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 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 this time around by rare good fortune and wisdom.
Let us evoke combat from the writings of those who experienced it for us, as well as from past experience dimly recalled or erased from memory. That way, we can stop re-enacting it over and over in the present and in the future—much less frequently than during reincarnations in the 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 is good and plenty – were raw onions dug up from some 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 too far from shelter in an artillery firestorm, it is best to crawl flat on your belly until your head nuzzles under the crotch of the next man ahead, 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 man underneath. They lived through that barrage so terrifying 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 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 a landing craft full of 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 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, when he was a lieutenant commanding the point element of a horse cavalry regiment on its way back to home base, heat-drugged after a thirteen-hundred mile march from Fort Hood, Texas to Fort Riley, Kansas and back, the last long transit 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, back to their comfy 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, to wake everyone 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 sparingly, even though they knew I would pay rapt attention for as long as they spoke. Such was the pain of their recall.
Let’s pull on the filthy boots of an average combat infantryman. On PeaceWorld, every child would have gotten 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 a dank hole, roused by a constant itch and a high-explosive roar that has stunned your senses for months, or 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 from your empty stomach—except it shakes the landscape in addition to your shriveling guts. Ravenous for another bite or two, it trickles sand down your hole. Beware lest it corkscrew you out of it and rip you to shreds for breakfast. Nothing you can do about it 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 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 maddeningly interrupted at every moment. The delirious stupor of sleep deprivation is your daily lot, as well as that of your officers who 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 tight house– that daily weather could be so savage?
A rotten stink 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. For the past hundred years or so, the underlying stink has been of inescapable diesel smog. Before that, it was the excrement of draft animals and cavalry and the random 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 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 lice (the combatant’s faithful companion), and a sticky, stinking glaze on 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 acknowledges your embarrassing sores and chronic complaints except with ridicule. You must cough, sneeze 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. Any 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-tinged water nauseates you instead of quenching your thirst. Your appetite disappears the moment you sniff your can of dog food rations. For every torment the genius of your nation’s combat logistics spares you, 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 could 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 says 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 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 are massacred by either side. Mechanized forces are hotbeds of calamity; both sides’ artillery, tanks and aircraft are perfectly designed to annihilate you. 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 safe place. No confidence or security awaits you except in tidy rows of a military cemetery or a convalescent ward; otherwise it’ll be 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 and reasonably capable 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 but misery motivated by petty spite and perfectly reasonable terror.
If your luck and courage hold out worthily enough, 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 be at each other’s mercy. No choice is left you in the matter.
This black morning promises upset and anxiety 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 perilous tasks. 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 fight. Like other repressive institutions in peacetime, like the cilia lining peristaltic intestines, they flutter remnants along their way while wringing all vitality from 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. Otherwise, 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 builds 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 additional casualties: so much lost baggage unworthy of attention. There will always be more nameless 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 holes you have dug) that took hours of exhausting work to scrape from the clay, rock and roots at your feet. It takes a staggering amount of work to dig a proper grave or a decent dugout.
Otherwise, you will lug their broken, leaden 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 chest; 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. In your own good time, you will die screaming in agony or quietly bleed to death all alone.
Why bother about 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 out to defend. Wishing them a fate worse than your own, the black magic of your envy will 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 fully recover.
Your only real assignment is to kill and not be killed, if possible. You will be invited to commit every crime you despise. Nothing less than your complete acceptance of criminal degradation will let you escape this hell with your body intact but your soul in tatters. Your hatred may well blind you. The screams of agony of your enemy will become music to your ears, along with the wail of unlucky women and children caught in the crossfire. Plunder will become an indoor sport, a hobby break from the interminable boredom typical of military life. Any decency you once prized will be ripped from you, and every perversion of justice and compassion will become routine.
You will not fully grasp the monstrosity of war until then. 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 feelings compared to the rush of raw survival and the black and white outcome of combat.
Stripped of the smiling rainbows 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, long skilled at social triage, will quietly snuff you dead once you re-enter its embrace—without pause, mercy, dignity or regret. Your loss will not even be counted among the casualties of war, much less honored for its sacrifice. More veterans die that way than in combat, abandoned at home by everyone.
These days, more children die from war than soldiers. It was probably always so, but never reported without censure to the civilian world. Psychopaths are fond of hurting the innocent in public silence.
Tomorrow’s wake-up will seem much like today’s, and yesterday’s and the day before, unless some new disaster probes the limits of your courage, sanity and endurance, and likely causes you to flail, wail and perish.
Instead of an operatic hero’s appeal to God, duty, honor and country that you’d imagine you’d utter; your last gasps are likely to be the cries of a toddler: ma, mommy, mama – begging that her loving embrace please, please soothe your agony – your last appeal for the comforts of the womb. All your precious manhood will pour out of you with your blood.
No-one will give a damn about your fate for very long. If you are a parent, your death will swell the misery of your children and spouse, in addition to the agony of your parents. Those grieving you will shut up sooner or later, whether in victory or in defeat. Then they will die 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 wasted lives in military jargon, fantasy heroism and political gibberish. Less significant than a squashed worker ant. Like a moth to the flame, your passionate, pristine existence – born in the pain and hope and tenderness of devoted parents and guardians – will pump its 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-long Crucifixion might not have been so bad? Only gradual and hypnotic conditioning from birth, back up by thousands of years of obsessive, oppressive and compulsory regimentation – courtesy of weapon civilization – prevent us from abandoning this charnel bedlam screaming our lungs out and defying the psychopaths who poke our tender extremities into the 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 on this planet—but less so now and a lot less, soon.
- 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.