What lessons can people learn from being in a war? Part IV

You Learn What War Isn’t

Before I went to Iraq, I believed that my experience in the war would be filled with pain, anguish, sorrow, loss, and destruction. I imagined that I would “lose a lot of good people”, while I, however, would somehow be leading some glorious come from behind charge against a bloodthirsty horde of terrorist gunmen. These were fantasies. I could not have been more wrong in this portrayal of what warfare and combat actually was as depicted from my fellow Marines, the testimonials and after action reports I have studied, and the training I took part in and led. In looking back, it isn’t that difficult to find the source of my misconception. Most of my views of warfare, real face-to-face warfare, even as a young Marine, were still built off the perceptions given to me by movies and television I watched, the video games I played, the books I read, and even the news. It would take a lot of living through a real war to undo the damage these media sources would give me in relation to understanding what a real person would experience if they went to one.
After years of America at war, this phenomenon of societal ignorance hasn’t improved much in spite of the presence of millions of new veterans capable to serve either as military advisers, or harsh critics of your work if you don’t bother listening. At the top of my hit list were movies like the Hurt Locker and Brothers. I’ve spoken often about these abominations for being everything wrong with the entertainment industry where topics like warfare and veterans are concerned. These two especially take advantage of actual veterans’ issues while recklessly blowing all dramatic elements out of proportion, not in a way that brings awareness to these issues, but just as a way to garner attention from military sympathizers and awards. Their filmmakers were opportunists, at best.

In spite of these shameful misrepresentations of combat and the people who take part in it professionally, movies like the Hurt Locker went on to win 98 major industry awards, in part, for their “Gritty realism and attention to detail” to quote one non-veteran critic.

Even well done movies, like Black Hawk down, based off the book that is the single greatest retelling of actual battlefield events in our generation, perhaps ever, and the newly minted American Sniper didn’t do justice to how it actually is for the vast majority of us who take part in war. I even recently gave a very favorable review of American Sniper for their actual attention to detail, but the problem movies like this create is that they leave audiences believing that this is the average experience in war, and not that of exceptional individuals. American Sniper, for example, is about the Navy SEAL (exceptional experience) Sniper (exceptionally designed role for the job of killing bad guys) who has the record for the most kills by a single American warfighter in our history (exceptional and singularly unique.) Even extraordinarily well done documentaries done by actual Marines who were actual participants of particular engagements they are reporting on through interviews of the fellow warriors he fought with (as in, is it possible to get a better war documentary?) such as the previously mentioned Kickstarter funded indi documentary The November War suffer this failure in leading people’s perception*. Watchers of the media believe the extraordinary is commonplace. When I go to work as a teacher of middle schoolers, they will ask me questions like “Was it really like that over there?” I am left only being able to tell them that, “Sure, it was like that for some people, but not most of us.”

Then I have to account for their perceptions brought about by their source of military education, i.e. games like Call of Duty. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy games, and appreciate how much further the COD franchise has pushed the technology and improved the art form, but that isn’t warfare. Take, for example, the fact that most missions involve you killing more people than the current record holder for kills mentioned previously in American Sniper. It’s just very unrealistic in that representation and leaves kids, let alone adults, with an even worse understanding of what war was like than even those just watching movies and TV as their main source of information. This argument is set aside from the fact that games utilize embedded operant conditioning mechanisms, such as those described by the groundbreaking Professor of Psychology B. F. Skinner, to reward players for violent acts which dehumanize the act of killing in combat and warfare.

The news was no better. Honestly. If I were someone who received all my knowledge from the news I would believe that war was a never ending death spiral where no one has ever been better off from it and where I was actually fated to die in a quagmire of death and destruction. Numerous historians and social scientists have shifted their view on this belief of the unnecessary futility of War in general after looking at the history and evidence of events that one would consider were productive wars. Productive wars exist when threats push different groups together into stronger, more cohesive and more stable societies to deal with the dangers they face. One could look at the existence of the United States, once a collection of different and unrelated colonies as evidence of this, as could we view the evolution of all nations following the end of World War II. No one has articulated this idea of productive war better than Stanford Professor Ian Morris in his book War! What is it Good For?

News doesn’t communicate this though. They don’t communicate what needs to be understood, but what gets people attention and may be true. These are not necessarily the same. What I never understood was why more attention was given to mothers of war dead than the war itself. How is this person going to help people understand the conflict? What can she add to the discussion about strategic gains and losses on the ground? What can she add to the understanding of the mentalities and motivations of the people who killed her son? Nothing, she was brought there to make people upset and emotional, because that improves ratings. Her pain and suffering, far too intense to be considered an objective opinion, is being used as is PTSD in movies. Sometimes, it isn’t even about political bias, which it is far too often, but just news media misrepresenting events on the ground so that it drives views and thereby increasing the value they have to advertisers. It’s a bit disgraceful when you consider how much the news actually fails at their job of giving people executable knowledge of what is going on.

What war is actually like, is a long, slow grind of day-to-day drudgery, speckled with intermittent bursts of high impact stress. The vast majority of us view it as horrific in its scale of boredom and time spent away from family and society, rather than the carnage one expects. From time to time, it is only interrupted by a few moments of intense stress. Before long, you forget that you are in a completely different part of the world, by many definitions. The experiences and familiarities of your other life begin to fade away, like the smells of sea water or of the forest, along with the subtleties of the faces of loved ones. You just start to forget all the important details as you acclimate to this place where the smells of home begin to take on the smells of war, those of dust, sweat, gunpowder, and a nation in decay. Eventually, war for you feels just like another home – a horrible home, like what I imagine being raised with an abusive father, negligent mother and in condemned tenements on the other side of the railroad tracks, but a home nonetheless. The biggest danger we face are our bosses becoming monsters, mostly through their own boredom or the fact that they received a letter from their wife/girlfriend/fiance/baby mama bringing them drama which we must pay for. Most of the time, the enemy is each other. You’ll find yourself planning out “I bet I could get away with it if…” scenarios by the third month and by the fifth, 90% of your free thinking has been devoted to fantasizing of glorious night long love making in the arms of your lover, or whomever will have you upon your return. You don’t feel you are in any real danger, despite the scholarly knowledge that one of the most violent battles of the decade is happening only 30 miles away. For most, there is no combat involved. Most of us will never fire our weapons in anger, and probably never see this enemy we’ve worked so hard to hate. These are the long tail of people who facilitate the fighters like the infantry and pilots. Even for most of them, at some point, you realize that besides getting to call home for a bittersweet “Hello, how was your day?” and six thousand mile goodnight kisses, the only real thing you look forward to at the end of the day is Standing around burn barrel.1throwing papers into the burn barrel. They no longer have a strategic purpose, but hold classified information that you just don’t want to possibly be intercepted in the trash. So you just watch them burn, stir them with your stick, add more fluid. This is the new ESPN.

What is the net effect of all this? Every year, one of my students will eventually ask the question, “Mr. Davis, have you ever killed anybody?” to which I always reply back, “There are no good answers to that question. One, ‘No I haven’t.’ which you will be disappointed to hear, because I have failed to live up to your ideal of what a warrior was supposed to be. I have failed because I have not done what, to most is the most traumatic and most life changing thing that can be done, snuffing out the hopes, dreams, potential, and value of another human being. Two, ‘Yeah, it was really terrible.’ Now, the person who used to teach you Geography will forever no longer be a person, but will be a killer. This person who I used to love and admire, or at least tolerate, I am no longer comfortable with, because there is something wrong about one who kills. Three, ‘Yes, and it was great’. This human now terrifies me. There is no good way for the veteran to answer this question because society, at its core, has conditioned responses against every answer he might give.”

*(Seriously, though, everyone should see The November War. It’s on Youtube and here is a link to reviews by actual Iraq veterans that also include links to the movie.)

Thanks for reading. This blog is supported entirely by fan donation. If you would like to support the author, please visit: Support Jon Davis creating Short Stories and Essays in Military, Science Fiction and Life.

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