At my local library in rural Maryland, there’s an entire section devoted to books for military families: How to cope while your husband is deployed abroad (‘Chicken Soup for the Military Wife’s Soul’), why Daddy can’t come home for another year (‘Never Far Apart’), what to do if he does come home but isn’t the same anymore (‘When the War Never Ends’). These titles break my heart to look at and make me want to personally throttle Dick Cheney, but they also make me a little uncomfortable, in the same guilty, evasive way as when I’m made to think about the millions of people in prison in this country, or the meat industry’s production methods, or all of sub-Saharan Africa. All the wars in this country’s recent history have been fought by a volunteer army; with few exceptions, kids like me go to college, not Iraq. Even though I live in the same county as the library patrons for whom these books are offered, I might as well be in the Fifth Arrondissement and they in Chad.
As a reader, I’ve taken a disproportionate interest in the literature of war. Even though I was raised by pacifists, I can talk Hannibal’s strategy at Cannae with a West Point grad. I’ve read the stories of Tim O’Brien and Thom Jones, the reportage of Dexter Filkins. I’ve memorized the opening invocation of Homer’s ‘Iliad,’ the benedictory end of Michael Herr’s ‘Dispatches,’ and the St. Crispin’s Day speech from ‘Henry V,’ template for every inspirational eve-of-battle speech ever given. I’m not going to pretend it’s only for the magnificence of its cadences that I sometimes recite this passage aloud; the speech thrills me. It makes me long for my own moment of truth against impossible odds, to slaughter Frenchmen in the mud. I became so obsessed with Gustav Hasford, author of ‘The Short-Timers,’ the novel on which ‘Full Metal Jacket’ was based, that I followed his footsteps to the Greek island where he’d drunk himself to death, I talked with his old drinking buddies, and I slept in his deathbed. Shortly after, I was nearly killed in an incident of random street violence, and got my own shabby war story to tell.
Maybe all this battlefield lit is just my own college-boy version of wearing camos or driving a Humvee. It seems to be mostly us men who never actually had to fight who cling to these adolescent fantasies about combat into middle age. (The friends of mine who served in the military are among the gentlest, most decent guys I know.) I can only imagine that my yearning for the trial of war would seem puerile to men who’ve lost limbs or friends in Afghanistan or Iraq, and something more like obscene to those who’ve lost husbands, brothers, fathers, or sons. Real veterans, instead of feasting with their neighbors on St. Crispin’s Day, kill themselves in shocking numbers.
If someone were to call my bluff and give me the opportunity to enlist, I’m sure I’d say, Oh, uh, no thanks, I’m fine. I’d most likely end up AWOL or Section Eight under the stress and deprivations of military life. I might’ve been asked to shoot at somebody, which I understand is often a job requirement, and as someone who still wants to retch with shame whenever I think about the pretty, iridescent indigo bunting I killed with my car last spring, I can’t imagine what actual combat would’ve done to my psyche. I also might have been shot at, apparently another occupational hazard, which, based on my experience of getting stabbed, I’m pretty sure I would hate.
My own generation – what used to be called Gen X – was largely spared the experience of war by a fluke of history: We grew up in that brief idyll when our country was still chastened by defeat in Vietnam, before another generation came of age to whom Khe Sanh might as well have been Carthage or Troy. The comic deflations of a generation of antiwar art, from ‘Catch-22’ to ‘M*A*S*H,’ left us reflexively skeptical of gung-ho sloganeering. We grew up without the patriotic reflex to go when called.
I was never going to have to worry about going to war, in any case. My parents were Mennonites, so in the event of a draft, I would’ve been subject to the opposite of the social pressure most 18-year-old males faced; I would’ve had to rebel against my family and all the adults in our church if I’d wanted to enlist. Having been raised in a pacifist sect would’ve given me a good case for conscientious objector status, and I have no doubt that I would’ve taken that out if I’d been called up. But I’ve always been bothered by how easy the decision would’ve been for me, and, in retrospect, I’m also aware that it would have been somewhat dishonest. This is not to say I would’ve been lying to the draft board – I certainly felt sincere in my belief that war was morally wrong. But we’re always conveniently sincere in believing whatever happens to be expedient.
It’s not as if I was devoid of aggressive impulses; I was, after all, a boy. And, as George S. Patton had it, “all real men like to fight” – or at least they like playing at it and reading and watching movies about it. Having been raised on a wholesome diet of ‘Peanuts’ and Disney films, when I happened across a treasury of ‘Dick Tracy’ comics or saw ‘Star Wars’ for the first time, I was like the child of vegans discovering bacon. I drew assassinations, explosions, aerial dogfights, and space battles; I could identify Fokkers or Spads the way other kids could name dinosaurs or Baltimore Colts. My friends and I liked to go in the woods and play “Vietnam,” hiding behind hillocks and chucking dirt clods at each other (note: not a historically accurate reenactment). I got heavily into Dungeons & Dragons and always chose as my alter ego not some spellcaster or elf but a plain old Human Fighter – a simple warrior with a sword or mace.
I grew up in America, a martial culture. We are Spartans, not Athenians. Jocks get trophies; nerds get wedgies. Our public spaces are named after generals, not scientists or composers. We – me included – love stories about small bands of men going on adventures together, facing danger and fighting evil back-to-back, risking their lives and saving each other, all in a good cause. All this despite the fact that we’re mostly a nation of shoppers. While our fighting’s done for us by professionals, we participate in war the way couchbound, beer-gutted sports fans do in the game: by buying accessories. We wear camouflage to blend into the aisles at Target, drive military transports on the deadly road to Muvico, and stockpile military-grade arsenals for “home defense.”
I’m not an adolescent or a complete fool; I understand that war is stupid and brutal and almost always undertaken for ignoble motives. The U.S. hasn’t gone to war for unquestionably just or necessary reasons in my entire lifetime. The still-unwon War on Terror was an irredeemable waste of hundreds of thousands of lives and more than a trillion dollars (what our Georgetown warlords like to call “blood and treasure”). Even the first scene of ‘Henry V’ makes clear that the invasion of France is a political diversion, and the reason the archbishop gives Henry is so convoluted and arcane it makes the case for Saddam’s WMD look airtight.
But the “cause” is always only an excuse, and all the bad faith and cynical agendas don’t matter anymore once lives and honor are at stake. (Of the grunts’ political views on Vietnam, Michael Herr writes, “We all had roughly the same position on the war: We were in it, and that was a position.”) And this, ultimately, is what we want: to put our lives and honor on the line. “It seemed to him he was dying of the last of his youth and strength as day after gray day they went untested and his blood thickened.” Thus feels the hero of Robert Stone’s novel ‘Outerbridge Reach,’ which is not set during Vietnam but haunted by it. And so it persists – this stupid, niggling sense of having missed out, of something lacking.
Am I a brave man? This seems like something that a man should know about himself by my age. But it isn’t something you can find out by bungee jumping or skydiving; these prepackaged stunts are measures not of bravery but of the need to prove it, which is very different. The only time I’ve felt my capacity for courage called upon was once when, while walking through a neighborhood not my own, I heard a child screaming “You’re hurting me!” in a ragged voice from inside a house, and before debating what to do I found myself at the front door demanding to know whether everything was OK in there. My own response surprised me – I don’t even like kids – and gave me hope that in a more serious situation I might respond with the same reflexive, unthinking surety. On the other hand, a friend and I once fled shrieking like Shaggy and Scooby when a mouse we thought we had cornered in my kitchen made a sudden wild divine-wind-type charge directly at us. So I would say the jury is still out on my entry into Valhalla.
The most truthful writers on the subject admit that war is both terrible and beautiful, calling forth not only brutality but the finest humanity – valor, loyalty, self-sacrifice, and kindness. “Under fire, Animal Mother is one of the finest human beings in the world,” one soldier says of another in ‘Full Metal Jacket’: “All he needs is someone to throw hand grenades at him the rest of his life.” They tell us that war is not only obscene but sacred, an occasion, for some, for ecstasy and transcendence; that the only thing that can overpower the terror of combat is the shame of letting down your friends; that the bonds between comrades-at-arms can be closer and more unbreakable even than those of family. Michael Herr describes a colleague of his, whose head had been caved in by shrapnel, laughing helplessly from his hospital bed at a publisher’s proposal that he write a book to “take the glamour out of war.” “The very idea!” he said. “Ohhh, what a laugh! Take the bloody glamour out of bloody war!”
In ‘What It Is Like to Go to War,’ Karl Marlantes proposes that bootcamp used to be for men what childbirth is for women: a primal rite of passage, a test of one’s inmost mettle, its bloody secrets protected by a code of silence. And if you haven’t undergone this experience, you are still not a fully adult member of your gender. The closest most soldiers come to expressing this in front of civilians is in the bumper-sticker slogan: “For those who have fought for it, freedom has a flavor the protected will never know.” In other words: And gentlemen in England now a-bed/Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here/And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks/That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s Day.
Girls become women at menarche, whether they want to or not, adult responsibility foisted on them by biology, whereas men can evade adulthood for decades if you let them. Boys who don’t go to war – which these days is most of us – have to invent other, unsanctioned initiations for themselves: fraternity hazing, gang warfare, barfights, rugby, rock climbing, drag racing, playing chicken, jumping off bridges, blowing stuff up, heroic, self-destructive drinking, and drug abuse.
The problem with most of these substitutes is that they’re meaningless, empty gestures devoid of any higher purpose, like daring yourself or betting without stakes. The closest nonlethal approximation of combat is probably AmeriCorps or the Peace Corps – young people dispatched to faraway places to live in close quarters, endure hardship, and work side by side for a good cause. The closest I ever came to this experience, which wasn’t very, was in my own early twenties, working a stressful, low-paying job for an idealistic organization with a bunch of other young people. It wasn’t as bad as half an hour of Basic Training, let alone combat, but it left some of us bound together for life like old army buddies.
A few years ago, when one of those friends unexpectedly died, another friend and I both traveled back to our hometown to arrange for his funeral. We spent that week living on coffee and pills, dealing with the detritus and bureaucracy of death: claiming the body, talking to the police and the coroner’s office, answering harrying calls from the church and the funeral home, buying a casket, choosing clothes for the corpse, trying to contact distant friends and family, planning a service and a wake, writing a eulogy, cleaning out our friend’s house, getting lost on back roads, having shouting matches, and weeping. There are parts of that week we will never speak of to anyone else, but we still talk about them
between ourselves, on hikes in the woods or over drinks late at night. It was one of the times that remain most vivid in my memory – like medical emergencies, thrilling one-night stands, or seeing Paris or Lhasa. It was, embarrassingly, the first time I’d felt like an adult: having to do terrible things because I understood that they were not going to get done unless I did them myself.
After that week was over, I found myself thinking, absurdly, of training to become an EMT. I was already 40, and the physical tests EMTs need to pass would likely have caused me to throw up my own lungs. What I wanted was to do something like I’d done that week, something that felt urgently necessary, driven by basic human decency and allegiance to a friend, both primal and noble, handling matters of life and death. Even though everything I know about war comes from books and movies, I share, to a lesser degree, the sense of some returning vets that civilian life is infantile and trivial, that it just doesn’t matter enough. It’s probably no coincidence that our culture has become so bellicose even as our citizenry feels unprecedentedly powerless, our votes moot, our jobs increasingly abstract and frivolous, deprived of any but consumer choices. For me the most unforgettable scene in ‘The Hurt Locker’ is of the movie’s protagonist, a nerveless adrenaline addict who defuses IEDs, back in America, standing in the bleak, fluorescent light of a suburban grocery store, dumbly contemplating an entire aisle of breakfast cereals to choose from.