War is hell and a man needs his wits about him

War is Hell! You cannot qualify war in harsher terms than I will. War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it… General Sherman, Wikipedia

As one would suspect, the story of the shooting in Afghanistan is expanding as more details emerge.  So far, the name of the army sergeant has not been released, but some details of his military and personal life have been.  He is not young, 38 years old, he is married and has children and this is his third of fourth tour of duty in the region.  At some point he was tested for “emotional stability” and found fit for duty; and yet it is reported he was having difficulty adjusting to civilian life between tours and is having marital problems. Some commentators have wondered if he had personal friends who had been killed or if he had been in a serious combat incident – but there are no answers to those questions.

Not much to go on, but maybe enough; before thinking about the adjusting to civilian life problem, lets think about marriage.  It is not easy to be married and fight a war at the same time.   One of the most famous phrases in our language, dear John, connotes a solider or sailor off at war with a girlfriend at home.  The girl famously sends our hero a letter telling him she has found another, she is sorry, but can they still be friends?  The letter begins with “Dear John.”  The phrase is so well known because it resonates with so many people, it captures the separation war causes and puts a lonely man’s pain in just two words.  While scrambling up the beaches of France, riding out a storm at sea with U-boats patrolling all around, or dodging German bullets in the sands of North Africa or on patrol in Afghanistan, a man needs his wits about him; nothing steals a man’s wits quite so quickly as a woman.  Regardless of how far away she may be, one or two words can take away is ability to focus on the task at hand.

When she tells John, dear John, that she has found another, he begins to think about her, the pain goes deep into his soul, while the anger boils slowly to the surface.  He may jump up and charge the enemy or he may decide to survive by hook or by crook to get even with her.  But at least in the short-term, his behavior will have more to do with that girl at home than the war in front of him.  Dear John according to Wikipedia dates from August of 1945, it is an old tale from an old war; a time when letters came very seldom and often in bunches.  A man might find out his wife had left him, a son had been born and his father died all in one day and weeks after the events. There was no way for him to response, he could only feel the pain, alone with death hovering over his shoulder.

In today’s world, there is no time lapse between the event and the message reaching the solider and instant response is possible.  In 2012, soldiers in the trenches are linked electronically to home as if they were still at home and not at war.  They chat constantly with their family and friends via cell phones and the internet.  That means a man and a woman can woe, fall in love, becoming become closer and closer or they can bicker, argue and fight moving ever farther apart and closer only to breaking up.

In the last few years I have known lots of people who have been to Iraq or Afghanistan and more who had a lover or family member who were there.  I have been stunned by the amount of communication that takes place; we hear of the heart warming stories of men reading bedtime stories to their children, talking to aged parents struggling to survive until their son comes home or proposing marriage to their high school sweet hear.  However, I have heard more about the negative things people say to each other than the positive.   Personally, I do not see why more soldiers do not crack, combat requires focus, keeping one’s wits about oneself, not only to stay alive, but to fight well and win.

That constant chatter is distracting and distractions in war are dangerous.  I knew of one couple, teenagers, who were in constant electronic contact; the girl was in high school and a drama queen.  Every day brought a new drama to her life, which she promptly presented to her boyfriend in Afghanistan.  She would decide she did not love him any more one day and then change her mind the next and want to have his baby.  Another day, strange boys would be following her around probably intending to rape her, she reported their every movement in text messages; later on Facebook she would post a picture of her date to the prom, a former rival for her affections and tell her friends how much fun she had.  Day after day, week after week and month after month that went on – the boy survived and came back alive and uninjured, but according to the drama queen he is having trouble adjusting and she may have to drop him.

A man in combat needs his wits about him and nothing steals a man’s wits from him faster than a woman. Try and picture a man living in a country where law, custom and violence exclude him from any normal life and then surround him with danger, bullets and the horrible sounds of loud explosions; in the midst of that connect him electronically to a marriage deteriorating, about which he can do nothing but send angry reply after angry reply.  The surprising thing to me is not that one solider “lost it” and killed a bunch of innocent civilians, it is that only one has done it. That solider in Afghanistan did not have his wits about him, but he did have rage about him.

And a brief note on returning to a normal civilian life, it is a long process for the best of us.  I reckon it took me over ten years to adjust, to reach a point where I did think how to defend myself in every normal day to day situation, did not seek ways to recreate the excitement and tension of “life or death” living or feel a wave of anger and violence sweep over me in ways and for reasons I often did not understand; they always confused and conflicted me.  I have adjusted, well sort of, until something like this happens – then I am suddenly there with that solider, circling the wagons and preparing to open fire on the Taliban as they threaten revenge.  It will pass, for me it will pass, for that solider it will never pass, it will forever define his life.  I am sorry for the all who died, but I am also sorry for him.  As General Sherman said, war is indeed hell and there is no way to refine it.  To fight a man needs to keep his wits about him.


3 Responses to “War is hell and a man needs his wits about him”

  1. 1 Howard Mcghee March 12, 2012 at 8:48 pm

    Heavy Ken. Glad you made it but sad this soldier didn’t. When 100s of thousands come back are we in for more rage at home?

  2. 2 Ken Adams March 13, 2012 at 11:45 am

    Boots, We are not so apt to feel the rage of the returnees and their families are, it is sad – war is the guilty party, not the solider – the victims are countless, many more than the 17 he killed.

  3. 3 Anthony Saldavia March 13, 2012 at 12:12 pm

    Women…..so much control and no weapon.

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