Our current HuffPost Book Club pick is "What It Is Like To Go To War" by Karl Marlantes. We are talking about different aspects of the military experience over on our Book Club page; this entry was created as part of the discussion; go to the page to have your say.
The enemy within, lying, loyalty, heroism, home: these aren't simple words. They're etched in bone and written in collective blood, tormenting every nationality and generation. None have been spared. Individually, they're relatively innocuous. Together, they form a war cry. Befittingly, these are the chapter titles of the current Huffington Post Book Club, pick What It Is Like to Go to War by Karl Marlantes.
I was captivated by Marlantes nonfiction account as it directly mirrors the research and personal experience I used to inform and construct the characters in my recently released novel The Baker's Daughter, set in present-day El Paso (home to Ft. Bliss) and Garmisch, Germany during the last year of World War II. One might not initially presume a book with a feminine foodie title would address the psychological aspects of men and women in wartime, but the psychosomatic toll has not changed dramatically through history. As Marlantes aptly points out, there's far more to the label 'soldier' than meets the eye.
Full disclosure: I am the granddaughter of two army veterans, Korea and Vietnam. My father was a career army officer who served in both Desert Storm and the Second Gulf War. My brother is an army aviator who deployed to Iraq. My husband is an army physician already informed that he will go to Afghanistan soon. I have grown up in communities that all had Fort before the name. I've carried a military ID card nearly all my life. I was riding my bicycle to our commissary, PX (Post Exchange) and Shopette before I ever stepped foot inside a Macy's, Walgreen's or Kroger. I don't bat an eyelash when a guard carrying an M14 rifle checks my car registration before allowing me to enter a military installation. I'm not a soldier, no. I'm what the military term 'an active-duty dependent'.
That basically means I'm reliant on my soldier to perform his duties as such. However, after all these years and family generations, I still don't know exactly what that fully entails. I know they must salute each other in uniform even if they're buying deodorant at the PX; they must keep their berets shaved and shaped properly with a razorblade; they must complete periodic PT tests to ensure they are physically soldier-esque; they must be trained to shoot a gun. Those are the visages of solder-dom. But what does it really mean to be one?
I'll never fully know because I'm not one. I'll never actually go to war. I'll never fear for my life at the hand of 'the enemy' or decide if someone standing before me is one. I won't ever have to carry or point a weapon. But that's not to say I'm not a product of war--that it hasn't shaped my consciousness.
I live and have lived all my life in active battle readiness. Ready for orders that a family member must leave for some threatening place and may not return. Ready for him to take up the oath, "Duty, Honor, Country," and all the inner contradictions that come with it. Ready to buoy my soldier's spirit no matter what I may feel, to put aside my private politics and support the men and women, family members. Because under those helmets are individuals who think and feel, individuals who will come home thinking and feeling differently no matter what. War will change them from the inside out.
I know this to be true because I've witnessed the transformation in my father and my brother. Too often we only hear about the extreme cases: the soldiers whose minds are crippled by the pressures of war, by regret, fear and memories lodged like grenades in their spirits; hospitals full to capacity with PTSD, TBI, and devastating physical injuries. Yes, those are horrifying truths, but there are many walking among us who engage in a quiet inward war. The only difference is that latter are able to make peace with that segment of their life. They compartmentalize the 'soldier' and put him/her in a box on their Who I Am shelf so they can be a father, a friend, a lover. So they can walk on grass and not feel as Marlantes writes, like "walking on someone's skin."
When my younger brother deployed to Iraq in 2009, I went to Fort Hood, Texas, for his sendoff. While helping him pack his green duffle, he had me try on his bulletproof flack vest and gasmask. The heavy gear pinched and weighed so much I nearly toppled over. We laughed until we cried. A cathartic release--because soldiers aren't supposed to be scared, aren't supposed to cry, aren't supposed to talk about it either. The veteran's unspoken code. My brother and I know it well though we were never taught. We lived it too young for it to be a quantifiable lesson. It simply was.
So when he left, I didn't ask him if he was scared or worried. I patted his gear and said, "You ready?"
A question. A statement. I don't know.
His answer was equally ambiguous. It came with a smirk and shrug, "Let's hope."
Hope. That's what it comes down to. That's what Marlantes is saying. It's the only psychological instruments we afford them to combat the war waged within. The abstruse battle between what I'm doing and what I want to do. Soldiers hope to make the proper decisions. They hope to recognize the true enemy. They hope there's such a thing as a righteous lie. They hope their loyalty is enough to stoke courage. They hope to be heroes. They hope for home.