I couldn’t sleep sometimes.
And when I could, it didn’t really matter.
I was always off somewhere, in dreams of day and night, always somewhere other than where I really was at the moment. I was in the field. I was in the water. I was in the jungle. I was in the dark in the snow. And I was in the sand.
One of the most surreal lessons I have ever learned, from a teacher in high school, was a rather philosophical expression: “When you finally get to where you’ve always wanted to be for so long, you don’t want to be there as badly all of a sudden. Then you wonder why you were so desperate to get there in the first place, and you just want to go back to the place you wanted to get away from.” This observation could perhaps best be the consummation of all wars and its soldiers: when you wage war, you live for home. When you get home, if you get home, you miss the feel of war. And you are the only one who understands why. Man is, at heart, a rabid beast. He can learn to become mannered, and he can learn to become civilized, but he is, at his deepest, a rabid beast, the same as all other animals. War is the wilderness where he learns, at last, to roam as his true self. The harshest reality this world has to offer is the truth that killing is man’s oldest and most basic skill.
All young men, whether they admit it openly or not, dream of glory. They dream of battles won and medals adorned. They dream of the “hero” words: “sacred”, “glory”, “heroic”, “bravery”, “valor”, etc. Such simple words are the promised spoils of war, and all you have to do in order to be associated with such words are to kill or be killed. And so do, with great displays of sacrifice and bravery. But, for most survivors of war, these pretty words are merely a type of verbal anesthetic for the proud and brave, compliments that civilians believe can take the place of comfort for such mangled, weary souls; taking the place of the nightmares they have. In truth, war is where such words go to die. It’s where the word “friend” fades from existence, and others, such as “brotherhood” and “enemy”, come to be appreciated, even in a begrudging sense. Brothers-in-arms die, and we miss them every day, because we stood so close to them in such harrowing circumstances.
Other words leave far more lasting impressions. Limbs. Blood. Memories. Innocence. Life. Sanity. We always leave something behind. It’s all still in those places. In the dirt in Normandy. In the snow in Bastogne and Inchon. In the jungles of Vietnam. And in the sand of Iraq and Afghanistan. And in the very fields of this homeland, when men wore blue and grey and fought for their own ideals of freedom over one-hundred and fifty years ago. Those men are gone, but the fields are still here. And the air. The very same air in which rifles fired, signifying a change in the earth’s atmosphere, for it often meant another soldier dead. The flags and the unit guidons still flow through the air, held by men who will give their very last breath and last pint of blood for country and glory. The same stands for the young men who charged the beaches in Normandy, men who gave their lives on a bloody beach in order to truly call themselves “the greatest generation”. In Vietnam, men fought for people at home who spat in their faces; people who never served in a uniform, held that seven-pound rifle in the bush, and fell on the trip-wire that took off their legs and arms. There is no doubt that, while World War II saw America gives its “greatest generation”, Vietnam saw the greatest generation give the lives of their children, and there are no great, comforting words to help make up for sacrifice and the things left by these men who roamed the jungle.
Then, there’s my father.
In 1990, the United States placed its armed forces against Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi forces in Kuwait. My father left on Christmas Day, when I was four. “I’m not going to play today,” I told my mother, and I ran after him. I wouldn’t let him go. I remember the smell of his iron-pressed uniform as he held me close. I remember how heavy his bags were when I tried to help him move them back to the house. I remember him asking me the hardest thing any decent father could ever ask of his son: “Don’t be like me.”
I broke my promise.
He returned home, but I now dreamt of war; of glory. I joined the Army after high school. I went to Iraq. I dreamed of the moment when I would pull the trigger. It never came. I waited for the ambush that every infantryman waits for. It never came. I waited for the bullets to come out of nowhere and towards me. They never came. I waited for us to hit an explosion under the road. It never came. I was unsatisfied. I wanted war; I wished for war. War had become my God, and I dreamed of it coming to take me.
I feared I had lost my sanity. Why did I want to kill someone so badly? How would I feel? Good? Bad? Nothing?
I snapped. I eventually left the Army and went home, but I kept waiting for the ambush that was never coming. I would watch every door whenever I was in any room. I looked around the corners in every hallway I walked through. My family didn’t understand. But my father did. He knew how I felt. I asked him, “When you were over there, did you ever kill anybody?”
He hadn’t answered it when I first asked years before. But he told me now.
“Yes,” he said. “And I know that’s what bothers you. You didn’t get to. And it makes you feel useless. Like it’s some mark you have to earn for yourself. But let me ask you, how useful are you to the world if all you do is kill? You’re stupid because you have no idea how lucky you are. You don’t have to close your eyes at night and think about the face of someone you shot. It’s horrible, Son. It’s truly horrible, and I thank God that my son doesn’t have to live with it like I do.”
He was right. And, in the end, maybe I kept my promise after all. I am like myself again these days.
He told me to do something else; something I was good at. So now, I write. And I feel more useful as a writer than I ever did. And then there’s that irony: my father may enjoy my writings more than any tale of war he has ever heard from a veteran friend. And that’s better than any dream of glory or war I could ever have.