by David P. Ervin
I asked a buddy how he was doing the other day. I keep in touch pretty regularly with “Doc,” a combat medic who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. We live in the same town, but I hadn’t heard from in a while. He replied with a phrase that’s emerged in the lexicon of American combat veterans of the War on Terror; two words that act as a euphemism for a chilling component of life after war.
Of course, we’re not talking about having tea with the Mad Hatter here. We’re talking about a flashback.
I knew what he was experiencing. Your palms sweat. Breaths come deeply and rhythmically as your body maximizes oxygen intake. Your heart thumps within a tightened chest as it pushes blood to every limb. Eyes dart and hair stands up. It’s not a hallucination in which you believe that you’re in another place and another time. Rather, you feel like it. Something (sometimes nothing) has elicited a very physical and emotional memory, a frighteningly intense mental space that we first discovered in combat. As Brian Mockenhaupt aptly wrote, they are the “darkened areas that for many remain unexplored. And once these darkened spaces are lit, they become a part of us.” Often, our time back in those places passes quickly. Sometimes, it does not. And, other times, we give in to the immense gravity those memories exert and venture further down the rabbit hole.
So I wasn’t surprised when Doc began sending me links to videos from the wars. On occasion some of us indulge ourselves in the imagery and sounds of combat. We scratch that itch in a way that’s masochistic, nostalgic, and indicative of the bizarre allure of adrenaline. Modern technology has created an internet that is awash with footage of combat. We can take our pick between an Apache strike, a machine gun’s hammering rattle, or a stream of tracers racing across those all-too-familiar cityscapes. Anyone can. Many do. We wouldn’t be the first generation to revisit these things. In The Great War and Modern Memory, Paul Fussel told us about World War One veterans of Great Britain purchasing phonograph records of the sounds of artillery bombardments on the Western Front.
And, of course, as veterans we’re not really so unique in this regard, either.
There is a reason these images are at our fingertips. If America is honest with itself, we are all fascinated with war and violence on some level. It permeates our culture whether we served in war or not. Those who haven’t experienced it can be drawn to it by curiosity, and the less those who truly understand talk about it – the more it’s a dirty little secret – the greater the pull of this curiosity. David Grossman has taken it a step further in pointing out that the prevalence of fictionalized violence in video games, television, and film is widespread, so much so that it has warped our society’s fundamental understanding and beliefs about violence. Indeed, he went as far to say that the more dishonest we are about the true nature of violence, the more we associate it with positive feelings and thus perpetuate it. For most, those spectacles are just that – exciting images and sounds.
Of course, combat veterans know better. We know what a grotesque reality it is to kill and be killed. It’s the harshest reality we’ve had to face. So why would those of us ‘in the know’ seek to face this reality again by seeking out this imagery? Are we subjecting ourselves to some kind of punishment? Not really.
Down there in the rabbit hole, we fumble around in the dark for reasons why we’re there. We look in every corner of our current reality to make sense of the emotions. But for the myriad of possibilities, there is one single reason why they really occur – it’s a memory. Immersing ourselves in the images and sounds of war allow us to establish a concrete, logical connection between the way we feel now and the way we felt then. It’s a reminder that we are not insane. Our bodies and minds just hold distinct, vivid memories, and those memories have powerful emotional content. We can make sense of it, and that understanding is somewhat of a comfort even if the mechanisms we use to comprehend it make us feel strange.
Were Americans frank about their fascination with war and thorough in its desire to understand, we wouldn’t feel so uncomfortable about remembering. But we live in a conflicted society, one that alternates between peacemongering during war and warmongering in peace. Perhaps if the imagery of war and violence were packed with the horrible punch that we feel that fascination would dissipate. At the least, it would be understood for what it is.
So we write and attempt to tell stories to explain, to give a gateway into the emotional context that surrounds the phenomenon of war. We do so in the hopes that everyone can understand that it’s not really something we miss as much as it is something we can’t forget.
And we try to let others know that when they go chasing rabbits down those holes, they’re not alone.