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.