Like most overused expressions, “War is Hell” is now easily dismissed as a cliché. But like most clichés, the truth in the point is what caused it to be overused in the first place and we’d do well not to dismiss it.
What is it about any particular war that makes it hell? For most American veterans, the question opens up reflections about a variety of experiences as diverse as the veteran you ask. Most often, however, we focus on the common elements in war, such as glory, courage, cowardice, and death, and because of this, it’s easy to generalize and group all veterans together. It’s natural that we do this, for in many ways we feel unable to repay the debt we owe our veterans, and it is certainly easier for us civilians to process these questions as generalities.
But as practical as this is, often times, we neglect to see that every veteran has an interior experience of the particular wars he’s fought in. Failing to see this, our society then proceeds to render actual veterans invisible.
Perhaps it takes someone with a nuanced vision to recognize the power of a veteran’s experience and help us understand it. To that end, the American novelist, Tim O’Brien, is a good place to start.
With a sublime grasp of reality and verbal straightforwardness, O’Brien has given renewed life to an experience that is otherwise mostly covered in darkness. A Vietnam veteran, O’Brien has shifted society’s focus from a large and historical picture to the deeply particular experiences that involve real human beings who carry very real memories.
In one of his first books, If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home (1975), O’Brien demonstrates a soldier’s desire to change the reality in which he finds himself. In a chapter simply titled “Days,” O’Brien recounts a seemingly unimportant conversation between himself (the narrator) and another soldier:
“It’s incredible, it really is, isn’t it? Ever think you’d be humping along some crazy-ass trail like this, jumping up and down like a goddamn bullfrog, dodging bullets all day? Back in Cleveland, man, I’d still be asleep.” Barney smiled. “You ever see anything like this? Ever?”
“Yesterday,” I said.
“Yesterday? Shit, yesterday wasn’t nothing like this.”
“Snipers yesterday, snipers today. What’s the difference?”
“Guess so.” Barney shrugged. “Holes in your ass either way, right? But, I swear, yesterday wasn’t nothing like this.”
War is ambiguous, yet clarifying; eventful, yet painfully boring. Most of all, there is no exit. There is no way out but through it. What most people don’t realize is that once a war is over and some kind of temporary peace begins, for a veteran, the war may still continue. Except now, the dull and listless events tend to blend together with the horrors of war, and this can sometimes stain the humanity of a soldier. The clarity he gains is not so clear. The story has to be told, yet there is always a greater pull to forget it all and move on. For the most part, veterans do move on because that is in many ways, another heroic thing to do.
In addition to the weight and the burden they carry, veterans are trying to figure out whether the memories they have are authentically real. O’Brien addresses this problem also. In his most famous work, The Things They Carried (1990), O’Brien writes:
In any war story, but especially a true one, it’s difficult to separate what happened from what seemed to happen. What seems to happen becomes its own happening and has to be told that way. The angles of vision are skewed. When a booby trap explodes, you close your eyes and duck and float outside yourself. When a guy dies, like Curt Lemon, you look away and then look back for a moment and then look away again. The pictures get jumbled; you tend to miss a lot. And then afterward, when you go to tell about it, there is always that surreal seemingness, which makes the story seem untrue, but which in fact represents the hard and exact truth as it seemed.
There is, too, a sense of being alone with this world as it seemed, which oftentimes results in loneliness. It’s not surprising that many veterans are misunderstood and ignored because stories like this are hard to share and are often, in any case, met with silence. Any time a war survivor presents the clarity of evil, the world turns away because what is there to say?
Evil exists, killing happens, courageous acts happen as do, unfortunately, acts of cowardice. Standing face to face with a veteran, we civilians tend either to have a sense of awe—most veterans are rather uncomfortable with this because, having actually been there, they know there are multiple layers to any war—or a sense of indifference, which adds further baggage to their already burdened existence. As O’Brien writes, during the war, “they carried all the emotional baggage of men who might die. Grief, terror, love, longing—these were intangibles, but the intangibles had their own mass and specific gravity, they had tangible weight.”
Without a doubt (and this is especially true of men), it is difficult to talk about these things. It is difficult, if not impossible, to articulate the gravity of war to those who have not experienced it. When faced with senseless evil, as sometimes occurred in the Vietnam War, we freeze like any normal human being would. Nothing we say wrap it up neatly or explain it once and for all with some grand theory of history, philosophy, or personal experience. You can’t wish away the presence of darkness.
For veterans, this presents an even bigger challenge because it involves the defense of their country. It’s difficult to quantify glory, and yet it can’t be denied next to an act of courage. It opens up the doors for the unlikeliest of soldiers to exhibit valor and paradoxically, out of the darkness to become even fuller human beings. As, in the midst of darkness, so many have saved the lives of fellow soldiers or helped the countless innocents caught in the bloodshed, so too have we seen the greatness that difficult times can call forth in us. And yet, I have heard many veterans say that for all that glory and the greatness it unearths in humanity, it would be far better not to have wars because they have seen what the constantly unfolding events and actions do to one’s soul, even in the moments of great courage.
Society may never be able to see or truly understand the soul of a soldier. After all, it is the aftermath of the war that brings forth existential confusion and even a soldier will have difficulty gaining some clarity in the midst of much of the meaninglessness that happens in war. What is most important is that practical attempts at making veterans’ lives easier have to overlap with these existential concerns. If a veteran cannot find an ongoing sense of purpose in life after war, he will most likely lose a sense of hope as well.
At the very least, we should not make matters even more difficult by ignoring or pitying them. Instead we should try to see the humanity of our veterans and its embodiment in the reality of their experience. We need to remember that they are not just playing a role as “veterans”—they are indeed human beings and fellow citizens, like us. And they have interior lives, even and especially if they are trying to make sense of it all. Their worn faces deserve to be recognized not just as a class but as individuals because in that moment of recognition, however small, they have been brought back into the fold of the community and good has triumphed over evil.