War Is a Painful Mistress
As a veteran, my memories of combat are strangely beautiful
“Maybe the ultimate wound is the one that makes you miss the war you got it in.” — Sebastian Junger
War is a painful mistress. She gives you a taste of the purest love and brotherhood you can experience and then you may never see her again. I am not trying to romanticize war or glorify violence. I am not here to debate the politics of war or its justifications. I am down here at the ground truth level, with the men and women who have communed with the greatest love and have lived to tell about it. I simply want to share with you what I miss, so damn much, which may give you a tiny glimpse into the disconnect many of our veterans feel when they return home.
I was talking to my therapist the other day and asked, “Is it weird that I feel like some of my combat experiences are the most beautiful things I have ever seen?” I am not ashamed of what I did. I am not seeking forgiveness. If I am ashamed in any way, it is that I loved it so much and that there seems to be nothing quite like it. I get why so many veterans, from around the world, have made their way to Ukraine. I am not talking about being an adrenaline junky or a sadist. I am talking about a deeper, spiritual experience. I am talking about connecting with other people in a way that alters your consciousness. He shared with me that what I was feeling was also common among Vietnam veterans. If you could get beneath the surface with them and make them feel safe enough to share, you would hear stories of astonishing humanity and sacrifice.
When I reflect on the night I was with 1st Battalion, 5th Marines taking Saddam’s palace in Baghdad, it is a spectacular film clip in my mental library that I like to play over and over again. Yes, for most, it would be harrowing to watch and even scarier to be there. For me, it was like an indescribably beautiful and violent ballet and I got to be in the middle of it. One of the most magnificent things I have ever seen were teams of Marines, brother next to brother, moving bravely and smoothly toward enemy gunfire. I suppose watching any professional team fulfill their purpose would be splendid, but watching these men expertly weave through tracer rounds and rocket-propelled grenade explosions at night without a moment of hesitation was something otherworldly. Also, in most other professional endeavors, you do not have such a high probability of being killed.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “If a man has not discovered something that he will die for, he isn’t fit to live.” I believe if a man has not discovered for whom he would die for, then he isn’t fit to live. I am confident that most of us would say we would die to defend our families. This is different. This is a love born out of a shared commitment to sacrifice, “to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” There is no guarantee. There is only absolute faith and trust. This is unconditional brotherly love. Once you have felt this, you cannot go back. Author Sebastian Junger, who spent years embedded with military combat personnel in war zones, sums this up well:
“What would you risk dying for — and for whom — is perhaps the most profound question a person can ask themselves. The vast majority of people in modern society are able to pass their whole lives without ever having to answer that question, which is both an enormous blessing and a significant loss.”
When you sacrifice everything for someone else and you see them do the same for you, then your old self dies. In that moment, you are reborn. You are stripped to your essence. Your ego is shattered. You feel a deep spiritual connectedness to your brothers in arms and perhaps to humankind as a whole. It filled me with an immense hope that we are here for each other. We are here for love. Then I came home to something different.
Returning to the civilian world was such a sharp contrast to my war experience. It was like a Gatorade cooler full of ice water dumped on my head, but not because we won the championship. Most people were “busy, busy, busy” running on the hedonic treadmill and too focused on money and themselves to pause and reflect on why they are here. If you do not know why you are here, then you are not anywhere close to figuring out who you would die for. Yes, there are many generous and altruistic people who commit themselves to causes greater than themselves. Not just at nonprofits and in government, but in companies big and small. They work to make the world a better place one interaction at a time. I love these people. I appreciate these people. These are my people. However, even these people may not have taken the uncomfortable step to answer Junger’s “most profound question.”
And then there is almost everyone else. Sadly, there are a great number of people in this world, especially in the business world, trapped in a zero-sum mindset. They subscribe to a belief that in order to be successful and get what they want in life, others have to lose and not get what they want. This is the path to perpetual unhappiness. It is a severely limiting belief that gets in the way of us working together to “grow the pie” instead of fighting over a limited number of pieces. What the world could use right now is a bit more self-sacrifice for others and a bit more appreciation of those willing to do it. I know it is possible because I have witnessed its majesty firsthand.
War is horrible and I do not wish it on anyone. I am just sharing, so you can better understand our veterans, that in war, I found hope in the future of humanity. I found my true self. I found my tribe. I answered the question, “And who is my neighbor?” I became a better person. I felt a peace beyond all understanding. As John Stuart Mill wrote, “War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things: the decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks nothing worth a war, is worse. A man who has nothing which he cares about more than he does about his personal safety is a miserable creature who has no chance of being free, unless made and kept so by the existing of better men than himself.” I pray I can continue to be one of those better men. Onward together!