This time around, I never served as a warrior or experienced ground combat. But I believe I've done 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) ought to 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 to you.
We must taste 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 by rare good fortune and wisdom.
Let us evoke combat from the writings of those who have experienced it for us, as well as from past experience dimly recalled or erased from memory. That way, we may stop re-enacting it over and over in worlds present and future—much less often than during reincarnations in the past.
I can only repeat to you what my grandfather told me. He said that the sweetest fruit he ever ate – and we lived in Provence where fruit is good and plenty – were raw onions dug up from some desolate garden plot. Clotted with dirt, those onions were, and “We ate them like apples.” The memory made him smile.
That when your squad gets caught too far from shelter in an artillery firestorm, it is best to fall flat on your belly and crawl ahead until your head nuzzles under the crotch of the next man in line, then cover his ass with your helmet.
How funny he found it when one of his men crapped his pants (as happens to one out of four combatants under fire, or more) this time on the head of the fellow underneath. They lived through that barrage so crushingly fatal as to crap one’s pants, and got to laugh 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 too steep to climb down into blindly, even though it hid a path down there. He never showed it to me and we never went back, even though our home was quite close-by.
One of his best friends and a landing craft full of tank destroyer scouts were massacred in a crossfire of German machine guns, probably nested on the cliff where we stood, a hundred feet or so (I was young back then and small) above this 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 there in pieces, and him with both arms broken and set in plaster casts, in the lead tank. 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, about when he was a young lieutenant commanding the point element of a horse cavalry regiment returning to home base, heat-drugged after a thirteen-hundred mile march from Fort Hood, Texas to Fort Riley, Kansas and back, the last long march like that in American history.
The advance guard’s point horses got wind of the nearing post and charged over last the crest and down into the valley below, back to their comfy stalls and out from under their dozing riders and the blazing sun. No doubt a few riders tumbled off, though he didn’t tell me and I was too dumb to ask.
My father sent word back along the column, to wake everyone up because the horses were likely 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, though they knew I would have paid rapt attention for as long as they cared to speak. Such was the pain of their recall.
Let’s tug on the filthy boots of an average combat infantryman. On PeaceWorld, every child would have picked up 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 as a comic book.
But let’s go there anyway…
Instead of waking up on a soft bed in a toasty 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 litter at the bottom of some dank hole, roused by a persistent itch and the high-explosive roar that has stunned your senses for months, or in an ominous quiet that portends nothing 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 an empty stomach—except it is shaking the whole landscape in addition to your shriveling guts. Ravenous for another bite or two, it dribbles a trickle of sand into your hole. Beware lest it corkscrew you out of your hole and rip you to fragments for breakfast. Nothing you can do about it in any case.
You are all alone, surrounded by steaming huddles of fellow sufferers buried invisible. For a fortnight or more, none of you has set aside your rotting shoes or shit-colored rags, or rested or bathed properly. If you sleep at all, your mortal coma is bathed in sweat, teeming with nightmares and maddeningly interrupted at any moment. The hallucinatory stupor of sleep deprivation is your daily lot as well as that of your officers who must decide whether you live or die.
This damp, dark morning is like most others: sweating hot or shuddering cold per the seasonal excess. Who would have dreamt – in the comfort of a tightly crafted home– that mere weather could be so savage?
A rotten fetor coats your nostrils. It is common to battlefields: a compound of mud or dust, foul breath, body odor and human waste, moldy clothing, food and equipment, of 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. For the past hundred years or so, the underlying stink has been an inescapable diesel smog. Before that, it was the excrement of draft animals and cavalry and the occasional human kind that coated every boot.
The toxic effluvia and taboo fluids you always shunned in peacetime will make up your body bath during war. Its stench and mind-boggling racket will fester in your psyche until you die; any hint of them during your remote civilian future will trigger fugues of post-traumatic stress.
Your body aches all over and gut-churning diarrhea trots along behind you—half from dread and its immunity-suppressing pall and half from the fecal breakfast you were just lucky enough to wolf down. Your muscles are laced with acid, the milk of overwork. You cringe from a maddening skin crawl of lice (the combatant’s constant companion), and a sticky, stinking glaze on your skin. You and your buddies stink of ammonia sweat; your hyper-abused bodies don’t carry fat any longer and burn muscle instead. You bear embarrassing sores and chronic complaints no one will acknowledge except with ridicule. You must cough, sneeze or shit during perilous moments and imperil your friends while doing so. You’ve lost more weight than would be normal or healthy. Your exhaustion would flatten you under normal circumstances. Any doctor worth his salt would take one look at your sorry ass and send it home for a week’s bed rest. Not here, not now. Front line rifle strength is too depleted to permit such a luxury.
You are always hungry and crazed with thirst. Blood warm, chlorine-tinged water nauseates you instead of quenching your thirst. You lose your appetite the moment you open and sniff your next ration can of soldier’s dog food. For every torment spared you by the genius of your nation’s combat logistics, a dozen more plague you, worse and unfixable.
Whether you are a clinical addict or not, the false promise of alcohol and drugs may make you suffer like the damned. You might do almost anything for a few swigs, pills or syringes of escape. Nonetheless, neither food nor drink nor drugs – those musty horrors available in your pigsty – offer any consolation.
Only the fitful mails can console you now: a precious word from home. The mail clerk is just as likely to toss you a Dear John note that reveals your mate went mad with loneliness and threw herself at the nearest jerk, or that your family and friends were massacred during the latest martial atrocity back home and abandoned you forever.
Instead of endless commutes to an almost bearable job, you face the snarling machinery of industrial hate that stretches beyond the horizon: the entire genius, fortune and flower of youth of some random country, whose citizens you never met and with whom you never held quarrel—entirely, devoted, to, your, personal, extermination. Gulp!
The firepower from your side is quite as menacing as that of the enemy. Front-line troops can and will be massacred by either side. Mechanized forces are hotbeds of calamity; both sides’ artillery, tanks and aircraft are perfectly designed to annihilate your transparent fragility. Disease and accidents will kill you just as dead as combat, often more readily. Death is not picky 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 confidence or security awaits you except in the tidy rows of a military cemetery or convalescent ward; otherwise what awaits your is a common grave carved out by a bulldozer; or some dank, cry-filled and stinking aid station grotto—from first aid to last rites, by the book, with military efficiency.
Instead of schmoozing with familiar, competent and reasonable people under the constraints of law and civility, you confront lost souls as filthy and miserable as your own. 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 more than misery motivated by petty spite and perfectly reasonable terror.
If you have been lucky enough and of worthy courage, they will treat you finer than a noble brother during bright and shining moments of crisis, share with you their last crust of bread and sip of water, risk their life to save yours—and treat you like dirt at any other time. Your tender feelings and bruised bodies will be at each other’s mercy. No choice in the matter.
This black morning promises endless upset and anxiety to you and your good friends. You have become sly beasts by now, as superstitious as cannibals and feral-wary of any 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 never party with behind the lines or trust in combat—for endless rounds of meaningless, filthy and exhausting chores. Their only response to your demand for dignity: reflexive insult, brutality and perilous assignment. Their relative safety dictates your peril; their meager comfort, your misery. Imps lining the entryways to Hell and goading the damned to their doom—their primary purpose is to drive you back into the firefight. Like other repressive institutions in peacetime, like the cilia lining peristaltic intestines, they flutter wastes along their way after wringing all life from them.
Your commanders are more intent on the enemy’s destruction than 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. Or else they won’t give a damn. Indeed, they’ll seek their promotion by promoting your distress.
This is what earns a general his stars and makes his career. His primary task is to nail you and your friends to some untenable post, then send you on endless marches into greater peril until you become another casualty: so much lost baggage unworthy of bother. There will always be more nameless replacements to use up. That is a general’s duty, glory and reward.
Your good buddy 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 holes you had to dig) that took hours of exhausting work to scrape from the clayey soil, obdurate rock and stubborn roots at your feet. It takes a staggering amount if work to dig a proper grave or decent dugout.
Otherwise, you will have to lug their broken, leaden body to some uncertain fate in the rear, half-willing that they croak and relieve you of the struggle to save them under fire. Precious friendships and loyalties lost will twist like daggers in your heart; eventually, you will shun them. No more such painful friendships for you.
The buddy you save will be one of the ‘lucky’ ones. More likely, your friends will have moved out under orders to ignore the wounded. Your wounds will pin you to the ground until some wandering enemy ends your misery with more or less sadistic enthusiasm or queasy hesitancy, and strips your corpse. In good time, you will die screaming in agony or bleed quietly to death all alone.
Who cares about any but your own vermin-infested little tribe? Everyone beyond your narrow squad – friend, foe, co- and non-combatant – will assume the phantom shade of inhuman wraiths whose suffering and extermination are matters of relief, indifference or derisive sport. Most of all, you will despise those pasty-faced civilians you were sent here to defend. Wishing them a fate worse than your own, you will worsen their fate with the black magic of your envy.
Sooner or later, you and every survivor not a sociopath-born will become a post-traumatic zombie—at which point, nothing will make any difference until you’ve undergone months of professional therapy and perhaps never again regardless. You will never fully recover.
Your only real assignment is to kill and (if possible) not be killed. You will be invited into every crime you despise. Nothing less than complete acceptance of this criminal degradation will let you escape this hell with your body mayhaps intact but your soul in tatters. Your hatred will blind you. The screams of agony of your enemy will become music to your ears, as may the wail of unlucky women and children caught in the crossfire. Plunder will become an indoor sport, a hobby respite from the depthless boredom typical of war. Any decency you once prized will be ripped out of you, and every perversion of justice and compassion will become routine.
It will not be until then that you fully grasp the contagious monstrosity that is war. Unfortunately, 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 insignificant to you: empty words and feelings compared to the rush of raw survival and the black and white verdicts of combat.
Stripped of the pallid grays and the smiling rainbows of civilian life, you may become addicted to your dilemma and unfit to resume the trappings of peace. In that case, your beloved society, long-skilled at social triage, will quietly snuff you dead once you return to its embrace—without pause, mercy, dignity or regret. You will not even be counted among the casualties of war, much less honored for your sacrifice. More veterans die that way than in combat, abandoned by everyone at home.
These days, more children die from war than soldiers. It was probably always so, but never reported without censure to the civil world. Psychopaths are fond of harming your innocents in public silence.
Tomorrow’s wake-up will seem much like today’s, like yesterday’s and that of the day before, unless some new disaster tests the limits of your courage, sanity and endurance, and likely causes you to flail, wail and perish.
Instead of an opera hero’s appeal to God, duty, honor and country that you might expect to pronounce under imaginary circumstances; your last gasps are likely to be the cries of a toddler: ma, mommy, mama – that her loving embrace might please, please soothe your agony – your last-stand plea for the comforts of the womb. All your precious manhood will leak from you with your blood.
No-one will give care much about your fate for very long. If you are a parent, your death will multiply the misery of your children and spouse in addition to the unbearable agony of your parents. Those grieving your loss will shut up, sooner or later, whether in victory or in defeat. Then they will die in their turn; and your life, cast into the void, will be forgotten.
Your misery will become an abstraction less meaningful than a footnote in history books that have buried so many lives wasted in military jargon, fantasy heroism and socio-political gibberish. Less significant than squishing a worker ant. Like a moth to the flame, your passionate, pristine existence – born in pain and hope and tenderly raised by devoted parents or guardians – will pump your featherweight of fuel into the WeaponWorld Jive Drive. Endless yous, reincarnated in the children to come, will have to retrace this absurd path to oblivion.
Now tell me, dear Learner, how can the comforts of peace and progress prepare us for this agony—compared to which Christ’s afternoon Crucifixion might not have been so much to endure? Only gradual and hypnotic conditioning from birth, supplemented by of obsessive oppression and compulsive regimentation lasting for thousands of years – courtesy of weapon civilization – prevent us from abandoning this charnel bedlam screaming our lungs out and defying the obvious psychopaths who would dare poke our tender extremities into their patriotic blaze, like weenies cracking 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 yet on this planet—but less so at this moment and much less over time.
- 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.