Thursday, March 27, 2008

Aversion

It occurred to me today, that I don't watch war movies anymore.

Ever since about 6 months into my Iraq tour, my taste for war films, military history books, even war-themed video games mysteriously dried up. I bought the two-disc box set of "Flags of our Fathers" back in March of last year; it still sits on my shelf in Germany, shrink-wrap intact. I don't even read other soldiers' war blogs. Until now, I had never paused to consider this, but while walking home from work today this thought surfaced, and oddly enough, it shocked me.

By itself, the revelation might have passed for nothing, but then I thought back to a story I read in a recent copy of Rolling Stone. The story itself covers the return of John McCain to prominence in the presidential race, but what caught my attention was the author's scathing depiction of two patriotic "soccer moms." These characters start off by revering the candidate for his past as a Vietnamese POW, and then go on to discuss the Iraq war, military movies, and then oddly enough the local buffet. I would be lying if I said that I didn't know people like the two there. But what shocked me was the disgust, the utter revulsion I held for them and all their kind.

And so I came to the aforementioned realization about my entertainment habits. It's true: I DON'T watch war movies anymore, or partake of any entertainment dealing with military life. At first, I figured it was simply for lack of a need--after all, I AM military--but then I realized that it was something more. These war-movies, these wargames, all attempt to depict a body of experience alien to most people. For most, the reactions I have seen to these forms of media are not disgust, fear, or introspection, but rather envy.

And therein, I suspect, lies the rub.

I don't need to know what war is like. I don't need to relive those experiences. War is a shitty, miserable, soul-crushing endeavor. Even with the best of comforts from home, it still sucks. It is evil, and hateful, and lonely, and it does horrible things to the human mind. It brings with it some unforgettable memories and friendships, but for the most part, it isn't something that the rational mind should seek to put itself through.

I may have been fortunate for a soldier who spent good time outside the wire--I never had to harm anyone, and I never watched friends die. But I know the sound of bullets in flight. I can tell between rocket and mortar explosions. I have watched convoys get drilled by coordinated IED attacks. And what occurs to me now is that, after a time, the idea that one may be obliterated at any second becomes normal. Any day that one had a shower and more than 4 hours of sleep is a good one. And though I am grateful to not suffer from the sort of emotional symptoms that frequently affect deployed soldiers, it also occurs to me that I would rather saw off my own arm then go back there.

Some symptoms of trauma: anger, excessive alertness, emotional distance, and aversion to certain stimuli. Until recently, I didn't think I suffered from any of these--why would I? I was just an Engineer. It's not like I actually saw anything serious. But then I thought back to my avoidance of war-themed entertainment. I thought back to my discomfort with questions about the deployment. I thought back to the way I now avoid members of my unit like the plague. I thought back to my wife's recent complaints about my remoteness, my sudden unexplained bouts of hostility, and suddenly it seemed that perhaps my time down there had had more of an impact than I thought.

I don't feel that it should be that way--after I'm home, in one piece, with a wife who loves me and a knowledge that I am going to ETS by summer. Again, it must be stressed--it's not as though I was living out Apocalypse Now. But all the same, I think of my time downrange, or read through my own writings from that period, and what I see the most there is pain--pain, and loneliness, and fear. I realize then that my 15 months in Iraq were the worst of my life, worse even than homelessness. And I realize that I would not relive these events for anything.

That sort of misery isn't natural. It isn't human. It dulls one's sense of empathy, one's ability to see the world as anything that behaves according to any sense of justice. It is the sort of thing that makes one not only lose faith in one's God, but openly despise that God for Its cruelty.

To see people starving as civilian contractors grow rich on tax-free paychecks from KBR; to be begged for food and clean water while sitting in a guard tower; to want so badly to help, to say to these people, hey, we're human too? And yet be under direct orders NOT to do so? I don't think I can communicate that pain here. To watch friends lose their minds from daily stress, their bolt-carriers and magazines confiscated by leadership; to see marriages crumble from four thousand miles away; to spend 6 months in misery and then find out one has three months added onto the time remaining?

It's enough to make one stop caring about anyone but oneself. It's enough to make one think that nobody back home understands, that nobody cares. And then, to read the news and hear one's Commander-In-Chief, talking about the romance of war. Hear what the soccer moms have to say about how GREAT a movie there existed in "We Were Soldiers."

I don't think that I can describe it here, but if I can try my level best, the feeling is truly something special. It isn't amusement, it isn't irony, it isn't even disgust.

It is hatred.

Yes, you read that correctly: hatred. It is ill will of the most blackhearted sort, the kind that can make say: "Fuck you, blind worm. Fuck you, eyes-bleeding, to the lowest levels of hell. There is no God that can damn you with enough gravity to make you understand. There is no punishment agonizing enough for your ignorance, your cruelty, your selfishness." It is the thing that can leave you with more sympathy for those who actively attempted to kill you, then for such milquetoast suburban displays of "patriotism." It is the sort of thing to make you wonder: have we slipped that far down the slope? Are we really able to blame soldiers for their own deaths, for having had the gall to volunteer? Are we really able to sit around and calmly blame the media for exposing war crimes to the public eye? And if so: is there any point in trying to save us?

To conclude: no. No, I no longer watch war movies. There is no need. It is an experience that makes me pity the ones still living through it, the ones who don't even know what they're losing by being there. I didn't even know, until I came back. But now that I think about it, I look across the ocean now and see the people who, even now, root for the next war before either of the first two are finished.

And I say to those people: keep your war movies. Keep them, and I sincerely hope that you choke. That you can regard such endeavors as entertainment marks you as less than human.

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12 Comments:

Blogger admiyo said...

It didn't take a war to make me lose the desire to watch War movies, just the inability to separate myself from the people that lived through the events. Not the people on the screen, but the people who lived through it.

Any Man of military age or older knows it to be true: there but for random chance of the universe go I. It could be me sitting in that foxhole, me on the other end of that sniper scope, me lying bleeding on that beach.

But watch the hate. It is OK to voice it, to get the poison out of your system, but someone will try to use it against use.

Try to focus on the good. You know the reality of the world now. Take some time, catch your breath, transition out of the Army, and figure out what you want to do next, if you don't already know. You can contribute to make the world better, if not in Iraq, than in your own backyard or in a different country. You understand poverty now, understand force, and understand fear. As Sun Tzu wrote, "Know your enemy." These are your enemies, and you know them now.

And please talk to a therapist if you are not already. For Annes sake as much as your own. Your journey home is not yet complete.

9:58 PM  
Blogger Aprillini said...

I'm going to second the idea of a therapist, just for good measure, but I also want to share my own experience briefly, because I do hear you, Milo, I do. I am 53. The Vietnam war was the backdrop for my ENTIRE childhood from kindergarten (1960) to graduation (1973). It was so traumatizing to me, that I could NEVER go watch all the "great" Vietam movies including Apocalypse Now, etc.I just wanted it all to be done and over with. I couldn't watch Saving Private Ryan (OHMIGOD), and I had to force myself to sit through Schindler's List with my school age son. As I often say, real life is hard enough, why pay good money to see it "artfully" portrayed on the big screen?

To an extent, it is prostituting the emotions.

Don't apologize for your feelings which are genuine and valid, but like the previous reader, I deeply appreciate your take on these things, and hope that you treasure your relationship with Anne...to get help, if needed.

Sending you lots of love and support. You totally rock!
Aprille
aprillini@gmail.com

1:06 AM  
Blogger Jenny said...

It's the same way that murder victim's friends & families don't think CSI is a real great show.

Time heals.

All My Best,
Jenny

8:08 AM  
Blogger Gillian de Chelseye said...

<3 Be well.

2:50 PM  
Blogger Army Sergeant said...

Wow.

Powerful. Do you mind if I link this post? I think you've said a lot that needs to be said. I encounter a lot of people who think or feel like that-belonging to an organization of Iraq war veterans, it's kind of hard not to. But it's hard for a lot of them to express themselves so clearly, or why they get so upset when people hero-worship the conflict.

7:26 PM  
Blogger cinnabari said...

I have an easier time with the critically aware war movies than the moto-shit like We Were Soldiers (jesus god. Nous is teaching that in class this spring in his War and Political Rhetoric class, and I refuse to watch it a second time. Spare me that shit. Please.) The romanticizing of something that ugly just... gah. I don't get it. "Dulce et Decorum Est", and all that.

Take care of yourself, yeah?

7:41 PM  
Blogger The Hackademician said...

Thanks for sharing this.

I see where you are coming from on this, and I respect your reaction to it. For what it's worth, your reaction is similar to a lot of the reactions I've read in novels and memoirs written by veterans. Hemingway, Jones, O'Brien and Swofford all explore the ways in which their experience of war differs so completely from the standard portrayal of war in the media.

This disconnect is helped along by the way the US Military subsidizes and protects its own brand image in the media. They are keenly aware of where their money and recruiting numbers come from and play on that for all it is worth.

As for what is and isn't a natural human reaction, I fear that war is closer to natural for humans than the average experience of a civilian living in an affluent, post-industrial, Western society. The fascination is a product of how different our lives are from the overwhelming majority of human lives across history and geography. "Healthy, well-balanced and natural" seem more the ironic exception than the rule.

Take care of yourself and don't let your experience isolate you either from those who share your experience or those who can't know the reality of what you have seen. Your reactions to this experience are important to our understanding.

-nous

9:44 PM  
Blogger iamcoyote said...

Your self-awareness and your ability to get it all out in writing will be your salvation, Milo! Thanks for sharing your feelings during the process of reclaiming your life. I agree with Hackademician above: "Your reactions to this experience are important to our understanding." I wish I could help carry your burden, just listening and learning don't seem like enough somehow.

By the way, We're back! We all needed a place to hide from TLC's primary bickering, so viola! Let me know if you want to be added as a contributer. (iamcoyote at gmail dot com)

5:40 PM  
Blogger Grung_e_Gene said...

Freeman,
with your EAS approaching soon your name will be an apt description of your state of being as well aswho you are...
I can sympathize. I can't know exactly what you saw, did and experienced and I'm not arrogant enough to claim to any ability to help you. I don't know if there is a magical catharsis available to aid you as you reconnect with your life goals of your wife and publishing and your education. Just know there are more men and women out there who understand and will hold with you than with the warmongering ignorant chicken hawks.

Peace,
Grung_e_Gene

6:34 PM  
Blogger Long-time RN said...

Can't add much more than the folks above have already written. I'm sorry you are carrying this anger. Hope it is a bridge that must be crossed to once again find harmony and peace in your soul Sincerely hope letting it out in writing is cathartic, helps restore that which was lost.
Cathy B

12:45 PM  
Blogger Pookie Sixx said...

I feel your anger Milo. You are not alone but I fear that those of us that feel this way are too few in number. It is too sensationalized and the media not being allowed to show the caskets allows it to be glamorized more in my opinion.

I too no longer entertain myself with military style media. I had to "demilitarize" myself in order to fully transition out and that was the only way to do it for me. It has opened my eyes a lot as well.

I too hope that you have found some cathartic therapy in writing this. I believe your days as a voluntary soldier are numbered my friend ;)

12:58 AM  
Blogger Hayden said...

I receive your feed but didn't come right away - I always know that I have to be feeling emotionally strong to come here.

Powerful, real, heart-stopping stuff, Milo.

One of the reasons I stopped watching TV is that I can't stand watching tragedy turned into entertainment. Reading the news is easier, I don't need help imagining it, I don't need it choreographed and trivialized.

This is huge, and you say it in a way that I haven't heard before. Usually all we get are a bunch of talking heads wondering about the latest study and whether or not war "games" etc. are "damaging."

They are. They damage the soul and complete the separation from reality. It doesn't take a study to see it.

The ability to put oneself "outside" and simply watch disaster is honed to a fine art in our civilization - and may be it's downfall.

Thanks for your truth-telling. Your pain has me in tears, but your courage in seeing clearly and saying what needed to be said is amazing, and heartening. I'm glad you're out there, talking truth.

Please be kind to yourself; be careful with your anger and hatred. We-the-people need your words, it's medicine that all should be sat down and forced to swallow.

5:48 PM  

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