Sunday, June 6, 2010

Quotes from "War" Part II

I decided to post these last quotes separately because, if he is correct, they cast a new light on how I can understand a combat vet's experience:

"Civilians balk at recognizing that one of the most traumatic things about combat is having to give it up. War is so obviously evil and wrong that the idea there could be anything good to it almost feels like a profanity. And yet throughout history, men like Mac and Rice and O'Byrne have come home to find themselves desperately missing what should have been the worst experience of their lives. To a combat vet, the civilian world can seem frivolous and dull, with very little at stake and all the wrong people in power...when men say they miss combat, it's not that they actually miss getting shot at--you'd have to be deranged--it's that they miss being in a world where everything is important and nothing is taken for granted. They miss being in a world where human relations are entirely governed by whether you can trust the other person with your life.

It's such a pure, clean standard that men can completely remake themselves in war. You could be anything back home--shy, ugly, rich, poor, unpopular--and it won't matter because it's of no consequence ina firefight, and therefore of no consequence, period. The only thing that matters is your level of dedication to th erest of the group, and that is almost impossible to fake...

War is a big and sprawling word that brings a lot of human suffering into the conversation, but combat is a different matter. Combat is the smaller game that young men fall in love with, and any solution to the human problem of war will have to take into account the psyches of these young men. For some reason there is a profound and mysterious gratification to the reciprocal agreement to protect another person with your life, and combat is virtually the only situation in which that happens regularly. These hillsides of loose shale and holy treed are where the men feel not most alive--that you can get skydiving--but the most utilized. The most necessary. The most clear and certain and purposeful. If young men could get that feeling at home, no one would ever want to go to war again, but they can't. So here sits Sergeant Brendan O'Byrne, one month before the end of deployment, seriously contemplating signing back up." [bold emphasis mine] -pp. 233-234

" irony of combat psychology...the logical downside of heroism. If you're willing to lay down your life for another person, then their death is going to be more upsetting than the prospect of your own" -p. 237

"Combat fog obscures your fate--obscures when and where you might die--and from that unknown is born a desperate bond between the men. That bond is the core experience of combat and the only thing you can absolutely count on...the enemy might kill you, but the shared commitment to safeguard one another's lives is unnegotiable and only deepens with time. The willingness to die for another person is a form of love that even religious fail to inspire, and the experience of it changes a person profoundly. What the Army sociologists...slowly came to understand was that courage was love. In war, neither could exist without the other and that in a sense they were just different ways of saying the same thing." -p. 239

Quotes from "War"

"War" by Sebastian Junger

The idea that there are rules in warfare and that combatants kill each other according to basic concepts of fairness probably ended for good with the machine gun. A man with a machine gun can conceivably hold of a whole battalion, at least for a while, which changes the whole equation of what it means to be brave in battle. In WWI, when automatic weapons came into general use, heavy machine gunners were routinely executed if their position was overrun because they caused so much death. (Regular infantry, who were thought to be "fighting fairly," were often spared.) Machine guns forced infantry to disperse, to camouflage themselves, and to fight in small independent units. All that promoted stealth over honor and squad loyalty over blind obedience.

In a war of that nature soldiers gravitate toward whatever works best with the least risk. At that point combat stops being a grand chess game between generals and becomes a no-holds-barred experiment in pure killing. As a result, much of modern military tactics is geared toward maneuvering the enemy into a position where they can essentially be massacred from safety. It sounds dishonorable only if you imagine that modern war is about honor; it's not. It's about winning, which means killing the enemy on the most unequal terms possible. Anything less simply results in the loss of more of your own men." - p.140

After describing his humvee being hit with an IED and the ensuing firefight, he writes:
"War is a lot of things and it's useless to pretend that exciting isn't one of them. It's insanely exciting. The machinery of war and the sound it makes and the urgency of its use and the consequences of almost everything about it are the most exciting things anyone engaged in war will ever know. Soldiers discuss that fact with each other and eventually with their chaplains and their shrinks and maybe even their spouses, but he public will never hear about it. It's just not something that many people want acknowledged. War is supposed to feel bad because undeniably bad things happen in it, but for a nineteen-year-old at the working end of a .50 cal during a firefight that everyone comes out of okay, war is life multiplied by some number that no one has ever heard of. In some ways twenty minutes of combat is more life than you could scrape together in a lifetime of doing something else. Combat isn't where you might die--though that does happen--it's where you find out whether you get to keep on living. Don't underestimate the power of that revelation. Don't underestimate the things young men will wager in order to play that game one more time." -pp. 144-145

"Society can give its young men almost any job and they'll figure how to do it. They'll suffer for it and die for it and watch their friends die for it, but in the end, it will get done. That only means that society should be careful about what it asks for." -p. 154

"Heroism is hard to study in soldiers because they invariably claim that they acted like any good soldier would have. Among other things, heroism is a negation of the self--you're prepared to lose your own life for the sake of others--so in that sense, talking about how brave you were may be psychologically contradictory...Civilians understand soldiers to have a kind of baseline duty, and that everything above that is considered "bravery." Soldiers see it the other way around: either you're doing your duty or you're a coward. There's no other place to go." -p. 211