Sunday, April 15, 2007

The Abyss

I was going to link to a whole pile of studies to do this post, and decided not to. It’s not that there isn’t a lot, it’s that there’s almost too much. It’s that they don’t prove anything to you or, in this case with some importance, to me.

I was going to link to various stories about servicemen and servicewomen returning from some of the worlds worst places and events, having more than a little difficulty getting their minds to calm down and their consciences to absolve them of the moral dilemma. There are lots of those stories out there, and they’re not hard to find. Find them if that helps.

My grandfathers both fought in the Great War, 1914 – 1918. They both survived and shortly afterwards, emigrated from Great Britain to Canada. They had always described that move as a means to escape the rigidity of the British class structure. One of them eventually told me it was also to escape the memories of what he had been through during the war.

One became a policeman and the other a radio technician. Both spent their lives as troubled men, unable to escape the memories of the horror of the battle known as The Somme. They spoke very little of their experiences. In their homes there was always a stiffness around them. One of them loved to play with children – for a while. Then he would sink into his chair in silence, an unread book in his lap and stare at the floor until called for the next meal. Sometimes that was hours. My Grandmother would tell me, “It’s the war,” and never offered any further explanation.

The truth is, both of my grandfathers were troubled men and, while one of them seemed to adapt to life thousands of miles away from the muddied fields of Belgium and the sooty streets of Manchester, the other could never escape the horror of his experiences so long ago.

It probably didn’t help them that just over twenty years after their participation in the “war to end all wars”, they sent five of their six sons off to do it all over again. They too survived the second great war having fought in the Battle of the Atlantic, the Dieppe Raid, Ortona, The Scheldt and, as an added infliction, the disaster at Ostend which saw the destruction of the Canadian-manned 29th Motor Torpedo Boat Flotilla.

My father and one uncle, stayed in the service. They would go on to fight in Korea. In the years as I was growing up I would ask them about their particular experiences and receive no answer. I was told I was too young to know. I watched my uncle slide into acute alcohol abuse and spend a lifetime recovering; a short lifetime. Before he died the only thing he said about his experiences in war was that he hoped we had, as a people and a species, found a way to stop destroying the consciences of young people by sending them to do unnatural things.

I never understood that until much later.

I was just short of thirty-years old when my own call came. I had been in the services, both British and Canadian, for over ten years. If there had ever been a sense that with war came glory and with combat came the test of one’s character, it ended that day. A sense of fear replaced everything. Oh, there was a sense of duty and some excitement, but this was the real thing and the real thing was extremely dangerous.

In the months that followed the fury of unrestrained combat was unleashed. Ships were destroyed, comrades were killed, aircraft were shot down and I killed the enemy, at close quarters. I didn’t think much about it then. I emerged, glad to have survived, a little the worse for wear and satisfied that the incessant fear was over.

In subsequent years I would be called to one more war which, thankfully, was extraordinarily short. In the years that preceded and followed it however, there were missions to places which had been engaged in the worst horrors humans can wreak upon each other.

We had arrived to protect people and in every case, we had arrived far too late. From Cambodia to Haiti, the earth was strewn with the remains of those who sought the solution to their problems in the killing of others. And nothing was solved. The poverty, starvation, disease and corruption remained as firmly entrenched as when the killing had started, only by the time we had arrived the hatred was on display in the rotting corpses and over-filled morgues.

Had we arrived early enough to prevent it, it would have started after we left. And we would have been involved to such a degree that we too would have had to deal with the aftermath of the personal effects.

That’s what this is. It’s about what happens after. It’s about holes: holes in the psyche. There are plenty of names for it. Today’s flavourful term is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. It is described as a “condition”. No one wants to call it a combat wound.

In the decades that have passed since my first shooting war, I have thought little about what happened to me. I used to think about the people I served with and those who did not find their way home. I used to think about the good times and the loss of them when a friend fell. I used to think how they would never know what I know because their life ended too early. That was always painful enough.

Recently, however, something ignited in my mind. I don’t know what it is but it’s unpleasant at the least and terrifying at worst. The nightmares of past events come more often and with more clarity. And, in the middle of a conversation with people who know nothing of my history, I suddenly recall an event which sends my mind flying in a thousand different directions.

Back then, I used my weapon precisely as I was trained to do: automatically, surgically and as an extension of my arms. Often, I did not feel it kick into my shoulder or hear the metallic working of the action. Now, I can feel the trigger and the pressure against my index finger as I release the round that will kill the human in front of me. I can see the faces of mere boys who were given no choice but to die by my actions. In a particular instance, I replay an event which at the time I could not afford to second-guess. And I now wonder if the wounded young conscript laying in a fire-pit ahead of me was not reaching for his weapon but crossing himself in the style prescribed by his Catholic faith. I put two rounds into his chest before he could finish his act and I will never know whether he intended to kill me or whether he was simply asking for help from his God.

My mind randomly and with no warning suddenly erupts with one thought: “You are a killer.” It is something I have to fight back because when it happens I can see the edge of an abyss. It is a debilitating feeling that no matter what I have done in my life or what good I do, I will always be a killer; someone whose conscience was able to repress remorse for over two decades.

Those are the worst times. They come and they go. And now I understand the troubled times experienced by my antecedents: The unwillingness to tell others what they had experienced. There is a feeling of despair, moments of shame, and a fear that by verbalizing it, it will only promote something worse.

It might. Or, it might not.

The one feeling that nags at me is that no one will truly understand what is happening unless they were there. Can anyone truly know the sound of bullets whizzing by unless they have experienced it? Can they understand the shock of killing another human at close range? And can they understand that somehow, it should have all ended with me.

I understand my elder relatives’ misgivings in relating the stories of their wartime experience. It is a hugely difficult thing to do. But had they done it, more of us would have known the truth. From the first time a comrade drops like a sack of potatoes and never gets up, to the first time you watch a bullet from your rifle tear into the body of another, spreading flesh and bone over a narrow arc, any glory that might have been associated with being a warrior vanishes.

There is no glory. There is only a lifelong regret and a wish that things had been different.

I know now that those who preceded me wished that they were the last generation to ever have to go to war. Their hope was that the human condition could change and war could be made obsolete. That was my hope too.

It was not to be. We have sent yet another generation of young men and women off to become permanently scarred with first-hand knowledge of war. In time they will return and those who have had to experience the worst war has to offer will pay heavily. They will experience the dismissal of their difficulty to deal with the turmoil in their minds and the humiliation of having to try to beat back depression, anxiety and a simmering anger.

They will look into the abyss and, as a so-called enlightened society looks on knowing nothing of what agony exists in their minds, wonder what lies at the bottom.

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