Many veterans refer to war by many names, but most of the veterans I know call it the suck. A Vietnam veteran and one of our nation’s first Navy SEALs, used to tell me, “War is man’s worst inhumanity against man.” It is the worst act mankind has to offer itself. Most veterans who have experienced war will tell you it’s the worst thing you will ever experience. And they’re right. Its effects are generational, the damage irrecoverable as much for the land and culture as for the combatants, civilians, and families back home. War should be the last thing anyone would want to participate in, much less veterans of war. To me, it is mankind’s ultimate failure and still, I cannot deny its morbidly seductive call.
I spent two years in combat. I was a staff sergeant scout in the Army. I’ve been in firefights, led raids and patrols, driven through roadside bomb explosions. I’ve felt that desperate fear to live, and I’ve seen it in the eyes of others. I’ve since moved on from the thrills of war, earning a degree in philosophy of ethics and then founding a charity to mitigate veteran suicide and help reintegrate veterans back into society. I hate war and protest it when I can. I hate what it did to me, my brothers and sisters in arms, and our family and friends. I hate what it did to the victims of war; the displaced families and broken homes. I hate how true the cliché rings—you wouldn’t know; you weren’t there. I hate the desires it awakens.
A friend of mine runs an equine therapy program for veterans. With the recent assassination of the Iranian general and the prospect of war in the air, she assumed the events might trigger PTSD episodes in her veterans and that they would be more willing to attend. The veterans had all been enthused by previous sessions, the weather was perfect, and the horses were happy, so she was surprised when no one showed up. She was even more perplexed when many of the veterans had posted clichéd memes about the salty old veteran, dusting off his old uniform, and polishing his weapon. So, she reached out and asked me to help her understand. This is what I told her:
The prospect of an upcoming war has a different effect on many veterans than you might expect. For those of us that have seen the horrors of combat, you may think that being flooded with news of war might exacerbate PTSD episodes in veterans. But it doesn’t. War isn’t a rancid slab of meat. It’s the smell of blood to a starved wolf. War calls to us. It awakens some inexplicable base desire. A type of primal hunger that never really goes away that is directly correlated to the amount of “suck” experienced in combat. The worse we had it; the stronger the call. For as much as I’ve spoken against and protested war, even I feel it. The rush and excitement, the bonds forged in the suck, the mantle of honor that makes you feel invincible, the weapons, the gear, the smell of cordite and fear as we roamed the streets. It’s the most addictive drug I can think of, and for those of us left with the broken memory of what we used to be… That call stirs within us.
A common knee-jerk response from veterans is that we did what we did, sacrificed a part of our soul for the security of the nation. What gets touted in memes and media is that we did it to defend the nation. Some might say we did it for our families at home. But that’s all a lie. We may have signed up out of some sense of patriotism, but that driving force quickly fades when the boots his the ground. In the end, we fought for the brothers and sisters that stood next to us in morning in formation. When one of them falls in battle, we are forever haunted by their memory and the roll-call ceremony to honor them. It’s the most heart-wrenching event I’ve every experienced, overshadowed by a voracious hunger for vengeance.
After the battle is fought and the veteran has returned home, they are left to deal with their demons—those horrible acts that felt so justified at the time—and they struggle to feel like the heroes society calls them. Ironically, after combat many veterans find the nuances of civilian life to be far more difficult than combat. Paying bills, taking the kids to school, studying for a test, listening to civilians get worked up over the color of a stupid dress… What the hell are those things compared to IED’s in Iraq and mortars in Afghanistan? How dare they get so worked up over a tan suit or orange skin. Those aren’t real concerns! No one lost a leg over the damn dress. No one had to worry about being evaporated by an IED as they walked to their English class. No one was mortared at home while studying for their math test, and don’t get me started with luxuries like internet, television, and civilian food. Nothing is as hard as combat! At least, that’s what we say right before wishing we could return to the Suck and leave all those superfluous stressors behind. Civilian life after combat can feel dull, much like kiddy rides after a rollercoaster, and finding qualitative importance in the more mundane aspects of life like choosing dinner sets can seem impossible. As I was torturing my poor wife with another dialectic diatribes, I came to an understanding about one of the quintessential aspects of war—there’s nothing stronger than bonds formed in hell.
Being a combat veteran, it’s impossible for me to look at the quiddity of the combat veteran brother/sisterhood from the outside. But I’ve heard my wife and other civilians say it often enough about it: fraternities, sororities, sports teams all have a sense of camaraderie, but few things are as unique as the bond between veterans (particularly combat veterans and especially those who have seen action, lost comrades, etc.), be they friend or stranger. I felt that she was right and I started to see it whenever I talked to other veterans; the ease in demeanor and an exchange of understanding as we shook hands. Sometimes the sentiment was stronger, sometimes the only bond we seemed to share was that we were both veterans. But there was usually some part of me that responded to veterans on an instantly more profound level than with civilians. Not to say that no one can hold as strong a bond as two combat veterans; only that, whenever I meet with another veteran, there always seems to be an instant camaraderie that feels quite different than those of other groups that I’ve been in.
Why do I set war as the baseline for humanity’s ultimate failure? Combat reduces people to a perpetual state of survival. It peals back every layer of comfort, exposing the darkest part of mankind. Murderers, rapers, torturers, slavers…every dark part of man has its place and is embodied in war. War feeds upon itself, pushing every participant to further extremes. The worst part about war is that you can’t get away from it. There is no house to escape form the world, no wife, husband, son, daughter, mother, or father to comfort you after a bad day at work. After you’ve stuff your partner’s guts back into his uniform and watched him die before the helicopter lifted off, you don’t take a week or two to recover; you get back up and do it again and again until the tour is over. Even with the lulls between patrols and firefights there is always a constant threat of annihilation that simply doesn’t exist for our family and friends back home. We were in a constant state of life that didn’t allow for such simple pleasantries as walks along the beach, heading to the coffee shop, or sleeping in a bed. The bonds that are formed between people who share such state of suck can be some of the deepest and long lasting bonds they will ever form. They can also make other relationships seem too superficial to maintain.
Not all veterans deal with such difficulties. Not all combat veterans experienced the same war, or experienced war at all. But as my wife will tell you, there is an undeniable energy, a certain type of respect that passes between veterans. An understanding between people who have forged bonds in hell. For those of us have been there, we will forever be changed. No matter how terrible the Suck got, we will forever hear its call. But I wouldn’t expect anyone to understand. After all, you wouldn’t know; you weren’t there.