Warriors-in-Spirit: The Basics

Warrior is a loaded word, if you’ll allow me the pun, one with a history and a debate about that history that goes back centuries.  At this point, I’m not going to consider all that history, but as I continue to muse on this concept, I’m sure that I’ll refer to it–and in its light, refine my own thoughts–frequently.

Yet admittedly I’m still interested (at least for now) in playing on one side effect of that history, i.e., the emotional meaning of the word.  It’s a word that goes for the gut.  I like that.  At this point, I don’t want so much to explore the warrior’s relationship to violence (although I realize that can never be ignored), but rather the relationship to emotional energy, to the quality Plato in The Republic noted as being “spirited.”  Perhaps that’s why I’m currently drawn to an idea of “warrior-in-spirit.”

For now, let’s loosely define this “spirit” as a gut emotional energy, one that is outward-oriented, yet one also not without its inner, reflective element.  Ambition plays its part, although less as a status (though, granted, that’s nice), but more as a sense of purpose, of wanting to take this energy and put it somewhere in the world that will go someplace, someplace meaningful and honorable.  Justice plays its part as well, although more as fairness, as an equitable “you follow through, and I’ll follow through, deal?”

It’s a powerful energy, one that can easily–and, sadly, often–hurt, physically at its worst, emotionally at its just-as-worst.  As I said last post, it’s an energy that, in one way, makes the warrior popular, while, in another way, makes him or her somebody to “please have a seat over there and we’ll get back with you in a few years.”  (And yes, I do believe that the warrior-in-spirit way of being is independent of sex, although, granted, it has most often been the blessing-curse of certain men.)

If we start with this very broad categorization, let me share a few thoughts for the day, again with the goal of helping professionals understand the complexities of many combat veterans’ experiences.

1.  Not all veterans–even combat veterans–are warriors-in-spirit.  But for those who are–and many indeed are–God be with you.

This may come as a surprise to many professionals, but believe me:  it’s true.  Granted,  I do think one could say this:  the military experience brings out the warrior in all who participate in it.  If one looks hard enough, one will find a warrior inside.  I’m not quite sure how this could be otherwise, given the role of the warrior in cultures both of the West and of the East, in our myths, our religious stories, our historical tales told round the fire or round the classroom.

Finding a warrior within and being a “warrior-in-spirit” are two different matters, though.  The warrior-in-spirit does not need any help getting in touch with his or her “inner warrior,”  whether in basic training or in martial arts classes.  That warrior sense, that warrior energy pulsates inside the individual’s body and soul.  It’s an energy that demands expression in some way–and if that means destructive, then so be it.  If that energy does not invade the outer world in some form, it will invade the inner world–and with a vengeance.

And believe me:  there’s no greater destruction the warrior will experience than when his or her spirited-energy begins to devour one’s heart and mind.  That’s what often drives many combat veterans into their basements, their bedrooms, to protect those whom they love from that energy’s destructive force and to fight as well as one can–alone–that same force that threatens to disintegrate the veteran, no questions asked.

Just because the veteran in front of you once served in combat, don’t assume the veteran is a warrior-in-spirit.  But if the veteran in front of you exudes a certain tension–or, at the opposite end, seems so deadened, it is as if a whole world of inner experience is being walled off–then consider the possibility that you’ve got a warrior-in-spirit on your hands.

2.  Warriors-in-spirit don’t have to go into the military in our society, given the multiple ways we tolerate even high levels of aggression (or as we most often try to soften its rhetorical impact, assertiveness) within certain professions and activities.

I’ve got to tell you:  you want to sit with a room full of individuals, men and women, who are not in the military, yet who are warriors-in-spirit par excellence?  Go sit in on a class at the Harvard Law School.   Lord have mercy, were there struggles to beat the band there, or what.  Someone was always outraged about something, on the Left, on the Right, in the Middle, nowhere in particular.  Some of the best, live, reality-TV high theater I’ve ever had the pleasure of watching occurred in those in-your-face, this-is-important, peoples’-lives-are-at-stake classes such as Torts (injury law), Criminal Law, and Constitutional Law.  Russ Crowe had nothing on those gladiators, I’ll tell you.

Quite frankly, one hope for returning combat veterans who are indeed warriors-in-spirit is that they can find a place in one of the more in-your-face professions of our society, which usually means a profession that involves some form of advocacy, the very word itself being from the Latin for “talking-at-you.”  That, warriors-in-spirit can do with style.

Unfortunately, though, there are not as many of those positions in our society as one might think.  In general, society keeps itself running on get-the-job-done quietness, not talking-at you.  As before, warriors-in-spirit might be called on to knock a little sense into a situation every once in a while, but they’re almost always then expected to get back on the assembly line and keep working.

3.  The warrior-in-spirit cannot be reconstructed or rehabiliated into a more “congenial” type through exhortation or threat, whether those be of a secular or of a religious nature.

You think warriors-in-spirit don’t already know that they’d be far better off if they could just “get over it” and become more like those who can put on the warrior uniform for a period and then hang it back up in the closet–those for whom the “warrior” lives more in the peripheries of their soul, rather than right smack-dab in the center, as it does for the warrior-in-spirit?   I mean, do you think this warrior-in-spirit stuff is some kind of lark, a good time to be had by all, one in which one gets that inimitable pleasure of being both screamed at  to “save us” and then almost simultaneously screamed at to “settle down”?

Think again.

Let me leave it at that today.  Maybe next time I might ponder some “rules of the road” that professionals could consider offering combat veterans who are warriors-in-spirit, ones that might help them understand why they often feel as bad about themselves as they do, why people both admire them and fear them, and thus how they may be able to “get along” a bit better as they learn to find a place within the world–and within themselves–that is more fruitful and less painful.

Warriors-in-Spirit: Personal Preface

Almost been a week, and it’s been a long one at that.  Still, life continues to happen, providing opportunities for reflection, for change, for application of change.

A couple weeks ago I published a series of posts on what not to say to combat veterans, and one of them was entitled Hang a Left and Ask for Rachel.  In that post I referred to a correspondence that  I’d had with a colleague whom I didn’t know well.  She had written of some ideas that she’d had about war, and I’d shared in the post some of my reservations.

That conversation continued this week.  I certainly didn’t find it agreeable, and I doubt that my colleague did as well.  Still, it turned out to be quite helpful, in a way I couldn’t have imagined.

I had originally written the colleague after reading some of her thoughts about war.  Looking back at the note, I did hint obliquely at disagreement, a technique that some people can find irritating, I admit, but I certainly wasn’t in-your-face.  She wrote back her response, from which parts of that post were gleaned.

I didn’t find the response to my liking, and since then I’ve tried to figure out why.  First, she affirmed her original statement a bit too readily for my taste, almost in a way that seemed to be telling me to “live with it,” even though I didn’t believe she necessarily intended that message consciously.  She then went on to give me a mini-lecture, replete with suggested readings.  From that came my second problem:  she referred to Edward Tick’s War and the Soul, a book that I recommend on the Book page of this blog.  To me, it seemed as if Tick was arguing a point opposite to the general one she was trying to make in her correspondence.  That made it hard for me to feel as secure in her readings and interpretations as, I suspect, she’d hoped and assumed I would.

Still, I was really irritated.  That should have been my first clue.  It wasn’t.  Story continues.

I spent some time crafting ideas to share, and I ended up with quite the epistle.  I decided at first against sending it, though.  Honestly, I wasn’t sure I was that interested in the conversation I feared might ensue.  As life would have it, though, another event occurred this past week that made me realize that I was going to need to share these ideas not only with her, but with other colleagues whom I both know personally and don’t.  So I sent it to her.

She responded by saying up front that even after several readings, she was uncertain what I was trying to say.  OK, that didn’t sit so well from the get-go, as by that point at least seven other people had read the piece and had found nothing that hard to understand whatsoever.  My colleague is anything but a fool, so I feared I was either dealing with a). disingenuousness, or more likely b). ideological inability to grasp how I could conceivably (and in good faith) disagree so fundamentally with her.  Again she gave me a mini-lecture with suggested readings, this time saying she assumed I’d already read them–and then adding “if you haven’t, you should.”  Finally she made a point that required her to use the Ctrl-i function to set a crucial word in italics. That didn’t just happen on its own.

I should have left well enough alone.  Yes, I should have, I know, I know.  Move on.

I didn’t.  At one level, I regret that, yet at another level, I’ve learned so much from this interaction that will be helpful as I work with (and help readers understand better) combat veterans, it was worth the result.

I sent back a short e-mail in which I quite consciously was, shall we say, incisive.  (She eventually called it sarcastic, and I’d have to agree with her, true confession.)  In it, I did acknowledge that I can be an angry man  (that’s a surprise?).  Well, clearly that revelation gave her the epiphany she needed, for she fired back another correspondence informing me that now that she knew that I’m an “angry man,” she “finally understood” and . . .

I deleted the message without reading any further.  All is well in the world.  She finally understands me.  I have my hypotheses about her.  We’ll call it even, and hopefully we’ll never have to deal with each other face-to-face.

Ah, there I go again:  the rantings of an angry man.

Two other colleagues provided further insights about my ideas, though, that completed this week’s picture for me.  First, one very thoughtfully rephrased my main arguments.  Throughout the “translation,”  he used the word warrior to refer to combat veterans who struggle with a strong sense of purpose, strength, and ambition in light of their experiences of war.  I’d not used that word in my paper, but his use of it was dead-on in its application.

Second, a very thoughtful colleague wrote me something to the effect, “Since I know you so well, I find your writing quite thought-provoking and concise.  Yet I could see that for those who do not know you, they could reject your arguments out-of-hand because they could see you as ‘smart-aleck’ and even scornful.”  I’m sure my erstwhile colleague would echo that response with a resounding “Amen.”

So.  Warrior and strong responses.  I’d always considered the word warrior to be a physical word, a state of ready action, a physicality that filled a room with its intensity and strength.  If you were to meet me, the very last thing you’d think of is warrior in that sense.  As a kid in school, as a young man, I was always the one to work around a good fight or to have the good wits to high-tail it out of there before one could even conceivably ensue.  Now I’m just a fat, old man.  Believe me, no Hektor or Achilles here.

Yet I thought:  all those years, as a kid in school, as a young man, now–in my head?  Ah, the battles I’ve fought.  And you know what?  People have not been oblivious to that.  On many occasions, I have been called into a situation to add a verbal “punch” that was needed to seal a deal, to silence opposition.  For the most part, I’ve always been successful in such assignments.  Sure, there are plenty of people who are brighter than I (a whole class of Harvard Law School colleagues, for example), but I can still quiet a room when I get that cross-examination look in my eye.

Yes, I’ve known that.  For a long time.

And, by the way:  if you’ve read any of the previous posts–the DSM-IV rants, for example, or the “What Not to Say” rants–this would come as no epiphany to you either.

So might there be something “warrior-like” about me, just a verbal warrior, not a physical one?  Is there a way that people often want me to “say something” but then are afraid of just what I might say?  Want the warrior when they want him, but want him out of the way when they don’t want him?

If so, then I have to say this:  he’s who I am.  Down to my core.  I experience the world no other way.  I’ve actually tried for years to calm this, avoid it, transform it, psychologically, spritually, medicinally, you name it.  But the “warrior” doesn’t so tame.  And, yes, I’ll be honest:  I don’t want him to go away.  I like this core part of me.  I don’t want to use it to harm people (my colleague might wish to dispute that).  But I also have no desire whatsoever to put it on the shelf.  He’s who I am.  Period.

So back to my colleague’s original messages.  Without doubt she was trying to convey that she thought that a more aggressive stance in the world is not only dangerous, but downright wrong.  She offered me, in Cliffnotes version, a plan of redemption, at first geared (in her mind) toward the needs of pained veterans, and then finally toward the needs of this angry-man who is too biased to see the underlying truths of the world.

In other words, to my “This is just the way I am, and I have to find a way to make it work,”  she would almost certainly say, “No, that’s the way that patriarchal-bellicose society has constructed you, and you have the capacity–and the duty–to give up this posture and assume the posture of proper attitude and behavior.”

I wonder if she’d have said/implied that if I had said something to her to the effect that “I’m gay.”

So I began to think:  have I this learned something in my gut that I hadn’t known there before as effectively, as oh-my-God-ly?  Is this what the combat veterans feel as they’re told by the Left to “give that warrior-mindset up” or by the Right to “put that warrior-mindset on the shelf now until we tell you we need it again”?

Is this why they say over and over, even to the most well-meaning of “helpers”:  you don’t get it, do you.

More next post.

Heroes, Day by Day

One of those weeks

Time, though, has given me the opportunity to reflect, even if unconsciously.  And to experience.

I saw a young man this week whom I know well.  In the Middle East, I suspect he did have an “Achilles-around-the-walls-of-Troy” event.  The past is past:  I don’t ask questions I don’t want to know the answers to, and I’m less-than-convinced that my doing so (at this point, at least) would provide anybody any relief anywhere.  Yet he knows that I know what we both know:  War invaded him, and it was not pretty.

Again this week, on the verge of tears, he told me of how unworthy he is of anything good, of how he holds onto his children for dear life, the only reasons why he can imagine that his presence on this earth should be tolerated.  He said to me, “They try to call us “heroes,” you know.  They don’t have a clue.  There was nothing heroic.  We were just trying to stay alive.  And sometimes nothing mattered, absolutely nothing.  And sometimes you just had the power, and nothing mattered, nothing.  That’s not a hero.  That’s not even a person.”

Several months ago, I participated in a workshop attended by VA employees from throughout our Indiana-Michigan region.  As part of the introductory exercises, we were asked to tell the group something about us that we thought might be “unique.”  I told the group that I am Mennonite, and that Mennonites working for the VA may not be exactly run-of-the-mill.   And what do you know:  one of the VA chaplains in attendence was, believe it or not, Mennonite.

Also attending, though, was a couple, both advanced practice clinicians.  As they introduced themselves, it eventually came out that they had lost a son in the Middle East within the previous year.  Their story came up occasionally during the course of the workshop:  they had been proud of him, especially in that he had been involved in efforts to improve relationships between troops and locals.  This had been his goal of service.  He had achieved it.  He died achieving it.

During the course of breaks, I had a chance to talk to the wife.  She wanted to speak to me precisely because I am Mennonite.  She and her husband, both roughly my age, attend a mainline Protestant church, and both have felt quite committed throughout their lives to peace-related causes.  Their son’s decision to go into the military had caused them great pause:  they had seen firsthand what war does to men in combat, and they were not at all convinced that the current conflict was one to be embraced.  They did embrace him, though, his dreams, his need to be his own person, his need to respond to an inner sense of service that did, yes, embrace violence as an ultimate option that sometimes must be taken in order to bring justice and order to chaos and evil.  They acquiesced.  They loved him.  They buried him.

You cannot begin to know how many times I have thought about this couple over the past months.  My eldest is now a freshman in college, soon to be twenty years old.  I think of her, of her boyfriend, of the young men who hang out in her dorm room, of the young men I watched grow up with her and who are now hanging out on college campuses throughout the state and throughout the country.  Perhaps out of self-protection, perhaps out of stereotypical assmptions, I cannot imagine her taken in combat.  Definitely out of self-protection I cannot imagine my son taken in combat.

But I think of my daughter’s boyfriend, a fine young man whom I barely know, yet who has such a pleasant smile, is so intelligent, has been bringing her so much happiness these past several months.   What if I had to stand at a coffin, knowing that what’s left of him is in there, not even daring to open it, to see just that:  what’s left of him.  What if I had to feel the rage inside of me of “Good God, I told, I told you!”  What if I would have to stop that last sentence in mid-sentence, hear him say to me, “And I told you!”  What if I would want to scream at George Bush, Barack Obama, every chicken-hawk Neo-Con who’s dared walk the face of this planet and show his (not her) face on Fox News–and then hear my daughter’s boyfriend say again, “But I  told you.  It wasn’t about them.  I told you.”

And what if I then had to show up at work the next day and see another young man, the same smile as his, the same dry wit, looking at me with similar eyes, pleading with me, “Please.  Help me.”  What if I did help him, see the real “him” come back, disentangled from The War, hear him one day say “Thank you,” one day show me the pictures of the baby, of their last trip to King’s Island amusement park.

What if all I could feel was that wondering, that my-God wondering of what if, what if it had been my daughter’s boyfriend, their child there in the picture.  What if.

A roller coaster, what if.

And then I would have to see the next hour another young man, a little different smile–what little he could muster–but similar, really.  A little too hurt to be witty, but it’s there, yes, the wit’s there, I can see it.  Knowing that, yes, we might be able to get some of that wit back, yes, I think we can, I hope, no, I think we can, we can, let’s try, we can.  And maybe there’ll be a roller coaster for him too, someday.  That’s what roller coasters are for  you know, for–for pictures, for smiles.

For what ifs.

Each day my young patient, this couple have to live faithfully:  my patient to his children, my colleagues to their values, now to the memory of the boy each once cradled.  In Western culture, the hero both belongs and doesn’t belong.  He is part mortal, he is part god.  He does what he does for the community, yet because of how he does it, he is never fully a part.  My patient, this couple:  they are mere mortals.  Yet each does what he or she does to connect to life, yet because of what cards life has dealt him/her,  he/she is never again fully part of that life.  Yet each lives faithfully, not knowing why, maybe, some days, but knowing there is no other way.  They want no other way.

They are my heroes.  Day to day.  Welcome home.

Hang a Right and Ask for Rush

Today, it’s the conservatives’ turn.  Once again, oh, Lord, oh, Reason, oh, Spirit of the Liberating God, oh, Brother–give me strength.

Our phrase of the today to consider not saying to a combat veteran (or at least an individual combat veteran):

Welcome, welcome to our HEROES!!

Preliminary matters, as usual:  combat veterans  of course deeply appreciate that they are receiving whatever positive and supportive attention that they are receiving from the public-at-large.  They do appreciate the rallies.  They do appreciate the websites.  They do appreciate the parades.  They appreciate the people coming to the VA to hand out food or to lift veterans’ spirits.  They are glad that people are taking time to recognize them on Veterans Day, Memorial Day, and other days.  As you may know, the city of Saint Louis recently celebrated a ticker-tape parade for Iraq-Afghanistan veterans, and more are being considered and encouraged.

It’s not at all what’s being said and done that can cause some combat veterans to pause.  It’s the context in which all that is being aid and done that can lead some (at least in private) to mixed feelings.

Consider the following:  both my parents were elementary-aged children during World War II.  Both to this day can recall–or better, feel–the profound influence that the war effort had on their daily lives as children within their  families and schools, especially vis-a-vis rationing coupons and gas stickers.  My favorite story remains the one about the margarine issued with the food coloring packet that would then be squeezed over the less-than-appetizing conglomeration to give the appearance of butter.

Boggles the mind of this child of the late-twentieth century, I tell you.  Can you even imagine our kids’ and grandkids’ faces at the very thought of having to live through fiften seconds of that?

Consequently, when the combat veterans returned home back then, they returned to a social environment that had put them at the core of daily life for nearly four years.  Everyone celebrated at those V-E and V-J parades, for those parades symbolized the sacrifices that all had made–and thus made even more meaningful to the veterans the sacrifices that they had made and the ultimate sacrifices many of their camarades had made.

If we skip ahead a generation, to the Viet Nam era, those of my age can certainly remember the profound ambivalence of the country toward the war and often toward those who returned from fighting in that war–even if they’d been drafted to go there!  But the key word there is ambivalence.  Nobody was neutral about Viet Nam.  Nobody.  You were either fer it, or you were agin’ it.  And you were silent about neither position.

Additionally, you couldn’t escape thinking about the war.  I remember every morning, before the beginning of Captain Kangaroo, the CBS Morning News would show as its last image a set of flags:  US, South Vietnamese, North Vietnames (and maybe Viet Cong, can’t remember that for sure).  Next to the flags would be the cumulative death tolls as of that day.  Robert McNamara put his imprint on my brain, to last forever.

Furthermore, once a year there was the draft lottery.  It was televised, and you could watch the birth dates being chosen one by one, sealing the fates (or the immediate college careers) of all those young men whose birthdates were the first chosen.

There were no Starbucks in the Viet Nam era, but if you’d found a caramel latte then, you sure wouldn’t have been sipping it, talking about Twiggy or Mick Jaggers or the Partridge Family and not talking about Viet Nam.

Operation Desert Storm was, for us on the home front, a video game writ large, Star Wars come to your evening news!  Yee-hah!  It was over in weeks, and then all was fine and dandy!  Yee-hah-hah!  (We’ll leave the opinions of those men and women who fought in that engagement until a later post.  I can assure you:  no yee-hahs.)  Maybe Starbucks hadn’t hit your town yet, but there were those cool, late-night coffee shops here or there, though, right?  Shoot, you barely got your first pot down, and hot-dang, it was done!

Now, however?  For the past ten years, even?   As I said in an earlier post, how many lattes have you sacrificed to the cause?

Well, now, true, let’s be fair:  apparently there’s always some big to-do going on about the Kardashians and how long their marriages last, as well as about that Orlando, Florida girl, you know, the one with the kid, the one who apparently got off so easily that Nancy Grace almost had a stroke right on camera?  And apparently Ryan Gosling is hot, hot;  my daughters tell me so.  And apparently we’re bashing unions in the Red States, promoting socialism in the Blue States, and it’s Super Bowl XLVI tonight, in case you haven’t heard–as if we in Indianapolis didn’t know, especially those of us with offices downtown, but hey, Jimmy Fallon and Taylor Lautner are in town, so . . .

We’re all in a dither, in other words.  24/7.  Fox, CNN, MSNBC, HGTV, A&E, you name it.

And then, BTW:  there are those young men and women in Afghanistan (remember them?) . . .

So back to “heroes.”  Once again, the problem for the veteran is not the public support, far from it.  It is, however, the way individual Americans seem so ready and willing to jump on the hero bandwagon and yet . . .

. . . can only go “so far” with accomodations in academic settings when veterans are struggling with the longstanding sequelae of traumatic brain injury (TBI), or

. . . can only be “so flexible” in employment opportunitites when  combat veterans are struggling with the emotional difficulties of putting up with whiney customers who’ve barely been yelled at in their lives, let alone shot at–yet who feel quite entitled to yell at the veteran employee if the services they are provided by the combat veteran do meet the needs of the “empowered consumer,” or

. . . can dare tell the combat veteran of their support for them and then give them the third-degree about how well the combat veterans will “handle the streses” of the jobs they are applying for, or

. . . tell via their politicians how regretfully “the hard decisions” about cutbacks to “entitlement” programs must be made, including to VA programs, because of “our commitment to future generations” (while the current generation of combat veterans trying to enter its future is struggling just to keep their heads above water and not kill themselves or anybody else), or

. . . warn combat veterans, via some politician or professional,  that we don’t want to make a whole generation of veterans “dependent on the federal government for disablity,” do we, or

. . . be very glad to hold jobs open for veterans on deployment unless, well, the business plan and the bottom line call for some (legal, mind you) adjustments which may or may not make it possible for the combat veteran to return to that job, or

. . . be very glad to accept government subsidies to create “veteran-oriented” jobs, but because of business-plan or bottom-line needs, may or may not be willing to commit to the long-term maintenance of those jobs (i.e., after the subsidies disappear) for the veterans who will be depending on those jobs or on ones like them for the next forty years, or

. . . you get the picture.

Caught recently any of the commercials for the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America?  Remember the one about the guy who’s walking through an empty city–until another combat veteran steps up to him and connects him to life?

Now let’s imagine, shall we:  Fox, CNN, and MSNBC, all roaring away 24/7, early, let’s say, in 1946.

Hmm, I wonder:  would that same veteran have returned to an empty city–even on a VFW commercial?

It’s good to welcome back heroes.  Even if you can’t quite stomach that idea ideologically, you can at least agree that it is absolutely necessary for all of us as a nation–left, right, somewhere, nowhere–to reintegrate these young men and women into our (crazy at it is) social structure since we, through our politicians for whom we voted–or for whom we were unable to get enough of the vote out to seat their opponents–sent them over there in the first place, while sipping our caramel lattes, naturally, (maybe sugar-free?), whether we were standing on the left side of the picket lines or on the right at the time those combat veterans’ planes took off on deployment?

So let me say this:  you really wanting to welcome back a hero?  A real live man or woman who’s struggling with what it all meant, for good or for not?  Then do something.  Don’t ask them to be “fine” in order that we don’t have to ask questions about this war or any war.  Don’t expect them to be “sick” so that we don’t have to understand how, for some, war makes life much more valuable–for a lifetime.  Get off your moral high horse, whether you mounted on the right or on the left,  and do something now and for the next generation (and more) of these young men and women–and for the men and women, young and old, in Iraq and Afghanistan who were just trying to get through life, thank you, when all the horror struck.

Thankfully heroism is the property of no particular ideology.  I have one post left in this series to honor just that.

Hang a Left and Ask for Rachel

Today I irritate the progressives, the people I hang out with now.  Next post I irritate the conservatives, the people I hung out with as I was growing up.  Linkages, linkages everywhere.

So let’s look at our second sentence that I’m having professionals consider never saying to a combat veteran:

I don’t support any war/this war, but I do support the troops.

First, a positive:  at least from what I’ve gleaned so far, most combat veterans have not had the pleasure of hearing these words directly spoken to them.  In a way, though, this fact is as negative as it is positive:  therefore they’ve only heard it as a “general statement,” in the media perhaps, or in some speech, or in some side comment someone has made to no one in particular.

Consequently, neither the person who made the statement nor the combat veteran has had the opportunity to wrestle with the very personal nuances of this statement.  The person making the statement has not had to feel the impact on another human being of the words “I don’t support any war/this war.”  The combat veteran has not had to feel the sincerity from another human being of the words, “but I do support the troops (i.e., you).”

This is tragic.

I’m going to come out and say it, though:  I fail to see why the combat veteran has to put through the potential pain of the first clause in order to get the warm fuzzies of the second.  Why can’t the person just say “I support the troops” and then go out and do just that?

My biggest fear, of course, is that the person making the statement is wanting to get a point across, most likely not to the particular combat veteran, but rather to “the world at large” or maybe their own self-image.  So I ask you again:  why should the combat veteran have to endure that person’s issues which should be better handled by either a). a letter-to-the-editor or b). a consultation with a good therapist?

Recently, I had an exchange with an individual whom I do not know at all.  This individual seemed quite sincere and quite committed to the welfare of veterans.  Yet this individual told me that he/she had come to the following conclusions about the “myths” that, from what I could gather, all of us Americans, in this person’s opinion, tell ourselves about war:

1. War is noble and brings out the best in soldiers.

2. There is a strong connection between warriorhood and true manhood.

3. Combat is the best place to find out what you are made of and to develop character.

4. The military is the best setting for doing something significant with your life and for learning discipline.

5. The battlefield or combat is the best setting for heroic deeds.  (The Bible certainly has examples of this in Joshua and the story of David and Goliath.)

6. God’s will is often worked out in war between godly and ungodly people.

I have to admit: my experience has been limited.  Yet in working with American war veterans, roughly from the ages of 22 to 65, all currently living in Indianapolis, Indiana, almost all male, I have not run into a single veteran who would not roll his eyes (or, more likely, curse unremittingly) at the very utterance of those words above, especially as so simply put.  All, I assume, would recognize these fantasies as being part of the websites for the various branches of the military.  Yet I really struggle with any conception that a single one of them–down to the most naive, simple country boy–would ever take any of the above that seriously.  I mean, how could you, after boot camp?

I could, however, imagine each and every one of them agreeing with some version of the following:

1. War is sometimes necessary, and soldiers must do their best to fight to the best of their abilities to protect the values–and the comrades–they hold dear.

2. If one feels the warrior in one’s blood, if the call to service makes sense at some gut level, brings a sense of meaning, then one’s identity as a man who is willing to give all that he has for those whom he loves and honors will be an indispensable part of that self-understanding of the warrior.

3. Nobody wants to go into combat–or at least nobody who isn’t crazy.  Yet you have to have the backs of the men and women in front of you.  They must be able to rely on you.  You must be faithful.

4. When I see pictures of those people jumping off the Twin Towers, when I wonder whether I can ever make a difference anywhere in this world, especially after all that has happened to me and all the mistakes I’ve made, I do want to be part of a mission that will make sure no one has to jump off the top of the Chase Building in downtown Indianapolis ever–ever.  And I’ll put through what I’ll have to put through, takes orders from whomever I have to take orders from, just to make sure that never happens.

5. You’re trained to do a job.  You do what you have to, to keep yourself alive, but even more, to keep that guy ahead of you alive, the same guy who would give his life for you if the tables were turned, who when his guts are spilled out on the ground because he pushed you out of the way, may even be worth a label of “hero” if that gives his kids something to hold on to when they’re crying in the middle of the night, never to feel his muscular embrace again.  (I’ll leave theology to the Chaplain.)

6. Look: when someone’s coming after me full-blast at a checkpoint, when some kid is paid to hand me a grenade, when a bomb is strapped to a disabled guy’s wheelchair and then detonated when the guy reaches my best friend–I ain’t got time for good guy/bad guy.  They want to put kids and cripples up to do their dirty work, precisely because they know that I’m going to think twice before I shoot, hesitate just long enough because I don’t want to be the kind of guy who blasts away at children and sick people–but then run the risk that Tim from Wilkes-Barre or Rita from Baton Rouge will shatter into a million pieces upon encountering such innocent civilians?  Go right ahead. Pray to your Liberating-Spirit-of-God. Pray to Allah.  See what I care.

Probably wouldn’t play well in The Nation or The Christian Century or Tikkun, but there you have it.

I’m completely with this individual that the true consequences of war are more spiritual/moral than psychological/emotional-dysregulatory.  For example, on the Books page I reference Edward Tick’s War and the Soul.  That book is absolutely stunning in its unflinching descriptions of war’s pain and its unambiguous call for soldiers’ spiritual/moral healing.

Yet as I recall, Tick saw the myth of the warrior as not just an archetype that must be “dealt with” much as we have to deal with lying and coveting thy neighbor’s partner.  Rather he saw it as an archetype to be embraced, to be allowed to grow in wisdom in a place of honor.  In other words, the warrior is not to study war no more: he/she is merely to study it more wisely.

I’ve yet to meet a veteran who is not, at a very fundamental level, tortured by what he or she saw and did.  So many of them, for example, cave in on themselves when they see young boys the ages of the boys they saw shot–or whom they shot themselves.  They doubt that God can ever forgive them.  Most, in fact, are quite certain that God should not.

Furthermore, many of the veterans are becoming increasingly skeptical of the politicians and their sound-byte patriotism (more on that, next post).  Many, in fact, are very reluctant to support continued involvement with the engagements in Afghanistan.  They see the current conflict as only causing Americans to die needlessly.

But that’s ultimately the issue:  the American dead, the dead who ate with them, defecated with them, got drunk with them, stood-by-after-the-Dear-John-letter-was-received with them.

A combat veteran may be willing to be angry, furious, enraged that his best buddy from Memphis, Drake, died because that SOB George Bush wanted to keep oil prices down.  Yet to have to acknowledge–for the sake of some ideology, whether secular or sectarian–that Drake died in his arms, asking his buddy to tell his pregnant wife that he loved her to the end, all because Drake fundamentally misunderstood the nature of reality, whether the reality of this war in particular or war in general, leading him to mistakenly channel his desire for honor and for making the world a better place into a nationalist/capitalist false-consciousness designed solely to camouflage the real truth behind the myths of war–yet, thankfully, still redeemable through the power of reason and/or the true Liberating Spirit of God that will set the captives (and that includes Drake, the captive of the military recruiters and the military-industrial complex and Fox News and overzealous Evangelicals) free?  

Oh, Lord, oh, Reason, oh, Liberating-Spirit-of-God, give me strength.  I can barely stomach that thought without puking.  May Drake’s buddy never, never–please, dear Reason and/or Liberating-Spirit-of-God–never hear even a hint of that.

Please, please, please:  never stop speaking up for what you believe in.  I really mean this:  most of these men and women believe, from the bottom of their hearts, that they went into the military and did what they did so that you would have the freedom just to speak up so.  Called them deluded by warmongers if you like, but there you have it.

And again, there you have the freedom to call it that.

But please, please, please.  Please, please, please.  Write your Congressperson.  Proclaim from your pulpit or lectern.  But please:  leave the kid alone.  Please.

Conservatives?  Next post, your turn.

You Said WHAT?

First post of the “let’s make waves” series.  This one, at least, is not that controversial at its base–although matters are a bit more complicated beneath that base.  The sentence to consider never saying today is:

Did you kill anybody?

Easy as pie.  Don’t ask.  Even if you think you should–even if you know you could–don’t.  Period.

Would that I could tell you that it is uncommon for combat veterans to hear the question uttered.  Understand:  I don’t routinely go about asking whether the men and women have heard this question for the very reason I don’t ask the question itself.  Yet if I ever do get the occasional courage to sachet into the question from the side, I invariably get the same response:  yes, indeed they have.

I’d be hard-pressed to describe to you the demeanor and emotional tone of most combat veterans when they relay to me that they’ve heard this question before.  It’s not disgust, really, but neither is it simple incredulity (as in, “those civilians say the darndest things”).  How about something more like “guttural disbelief”?  The “how could they say that” that the combat veterans convey to me is not so much about a sense of betrayal as it is about a sense of an unpleasant epiphany, i.e., my God, people really do ask junk like that, don’t they.

As I said in the previous post, behind this question resides the questioner’s fundamental misunderstanding of most combat veterans’ complex feelings about death.  Let me explain as follows:

1.  Most, if not all, combat veterans have long come to grips with the fact that they may have to kill–or may have killed–enemy combatants.

Yes, in a way this is a truism, for these combat veterans were trained from boot camp onward in both the art of offense and the art of defense, so much so that their responses in combat engagements are essentially instinctual.   They do not apologize for this.  Truthfully, even those persons outside the military who believe that they should apologize for this have no expectations whatsoever that they will.

Yet as I said, do not therefore conclude that combat veterans were awaiting deployement with an eager “Yahoo, I’m gonna kill me some A-rabs.”  Do not conclude that they felt indifferent whenever they had to kill–or even injure–an enemy combatant.  Do not conclude that some combat veterans–especially when their experiences of inflicting harm have been quite up-close–do not continue to struggle with intense feelings of guilt and shame.

Nevertheless, even for the latter crew, the misgivings are general ones, not specific, i.e., these combat veterans ponder how men and women can actually end up doing such things to one another  in general, not whether they should have taken particular actions against particular others.  They say it over and over again:  kill or be killed.

You don’t brag about that.  You don’t apologize.  It’s what happens in war.

2.  Most combat veterans came to grips, as best as they could, with the possibility of their own deaths as a result of engagements.

This is not glib patriotism of the Vergilian “sweet to die for one’s country” turn-of-phrase à la The Aeneid.  It is not an enactment of an underlying suicide wish (unless your ideological position requires it to be so interpreted, by definition).  It is not a hope for the undying glory like that of the Ancients (again, unless your ideology requires that to be the case).

In a sense, it grows out of the veterans’ sense of fair-play and self-responsibility.  If you sign up for these matters, you have to be willing to pay the price.  You don’t seek it.  If it comes, it comes.  Be as prepared as you can.  Remember the old adage of no atheists in foxholes.

You don’t brag about that.  You don’t apologize.  It’s what happens in war.

3.  No combat veteran was ever prepared for the deaths of those other than enemy combatants and themselves.

You can allow yourself to imagine the first two possibilities, envision what those seconds before will be like.  You cannot, however, allow yourself to imagine the death of your best friend.  You cannot allow yourself to imagine the death of a pregnant woman and her toddler.  Those are the deaths that will baptize you into the realities of war.

You don’t brag about that.  You have no earthly clue whether or not to apologize.  It’s what happens in war.

4.  No combat veteran was ever prepared for the task of having to choose one death over another–in an instant–when the choice might be between competing “innocents.”

This truth has been, at least in my experience so far, a univeral one:  no matter how much a combat veteran might have believed in the rightness of the cause, she or he did not have an answer readily available to her or him that would have allowed the veteran to have made an easy decision about this car coming toward  my checkpoint now, I mean fast now, I mean good-God-now!  Is this a suicide bomber or confused delivery man?  Decide.  NOW!

Unlike the victims of most other traumatic experiences, many combat veterans have been trauma’s cause as well as trauma’s target.  They know that.  They don’t need you to remind them.

You don’t brag about that.  You have no earthly clue whether or not to apologize.  It’s what happens in war.

Don’t ask.  Just don’t ask.

Next topic.

Disentangling . . . Us

I’m now heading into dangerous territory–very dangerous territory.  Furthermore, there’ll be no turning back once I’m there.  Oh well, nothing ventured, the usual.

I know that blogs are supposed to be colorful, but we’re talking about people’s lives here.  Still, I think these next three posts are ones I cannot avoid forever, and now seems as good a time as any to get my thoughts down.

I say that because of yesterday’s post, Disentangling.  I spoke of introducing a concept of “entanglement” to a veteran, explaining how he, like many combat veterans, had mistakenly understood what was going on inside him.   The argument went like this:

1.  You, veteran, went on deployment with one “person” inside you:  you.

2.  You returned from deployment with two “people” inside you:  you and The War.

3.  Most likely, though, you returned from deployment feeling as if only one “person” was inside you:  The War, meaning that you feel as if you disappeared on deployment, never to return, and The War took your place.

4.  Good news:  you’re wrong.

5.  Bad news:  you’re not home free.

6.  What you feel as one “person” (The War) is actually an entangled conglomeration of two “people”:  you and The War.

7.  We need to work together to get you disentangled.

8.  Good news:  you’ll find yourself again.

9.  Bad news:  you’ll never be without The War.

10. Therefore your lifelong task will be to

a.  Keep these two “people” apart, i.e., they can dialogue with each other, but The War has to stay on its side of the soul, and

b.  Be in an ongoing battle with The War, because it is always going to be trying to muscle in onto your side of the soul, so you’re going to have to watch for it to keep it in line.

11.  Good news:  as you do this through your life, the dialogues will become more effective; the battles will become easier.  The War will increasingly respond to your commands to get back in place.

12.  Bad news:  there is none.  Life can get better.  Your center can return to you in a meaningful way.

That was yesterday’s post.

The argument for today, however?  It’s in two parts.

1.  We professionals–we civilians–have to disentangle the combat veteran and The War in our hearts and minds as well.

2.  We have to stop being focusing on The War.  Let the combat veteran handle The War.  We solely need to focus on the veteran.

Because the combat veteran feels as if he or she is only The War, the veteran doubts that she or he will be found again.

In contrast, we professionals, as well as family and friends, usually have no problems seeing the combat veteran and The War as being two different “people.”  Granted, we–maybe especially family and friends–might be at a loss to know how to convince the combat veteran of this, leading to a profound sense of despair and even a questioning that–perhaps–the veteran is right, i.e., only The War came back.  Yet most professionals–and certainly all family and friends–never give up the core belief that somewhere in there, somewhere, is still the pre-deployment veteran.

The problem always is The War–and what to do about it.

Whether you’re a professional or a loved one, a very tempting (and very common) way of managing The War inside the combat veteran is through willful ignorance.  While we do “see” the veteran, if we only ignore The War within him or her, maybe the combat veteran will be able to ignore it as well, and soon all will be forgotten well-enough, and the pre-deployment veteran will return to daily life.

My experience?  Not a good tactic.

Not only does The War refuse to be so ignored (and thus will pop out as rage when it does make itself known), remember:  the combat veteran usually feels as if he or she is The War.  Therefore, if the professional or loved one urges the combat veteran to “move on” and “ignore” The War inside him or her, the combat veteran is not going to feel as if he or she has many other options left.  If I am The War, and you want to move on and ignore The War, the combat veteran deduces, then you must be wanting to move beyond and ignore me. 

A vicious stalemate ensues:  the professional or the family keeps crying, “Come out, come out, pre-deployment veteran!”  The veteran keeps insisting, “That person’s gone!”  “No, s/he’s not.  Believe me!”  “Yes, s/he is.  You believe me!”

Back and forth, back and forth.  Disaster.

Yet the opposite end of the spectrum, focusing on The War, does not necessarily result in a better outcome at all.  In fact, I can think of at least three ways that professionals/civilians  focus on The War that bring anything but comfort to the combat veteran.  It’s as if in each of these three ways, the professional or civilian just can’t get a certain bee out of his or her bonnet.  The War is, in other words, a little too important for the professional/civilian to give up on, usually because the professional/civilian has a point that he or she is wanting to make to the entire world–but, for some reason, feels compelled to make that point individual veteran by individual veteran.  It’s as if the combat veteran is a training ground for a bigger audience somewhere, some day.

It is these three ways that I want to explore in the coming posts, and I want to explore them through three sentences that I’d strongly urge each of you to consider never coming out of your mouth if you are ever talking with a combat veteran.  At best you’ll provoke great pain in them.  At worst?  You can imagine.

Sentence One

Did you kill anybody?

The person saying this sentence cannot give up on The War being the veteran’s Forbidden Fruit.  It’s like the person wants to be an insider without having to pay the dues:  come on, come on, you can tell me, what was it like?  The person gets to play a cool video game vicariously–of course never, never wanting anything bad really to happen to someone, absolutely not . . .

. . .but since it did happen to someone, how’d it feel?

The combat veteran struggles with this sentence precisely because it’s so ludicrous to expect that there’d be pleasure in the infliction of mayhem and mortality.  Yet at the same time, it would be incorrect to assume that every combat veteran feels the same way about every death that she or he has witnessed–or even caused.  If The War brings this sentence out of the professional/civilian, then that person has no understanding whatsoever of the combat veteran’s complex relationship with death.

I want to explore this issue in the next post, which will be entitled You Asked WHAT?

Sentence Two

I don’t support any war/this war, but I do support the troops.

This person cannot give up on The War being the combat veteran’s Guilt and Shame.  Granted, post-Viet Nam nobody’s wanting to lay claim to spitting on nobody else.  We all want to hate the sin, but love the sinner, don’t we.

But that, of course, is the whole point.  How did that not-at-all neutral term “sin” suddenly pop up?  For the person who says this sentence, it’s quite, quite important that all who hear it know that the professional/civilian is sticking to principle, gosh darn it–but that said professional/civilian then wouldn’t be at all against some Florence Nightingale work every once in a while.  Good for the soul, such work is–the combat veteran’s soul, of course.

Who knows:  maybe through the patient, loving work of the professional/civilian, this combat veteran might even end up agreeing to the universal truth that it is best that “nobody study war no more.”  Wouldn’t that be super, huh?

The combat veteran struggles with this sentence precisely because it’s so ludicrous to expect that there’d be universal ambivalence in the combat veteran’s assessment of the value of this war or of any war.  The professional/civilian may not believe it, but soldiers and Marines don’t head off into battle with any sort of “yahoo, we gonna kick some butt!” pleasure.  The seriousness of the whole matter is quite palpable in any gathering of troops.  Yet at the same time, it would be incorrect to assume that every combat veteran feels the horror of war has in any way changed her or his assessment of war’s occasional necessity.  If The War brings this sentence out of the professional/civilian, then that person has no understanding whatsoever of the combat veteran’s complex relationship with aggression.

I want to explore this issue in the second post, which will be entitled Hang a Left and Ask for Rachel

Sentence Three

Welcome, welcome to our HEROES!!

This person cannot give up on The War being the combat veteran’s Glory.  Again, nobody rejoices in the deaths of innocents, of course, of course–but we sure got rid of those bad guys and you did it, boys and girls, YOU DID IT!!!  Pop a cork, roll out the confetti, and let’s celebrate big-time!  I mean, Dolly Levi had it right when she sang “I stand for motherhood, America, and a hot lunch for orphans!”  We all love this great land of ours, after all.

You do love this great land of ours, don’t you?

The combat veteran struggles with this sentence precisely because it’s so ludicrous to expect that the return from war should somehow be synonymous with Miller Time.  Sure, eveybody wants to get smashed as soon as he or she hits the States, but it ain’t to celebrate heroic exploits, my friend, far from it.  It’s to forget.

Don’t forget that.

Yes, parades are nice.  Yes, photo ops are nice.  As above, both beat getting spat upon, by a long shot.  But after all the yellow ribbons get untied, there isn’t a combat veteran anywhere who doesn’t, at some deep level, ask himself or herself, “Hero?  Me?  Dude, I was just doing my job, man.  It was kill or be killed.  Just doing my job.”

The combat veteran often has to ask at that very point, “who’s all this hype for, anyway?”  Loving your country is one thing.  Being honored is one thing.  But being ballyhooed and then delivered just a bunch of empty made-in-America promises?  Another thing altogether.

If The War brings this sentence out of the professional/civilian, then that person has no understanding whatsoever of the combat veteran’s complex relationship with patriotism.

I want to explore this issue in the third post, which will be entitled Hang a Right and Ask for Rush. 

So there you have it.  I can feel the storms gathering already.  Should be quite a ride.


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