combat writing badge C O M B A T
the Literary Expression of Battlefield Touchstones
ISSN 1542-1546 Volume 03 Number 03 Summer ©Jul 2005

Talking to Her

"Most people are lucky enough to crawl away from their wounds, but some of us drag them along, as though there is no escape from ourselves, nor from events."

Her resentful posture, her accusing eyes, and her verbal hostility combined as a challenge against my unenlightened values. Her inferiority was finally reduced to a single confrontation: "Why do you want to remember what everyone else is trying so hard to forget?" ... and the answer was too simple for her comprehension. I could've told her about the palliative effects of implicit catharsis, about the prophylactic potential of hortatory education, or about the prospective actualization of exhibited truth, but that would be neither the complete nor the primary reason. An appeal for sympathetic revelations, for enhanced methodologies, or for unprejudiced exposures would only complicate the matter. After all, suffering has never stopped war, technique has only facilitated war, and truth has always collaborated with war. Remembering will not change the past, nor improve the future. Remembering neither denies nor celebrates any aspect of war. We remember these horrific events, which are collectively called war, because they comprise an essential part of our identity. Our persons are inextricably bound to the experience of war, and all that it entails. The irrefutable paradox is that war is both the best and the worst thing that men can do to each other. If we forget the bad, then we must also forget the good; and if we remember the good, then we must also recall the bad. Such knowledge is elusively bittersweet, with an expectation of both, and a promise of neither.

When the partisan interlocutor confronted me with arrogant rectitude about a polemical exposition, I knew that she was futilely seeking a conversion. I've interrogated enough true believers, whether wounded captives or betrayed agents, to know that there is no middle ground of pacific concessions. The logic behind their vaunted tolerance is that the decisive end, whether truth or justice, derives from an accommodation between extreme oppositions. Their supposition is that nothing is purely black or white, so reality must subsist somewhere amongst the intermediate gray regions. They cite the Aristotelian golden mean and Hegelian dialectic synthesis as postulated proofs, while ignoring the wisdom of Solomonic compromise and Vedantic zetetics. Because they perceive absolute convictions as aberrations, which cannot negotiate situation ethics, such a discredited orientation is not only obstructive to settlement, but is simply wrong. Ironically, it is the very idealist who will resist the ideologue so the quibbler can persist in splendid isolation, absurdly cloistered in a remote Ivory Tower, and protected from the sharp reality of his pampered conclusions. One faction claims that monuments produce graves, another faction declares that graves inspire monuments, and others proclaim that they're either coincidental or unrelated. Reality is seemingly impossible to apprehend, which is possibly due to our concomitant dualism; but things are what they are, when they are what they are, unless and until they are not. Love is not intellectual, but it can be intellectualized. Birth is not logical, but it can be placed in perspective. Death is not mechanical, but it has a mechanistic context. Weapons are not spiritual, but their employment affects the soul. Strategy is not emotional, but its implementation can wrack the psyche. The intellectual disrespect that passes for analysis during conflict resolutions is the crux of the problem ... for as long as the solution depends upon abrogated rights and repudiated principles, the present resolution is only a temporary hiatus to a later resumption for an eventual conclusion, for a just completion, for a final termination.

She proclaimed that interpretive bias could be eliminated by comparing the subjective accounts and contrasting the roorback reports of several different sources, and would not believe that multiple interpretations from a single original source invalidated any potential for a diverse spectrum. She declared that the truth could be distilled from a survey of interviews, assuming the proper questions were asked and the answers were understood, with actual survivors by skilled professionals. She would not believe that a participant was even less reliable and more uninformed than an ostensible objective observer. The issue of witness or participant verification becomes moot when the directives are unknown and the context is unsuspected. She tried the analogical hypothetical accident as a philosophical lever, so as to impose her values upon what she did not know; but the mosaic could only be made into an image if the pieces were rearranged. None of the unofficial manipulations or secret operations which had failed would ever be revealed in static records because they did not support the preferred conclusion nor reinforce the systematic process. They hadn't deliberately broken it so it could be fixed, and they weren't trying to fix something that was perfectly functional, but they wouldn't admit any damage until they had some workable solutions. The only documented failures would be orchestrated to massage the result into something noble or inevitable, something beyond anyone's control, something for which no one could be blamed. The exceptions were notable for their very existence, and offered damage-control or exploitation opportunities for the ambitious. She asserted that legitimate participants were valid, to which I consented, and she insisted that accounts could be authenticated if accurately represented; but that was a devolving debate from a circular proposition, and was contingent upon every component being either virtuous or neutral. The fact is that no one is fair, and no one is unconcerned in anything that's personal; so a veteran has a vested interest in a result as does a correspondent or publisher, as a bureaucrat or relative. She was already devoting more time and energy than the average disinterested reader, than the non-academic, than the non-professional into a subject that didn't affect her life, and investing more would not make the subject less opaque. She would never understand what she thought she knew, and becoming more actively involved wouldn't change her perspective, wouldn't alter her prejudices, wouldn't reorient her exposure. She should've escaped the combat scenes that were blasted into her comfortably domestic tranquility, and evaded into the more entertaining shows ... the ones with better actors and varied scripts. She thought the war was about facts, but those are only the incidental details surrounding motivation and effort. By knowing who, what, when, and where will not tell her why. The tragedy for this war is that ideology interfered so much that no one even bothered to get the details right ... seemingly, no one wanted to record the facts or learn the truth. What she did not comprehend about the soldier's paradox, which is that we must fight to halt fighting, is that it cannot be explained to anyone preoccupied with peace, to anyone fixated on love, to anyone obsessed with happiness. It's impossible to relate the vast and complex whole to one-dimensional men.

When she complained that she couldn't understand me, and that this misunderstanding was both an obstacle and a detour for us, I resolved to doggedly reconstruct a tableau of carnage from my past, which would depict some of what was intentionally concealed ... concealed from her, and from anyone else ignorant of battle conditions. She patiently viewed its unveiling, as if it was manufactured art or synthetic drama, instead of real life; but there was no revelation. My baptism of fire could be neither her afflatus nor epiphany. She possessed no innate anguish, no inculcated humiliation, no private desecration which could spawn compassionate empathy or intuitive recognition. She's as ordinarily decent, respectful, and sophisticated as the average adult. She would never mock a stranger's funeral, or spit on an alien icon ... panoramic scenery will quicken her pulse, and beautiful music can make her cry, but these privately vivid images left her blank and unmoved. Except as moral precepts, they had no context for her. She now possessed demonstrable facts and intellectual data for her perplexity and prejudice, her insight and curiosity to work upon; but her psychohistory was populated by bare skeletons and colorless statues. She could now compile and catalogue this information, like popular accounts and social analyses, like contest answers and shopping lists, for possible application during the next suitable event. I wasn't diminished by her ineptitude, by her inaptitude, because I preserved both the limited relationship and the sanctity of my past. One can never be diminished by remembering ultimate faith and reviving enduring truths; but it can totally disappear when the uninitiated fail to recognize or discover its shared significance.

The anointed are supposed to have some special ability, some unique insight, some particular capacity, but therapists are only good at talking, testing, and gaming. Even when they acknowledge that their assessments aren't the only valid ones, and that society's rules aren't the only correct ones, they reserve the right to judge another without ever being able to understand what the other has lived through. She claimed that all pain, regardless of its source, is comparable; and that this essential concession gave humanity its commonality. She claimed that whatever was exclusive was only selfish or misunderstood. Even after I'd ridiculed her asininity into frustrated tears, she could not understand that I was 'teaching' her a truth about herself, instead of refusing her therapeutic intervention. No experience has ever been shared, and none has ever been identical, even when similar events were experienced by persons of relative levels; if, for no other reason, because the individual gestalt was singular. The soldiers in adjacent foxholes see different wars. As no two events are the same, and no two persons are the same, so their comparative perceptions and conclusions may not be the same either ... regardless of psychometric doctrine. She told me that all who served were heroes, because they all shared what everyone else had done. Without bothering to disparage her false analogy, her flawed extension, her fantastic straw man, I simply noted that the logical obverse of her distribution made everyone guilty for the misdeeds of the few; which reinforced the war's critics, while contravening the just application of legal liability. Whether for credit or for responsibility, one can't invent reality to contrive a result. She said the good news was that the sharp would become blunt, the clear would become vague, the acute would become obtuse, and that life would eventually become normal again. I informed her that the good news was also the bad news, because it was the forgetting that made it necessary to create new memories in the young, so the lessons would be learned all over again. She didn't want to know that the only way to diminish a solitary nightmare is to create a multitude of them, so none of them would remain prominent and profound. Despite her own evidence, she wanted to believe that these tabulae rasae could be erased and rewritten.

Everyone accepted the provocative premise of the moderator's inquisition, so the Good German catechism proceeded without disruption. She asked, "Why did you go to Vietnam?", and the litany of responses included: "Why did you send me?", "I had no choice!", "I wanted the experience.", "I wanted to help.", "I didn't know it would be like that.", "Somebody had to go.", "If not me, then someone just like me.", "Because there was nothing here to keep me.", "For the fun of it!". The replies validated her authority, and granted her a limited license for selective judgement. It was a litmus test, a morality trial, a personal challenge, and everyone knew it. No one attempted to elevate the discussion to the historical, political, or philosophical plane. The responses eventually devolved into either defense of a bipolar quasi-religious proposition: that somethings are worth killing for, or that somethings are worth dying for. The attribution was personalized as "I killed for you!" or "He died instead of you!". This period of emotional ventilation resolved nothing, altered nothing, and persuaded no one. It served only to identify the factions, and to enhance the moderator's status. No alternative conflict resolutions were presented, and no foreign policy options were proposed. We resolved that obedience to moral indoctrination or patriotic platitudes is conventional, that disobedience is commonplace, that deconstruction is typical, that abstention is uncommon, and that reconstruction is unconventional. We proved that Vietnam would probably happen again, and that another generation would contrive no better arguments. It made education seem futile, war seem inevitable, and made us feel impotent.

She told me that she didn't mind competing with my mother, affectionately known as First Sergeant Mom, or suffering the boorish attentions of my father, informally known as The Commander, since all in-laws are a test of the marital bond, if not of one's mettle; but she was tired of living in a squared-off dressed-right-dress home! ... without any frills or fripperies, without any clutter or comfort, without the feeling of home, whatever that's supposed to be! She said that she wanted to make some changes, and that I should accommodate, if not exactly indulge her as a redress of her grievances, as a tender of reciprocity, if not an expression of affection. She said that white gloves had uses other than minute inspections ... such as wearing them ensemble to some place that didn't resemble a mess hall with plastic flowers! ... that served something that didn't come out of an olive drab container graded by the USDA and approved by the post veterinarian! She said that she wanted to be pampered, and not caressed by the numbers on some strategic training schedule! ... that she wanted to be treated like a girl, and not like my Executive Officer, not like one of my robotic sergeants, and not like one of my wise-cracking defenders, better known as flank security! She said that she was tired of competing with paratroopers and rangers and dead heroes! She said that she didn't care if I loved the feel of linseed oil and bowling alley wax! ... nor the smell of gun lubricant and brass polish! ... nor the sounds of parades and of shooting! ... nor the sight of serried ranks and combat assaults! She didn't care if my heart throbbed at every anthem, nor if my spirit soared whenever the good guys saved the day. She said that she wanted a normal life, where dancing didn't resemble close order drill, and where polite small talk didn't include spit-shine techniques and fighting knife characteristics! She was tired of military maxims, combat metaphors, and crude clichés. She wanted consideration, expected sympathy, and demanded action ... so I told her that she was late for the PT formation, and that she was expected to assess herself for misconduct regarding protocol and bearing. I gave her permission to consult the Chaplain and the Inspector General regarding her complaints, and that after her TS-card had been duly punched, she could submit a DA-1049 Request for Change of Assignment upon her return. I mentioned that these factors would probably influence her rating on her next OER evaluation. After I dismissed her, she apparently went AWOL, because she hasn't reported for duty since. I thought she was almost ready for promotion, but I guess that I'll have to begin recruiting her replacement soon.

by Pan Perdu
... who is a former soldier and VA counselor; this work has been excerpted from Fragmentations, a book in progress.

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C O M B A T, the Literary Expression of Battlefield Touchstones