Friday, May 11, 2007

Home from the Wars

A young soldier comes home from the wars and discovers something strange:

This may sound silly, in fact at first it may make you think I am crazy. But the fact is that for the last few weeks I have really missed Afghanistan. I have given this a lot of thought, and I have discussed it with a few people, including some veterans, and I have realized that perhaps it is not as crazy as it may initially seem. You see I have realized that it's not Afghanistan that I miss. I don't miss the crappy living conditions, I don't miss being shot at, and I don't miss carrying a weapon everywhere. What I do miss is the camaraderie that I shared while I was there. I built friendships in a mere 18 months that usually take years or even a life time to forge.

Don't get me wrong. I have plenty of friends here at home but it is different. I do like the people I work with here at the NAVICP as well, but our relationships can never be as tight as those I has with people who I went to hell and back with. While I was in Afghanistan I formed bonds that crossed rank structures and services. A Lieutenant Commander was my brother, I had the privilege of being mentored by two great Master Sergeants, an amazing Senior Chief, and no less than six Chief Petty Officers. I learned how to mentor numerous Sergeants, Petty Officers, Airmen, Corporals and Privates. At the end of the day each one was family.

In any war that goes on long enough -- which is probably "three months or more" -- camaraderie in the ranks becomes stronger than political consciousness or whatever else inspires men to go to war in the first place. With every battle and with every camp baseball game, these boys grow a cussed loyalty to the unit, the regiment, the company.

As they grow closer to each other, in the mad world of war, they grow more remote from everything else. The march of Xenophon's 10,000 is the ultimate army story. They stick together. They evolve their own morality, and they hold to it. A few get killed. But they know that if they don't work together they all get killed. It doesn't matter how they got into this war -- it's not their war, anyhow.

No one at home understands what they are going through. Robert Graves, a young Welsh officer shot up in the trenches in World War I and sent home to heal, wrote, "England looked strange to us returned soldiers. We could not understand the war madness that ran about everywhere, looking for a pseudo-military outlet. The civilians talked a foreign language, and it was newspaper language. I found serious conversation with my parents all but impossible." He could have stayed safe at home, but he begged the army to send him back to the front, not so he could kill Germans, but so he could be back with the men he felt needed him.

In researching my Civil War book, I read about a veteran's encounter, decades after the war, with an old chap who once had commanded a brigade in the Union's 2nd Corps -- Hancock's Corps. The old general pulled out a red flannel trefoil, the kind the 2nd Corps soldiers had worn on their caps, and said, "When I feel homesick and downhearted, I take this out and look at it, and it cheers me up."

[Incidentally, and without any reference to the above soldier or any other, I suspect this intense bond goes a long way toward explaining the recently released survey of U.S. soldiers' attitudes, which has shocked so many people: "Less than half of the soldiers and marines would report a team member for unethical behaviour" ... "More than a third of all soldiers and marines reported that torture should be allowed to save the life of a fellow soldier or marine." I would expect you'd get an equal, or higher, rate of "chilling statistics" among any American fighting army you care to pluck out of the history books.]