautiful girl whose parents had been killed in Hue during the Tet Offensive of 1968. She had fallen in love with an American civilian who worked at the consulate in Da Nang. He had left for his next duty station and promised he would send for her. She never heard from him again. She had a seductive sadness about her. I found myself seeing her after class, then I was sneaking into the motor pool and commandeering a deuce-and-a-half truck and driving into Da Nang at night to visit her. She lived in a small house near the consulate with her grandparents and brothers and sisters. It had one room divided by a curtain. When I arrived, the rest of the family would retire behind the curtain. Amid their hushed voices and the smells of cooking oil and rotted fish we would talk and fumble toward each other, my need greater than hers.

I wanted her desperately. But her tenderness and vulnerability, the torn flower of her beauty, frustrated my death-obsessed lust. I didn’t see her as one Vietnamese, I saw her as all Vietnamese. She was the suffering soul of war, and I was the soldier who had wounded it but would make it whole. My loneliness was pulling me into the same strong current that had swallowed my friend who married the bar girl. I could see it happening, but I seemed powerless to stop it. I wrote her long poems, made inquiries about staying on in Da Nang, built a fantasy future for the two of us. I wasn’t going to betray her the way the other American had, the way all Americans had, the way all men betrayed the women who helped them through the war. I wasn’t like that. But then I received orders sending me home two weeks early. I drove into Da Nang to talk to her, and to make definite plans. Halfway there, I turned back.

At the airport I threw the poems into a trash can. When the wheels of the plane lifted off the soil of Vietnam, I cheered like everyone else. And as I pressed my face against the window and watched Vietnam shrink to a distant green blur and finally disappear, I felt sad and guilty–for her, for my comrades who had been killed and wounded, for everything. But that feeling was overwhelmed by my vast sense of relief. I had survived. And I was going home. I would be myself again, or so I thought.

But some fifteen years later she and the war are still on my mind, all those memories, each with its secret passages and cutbacks, hundreds of labyrinths, all leading back to a truth not safe but essential. It is about why we can love and hate, why we can bring forth Fe and snuff it out why each of us is a battleground where good and evil are always at war for our souls.

The power of war, like the power of love, springs from man’s heart. The one yields death, the other life. But life without death has no meaning; nor, at its deepest level, does love without war. Without war we could not know from what depths love rises, or what power it must have to overcome such evil and redeem us. It is no accident that men love war, as love and war are at the core of man. It is not only that we must love one another or die. We must love one another and die. War, like death, is always with us, a constant companion, a secret sharer. To deny its seduction, to overcome death, our love for peace, for life itself, must be greater than we think possible, greater even than we can imagine.

Hiers and I were skiing down a mountain in Vermont, flying effortlessly over a world cloaked in white, beautiful, innocent, peaceful. On the ski lift up we had been talking about a different world, hot, green, smelling of decay and death, where each step out of the mud took all our strength. We stopped and looked back, the air pure and cold, our breath coming in puffs of vapor. Our children were following us down the hill, bent over, little balls of life racing on the edge of danger.

Hiers turned to me with a smile and said, “It’s a long way from Nam isn’t it?”

Yes.

And no.