This time around, I never served as a warrior or experienced ground combat. But I believe I've been through those things during past lives and so have you. We are all veterans and victims of combat, if only through subliminal memories.
If you reject my proposal because you refuse to believe in reincarnation or because you insist that civilians (or anyone who disagrees with you) should shut up about war, too bad, so sad. Read on or refuse to, figure it out or not. All I can do is propose it.
We must savor the blood-acid vomit of war without experiencing it first-hand, take deep breaths of its acrid stench and soak our face in its rotten gore. We must reacquaint ourselves with those horrors we may have been spared this time around by rare good fortune and wisdom.
Let us evoke combat from the stories of those who experienced it for us, as well as from past experience dimly recalled or wiped from memory. That way, we can stop re-enacting it over and over in the here and now and in the future — much less often than during reincarnations past.
I can only repeat what my grandfather told me. He said the sweetest fruit he ever ate – and we lived in Provence where fruit has always been good and plenty – were raw onions dug up from a desolate garden plot. Those onions were clotted with soil, and “We ate them like apples.” The memory made him smile.
That when your squad gets caught out in the open in an artillery firestorm too far away from shelter, it is best to crawl flat on your belly until your head nuzzles under the crotch of the next man in line, then cover his ass with your helmet.
How funny they found it when one guy crapped his pants (as happens to one out of four combatants or more under fire) this time over the head of the man behind and underneath. They lived through that barrage so terrorizing as to crap one’s pants, and got to cackle about it!
Or my Dad telling me about catching lice with his tank destroyer recon company under a rotting pier. Or solemnly showing me a narrow, cobblestone beach at the bottom of a deep shaded gorge. It was too steep to climb down into blindly even though it must have hid a path down there. He never showed us and we never went back, even though our home was nearby.
One of his best friends and his scout troop spilling out of a landing craft were massacred in a hail of German machine guns probably nested on the clifftop where we stood, a hundred feet or so above (I was young back then and small) a pebble beach along the coastal highway. Out on the far right flank of the American landing in Provence (Southern France), beyond which the French Naval Assault Group of Corsica got massacred. My dad was a lucky guy.
Another good friend of his died after the fall of Dien Bien Phu. He commanded the only tank platoon in that place: ten tanks flown out there in pieces, and him with both arms broken and set in plaster casts, in the lead. He died during the death march out to concentration camps, along with two thirds of the caged survivors.
Or another story my father once told me, when he was a new lieutenant commanding the point element of a horse cavalry regiment on its way back home, heat-drugged after a thirteen-hundred mile march from Fort Hood, Texas to Fort Riley, Kansas and back, the last long ride like that in American history.
The horses at the point of the advance guard got wind of the nearing post and charged over last the crest and down into the valley below, drawn to their cozy stalls and out from under the blazing sun and their dozing riders. No doubt a few of them tumbled off, though he didn’t tell me and I was too dumb to ask.
My father sent word back along the column, that everybody needed to wake up because the horses were going to get frisky. I’ll bet they made a grand entrance, parade sharp after a masterful march. He never said so, but I saw the pride in his eyes.
Both of them parsed their stories short and doled them out to me sparingly, even though they knew I would pay rapt attention for as long as they chose to speak. Such was the pain of their recall.
Pull on the filthy boots of an average combat infantryman. On PeaceWorld, every child would have read this kind of thing as ordinary fare — but nothing about military glory. Eight-year-olds would have heard about “Combat Infantry Warrior” in school or devoured it in comic book format.
But let’s go there anyway…
Instead of waking up on a soft bed in a warm room, just down the hall from loving parents or alongside a sweet mate bent on loving, or just on your own and shiftless; you start up from rotting leaf litter at the bottom of a dank hole, roused by a constant itch and the high-explosive roar that has stunned your senses for months, otherwise an ominous quiet that portends no good.
The horizon rumbles with the distant grumble of heavy artillery – yours if you’re lucky; the other side’s or both, if not – surprisingly like the growl of your empty stomach — except it shakes the landscape in addition to your shriveling guts. Ravenous for another bite, it trickles sand down into your hole. Beware lest it corkscrew you out and rip you to shreds for breakfast. Nothing you could do about that in any case.
You are all alone, surrounded by steaming huddles of fellow sufferers buried out of sight. For a fortnight or more, none of you has set aside his rotting shoes or shit-colored rags, rested or bathed properly. If you’ve slept at all, your mortal coma was bathed in sweat, teeming with nightmares and interrupted maddeningly at every moment. The delirium of sleep deprivation is your daily lot as well as that of your officers who decide whether you will live or die.
This damp, dark morning is much like most of the others: sweat hot or quiver cold per the seasonal excess. Who would have dreamt – in the coziness of a tightly built house – that daily weather could be so savage?
A stink of rot fills your nostrils. It is common to every battlefield: a compound of mud or dust; foul breath, body odor and human waste; moldy clothing, food and equipment; high-explosive gas and smoke; rotting, seared lumps of flesh of every description; the burst of fresh blood or the sickly sweet cocoa funk of its rotting or the roast pork of its burning. For the past hundred years or so, the underlying stink has been the inescapable one of diesel smog. Prior to that, it was the excrement of draft animals and cavalry and the random human kind that coated marching boots.
The toxic effluvia and taboo fluids you’d always shunned in peacetime will make up your body bath during war. Its stench and racket will fester in your psyche until you die. Any hint of them in your remote civilian future will trigger fugues of post-traumatic stress.
Your body aches all over and gut-wrenching diarrhea trots along behind you — half from dread and its immune-suppressing pall and half from the fecal breakfast you just wolfed down. Your muscles are laced with acid, the milk of overwork. You cringe from a maddening skin crawl of bugs (the combatant’s faithful companions), and a sticky, stinking glaze of your skin. You and your buddies stink from ammonia sweat. Your hyper-abused bodies don’t carry fat any longer and burn muscle instead. No-one will acknowledges your embarrassing sores and chronic complaints except with ridicule. You must cough, sneeze, piss or shit during hazardous moments and imperil your friends in so doing. You’ve lost more weight than would be normal or healthy. Your exhaustion would flatten you under normal circumstances. A doctor worth his salt would take one look at your sorry ass and prescribe a week’s bed rest. Not here, not now. Front line rifle strength is too low to permit such a luxury.
You are always hungry and crazed with thirst. Blood warm, chlorine-stinking water nauseates you instead of quenching your thirst. Your appetite disappears the moment you open the can of dog food that is your rations today. For every torment the genius of your nation’s combat logistics spares you, a dozen more plague you worse and unfixable.
Whether you suffer from a clinically addiction or not, the false promise of alcohol and drugs makes you suffer like the damned. You would do almost anything for a few swigs, pills or injections of escape. Nonetheless, neither food nor drink nor drugs – those musty horrors available in your pigsty – offer you any consolation.
Only the fitful mails can console you now: a precious word or two from home. The mail clerk can just as well toss you a Dear John note that tells you your mate went crazy with loneliness and threw herself at the nearest jerk, or your family and friends were massacred during the latest martial atrocity back home and have abandoned you forever.
Instead of ceaseless commutes to an almost bearable job, you face the snarling machinery of industrial hate that stretches out beyond the horizon: the entire genius, fortune and flower of youth of some randomly chosen country whose citizens you never met and with whom you never held any quarrel — entirely, devoted, to, your, personal, extermination. Gulp!
The firepower from your side is quite as menacing to you as that of the enemy. Front-line troops can be massacred by either side. Mechanized forces are hotbeds of calamity. Both sides’ artillery, tanks and aircraft are perfectly designed to crush your delicate transparency. Disease and accidents will kill you just as dead as combat, often more readily. Death is not choosy on a battlefield.
Danger lurks everywhere, as well as quiet execution by firing squad or a squad leader’s pistol if you tarry too long in a place of safety. No relief or security awaits you except in the tidy rows of a military cemetery or a convalescent ward. Otherwise, in a common grave carved out by a bulldozer, or some dank, cry-filled and stinking aid station grotto — from first aid to multi-gun salute, by the book with military efficiency.
Instead of schmoozing with familiar and reasonable people under the constraints of law and civility, you confront lost souls as filthy and miserable as you. Instead of a coterie of friends and acquaintances nourished by mutual kindness, they are a bunch of smelly, brutish and crude compulsive-neurotics with whom you share nothing but misery motivated by petty spite and perfectly reasonable terror.
If your luck enough and possessed with the dignity of courage, they will treat you better than a noble brother during shining moments of crisis, share their last crust of bread and sip of water with you, risk their life to save yours — and treat you like dirt at other times. Your tender feelings and bruised bodies will remain at each other’s mercy. No choice in the matter.
This black morning promises to bring upset and calamity to you and your good friends. You have become sly creatures by now, as superstitious as cannibals and feral-wary of every Other.
If you find some pocket of relative security, combat may prove to be the last of your worries. You will be bullied by rear area lifers handpicked for cruelty and determined to keep you cowed: brutes you would neither party with behind the lines nor trust in combat — for endless rounds of meaningless, filthy and exhausting chores. Their only response to your demand for dignity: reflexive insult, brutality and more perilous assignments. Their relative safety dictates your peril; their meager comfort, your misery. Imps lining the gateways of Hell, goading the damned to their doom — their primary goal is to drive you back into the fight. Like other repressive institutions in peacetime, like the cilia lining peristaltic intestines, they flutter remnants along their way while wringing the last scrap of vitality out of them.
Your commanders are more intent on the enemy’s destruction than on your wellbeing. If they are good guys, they will work themselves ragged to see that you are fed and housed to minimum standards. They might briefly regret your bug-like distress and extinction, then carry on with their plans. Otherwise, they won’t give a damn. Indeed, they’ll seek their promotion by promoting your distress.
This is what builds a general’s career and earns him his stars. His primary task is to nail you and your friends to some untenable spot, then send you on endless marches into greater peril until you turn into additional casualties: so much lost baggage not fit to be noticed. There will always be a flood of nameless new replacements to use up. That is a general’s duty, glory and reward.
Your best friend will die before your eyes or be horribly mangled in your arms, and his replacement and their replacements afterwards, and likely yourself in the long run. After witnessing their agony and washing your hands in their blood, you will bury them in some common grave (one of hundreds of black holes you had to dig) that took hours of grueling work to scrape out from the clay, the pebbles and the stubborn roots at your feet. It takes a staggering amount of work to dig a proper grave or a decent dugout.
Lemon-sized sub-munitions love to bounce into foxholes, down dugout steps and around sandbag walls before they go off in a blizzard of small detonations, shredding those cowering in terror inside and underneath. Vehicular and drone-borne explosive devices can be piloted by people on the other side of the planet and soon by artificial intelligence without any possibility of escape.
Otherwise, you will lug their broken, lead-heavy body to an uncertain fate in the rear, half-willing that they croak and relieve you of the struggle to save them. The loss of precious friends will twist like a dagger in your heart. Eventually, you will shun such painful friendships.
The buddy you save will be one of the ‘lucky’ ones. More likely, your friends will have moved on under orders to ignore the wounded. Your wounds will pin you to the ground until some wandering enemy ends your misery with sadistic enthusiasm or queasy hesitancy and strips your body before he moves on. In your own good time, you may die screaming in agony or quietly bleed to death all alone.
Why bother with anything but your own vermin-infested tribe? Everyone beyond your narrow squad – friend, foe, co-combatant and non- – will assume the phantom profile of inhuman wraiths whose suffering and extermination are matters of relief, indifference or derisive sport. Most of all, you will despise those pasty civilians you were sent here to defend. Wishing them a fate worse than your own, the black magic of your envy may worsen theirs.
Sooner or later, you and every survivor not a sociopath-born will become post-traumatized zombies — at which point, nothing much will matter until you’ve received months of professional help and perhaps never again. You will never recover fully.
Your only real assignment is to kill and if possible not be killed. You will be invited to commit every crime you despise. Nothing less than your complete acceptance of this criminal degradation will let you escape this hell with your body intact perhaps but your soul in tatters. Your hatred will blind you. The screams of agony of your enemy will become music to your ears, along perhaps with the wail of wretched women and children caught in the crossfire. Plunder will become an indoor sport, a hobby break from the interminable boredom of military life, the interminable boredom of military life, the interminable boredom of military life: repeat ten thousand times a day. Any decency you once prized will be ripped from you and every perversion of justice and compassion will become routine.
Until then, you will not have fully grasped the monstrosity of war. Unfortunately, by that time, it will be too late to do anything about it except compound its misery. Your options will narrow to mere survival and perhaps not even that. Everything else will become meaningless to you: empty words and sensations compared to the rush of raw survival, the brotherly hyper loyalty and the black and white verdict of combat.
Stripped of the merry rainbow and pallid grays of civilian life, you may become addicted to your dilemma and unfit to resume the trappings of peace. In that case, your beloved society, quite skilled at social triage, will quietly snuff your life away once you resume its embrace — without pause, mercy, dignity or regret. Your disappearance will not even be counted among the casualties of war, much less honored. More veterans die that way than in combat, forsaken at home by everyone.
These days, more children die from war than soldiers. It was probably always so, but never reported without censorship to the civilian world. Psychopaths are fond of hurting the innocent with public consent.
Tomorrow’s wake-up will seem much like today’s and that of yesterday and the day before, unless some new disaster probes the limits of your courage, sanity and endurance, and likely leads you to flail, wail and perish.
Instead of an operatic appeal to God, to duty, honor and country that you’d imagine you’d utter heroically; your last gasps are likely to be the whimpers of a toddler: ma, mommy, mama – begging that her loving embrace please, please come soothe your agony – your last plea for the comforts of the breast and even the womb. Your precious manhood will pour out of you with your blood.
No-one will give much of a damn about your fate for very long. If you are a parent, your death will sharpen the misery of your children and spouse and the agony of your parents. Those who grieve for you will shut down sooner or later, whether they survive into victory or in defeat. Then they will pass on and your life, cast into the void, will be forgotten.
Your misery will be an abstraction less meaningful than a footnote in history books that have buried so many throwaway lives in military jargon, fantasy heroics and sociopolitical gibberish. Less significant than that of a crushed ant. Like a moth to the flame, your passionate, pristine existence – born in pain and hope and tenderly raised by devoted parents and guardians – will be shoveled like a featherweight of fuel into the WeaponWorld Jive Drive. Endless yous, reincarnated in the children to come, will have to retrace your absurd path to oblivion.
Now tell me, dear Learner, how can the comforts of peace and progress prepare us for this reiteration of agony — compared to which Christ’s afternoon-long Crucifixion might not have been so dire? Only gradual and hypnotic conditioning from birth, back up by thousands of years of obsessive regimentation – courtesy of weapon civilization – prevent us from abandoning this charnel bedlam screaming our lungs out and defying the psychopaths who seek to poke our tender extremities in their patriotic blaze like weenies crackling in a campfire.
It would be better if there were no more war, only peace. Not no combat at all, at least for a while longer on this planet — but less so now and a lot less in the near future.
- Learner PeaceWorld -
“Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation conceived in Liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
“…We have come to dedicate a portion of that field as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
“But in a larger sense we can not dedicate – we can not consecrate – we can not hallow – this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it will never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us – that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause to which they gave the last full measure of devotion – that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain – that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom – and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.” Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg Address.