Tim O'Brien knows. He was there. I do not think that civilians know. I do not think soldiers who sat in offices and did not pound the pavement in Iraq have any clue what war is. I have tried to explain it in the past but no more. I cannot give the experiences that occur in a combat zone the justice that these events deserve. Generally they want a story that makes President Bush into a hand puppet of God, or Satan incarnate, depending on their political leanings. One side wants stories of how everything has gone to shit. The other side wants stories of Iraqis cheering as we wave the red, white, and blue up and down their streets. The experience of day to day life that soldiers deal with is what I want THEM to understand, but I cannot.
People usually do not want honesty in these matters. They do not want to hear how I kept the kids around me since I did not have any body armor below my waist. They do not want to hear about having grenades thrown at me that did not explode. They do not want to hear that thirty minutes later I was going on with my day. So I tell these stories with a smirk. With courage that only comes with distance. I do not tell them what I told my brand new soldiers before we left for Iraq. I do not tell them what I would have become if one of my soldiers was killed in a firefight.
Tim O'Brien writes about this in How to Tell A True War Story. At the end of one of his speaking events a nice older lady came up and tells him how she usually does not like war stories, but one of his had really touched her. She then smiles at him and tells him he needs to
move on with his life and find new stories to tell. O'Brien responds by changing the story around some to make her understand. But she does not. The problem is that for a soldier war is never in the past, the present, or the future. War just is. A person is shaped by many events both large and small in his or her lifetime. The events a combat soldier is shaped by are among the most traumatic and influential that a person can experience. When she told Mr. O'Brien to put it in the past, it was like telling him to cut off his leg. It is a part of him for the rest of his life, and it is unlikely that he would choose to live without those experiences. Much of his current life is defined by them.
The author makes a point about the elusive nature of truth. Many of his points are based on the idea that a person cannot understand something if he or she had a different perspective or set of experiences. I agree with his points when it comes to war and violent or traumatic events in general. These situations are unique. The adrenaline and primitive biological responses make these situations much harder to replicate than every day life. These responses are not something anyone is capable of explaining to a person who has not been in these same situations.
Tim O'Brien has said everything better than I can. He gets the letters back home right. No one wants much honesty. "Mom, today I had a rocket propelled grenade hit the wall while I was sleeping at a small observation post. I could not find my glasses to run upstairs and check on my guys. My arm was asleep too. It was pretty hilarious." "Mom, today I found three artillery shells strapped together. It was made to blow an up armored Humvee off the road. I was three feet away. It was three in the morning, so I guess Haji was not awake to detonate it. LOL"
I feel like my friends and family does not understand who I am because I cannot share my times overseas. Relationships are built around trust and shared memories. This important portion of my life that has shaped me is completely shielded from everyone. This is not an issue with most of my friends, but there are things I do and believe that can only begin to be understood through the looking glass of a combat soldier. I have tried to explain some of this, but it falls on deaf ears. People do not listen primarily because they do not want to listen. Things that make us uncomfortable must be avoided at all costs. This is America.
I find people in general are not into honesty. I was honest a few times in letters; they did not turn out well. Lying at the beginning of things is human nature and expected. Job interviews, first dates, and loan applications. It bothers me that this is the norm. I wish truth was not such a rare thing. Even attempting to be truthful is rare. Honesty would make the world a better, scarier place.