I couldn’t be more any more removed from Iraq and its ongoing saga of sad war tales, one after one, soldier after soldier, feeling unheard, feeling disconnected. I understand that they are now offering soldiers a decompress period before returning them to loved ones, yet the duration is not nearly long enough. How good can any decompression ‘training’ and pyschological coaching be? Can it really prepare someone how to deal with their life after war, in a place where no one will relate to them or even care.
Let’s face it. War is brutal. Tune into this silent dialogue that ended up in John Crawford’s Last True Story I’ll Ever Tell novel:
“We knew what an AK-47 bullet sounds like when it zips unseen by our heads. We had heard the deafening blast of 155-millimeter rounds exploding near us. We knew the screams of the wounded and dying, and had seen the tears of men, of soldiers. I watched as we de-evolved into animals, and all this time, there was a sinking feeling that we were changing from hunter to hunted.”
Here my heart sunk. The American soldier consistently goes to this place of aloneness, alienation, anger, frustration and confusion. He later points out in the book that if it meant killing another Iraqi — anyone — okay, as long as it brought you closer to going home to waiting loved ones. In other words, the black versus white line, the clear vs fuzzy, right vs wrong, just didn’t make sense anymore.
“They counted the minutes they could go downstairs to their cots and sleep, dream about better times and better places that would never look the same to them again. The dreams’ detail faded over time, and before you knew it, you couldn’t remember what your wife’s or child’s face looked like. Sight was always the first memory to go; the others lasted longer. That what was kept us sane and yet tortured us. We embraced those memories like drug addicts shivering on a street corner.”
He talks about coping mechanisms and what each of them did to wade through, during and after returning to the states, which in many cases was worse than those who stayed behind.
At one very dark alone moment, Crawford writes, “Slivers of light escaped through cracks under doors and in walls. For a moment, I was jealous. Would I trade with them if my family had been somewhere down among the shanties? In that moment, I would be just fine living in a hovel as long as someone who loved me was there. That’s better than the nicest house in northern Virginia any day.”
Here here Crawford. His writing isn’t profound. He’s not D.H. Lawrence and some argue that other war novels (from a soldier’s perspective) are more philosophical and touch on the intense comparison between the before war personality and the aftermath of what they turned into. Either alone or with their disconnected family who didn’t abandon them, a less likely scenario than the former, so I understand.
If he wasn’t aware of what he signed up for before being sent to Iraq, it became as clear as an Arizona winter sky within weeks. He writes, “people pick the army — they become mechanics, water-supply specialists, cooks, clerks — but the infantry is different. The infantry picks the man: men who do poorly in math, excel at athletics, drink a lot, love their mothers, fear their fathers; men who have something to prove or feel that they have already proven it all.
We were both proud and ashamed of what we were. The stepchildren of the army, infantrymen are like guard dogs at a rich man’s house. When people come to visit, the media, the USO, they lock us in the garage and tell us not to bark, but when night falls and there is a noise outside, everyone is glad we’re there. Guarding against bumps in the night….”
Powerful. Written a bit like the Color Purple, in that the verbal canter is authentic and brassy. It’s also rough and ‘in-the-moment.’ He doesn’t hold back and at times, the dialogue is tedious; you wonder if its leading up to something, i.e., someone will lose it and commit suicide or kill someone just because. The guys make you go to that place through smoke, alcohol and valium long into the night.
The dialogue takes us go to Iraq with him, to the place of the soldier. The nasty effect of war itself – Iraq, Korea, the Falklands or Vietnam. It’s irrelevant.
He returns to an empty house. His wife is gone and there is not a friend who can empathize or listen to his tales. As he fights with a year’s excess with his dog eyeing him and wondering if a coup d’etat would be necessary to ensure his continued food supply, he sits, contemplates, wonders and goes back to that unhealthy place that keeps him distant from everyone around him – those who could not begin to understand what war is like or what it does to your brain.
One returning American friend ended up in an institution for being a danger to himself, another woke up in a hospital with no memory and turned out to be a danger to everyone else, one guy got a brain infection and woke up every morning expecting to be in Iraq, two more ended up in Afghanistan, having re-upped rather than deal with being home. He writes, “five more went back to Baghdad as private security guards. Life goes on.”
For a 220 page account, Crawford does an excellent job at narrating a story that combines ‘reporting’ style and self reflection. He crosses lines, but not others. Sometimes you feel as if he is holding back, sharing 110 stories, but not the other 890, yet we get enough clarity to move us into a frightening but thought provoking place.
For more short stories and tales, refer to the below links for additional reading:
CBS: Crowds Protest
Hillary Clinton thoughts in Newsday (sidesteps discussion)
War Stories – three years ago