On Telling War Stories

by Jerad W. Alexander

In a bar in the Poncey-Highland neighborhood of Atlanta, I sat across from a woman with eyes like wet iron and watched through cigarette smoke as she explained how her boyfriend had been murdered. He had been killed the previous May at a popular drive-in theater. After the movie had ended he discovered his car battery had failed him and he needed a jump. He walked to the truck next to him, tapped on the dark driver-side window, and for his troubles received a bullet to the chest which killed him as paramedics worked on him in the back of a speeding ambulance.

Her story put a zap through my spine, as I’m sure it would anyone. She cried almost mechanically as she told it. She was tough, and would later give testimony before a jury that would inevitably put the shooter away for life. But at the moment, there in the bar under a haze of beer and whiskey and chain-smoked cigarettes, was a reflection of old pains I recognized almost immediately. A savagery had taken hold, a bitterness. It was completely justified, of course, but I recognized it because I had once carried it within myself. It’s the kind of thing you can hear in the back of the throat—a sort of bile-damp gravel that curls the upper lip an almost imperceptible measure. You can see it as a hardening of the eye capillaries whenever pain creates rage; and I felt a dubious need to lay on some Old Folksy Wartime Wisdom. I had been in her world, at least in a certain psychic sense, and I wanted to offer perspective.

I told her a war story.

I told her of a lance corporal I knew in Iraq who was killed by an alpha-male nightmare and the comic error of bad driving. One afternoon, the staff NCO of the guard at our camp in western Iraq orchestrated a response drill. Basically, he wanted to see how fast his Marines would respond to a potential threat in the camp, normally a routine and completely justifiable action. However, the staff NCO of the guard, a massive gunnery sergeant with a booming voice and woefully arrogant demeanor who lead by fear and intimidation, whipped his troops into a stress frenzy. As the lance corporal rode in the bed of an open air Humvee the nervous driver misread a turn and flipped the top-heavy vehicle onto its back. The lance corporal was tossed from the bed and crushed between the roof and the ground.

I found out about it soon after from the battalion administration staff NCO who was a friend of mine. He had been called to identify the body a few hours earlier. Later, as I glumly walked toward my hooch to shed my gear I passed near the helipad reserved for the battalion aid station. Standing outside the entrance to the station were two facing ranks of Navy corpsman. A number of others, including the battalion chaplain, were on hand. Unsure of what was going on I stopped and watched. Within a few seconds a fat gray Marine transport helicopter clattered to the ground and dropped its ramp. Fine Iraqi dust flew in thick billows around all of us. The wooden doors of the aid station burst open and through the dust two corpsmen wheeled a gurney toward the back of the chopper. On it rested a rumpled black body bag. . .

Kestava - WastelandIt was at about this point in the story that I became emotional. Sitting in front of this woman in a dive bar in Atlanta my eyes welled slightly. It was an odd thing, the welling up. I had never done that before. I had told that story to a few close others, but never had I came close to weeping. And yet, even now as I write on this rainy summer night years later, I feel that same sad rush collect in my sinuses, and it makes me laugh because it’s such an old story now.

Back in the bar and next to the helipad, I shakily told her how as the corpsmen wheeled his body to the maw of the helicopter everyone gave an honest salute in good keeping with war movie clichés. But it was a bitter salute for me, and one that did not last very long. The bird revved its massive blades to liftoff speeds and sent the dust into a whirlwind. I told her how I swore it was the dust, that rotten dust that coated my eyes and inside my nose, that made me turn away and wipe the water from my eyes and beat a fist in rage against the concrete warehouse I stood near. I explained my vitriol toward the gunnery sergeant, toward the shaky Humvee driver, and toward the general lock-step stupidity. I told her I wanted to kill everything. I told her I hated the war and the marketed and bullying jingoism that put us all in that country to begin with, for her and for even you now.

But I quickly dried up and offer The Message—that I had long factored it all, come to grips with the war despite my spurring emotions, and had found peace with the war and my involvement in it, while maintaining an itch to express to others the savagery, oddities, insanities, and even the humanity of the Marine Corps and of Iraq War at large; and that hopefully in telling these things to others could expand on some larger truth that might spare us further damage, as Pollyanna as that lofty goal might be. I explained how she might have a similar opportunity when she was ready for it. She seemed to understand.

For years I figured other veterans shut up about their service because of some latent trauma. Perhaps I’m woefully naïve, but it never occurred to me they might stay silent because of the response they might receive. I don’t talk much about the military anymore, at least not in casual conversations or in detail with folks I don’t know very well. The subject has a tendency to spray a social gathering with what seems to be an ultrafine shit-mist, regardless of whether I’m talking about a wild barracks party during a hurricane or a day in Iraq when my buddy and I laughed and shoved each other like schoolkids as we lugged a machinegun to the roof of a building taking sniper fire. There’s often an unspoken assumption that I’m somehow damaged, that because I’m telling some wartime anecdote I must certainly be in the grips of some flashback just shy of some violent boiling point. While wildly inaccurate, this certainly accounts for all the stories of human resources managers and job recruiters who’ve skipped over veterans’ resumes because they don’t want to have a real life John Rambo (or their fearhead image of one) sitting in the breakroom with the regular squares during lunch break.

The sad truth is that while I’m completely comfortable telling honest war stories, I often wonder if the audience that needs to hear them the most—those who have built their understanding of the wars on dubious political or social perceptions—are simply unreceptive, or unavailable.

The Written Word about the Iraq and Afghanistan wars has been shuttled off into easily digestible camps. There are the hero/war porn tales filled with soul-wounded sniper-death-kill memoirs, Navy SEAL vignettes, and whatever jingoist G.I. Joe/Greatest Generation war stories that pack up the Great White neocon newsfeeds. It’s the land of the battle hardened operator, the bonafide ‘Merican hero above reproach who makes the flyover states feel a little more comfortable in their dubious notion of American Exceptionalism. Alternatively, there is the often well intentioned-but-retreaded literary war fiction that feels beaten into the MFA copy of the Novel of the Last Big War while desperately trying to squeeze out Tim O’Brien for a spot in the next generation of high school English text books. They do a better job of portraying the battlefield, from both physical and moral standpoints, but they’re packed with so much wartime woe that any uneducated reader is bound to be chased off by the suicidal demons that crawl off the pages. The running narratives of these wars are wrapped up in either politicized chest-beating or as the showroom models of damaged goods. Veterans tend to favor the former while civilians edge toward the latter, if they’re inclined to go anywhere at all. Neither of them are completely accurate and we’re all suffering because of it.

As the night progressed in the smoky bar, and as she asked me questions about the war, her tone darkened. After downing shots and beers over loud Tom Waits and Johnny Cash she looked at me through cigarette smoke and her old bitterness churned alive. She looked sprayed with the aforementioned shit-mist, but for some atavistic reason kept wading through it anyway. After a while it felt more like an interrogation than a conversation. Finally, she interrupted me—

“You were a minion,” she said.

“I’m sorry?”

“You were a minion, ok?. You did Bush’s dirty work. You’re a murderer? I’m sorry, but I can’t help it. I don’t believe in any of it. How could you even do all that? It makes me sick.”

The music softened. Or maybe it didn’t. Maybe I thought it did. Somewhere in the back of my frayed auditory cortex a concerned synapse must have turned down the worldly volume because everything focused on this one precise moment. All the recording devices of my mind clicked on as if I had tapped into some bizarre historical conduit too foul to let slip by. I had read of veterans returning from Vietnam with similar stories, but always assumed they were limited to the time period. And yet here it was: bold faced, stark, dry, and very real.

I know many combat veterans who would have gone completely sideways at mere notion of having anyone bounce such prejudices their way. A few might have ripped the table from the floor and broke the wood down to splinters. Others still might have even been tipped enough to get violent with even her, regardless of the state where her statements came from (which can only be half accounted to trauma). As for me, I pride myself on a certain level of emotional wherewithal. There is no perspective one can offer to assuage the emotional amputation caused by a violent death of someone close, or in some cases even nonviolent. Its only remedy is time and time alone. Even now I have to routinely remind myself of that fact. There is no other fix. Nevertheless, I quickly paid and washed my hands of the whole rotten scene. I was too stunned to do otherwise. Sometimes I wonder if shattering a few pint glasses on the way out might have been worth it, if only as a punctuation mark.

Are veterans obligated to Spread the Word out to the congregation? Is it worth wading across the divide between veterans and civilians? I know for me it is, at least in a certain respect, but walking out of that bar those years ago I had to rationally wonder if the waters are simply too high to cross.