#Essays on War: September Morning

After a few seconds, my driver and I looked at one another and burst out laughing. The MRAP-ATV (Mine Resistant Ambush-Protected All-Terrain Vehicle, one of those machines ordered by Robert Gates that saved my life and countless others) lay still, angled into a massive hole in the road. The hood had twisted up and over the top of the vehicle and radiator fluid leaked onto my gunner, who crouched beneath the turret in a vain attempt to avoid it. I felt surprisingly calm—it was a relief to finally get blown up—and my shoulders continued to roll with the laughter, the most vivid memory of my life.

“Is everyone all right?” I asked. “Barns, you all right? Sheldon, how about you? Gibbons, Ahmed, you good back there?”

“Yes, Sir, I’m good,” they replied, one by one.

“Hey man, wiggle your fingers and toes. Sometimes you don’t feel these things until a little later,” I said, looking down at my mud and dust-stained camouflage, wanting to make sure I didn’t miss anything, like a blown-off leg.

Pressing a button to activate my mouthpiece, I tried to send a report to my platoon sergeant, but the blast had messed with the vehicle’s communication equipment and I couldn’t reach him.

Suddenly, one of the rear doors jerked open with what seemed like superhuman force, noticeably shaking the 25,000 lb. truck. It was my medic, a newly-minted Sergeant. “Sir, you guys ok? Shit, I thought you were dead. That blast was huge.”

The gunfire started as I squeezed over the radios mounted between the front seats to exit the vehicle. “Well, that’s fucking great…that’s not really what I need right now,” I muttered softly, thinking that we’d been caught in a complex ambush. As it turned out, the Afghan police on patrol with us that day had caught sight of the fleeing insurgent, and were pounding the tree line with automatic weapons fire. A few of my Soldiers joined them, rhythmically pumping 5.56 mm rounds in the same direction. The insurgent—the man who had tried to kill my Soldiers and me—got away with surprising ease.

My mind felt numb, but I was coherent enough to realize that I’d allowed my men to stay dismounted on the road for far too long. “Banks, hey man, let’s go clear these compounds,” I yelled. Had we stayed, we might have been hit by the secondary IED that detonated on a timer as we were moving towards the second house. One of the Afghan National Police officers was standing at the rear of the disabled MRAP, trying to grab a bottle of water out of the back. He too was lucky, stumbling off the dirt road into an adjacent field, and survived with ringing ears.

Many months later, back in a motor pool in Germany, I had the privilege of promoting my driver. I retold the story of how he had laughed in the face of fear and danger. As my eyes welled and I struggled to control the tone of my voice, I said that this was the kind of the Soldier the Army needed. Perhaps subconsciously, I had positioned myself just far enough away from the 200-person formation so that no one could observe the emotion building in my face, or so I hoped.

The war touched me in too many ways to count. It reached out well before I ever, resisting the temptation to spit, stepped gingerly over the corpse of a Taliban shadow governor lying bloated in an irrigation ditch, or walked through a field of organs and blood after a suicide bombing. The truth is that I felt it for the first time long before that, on a mild September day in Northern California, when the radio station that normally played alternative rock switched inexplicably to cover the news in New York. It was the end of a decade of innocence or arrogance, depending on your interpretation.

War is a funny thing. There is a sense in which I feel as if I never really fought. My time in Afghanistan was mild compared to the experiences of so many others. And yet, there is a parallel, concurrent sense in which I feel as if I am perpetually fighting.

I used to walk the streets of a crime-ridden but comparatively placid city in Connecticut, hoping to get jumped, aching for violence. I used to drive 135 miles per hour on the Autobahn, craving the kind of danger that “normal life” fails to provide. These were perhaps self-indulgent acts. Sometimes, though, truth reveals itself in less controllable ways. One time I walked into a Dairy Queen where a man had just had a seizure and cracked open the back of his head, pooling the floor with blood. Someone who seemed reasonably competent was already attending to him and, feeling familiarly flippant and loose for the first time in ages, I looked up chuckling and asked the stunned cashier, “So how many burgers did you give this guy?”

These days, I just run until I can’t get enough oxygen, never really seeming to go much of anywhere. Sometimes the blackness starts to edge towards the center of my vision and I have to concentrate hard to push it back out. Life without war is as plain as it is unintelligible. It is as if I am standing on the side of a great mountain, staring at and stretching up for the stars, suspended in an enveloping sky both perfectly clear and defiantly opaque. I’m deceptively close, but I can neither reach nor recapture it—whatever “it” is—suspended like those stars in some kind of permanent purgatory, like going through life in the third person.

It’s strange and disconcerting to feel that I have already done what I was born to do—to lead a small but tough band of my countrymen in a conflict-ridden corner of the world. It is stranger and more disconcerting to realize that I will likely be chasing that feeling for the rest of my life. Not the adrenaline per se—I’ve never been much of a junkie for that—but the crazed confidence that you get when you’re close to danger and have the firepower to counter it, like being always on the verge of a fight that you’re itching for and which you’ve been well-trained to win.

It is not so much that I consider myself to have been a great leader, though I greatly enjoyed leading and was honored to have been entrusted with the lives of brave, young Americans. I was probably average. But the gnawing thing about it is the recognition, which I unsuccessfully suppress, that I am a different version of myself now. In fact, it is difficult to believe I was ever that strong and resolute. When I look back on that permutation of myself, it seems as though there was literally nothing I would not and could not have done for my country, aside from maybe killing children.

There is an old Turkish story that speaks for many of us:

The war was over and the army was preparing to exit the occupied land. Everything seemed to be in order, until the general overseeing the army’s departure noticed a single tank, impossibly perched at the peak of a massive mountain. The general sent his best crews up to the top to bring down the tank. Each one returned to the mountain’s base saying the same thing:
“There’s no way to get that thing down, Sir. We have no idea how it got up there in the first place.”
And so the general, ever stubborn, said, “Fine, if you cannot accomplish the task, get me the man who drove the tank.”
When the Soldiers brought him the driver, the general looked down at him and said, “I don’t know how you got that vehicle up there, but we’re leaving now and you’ve got to get it down.”
Gazing at him with regret, the driver responded, “I can’t, Sir.”
“Why not?” said the general, growing impatient.
“Because, Sir, we are no longer at war. While we were fighting, I was elevated.”

It is impossible to explain this phenomenon to people who have not known war—to those who have never experienced the elevating power of context. The worst is when you try to explain it to people who wish that they had had the courage to fight. I’ve always had trouble understanding those who wanted to serve but didn’t—“serve” in the broad sense of the word, like contributing at all to the wars aside from producing some totally immaterial bit of the national output that helped pay for them. I’ve heard too many lame excuses to count. Mainly they’re from young men who will forever be insecure because they wanted to join the military but were too frightened.

Rarely do these excuses reflect any fundamental objection to war: “It wasn’t the right time,” they say, or, “My mom would have killed me.” Their sense of masculinity in a state of perpetual question, they are leeches in a free society struggling to balance good citizenry with individual freedom. Probably they’re the ones yelling the loudest on the Tough Mudder course.

I’m talking about the people who are far more interested in interrogating you about Ranger School than gently (and genuinely) asking you about Afghanistan, permanently missing the forest for the trees, and turning you into some kind of one-dimensional GI Joe. These are the people who do not realize that if Captain America were real, he’d probably be suffering from post traumatic stress like so many true heroes do. And if not, he’d at least be in a blunted state of perpetual confusion, just like the rest of us. I always preferred the far more overtly tortured Wolverine. He was a character worthy of a war generation—or, as it were, worthy of a generational minority that experienced one.

But the truth is that war provides no resolution to one’s masculinity, even and perhaps especially if one knows what it means to act bravely. After all, the great Achilles proved confoundingly vulnerable. And even Chris Kyle, perhaps the closest to a contemporary Ancient Greek hero our modern society has produced, struggled after returning from combat. Like Achilles, his love for his fellow warriors—that deep sense of empathy that we would otherwise, mistakenly, not identify as fundamentally masculine—was what made him human. It is arguably what led to his tragic death.

Of course, I am no more confused—and war is in many ways at least no more confusing—than our country itself. We are staunch capitalists, yet trade in extraordinary volumes with the most powerful communist country in the world. We fly our diplomats to Geneva to negotiate with some of our sworn enemies, while anonymously killing others with drones. We bifurcate diplomacy and force, without acknowledging, or perhaps even recognizing, the two complement one another. We are, at the heart of it, a nation that has as much love of peace as we have of war, and we pretend that we are not discomforted by this apparent contradiction.

So it goes, the fate of our national identity—of my identity—is inextricable from the outcome of the Global War on Terror. For those of us who served, and who unconsciously draw from this service much of ourselves, it is surprising to observe how unapologetically domestic life has proceeded without us. This might be the sign of a strong nation, were it not also so quietly vicious and self-serving. Free riders abound. A small number volunteered to carry the burden. Many of that number fought—and continue to fight—longer and harder than I ever did.

And, as in any other war, some of them died. They were—they are, as timeless as folly and strife—friends, brothers, sisters, mothers and fathers. Some expired of natural causes, their bodies giving way to an essential, if unstoppable, force. Most fell on nameless battlefields that turned on them far too quickly, amidst the confusion and dust, in places where friend and foe too often take the same form. A few more took their own lives when they found, confoundingly, that home itself was too much to bear, as if they encountered for the first time in years some old friend, once intimate, now ferociously unrecognizable. Wherever they perished, you can still see them if you look closely enough—everywhere and nowhere, in the silver band on an old soldier’s wrist, or on a stubbornly active Facebook page, filled with the posts of the unforgetful.

We have hardly fought. And yet we are perpetually fighting, forever chasing the elusive specter of a recognizable victory, infuriatingly beyond our reach. War is myth, and myth is war, forever inseparable, both equally ripe with irony and conceit. So it is that we all stumble back faltering into that fateful September morning.

Daniel Fisher is a joint MBA/MPP candidate at the Harvard Business School and Harvard Kennedy School. Previously, he served as an infantry and scout platoon leader in the U.S. Army and served in Afghanistan from 2011-12. The opinions expressed are the author’s alone, and do not reflect those of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

Have a response or an idea for your own article? Follow the logo below, and you too can contribute to The Bridge:

Enjoy what you just read? Please help spread the word to new readers by sharing it on social media.

Header Image: Evan Benson on a cool September morning in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, resting his feet after a sleepless night as he waits for an Explosive Ordnance Disposal team outside a local Afghan’s home where he had just had tea. Photo courtesy of Evan Benson.