Only a few I have met in my life, and little of their experiences of service have they shared. I presume there are good reasons for this and I’ve never pushed the subject. I used to be vehemently anti-military, wondering why people couldn’t just be civil to one another and sort things out via debate and reasonable discussion. As time goes on, and new technologies create increasingly heinous ways to kill people, I still wonder, often, why more is not invested in peace processes. You can’t persuade me that drone attacks on civilian hospitals are anything other than vicious and cruel, not to mention inflammatory.
Nonetheless, it’s possible to maintain an abhorrence of war AND allow that things are rarely that black and white. When great horrors loom in the world, we can choose not to engage with them, but certain monsters won’t listen to reason. Those who would go willingly into the horror for the right reasons – in defence of liberty and peace, using reasonable tactics to limit collateral damage – are, at the very least, to be respected.
I side with the conscientious objectors, and with the soldiers. Neither approach is perfect, neither approach is wrong. These are some of the soldiers I have known; I’ve changed their names, except the first, who I don’t think would mind.
1) My grandfather, who was an RAF pilot in WW2. It’s not something he talked about. When I was a young teenager and we started studying the war at school, I asked him (using the hackneyed phraseology picked up in schoolbooks) “What did you do in the war, Basil?”
“I flew planes!” was his brusque and final response, which clearly brooked no further discussion. I know he lost his brother at that time, another thing he rarely spoke about. He always made a point of saying a proper goodbye to people, and I became aware at some point that this was because he hadn’t said goodbye to Dickie, his brother, the last time he had seen him alive.
2) Ethan, friend of friends I used to drink with as a teenager. A long-haired alt-rocker stoner hippie type, smiley and laid back, really the opposite of someone you’d expect to sign up. But there he went. I remember one night out when he was back from a tour and some of the lads bantering with him, “Fuck off back to Kosovo!” It chills me now. We were never close; when I moved from the area I lost touch with most of our mutual friends, but I recently heard he now has a young family. As I recall, he might have lost a leg, but he came back otherwise more or less entire. I wonder how it changed him.
3) Phil, an IT engineer and family friend, living in Portugal with his wife, my good friend. Both of them make references from time to time to their life on various bases around Europe, and I have the impression Phil was more involved in strategy and logistics than active tours… although I am fairly certain he has been on the ground in hot places, if not on the front line. Nonetheless the difference is noticeable; there’s not the same haunting, the same subtle avoidance of talking about it. I remember the two of them recounting a visit to the battlefields in northern France, talking of atmospheres that can’t be erased. He seems the most likely to approach, if I wished to pursue the line of enquiry with any of these men. But how do you start a conversation like that?
4) Vasily, the Ukranian night security guard at a resort where I managed the gardens. He used to help keep an eye on the cranky old irrigation system for me at night (which was when it was active, but no-one from the garden team would be on site at that time), diligently checking for leaks in the pipework as he made his rounds. He was built like the proverbial brick shit-house, but with the gentlest nature and kindest smile. Softly spoken, always correct and professional but with a compelling warmth of character, a deep humanity. He would look you in the eye. My colleagues said he took the night work because he could not sleep for the nightmares. Sometimes I would be on site late, having stayed to watch (or take part in) one of the plays we staged for guests, and passing his office, you could hear him strumming delicate songs on an acoustic guitar. I often wondered what he must have seen, which war he was in. Though that last would be more or less irrelevant. They all contain horrors.
5) Benjamin, a young South African man looking to develop an eco-tourism resort in a wild part of Portugal. I met him as a potential landscape design client. I was struck by his three bionic limbs and one badly damaged, but working, arm, but more by how at ease he was with the equipment and with himself. He apparently felt no need to disguise any part of it, had no chip on his shoulder. I realised his condition must have been the result of a tour as he told the story of how he had come to this point. Growing up on a farm in South Africa, he always assumed he would one day have some land of his own; but he moved to the UK as a teenager, where he enlisted, resulting in what he described as a very short career. He comes across as calm, self-assured, focused, and there is the depth, with some hint of the horror, behind the eyes. I am impressed. I wonder if he is grateful for the strange luck that ensured his quite beautiful face was preserved (and, briefly, while feeling bad for the thought, if instead plastic surgery was involved). But most of all, I wonder about the internal marks his experience must have left; what the long recuperation process must have been like; what he thought when he realised he had lost so many parts of himself; what his feelings are today on war, how it is fought, why it happens.
It’s easy to be one-sided. The more visible side seems to be the utter glorification of war, the worship of poppies and nationalism, the high-resolution gloss so easily applied over the ugly reality to sell the idea of war to the people of the world. It’s not just ok, it’s GOOD, it’s necessary, it’s noble – dulce et decorum est pro patria mori. But it seems rather callow to market it this way. As if the nobility – the necessity – can obliterate the outrageous hurt and damage war causes to individuals, families, regions, nations.
It’s easier for me to believe in the reality of war as described within our cultural legacy – Siegfried Sassoon and Tolstoy for starters – and draw the obvious conclusion. This is stupid, this is madness; who in their right mind would action such a thing, willingly sign up to take part in it?
Then you meet a soldier. A normal person, human, reasonable, layered; so far removed from the gun-toting redneck mentality you assume must be necessary to persuade them down that path. No, it is never black and white. Maybe one day I will get up the courage to ask them what it was like, to be there.