Most of the veterans I know call it “The Suck”. 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, any veteran who’s experienced it 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 at home. War should be the last thing anyone would want to participate in, much less the veterans of war. To me, it is mankind’s ultimate failure. However, how things should be doesn’t always lineup with how they are.
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 help mitigate veteran suicide and help reintegrate veterans back into society. I protest war when I can. I hate war. 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 every cliche about war rings to the veteran—you wouldn’t know; you weren’t there. I hate that it calls to me.
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 had shown up. She was even more perplexed when many of the veterans had posted cliched memes about the salty old veteran, dusting off his old uniform. So, she reached out and asked me to help her understand. This is what I told her:
The prospect of 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. It’s like 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, with a direct correlation between the amount of “suck” experienced in combat and the strength of the call. For as much as I’ve spoken against and protested war, even I feel the call. 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 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… The call stirs within us.
My philosophy on the societal role of the combat veteran is simple: those who witness and execute such horrors should carry the loudest voices against it. A common sentiment among the media, and in knee-jerk responses from veterans, is that we 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. We might say we did it for our families at home, but we didn’t. We did it for the brothers and sisters that stood next to us every morning in formation, and when one of them falls in battle we are forever haunted by their memory. The ceremony to honor them is a most heart-wrenching event, often overshadowed by a voracious hunger for vengeance. Once the battle is fought and the veteran is back home, they are left to deal with their demons—those horrible acts that feel so justified at the time—and struggle to feel like the heroes society wants them to be. Veterans don’t want anyone else to suffer what they have suffered and are made to suffer every day of their lives. Their voices should carry louder than any civilian… But for some, the call is too strong, the sacrifices too great to be ignored.
War is mankind’s ultimate failure. For those of us that have witnessed and/or participated in it, we will forever be changed; no matter how terrible it was, we will forever hear the call. I wouldn’t expect anyone to understand. After all, you wouldn’t know; you weren’t there.