combat writing badge C O M B A T
the Literary Expression of Battlefield Touchstones
ISSN 1542-1546 Volume 02 Number 01 Winter ©Jan 2004

Parthian Shot
a fleeting editorial dart inviting chase

Sound and Fury

"Victory is not a name strong enough for such a scene."
by Horatio Nelson [2 Aug 1798 comment on devastation concluding the Battle of the Nile]

With each new generation of warriors charging onto its first battlefield, war teaches the same old lessons ... and they are impressed with new tools upon young hearts and minds as if for the very first time! A soldier recently described his baptism of fire as an incredible experience that was just like the movies! It's ironic that reality is now being measured by surrealistic fiction. In fact, most people now believe that if the truth isn't as exciting or interesting as their imagination, then they have an obligation to improve that truth!

War is inarticulate. What it has to say is spoken directly into the spirit of each participant. For all its planning, combat is about primordial behavior and instilled training that short-circuits the rational and verbal processes. Combatants indubitably think, but if they await their thought processes to impel or motivate them in a crisis, then they will become casualties. The ineffable nature of war confounds most witnesses. This inexpressibility also inhibits most veterans, who are compelled to relive an event in order to depict it.

In the way that a picture is evocative, without the constructive intent and thoughtful craft of its producer, war is sensational. Any consideration or interpretation of these sensations and impulses is necessarily retrospective ... the mind applied to a remembered feeling. Such perceptual analysis is born of reflection and insight. Every expression about battlefield turmoil is a form of dishonesty that exploits the inherent pain and tragedy of war. After the assessments, eloquence is superimposed upon the usurpations. Sometimes the resultant simulacrum is obviously a disconcerting and inexact pretense. And sometimes the pretense embodies what cannot be dissected.

As every combatant knows, facts do not speak for themselves, and neither do pictures tell the story. They must be interpreted to ascertain their meaning and motive. Reportage on the Gulf War was slanted until the public objected; but the deliberate omissions and distorted representations about Iraq are reminiscent of the perverted history of Vietnam ... which merely demonstrates how pliant and tractable history can be. As each historic moment has an infinite number of possible interpretations, so each participant and every witness has a unique perspective. Nuance and subtlety are not exclusive to any single entity, which often means that a fresh unbiased approach will render new information and different conclusions. People are not inanimate factors, so their inconsistencies and irregularities may prove to be decisive. Even with superior technology, such unpredictability is beneficial on the battlefield, and becomes the substance for future legends.

Despite the fact that the victors write the official history of every conflict, recording is the only way we can transmit the account of our mythic quests and our honorable conquests to an unenlightened posterity. If the veterans themselves are unable to relate the account of their attainments, then the storytellers must assume the obligation ... for a culture without distinction is indistinct, and a civilization without history is irrelevant. Preserving the tale of slain dragons, be they beast or barbarian, sustains our identity and inspires emulation. This distinction has perforce become synonymous with entertainment, which heralds our impending decline.

The authentic voice rings true, and experience tells. A veteran soberly assesses the battlefield, envisioning its potentials and foreseeing its disadvantages, knowing that the best estimates will reinforce the worst results. He is not a naive enthusiast foolishly rushing headlong into pandemonium. He is not a panicked hysteric striking flags before the fight. Neither is he some antithetical contrarian predicting doom 'n' gloom without substantiation. When people have choices, each option offers a change of focus or goal ... if this then that and if not that then this. Too often the changes become misdirection, which become a distortion, which becomes a reformation by the most reasonable process of progressive connections. Hence a civil war begun over secession evolves from reunification into anti-slave and anti-culture. Hence a war begun over spheres of influence concludes with a pro-democracy and anti-nuclear agenda. And the victors define war crimes until the conduct delineating criminals from martyrs is indistinguishable, except by the affixed labels. When educated people, such as politicians and journalists, cannot distinguish between liberators and oppressors, between heroes and fanatics, between soldiers and terrorists, then our morality is corrupt, and our lore has been devitalized into fairy tales!

People see what they want to see, or what they are able to see, by virtue of their physical or mental limitations. Even to the unknown, people bring their prejudices and expectations; so it is little wonder that the reports of multiple eyewitnesses differ. After more than a century of intense scrutiny, psychologists are still unable to categorically state whether anyone's predilections are malleable, much less reversible. Regardless of the purported laws of aerodynamics, bumblebees fly because they don't know that they can't! ... and in the same way, soldiers with a can do attitude succeed against all odds because failure was never considered to be an option! History has repeatedly demonstrated that something worthy of sacrifice is worth the price paid ... that no matter how bad things become, there is always some enduring value to be preserved. The story of Masada was told by its Roman captors, as was the applauded gallantry of the Irish Brigade before the wall at Marye's Heights; because every army throughout time has admired what is best in its adversary. It is by this measure that we begin to understand ourselves. It is from this knowledge that our culture benefits, and civilization advances.

War encompasses the greatest dramas of human life and death. The motives for writing about these phenomena span the gamut from documentation and analysis to memorialization and expression. Although the events are magnificent, and the participants are inspired to awesome performances, the authorial ego basking in their reflected glory ought not be discounted. Too many stories are well known because of their depictions, while equal or better tales languish in obscurity from inattention. Drilling the unsheathed pen is an exercise, pointed or futile, in re-creation ... an account either inculcates or exorcises some particular or associated demagoguery. It is as if a litany of the varieties of violence would create a taxonomy of chaos. And yet these utterances entail the human spectrum. Eternity is inferred from a unitary phrase. A single word, as with Buddha's Golden Flower sermon, embodies the entire universe ... the power of the pen can evoke a psychic image or mental map by uttering: Thermopylae, Spotsylvania, Carthage, Waterloo, Gallipoli, Crimea, Naissus, Constantinople, Ashdown, Flodden Field, Midway, Ypres, Tenochtitlan, Culloden, Verdun, Jutland, Corregidor, Lepanto, Guadalcanal, Monte Casino, Mukden, Chosen Reservoir, Antietam, or Hiroshima. Blood has watered the very soil over which we tread.

Some of us search for ways to sustain our connection with a demanding past, despite the suffering caused by escalating tensions and rending incidents. We know the essential worth of such episodes. Others have witnessed these changes, and want to share in their significance, even if only approximately. The language used to represent these experiences must relate the interior dynamic to the exterior crisis. The slang of soldier speak, representing the inner battlefield, conflicts with the jargon of milicratese or officialese, representing the outer combat zone, from which dichotomy a mutual synergism must somehow conflate. The author is compelled to meld the disparate worlds of the combatant, where he is only fully alive in the extreme moments of combat, or where he withdraws to some better time and finer place in memory. It is not the mixed vocabulary of arcane phrases that needs translation for the uninitiated, but the meaning behind the words, which is a spiritual communication.

The objective is not to tell a good story, since each history and every biography that's been put to test is redemptive, but to tell the truth. Every tale written about war must be full of sound and fury signifying something! You will only find the answer if you risk your life asking the question.

by Ed Staff