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A title escapes me

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I should be sleeping right now. I can’t. The world is with me too much, late and soon. Then again, I don’t sleep as well as I did ten years ago. That’s part of why I can’t sleep. It’s not that I suffer from bad dreams. I don’t. When I am haunted (and I’m not often haunted) the haunting happens in my waking moments.

I’m a combat vet. I don’t, “look” like one. I’m quiet. I have long hair. I laugh at things, tell jokes, stop and look at sunsets, and babies and birds and am generally easy going. I also get nervous on days when the wind is warm and dry. I dislike being in cars with open windows. I scan the overpasses when moving down the highway.  When I walk my gaze caresses the high skyline, and tries to look into dark windows.

War is like that. If you’ve been to one you know that’s not explicable. None of us comes back the same. Most of us come back mostly whole. There is a place, a part of us which isn’t as it was; it’s not empty, but it’s searching. It’s the residue of constant fear.

I wasn’t young when I went. I wasn’t young when I enlisted, and I’d been in for eight years when we deployed. I was probably as prepared for it as anyone can be. I’d been trained. I’d read books. I’d known WW2 Vets, and Korean War Vets. If he’d lived a little longer I’d’ve known my Grandfather well enough to say I knew a WW1 vet.  One of the guys I shipped out with, who worked with me when we were doing small unit HumInt, was on his third war.  He did all he could to prepare us.

It didn’t help. Nothing helps. War is a strange beast; it has its own sensibilities. Some of which I knew of, but didn’t know. Take WW2, “The Good War”. Fuck that. In “The Men of Company K” there is an explanation of the difference between, “take him down the road”, and “take him to the road”. The latter was used when there was no time/manpower to spare; the prisoners were killed.

Which is why Who Did You Rape in the War, Daddy? A Question for Veterans that Needs Answering offends me. I am sure my offense matters not a bit to the author. I, after all, am a combat vet.

War is obscene. I mean that in every sense of the word. Some veterans will tell you that you can’t know war if you haven’t served in one, if you haven’t seen combat. These are often the same guys who won’t tell you the truths that they know about war and who never think to blame themselves in any way for our collective ignorance.
The truth is, you actually can know a lot about war without fighting in one. It just isn’t the sort of knowledge that’s easy to come by.

I’ll repeat myself, if you haven’t been there, you don’t know. I’ve been reading military history since I was 12. I’ve been reading milfic (much of which is personal history/experience thinly dressed) since I was abut 14. I’ve read Fussell on the subject. I’ve read David Drake explaining how he came to write his milfic; and the demons he was exorcising. I was taught by combat vets: combat vets who had a personal interest in giving me as much understanding of my profession as was humanly possible. I served with combat vets (from Vietnam, Panama, Iraq, other parts of Central America). Guys I know set up Camps Delta and X-ray in Gitmo. People I worked with worked there.

I can tell you what it was like, and you still won’t know. Until you’ve seen the elephant it’s not real.

I can tell you from experience that if you read a few dozen of the best of them, you can get a fairly good idea about what that war was really like. Maybe not perfect knowledge, but a reasonable picture anyway. Or you can read several hundred of the middling-to-poor books and, if you pay special attention to the few real truths buried in all the run-of-the-mill war stories, you’ll still get some feeling for war American-style.

I can tell you, from experience, that’s rubbish.  None of that will make it clear why I can sit in a hot tub and listen to people shooting at each other in my neighborhood, with a perfectly calm mind, while I will hear a string of firecrackers and be facedown on the floor, scrabbling for cover; having left my chair so quickly I had abrasions on my thighs.  Those are just the obvious ways in which being there gives a different understanding than researching, even from doing oral histories.  Yes, he qualifies it with, “war, American style”, but that’s still talking about it from the outside.

If you read it carefully you can see it’s rubbish. It’s self-delusional. He is telling you that if you don’t know, you can still sift through the books and find, “the few real truths.” How? If you read a book (say one like Chris Mackey’s, “The Interrogators”) how are you going to spot the real truths? If you know Chris (and, disclosure, I do), and you read it what will you take away? How will those truths be different if you don’t know him?

What if you don’t know him, but you do know that the people who took over from him when he left committed war crimes; some of them when to jail, some of them went on to Abu Graib. Some were punished, some got off pretty much scot-free. What “truths” do you think you will glean from it then?

What if I wrote a book, and you found out I served, in Iraq, with some of those same war criminals? What pieces of my writing will you take away as truth? If you read Tim O Brien’s, “The Things They Carried” you will learn another truth… all war memoirs are fiction. We don’t remember clearly. The good, the bad, the ugly: they blur. War has its own, sick and twisted, morality (see above, “to the road/down the road,”, or the scene in Band of Brothers where the officer is reported to have given a bunch of prisoners cigarettes and then machine gunned them all. No one admits to knowing if it’s true, but no one thought it impossible: nor worth reporting).

So no, I’m not saying crimes, even atrocities, don’t happen. I’ll even grant that they aren’t uncommon. That doesn’t mean, however, they are common. It’s not uncommon for someone to drive in excess of 100 mph, but it’s not a commonplace either.

But Nick Turse thinks

Maybe it’s time to start asking questions of our veterans. Hard questions. They shouldn’t be the only ones with the knowledge of what goes on in armies and in war zones. They didn’t get to Vietnam (or Iraq or Afghanistan) on their own and they shouldn’t shoulder the blame or the truth alone and in silence. We all bear it. We all need to hear it. The sooner, the better.

I don’t think I can respond to this without sounding like an apologist: but he’s wrong. He’s wrong because he’s confused the idea something being uncommon somehow brings it close to commonplace. He wants to shoulder some part of the blame for what happens in the warzone… good on ‘im, because most of the fuckheads who sent us over there are shirking the entire idea and none of the cheerleaders who supported the lies, and suppressed those who dissented from the pack, have suffered one bit, but I digress; bitterly.

But his blithe implication that asking rude questions like, “who did you rape in the war daddy” is going to get at the truth… bullshit. He’s managed a Bob Woodwardish case of and told “truths” in a way which misleads. Did atrocities occur? Yes. If you don’t think so, you aren’t reading this.

Were there crimes and atrocities which didn’t make the news? Sure. Do Vets know about them? Some do. Is assuming that every vet was a baby killer, or a rapist, or a murderer going to bring them to light? No. Is offending those vets who weren’t complicit a way to help anyone, “shoulder the blame”? Not in the least.

I’ve spent a lot of the past ten years speaking out about things people think they know about. I get a lot of rude questions. I’ve set myself up for them. Even at that I get questions which gobsmack me. I’m doing, as best I can, the thing he says vets don’t do. I can also tell you I’m not completely candid; because if I was, people would look at me blankly.

Because it’s a foreign place, and those who haven’t travelled there see it; at best, as through a glass, darkly. I know what he’s trying to do, and I know why (he’s been staring into the abyss), but his solution isn’t going to work. Implementing it won’t help; it will (if my reaction is anything to go by) backfire.
Assuming every vet is war criminal, is an injustice. Arguing we need to do it so the population at large can share the guilt… ain’t gonna happen. If they won’t do it for launching a fucking war; they sure as shit aren’t gonna do it for the effects of that war. Which means all that would happen is scapegoating those who went.

Fuck that noise.

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6 thoughts on “A title escapes me

  1. When I am haunted (and I’m not often haunted) the haunting happens in my waking moments.

    My “war” lasted about thirty seconds, and this rang so true it brought tears to my eyes.

    … if you haven’t been there, you don’t know.

    QFT, QFT, QFT. I haven’t been to war. But I’ve been to a place I can’t ever explain to anyone who hasn’t, and that dearly bought truth will be with me for the rest of my life. I’ve had one opportunity to speak as much of the truth as I could to others (telling the jury I served on how unreliable my own eyewitness testimony was), but I don’t think they could hear me.

    If there’s a way to bridge that gulf, it’s going to have to involve people who study, and study, and write, and tell–and then go, and come back, and tell us how wrong they were. I used to play the “if I’d been there” game, like so many do. I’ll never, ever do that again.

    Education is expensive. And sometimes it’s not transferable, no matter how eloquent you are.

  2. I think there are quite a few experiences that are fundamentally gnostic — that cannot be transferred by way of language, education, or simulation, only through actually being there. I would never pretend to understand exactly what veterans feel about war.

    I do know, though, exactly what it feels like when somebody you care about deeply dies violently, long before hir time. It’s something I can talk about with the people I’m close to today, to try to explain how it shapes the way I feel about them and react to things that happen in our lives (or, in some cases, how I _resist_ certain types of reactions of fear or clinginess). They listen with sympathy; but they never _really_ understand. May they never.

  3. As one of likely many people who directed Pecunium to the article in question, I have a variety of thoughts on the topic. Unfortunately, coherency seems to elude me this week, so I apologize in advance for the disjointed nature of this comment.

    For one, I’m not sure Nick Turse meant to imply that one has to have been in combat to know that war is horrorific, but I find the implication asinine. Anyone who’s been paying attention for the last decade can see that, and with all the publicized accounts of the destruction we’ve caused, the rape and torture that we’ve attempted to cover up, you’d have to be either living under a rock, or willfully ignorant, to have not figured out that we’re, as a nation, committing war crimes. I see absolutely no need to go around accusing every veteran of rape when it’s common knowledge that rape and torture has occurred, and been covered up. Oh fuck yes I’d like to see the officials who committed war crimes brought to trial, but that’s a rather different matter than your average soldier’s involvement. And no, I’m not a veteran, and I don’t presume to know what they’ve seen, but I’ve read enough to know that they’ve even enough without everyone accusing them of rape, as that article specifically implied.

    While I haven’t been in war, I do know more than my fair share about rape, that’s an elephant I have seen. And to put it simply, no, you can’t understand just from reading about it. You have to live it, and I wouldn’t wish that on anyone. To then go around directly saying that the lived experience provides less knowledge than that garnered from texts…it’s appalling. I don’t know about war, but no amount of reading or talking about what you’d do “in that situation” does you any good when it’s actually happening, because, despite what that article would have you believe, every situation really is different. Again, I can’t know if that’s honestly true about war, but if the absolute basics of “[u]ntil you’ve seen the elephant it’s not real” hold true across elephants, then I have to assume that you have to be there to either know what you’d really do, or to understand why you’d do what you’d do, and more importantly in the long run, to understand what it’s like to be in that particular situation.

    I hope I’m making sense, and not stepping on your toes too much Pecunium. Also, sorry about my amazing ability to ramble in run on sentences.

  4. I don’t think Turse is saying that at all. I think he’s trying to have a cake, and eat. He asserts that one know what war is like from reading. I say he’s full of shit.

    He then says vets need to talk about the things which he wants to hear about. Sorry, if I don’t want to talk about it, that’s my business. If I know of war crimes I ought to talk about them; insomuch as they ought not be allowed to go undealt with, but to share the inexplicable, because he thinks people need to hear it? Because he thinks it will “ease my burden”. Fuck that. Such as it exists, it’s my burden. He can’t carry that weight, because he doesn’t understand.

    The officer who, during a drunken revel celebrating that we were all back home, and no one was missing pieces, much less dead (we didn’t lose anyone directly; though three of the people we deployed with didn’t make it,. some sources got burned, and a few of us were Disease/Non-Battle Injury and medically retired. There were also some suicides of people in adjacent units and the walking wounded and living dead who were on medevacs with us, but we all made it back alive; and in decent shape), who wanted me to reassure him none of his soldiers had committed war crimes… will never have that conversation with someone who wasn’t there.

    Why? Because it’s not the regular world, and most of us saw grey areas. I don’t think anyone in my unit committed war crimes. I do know there were allegations of them: I wasn’t there, I don’t know. I do know they were taken pretty seriously; with the FBI investigating it after we were stateside; on top of the Army looking at it while we were deployed. Turse wasn’t there. He doesn’t know what happens; in one’s head. He doesn’t know the soft constriction of comfortable fear. Fear so pervasive you don’t feel it. A pressure which collapses on you when the reasons to be afraid are gone; and the fear doesn’t leave.

    That’s what makes us so twitchy when we come home. It’s what keeps us up nights. It’s what that incomplete spot is looking for… a reason for the quiescent fear which never leaves. That’s what you can’t get if you weren’t there. That’s what he ignores, and pretends he can understand. That’s what he says ought to be poked at, all the while implying that we are all rapists and baby killers.

    Some of us are, perhaps more than I might like to think (and since I know some war criminals; and not just from our Army, I have a pretty good idea of how it isn’t as rare as the jingoists would like us to believe), but out of a million people it can be a large number, but a small quantity, which understanding is nowhere in his piece.

  5. Pecunium, I agree with your reaction to the article – one of my closest college friends was deployed to Iraq in 2009 and while we’re close enough that I stood as one of his groomsmen in 2010, the idea that I’d ask him about his experiences there is, frankly, obscene. If he wanted to tell me, he would.

  6. The thing which really offends is that he is saying we need to do this to people, not for their sake, but for everyone else’s. As I said, I don’t think his cardinal premise (that it will make everyone else understand how horrible war, “really” is, will happen. Not only can people who weren’t there really understand it, they don’t want to. Put those two things together and it’s worse than useless.

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