After the unspeakable horrors of war, writing soothes my soul
(Photo: Israel Palacio/Unsplash)
Words by L.G. West
'It certainly sounds like you are glamourising war.' This statement was delivered to me over the noise of funk in the trendy surroundings of a Manhattan bar.
It was followed up by the lady’s partner saying, 'Sounds like you actually miss it?”
At the time it didn’t really register as something to be aggrieved about; in fact, they had hit the nail on the head.
It was only days later, whilst sat with a pint at JFK Airport, that the manner and delivery of their response resonated. I felt a surge of anger and shook my head furiously; I mouthed to myself through clenched teeth, ‘How dare they!’
This couple, introduced to me by a New York friend, had asked about my tour of Afghanistan with the Marines, that I was now enjoying a break of leave from. They showed real interest and initiated that American reflex of thanking me for my service. Their enthusiasm soon dwindled when I relayed some honest and emotive accounts of my time at war.
They’d been so carefree and positive when they thought that my account was going to be what they expected then recoiled in horror when I’d explained. Passionately. What did they want me to do, say it was like a day out at laser tag?
I guess Hollywood paints a quite a different picture. I decided to write about it at the bar and released some energy in a passage.
Maybe I had been overly enthusiastic. In essence, the guy had been right: I did miss war – a lot. The hard times, the unspeakable horrors don’t seem too bad in the face of nostalgia; the emotion of lost belonging.
You are probably thinking, 'What the hell do you miss about war? Most men long to come home, long to be rid of the arduous drain of combat.' Yes, we do: we dream daily of the luxuries of home and our family and friends. War is hard. But men miss it.
War is simple, in terms of ground theory. It’s brutally violent beyond most people’s comprehension but it’s unquestionably straightforward to the foot soldier. The infantry mission is quite simply: To defeat the enemy through close combat.
Do not confuse straightforward with easy, however: the physical implementation of the warriors actions remains extremely difficult.
At war, a man knows his focus for the day and absolutely nothing else matters. Stay alive, keep your mates alive; hopefully remove some enemy. And he is extremely good at it, unlike anything else.
When he arrives home and settles down from his nights out on the spree, he slips back into life – the boring, grinding, overplayed, mundane life. His life is no longer simple. It should be, as compared to war paying bills is nothing; just like cancelling memberships, deciding whether to go to your aunt-in-law’s house party, what to get your mother for Christmas, if you should throw your old t-shirts out, what movie to watch, am I going to miss out if I don’t go to the pub with the lads, what I spend my war money on. These are all minor and insignificant things.
Except, out of the base theatre of war, they aren’t so minor. Now they are major and an unexpected weight. The soldier starts getting angry with himself for quibbling over these insignificant things. He can’t understand why they matter, but they do... 'Why can’t it just be like Helmand? I knew what I had to do out there, I didn’t have all these options.' It’s all so trivial but he’s unable to cope with it. He tries to deal with them but they are all peeling into an ambush against him, one which will yield the dreaded response: 'Why can’t I just go back? I want to go back.'
In war, he meets hardship, a real actual battle. Around those things he can share stories with his friends, enjoy small graces that we take for granted... an act of kindness, shelter from a downpour, a warm meal and shower. These things take on a whole new level of happiness when savoured in hardship than when they are readily available.
Therefore, when they are experienced on a regular basis it leaves the man wanting, like he’s missing something. Why isn’t it the same, why don’t I feel fulfilled?
The Marine was understood when around his mates in the same hell. They had patience, support and love for each other. If they needed help when having a bad day, it was OK, it was accepted. The assistant at the Post Office who rolls their eyes at him because he needs help with a form only reminds him of the protection of closed ranks. He has learned to survive in crippling conditions, but is now reduced to being scorned at for requiring assistance with an admin task. When the daily responsibilities weigh down on the man, he seeks refuge; he longs to withdraw to the black and white hardship of his past.
He has seen the darker side of humanity, he has learnt that the human can be a ruthless and unforgiving soul; this makes him cynical. He loses the ability to easily trust other people, he reserves his faith for the people that have seen what he has seen; he takes comfort in their shared understanding.
In contrast, he also sees the best of humanity: the pure joy of a young Afghan boy turning on the radio you have just given him. It touches him, he treasures it.
His experience at war was special, it isn’t something most people could cope with, or excel at… survive even. He feels a pride inside about his handling of it. Normal life doesn’t give him the same reward, it doesn’t inspire him and give him the sense of value and accomplishment.
So, his fight of days gone by has taken on a new front; and this one he isn’t prepared for. This isn’t an emotion unique to these men, we all experience the human response of ‘You weren’t there’… from telling the story of getting your sandwich pinched by a seagull, to feeling smug about being the only person in the office at 7am; it is constantly around us.
Think about the poor person you mocked for missing a winning football match, or when Debbie broke her wrist on a hen do.
We need to understand that this man of conflict can no longer be satisfied by materialistic things alone; if you give him a house, extra money and a job then it doesn’t appeal to him like it once did.
He needs stimulation and a purpose, one outside of the rewards that regular society would normally revel in. He needs his friends, he needs to learn how to trust again, and he needs to learn the hard lesson of adapting once more to a deadly situation – but this time, a mental battle for peace rather than a physical one.
And this is a battle which will kill him in a far more drawn out fashion than gunfire will.
My experiences of going to war have left a void to be filled. Sitting in an empty house does not work.
I tried coping with my situation by making myself homeless for a week. There is a similarity between the tramp and the Marine. The homeless man may not be in a real, actual battle but on the streets he meets hardship and again, it’s straightforward.
Find food and money (maybe for the addiction), find somewhere to sleep. These are the things that he, too, shares with his friends, those small graces that we, yes, take for granted...
An act of kindness. Shelter from a downpour. A warm meal. A shower. When they are experienced on a regular basis it leaves the man wanting, like he’s missing something. Why isn’t it the same, why don’t I feel fulfilled?
We need to help the both men find it.
For the time being, writing filled my void. I turned my experience of homelessness into a book. And as I sat with my pint at JFK, struggling with the echo of being called a war glamourist, writing soothed my soul.