combat writing badge C O M B A T
the Literary Expression of Battlefield Touchstones
ISSN 1542-1546 Volume 05 Number 03 Summer ©Jul 2007

Bugle and Bell
musings on the soul of war

Saints have no moderation, nor do poets, just exuberance.
by Anne Sexton ["The Saints Come Marching In"]

The Peace Pipe Can Be Suffocating

"Men court war to escape meaninglessness and boredom ..."
by Nels F.S. Ferre

It was noted in the 9 March 2007 issue of the National Catholic Reporter that the following inscription appeared recently on a wall in an American military/civil affairs office in Ramadi, Iraq: "America is not at war. The Marine Corps is at war; America is at the mall." One may detect some bitterness in that observation, but there does not appear to be envy or admiration of the civilian and his world.

The Hebrew prophet Jeremiah pointed out that the cozy society of his day wasn't necessarily cozy for everyone living in it. Although the Kingdom of Judah was not at war at that time (in the seventh Century B.C.), there were many people in that society who were not experiencing individual peace.

Jeremiah said, of the movers and shakers of Judah: "'Peace, peace,' they say, when there is no peace." [Jeremiah 6:14 New International Version]

What is truly representative of peace? Or who?

Many a warrior has returned from the field of battle in eager anticipation of a heavenly oasis from external and internal strife, only to find himself resonating with the title of Janis Ian's classic song of disappointment: Is That All There Is?

When General William Tecumseh Sherman said that "war is hell," he didn't promise us a heavenly rose garden in the civilian world of peace. The absence of peace in the absence of war, of which Jeremiah spoke, can be especially true for the warrior and the former warrior – if there is such a thing as a former warrior.

This is not to glorify war. The Thirty Years War in Germany, the Troubles in Northern Ireland, and the current, free-for-all Insurgency in Iraq remind us of the burden of combat on both military forces and civilian populations. But one expects peace to be a clear-cut contrast to the horrors of war. And, too often, peace fails us. Where there should have been a life preserver, there was not.

In war, we were concerned about the possibility of losing our life. In peacetime, we find ourselves concerned with whether we even have a life to lose.

In war, there was hope regardless of how grim the situation. In peacetime, hope can be an elusive entity. This is what we had hoped for. This is seemingly the end of the line. This is it. Look no further. Game's over.

Or is it? The game certainly looks over. In war, one could always anticipate that something would happen – whether good or bad or none of the above. In peacetime, there is the haunting fear that nothing is going to happen. Ever. And the things that pass for happenings in the civilian world are generally contrived nonsense.

As reported in the 11 June 2007 U.S. News and World Report, Cindy Sheehan, the antiwar protester whose son was killed in Iraq, lamented that "Casey died for a country which cares more about who will be the next American Idol than how many people will be killed in the next few months ...."

Bread and circuses. In ancient Rome, contrived nonsense sedated and distracted the civilian population while the legions were off fighting to maintain the empire. And contrived nonsense today – like the TV show Survivor in which bikini-clad social-climbers and gigolo wannabes fight it out in a pseudo-Guadalcanal setting – intoxicate the American civilian mind. Or what's left of it. And what about NASCAR? ... the chariot races of the Twenty-first Century? Who is shitting whom?

General Peter Schoomaker commented, on the occasion of his recent retirement, that it is not a question of whether the American public can make the sacrifices necessary to win the war in Iraq. It is a question of whether they are willing to make those sacrifices.

This is not necessarily encouraging when we consider that the hedonistic public has difficulty relating to the Spartan lifestyle of the military. Or in even comprehending that our national war for survival may necessitate sacrifice by civilians too. Civilians don't save money. They don't save their sexuality for love. They don't save anything – unless they can auction it off as a nostalgic collectible on eBay.

The warrior is a romantic at heart. Chivalry is not dead; it simply has been relegated to the military which must keep a seemingly impossible high standard while John Dope back here keeps an American flag decal on the back of his car in hopes of eliciting sympathy with the police officer who stops him for his flagrant disregard of the speed-limit laws. Incidentally, John Dope bought that car at a dealership which flew an American flag the size of a football field over its lot as a means of making more money. The public knocks itself out screwing each other, literally and figuratively. Too often, the civilian notion of romance is a flavored douche.

In the medieval world of chivalry, the warrior was associated with the aristocracy and nobility. The word courtesy is derived from the honorable customs of the court. A man's home is his castle, we are told. But many a warrior returns to his or her homeland only to be reminded that a house is not a home. America the physically beautiful is not always America the emotionally or spiritually beautiful. One returns from the desert of Iraq to the desert of the mall. From the frying pan into the fire.

The senses of the warrior have been fine-tuned for the sake of survival. Is that a wire or a stick at the side of the road? Is that the sound of an M-16 or an AK-47? Is that the odor of a garbage pile or the stench of a dead body? When he or she returns to the civilian world, those subliminal receptors are still wide open. But the warrior's senses are now overloaded with billboards, subtle product plugs in movies, and subliminal static from every direction. These suffocate the warrior with the mundane and the irrelevant while clashing with the natural survival instincts built up. One can feel more desperate than one ever felt in combat.

In war, honor and respect for life are what held you together as a human being on the field of death. You even respected your enemy if he was a valiant opponent. In peacetime, it is sometimes difficult to respect even one's closest work associates. That guy wearing a fast-food uniform (with its hat touting the latest Disney movie promotion) might stab you in the back in order to beat you to the right to wear the tie and harried look of a manager. Fellow soldiers, at one time, rendered authority to you while you rendered authority to them. But you have little control over your kids or respect from them. You live in a bait-and-switch world that doesn't even have the decency to call a spade a spade. Communication is by innuendo, the dropped handkerchief, the threat given with a smile, political correctness, and passive aggression.

If you are unlucky in love, your jaded spouse or significant other may say – with all the mechanical intonation of a cashier at McDonald's – "Would you like oral sex with that?" Or she or he may play the flip side of that same coin and say, "Dear, I've got a headache tonight ...." Or this week. Or this month ....

If you are lucky in love, you nevertheless discover that there is not a man or woman alive who can simply kiss the boo-boo and make it better. And, worst of all, you may let down your loved one via the difficulty with which you – as a fish out of water – handle responsibility in the civilian world. If there is such a thing as peace, it must come from within yourself.

A Buddhist might say that one must reconcile oneself with the fact of suffering in the world. You don't have to like it. And you should work to alleviate it. But it's there. That is a given. But, if there is yin, there is yang. If there is suffering, there is also pleasure. But where is this pleasure? And should we avoid pleasure in order to avoid suffering?

Look, Dude. You've already suffered in war. You might as well cash in on the pleasure. Or perhaps contentment. But your pleasure and contentment. Not necessarily pleasure and contentment as defined by the boring and easily-bored roller coaster world.

How can you find contentment or personal satisfaction on the equivalent of an Indian reservation? Instead of hunting for a living, you have a meaningless job which is the equivalent of making beaded nothings for tourists. Instead of fighting for your homeland, you are issued a blanket and a direct deposit into your banking account and a chance to buy alcohol. The reservation is not potentially a happy place. If you really hit the big-time, you can be the doorman at a casino which is owned by the Mafioso who uses your tribe as a figurehead. And you can afford a big-screen TV on which to watch American Idol.

Let us say, for the sake of argument, that you are a Native American. And, if you have fought for this country, who is to say you aren't?

Once upon a time – before you became John Dope or Sergeant John Dope – you had a name or an identity which somehow expressed who you are. It was a sign of your passing from childhood to adulthood. Soaring Eagle. Suburban Commando. Laughing Creek. Trash Can Thumper. Jump Roper. Maybe it didn't have a word or words. But it was there. And the door swings both ways. The identity that you had at the cusp between childhood and adulthood can also lead back to childlikeness. Still on the cusp – not forgetting anything that you've learned. But facing inward. Toward the child within. The inner papoose. Without the white man's endless self-analysis and psychological frontiers. Without reservations.

How often we hear someone say, "If only I knew at age sixteen what I know now ...." But, at age sixteen, you didn't know how to be age sixteen. Now you do know how to be age sixteen. Sweet sixteen. And you know how to perceive the sweetness, the buried innocence, in other persons despite all evidence to the contrary. Even if they don't remember it and have misplaced it themselves.

And it has nothing to do with malls, casinos, bead-making ... or war. It transcends reservations and warpaths. It transcends agedness and youthfulness. It transcends tools and toys. It transcends selfishness and selflessness. It transcends yin and yang. It transcends stopping and going.

For the love of Geronimo, what is it that's stopping you?

"Sometimes even to live is an act of courage."
by Lucius Annaeus Seneca

contributed by B. Keith Cossey

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