Monday, April 18, 2011

Life After Wartime

I’ve always been fascinated by the military. Well, not always. In fact, when I was younger I was bored senseless by it. I couldn’t stand war films, war comics, or anything war related. The only exception was war in space. I loved laser guns and watching aliens die.

And then, at some point, my attitude changed. After all, nobody can deny that war is a phenomenon worth pondering, given that humans like killing each other so much.
Suddenly too I found that I admired military people. I was jealous of their ability to rise early, keep their hair short, and submit to external authority. Bohemianism is overrated: disciplined habits can help a man progress in life.

In Russia I often encountered soldiers. In the 1990s I’d see young conscripts on the street, begging for roubles. I thought they did this because their wages were so low they were starving to death. Later I realized they’d been sent out to get cash by their dedushkas- second year conscripts- on pain of brutal hazing. Then there were the mangled veterans of Afghanistan and Chechnya begging on the metro…

Those were depressing encounters. More cheerful were my meetings with two former Red Army officers who had been given the task of sitting in a remote bunker waiting for the phone call instructing them to initiate nuclear apocalypse. Both men were pretty sanguine about the experience. Upon leaving the army, one had founded his own business, while the other had become one of two priests in the service of Vissarion Christ, the notorious Siberian messiah. Military discipline had helped both rise to the top in their second careers.

In Texas, I likewise meet military people constantly. It helps that I live close to Fort Hood, the biggest army base in America. It also helps that the US army, like the Red Army, is enormous. It even has its own TV channel, which is full of lifestyle tips for men and women facing possible death in Afghanistan.

In most contemporary books and movies however war is presented as something awful that forever traumatizes all those who come into contact with it.  I am not so sure: given how much time humans spend fighting I suspect that many of us rather enjoy a bit of the old ultra-violence.

A few months back for instance I met a man who proudly explained to me how much metal was still in his body, courtesy of all the combat he had experienced. “In 30 years, I never missed a war,” he boasted.

This past weekend meanwhile, I was helping a friend clean out her recently deceased uncle’s house. He had served in the US air force, and there were some neatly pressed officer’s uniforms in the wardrobes. There was, however, a mystery. The World War Two uniforms were missing. Then I started cleaning out the garden shed. In the corner of the cluttered second floor (it was a mega shed) I spotted a green metal trunk with US Army written on it.

It was covered in dirt and hadn’t been opened for a long time. Intrigued, I snapped it open and looked inside- and there it all was! Battle fatigues, a greatcoat, scarves, mess kit- even an old gun holster.
I was probably the first person in decades to lay eyes upon these items. After all, the trunk had been closed, carried out of the house and abandoned on the second floor of a shed at the foot of the garden.
‘It must have been the trauma of war,’ said my friend. ‘He didn’t want to think about that time.’

But if the old man had been traumatized by the war, then why had he kept his kit? Meanwhile I thought of all those vampiric war journalists who, addicted to the smell of burning flesh, grow restless when at home. The sight of their kids bores them. They crave proximity to death.

And so I had another idea for why the trunk had been placed in the shed. Returning to Texas after the war, my friend’s uncle had led a very sedentary life. He got up every day, worked in an office, and then carved wood for pleasure in the evenings. Eventually he got married.

How could you relate such small suburban pleasures to the elemental experience of killing Nazis? You couldn’t. The war would stand outside his everyday existence, impossible to digest or integrate. Perhaps then he had banished the physical reminders from his house, to make it easier to live “a normal life”.

There’s no way of knowing of course. The uncle, now dead, has stopped taking questions. Whether you accept my explanation or not will depend on your outlook on human nature - Do humans like violence or fear it? Of course, the opposition is a false one. We can do both.