Regular Civilians Will Never Understand the Other World of War

09/27/2017 12:59 pm ET
Frank Rossoto Stocktrek/Getty Images

What aspects of war cannot be perceived or understood by normal people? originally appeared on Quora - the place to gain and share knowledge, empowering people to learn from others and better understand the world.

What’s hard to comprehend for people reading about combat is the sense the soldier has of being dislocated, or disassociated, from his or her very existence. His or her own life. Life itself. In Vietnam, troops said things like, “Back in the world, my parents are probably going to the grocery store right now. They are probably going to…” This dreaming about what was happening “back in the world” blooms to life in vivid color, while around the soldier violence and chaos infects the very air, infuses each minute, day or night.

Back in the world. This phrase begs the question about what world these soldiers are in. It’s a world beyond a “normal” sense of one’s relationship to others. Being in combat, and killing in combat, requires us to hot-wire our psyches in each act of pulling the trigger. We know this because veterans have admitted that in the middle of a firefight, they hadn’t fired their weapon. The act of killing, which is essential to combat, is humanity’s counter-narrative of what constitutes citizenship. At the same time, each country will call upon its citizen to fight, so that the country itself might live, so to speak. This is the paradox of life as a soldier, and the paradox all of us consider, and often shrink from, when confronted with the blunt, eyeless snout of war.

This tension between sense of duty and sense of self vibrates in a soldier’s consciousness long after the battle is over. When he or she comes home, the soldier feels emotionally out of sync, to put it mildly. One Vietnam veteran told me he couldn’t remember an entire year of combat. Perhaps it had been buried so deep so that it couldn't be easily recalled. Perhaps the terror of combat, and the unexpected joys of surviving it, had razed the very synapses required.

Because of this, the person who’s survived combat lives it twice; first, in actual fact; and next, day by day, long after the gunfire ceases. The experience is so overwhelming that it can become impossible to speak of it. This silence breeds even more silence among those who know and may love the person. This is a loop of increasing inarticulation, as if those in the loop, the listener and the speaker, are moving backward in time, to a place before the invention of speech, before the creation of world itself. Into this void can come, however, one word, one question, a bell ringing in an otherwise cold night: Tell me your story. What happened to you?

The answer you hear may surprise you, haunt you, bind you to the teller.

Listen.

Witness.

The story you hear will make you human.

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