What’s a Veteran and Who Wants to Talk About War?

My first brush with the Joiner Institute for the Study of War and Social Consequences came about five years ago. Riding my bike home from UMass Boston one summer evening, my friend Juan caught up with me at a red light. He’d just left a writing workshop targeting Veterans, and he said I should check it out. Probably not, I thought, but nodded. “Dope.” He’d rarely talked to me about his time in the Marines. And sitting together then on our bikes, waiting for the light to change was no time for war stories. So we bullshitted briefly, and parted ways.

I really did not want to hang out with Veterans: a) working on fighter jets for free college, connecting wires, huffing paint, screwing things up, those youthful years of training, long watches and easy days do not make me worthy of attention or a “veteran” of anything other than our grand socialist experiment in American militarism; b) I didn’t want to think about collateral damage or the morality of warfare; and c) I knew that if I looked back at my brief time in the U.S. Navy I might want to join up again, maybe take that long circuitous route to become a helicopter pilot or Aircrew like I dreamed after watching Black Hawk Down as a teenager. I joined the Navy for the experience more than anything, and that branch delivered.

War literature, no matter how malingering, jaded or emotional (I think) works to recruit new bodies to the experience. And that human capital, that interest, that energy fuels the causes of terror. War seems to me to be like sex. It’s hot. In theory, it’s awesome. In moments it’s exhilarating. But most of the time is spent on foreplay and there's long repetitive stretches of passion and humping. You might do weird or vile things to add excitement. At the end you might feel free (or lucky) or frustrated, later maybe a few memories creep back and fuck with your emotions, and the connection between you and whoever you fucked never really goes away. Looking back now I realize I barely got a taste. Did I quit out of cowardice? Why didn’t I try for some distinction?

American Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, and Marines often get categorized as victims, shitbags or heroes. I don’t fill any of those boxes. I did a decent job, and made some fun out of it. I got an education. I got experience. The stories that pop in my mind from my deployment on the Truman in the Persian Gulf for Operation Iraqi Freedom (07-08) are far too odd or unpatriotic to be cool. I have a few sea stories, no war stories.

Thinking about all those chafed nipples, ringing ears, drunken nights and dirty jobs makes me feel irrational. I mean, amid all of the sweat and excitement a lot of people died. Some Petty Officer told me one day on cruise that it cost about $1 million a day to keep our battle group supplied, active and shooting off armed sorties over Iraq. I thought about the three years I spent training, looked at all of the hard work, the sweat, the toil, the passion around me, thought about how much tax money would be spent on my three years of shore duty if I took it, and decided I got enough. I sacrificed formative years gazing at Mars and hailing Old Glory. I trained for three years to spend nine months cramped in a steel box in the oily slosh between Saudi Arabia and Iran, providing material aid in a vast and ancient struggle to control the Euphrates river basin. I traded youth for a few very expensive stories. So instead of transferring into the Army, or going to solder circuits in Florida, or standing watches in Washington D.C. I left to learn how to write.

Working as a security guard in Boston recently I sat at a desk all night with a Marine reservist who recited this fantasy (lately in vogue online) of turning the Middle East into a sheet of glass. To be clear, that means detonating nuclear bombs to eliminate an entire population of humanity in response to gas attacks etc. in Syria, or the violent propaganda of the Islamic State, or the potential threat of Iran to an increasingly militant Israel. The word for this is genocide.

Frightened of the odd and cinematic potential of a set of suicidal bimbos achieving nuclear fission on a motorboat near the shoreline of San Diego (or in the Boston Harbor or wherever) some vocal warriors advocate extermination. This particular Marine waxed poetic on several subtler strategies for sanitizing human potential from the opposite side of the globe. I can imagine a similar (deplorable) conversation between two security guys working at some flashy complex in Tehran or Jerusalem.

Amid a chorus of voices that expect Veterans to express pride or regret or anger or disillusionment, there’s this curious take on terrorism. Peaceniks say we’re all terrorists (those who studied the dark arts, who joined to fight terrorism after the caller called Americans to Crusade). I prefer “Warrior.” Terror is debilitating because there’s no way to address death directly, no clear response. If we’re going to debate war like we can actually define and establish a functional peace, we need good terms.

What is the difference between terrorism and a surgical strike, collateral damage and casualties? Can humans thrive without state powers (taxing business to keep militaries) that ordain magnates to tap oil and create busy work? What propels us so violently to kill each other in our struggles? Does punishment work? To what end? If we’re looking for stories and ways of boosting our social status, war offers exceptional trials by fire. But what does state sponsored violence actually accomplish?

Venturing into a strange backyard in the summer of 2013 (maybe it was 2014) ducking under a trellis covered with grape leaves, with the sappy smell of wood chips engulfing my mangy beard I found a group of maybe twelve people who called themselves Veterans. Along the edge of the vegetable bounty of a garden, The Old Oak Dojo had just been built, and breaking the earthy stillness Brian Turner prompted the group gathered there to “Write a letter to an enemy.”

I wrote to Tarek Mehanna, a friend of a friend’s brother, a Muslim from Sudbury serving a 17.5 year sentence in prison for Material Aid to Terrorism. He translated several troubling documents from Arabic into English, and circulated them online along with his own rather incendiary opinions on words attributed to the prophet of Islam. The knowledge of his curtailed religious speech disturbed me. Later I sent that letter to him in prison, and struck up some correspondence. We email each other now occasionally.

Mehanna still writes tomes about Jihad and the Devils trying to turn people from One True Faith. His plight, and the idea that our (the U.S.) conflict with Al Qaeda is essentially religious (emphasizing safety over the first amendment) shook my faith to the core. His imprisonment, I felt, undercut the oath I swore to defend the Constitution. I’m not a fan of his apocalyptic ideology, so I wrote back at him as my enemy. In the years that followed, babbling at length into Google Docs and on various defunct blogs, I tried to find my voice and develop some coherent meaning out of chaos and contradictions. His story lingers in mind. Meanwhile, Warrior Writers gave me a forum and purpose to show up and write.

The Joiner Institute secured spaces for Warrior Writers to meet at UMass Boston. We were always a small group, generally about five people. New folks would come through at pretty much every workshop, and share a few words. Year after year I attended sessions during the summer workshops organized by The Joiner Institute, dabbling here and there, mostly hanging out with the Warrior Writers at the Dojo in JP. I never paid to attend workshops at the Joiner Institute, and since I lived off a credit card and some student employment income at the time, I probably wouldn’t have paid to attend. But the workshops were always open to me, and they inspired a lot of writing.

Good things can grow out from that old fashioned partnership between government and business. Lady Liberty (rich liberals) and Uncle Sam sometimes make a sweet couple. This political and financial partnership established institutions like Harvard and public boating on the Charles River, but it can also conspire with the fearful and greedy to organize monstrous displays of menace and skulduggery.

Violence is compelling. It certainly seems effective. Terrorizing our enemies might keep some danger at bay (in the short term), but I think it also makes us dependent on force (encouraging competition between the makers of F35s and X32s for example, instead of inspiring cancer research). Silencing our enemies makes us deaf to the more simple and benign wants and needs that help us flourish. Violence is the blunt weapon for fighting terror. If we only fought fire with fire, we would have no cities. We’d all still be nomadic.

Immediately after connecting with Warrior Writers, encouraged in my moral outrage by Eric Wasaleski, I checked out the protest scene. I followed around Veterans for Peace, made a video of the 4th of July march, read some poetry at their events, wore their merch. As a student at UMass Boston, reporting for the campus newspaper, I covered protests but had never participated. The pageantry of the whole thing seemed a bit overwrought and ridiculous to me. Besides, I was secretly a Republican. I believe in hard work, independence, and personal achievement. I like order and purpose, and protests to me seem chaotic and make me feel uncertain. On Armistice Day 2014, Eric did something that captured my imagination.

Standing in Government Center in Boston, he washed the American flag in a steel basin with soap. He had told me about this planned performance. The process felt like scales and scabs being rubbed from my heart. I’m a patriotic person, so if someone even leaves a flag on the ground it bothers me a little. I want to pick it up. I want to place it somewhere secure. But this act, washing the flag felt compassionate. It felt honorable and necessary and renewing.

In the spring of 2015 I jumped at an opportunity to TA for Erin Anderson, who organized a class that created a series of Oral Histories by veterans. There were about ten of us in the class. We interviewed each other, and then Medal of Honor recipients. Presenting our work at an event on campus later that summer I got a little sting from a guy in a trench coat. He looked to me like bat on acid, warlock like. He whispered, “Real warriors don’t tell stories.” That’s some 1950s bullshit, echos from the WW2 spin doctors who draped themselves in the valor of a silent collective. The guy might have been a Vietnam vet. He might have been a professional protester. He might have been a mobster with three hits under his belt, or a newspaper delivery man bitter about low pay and lack of work. For all the praise heaped on “veterans,” it’s worth remembering that Hitler and Stalin also experienced war. It’s worth acknowledging how violence gets infectious.

Inevitably 2016 found me seeking ways back into military life. I knew it would happen, even though I’d decided emphatically in 2011 I was done. At 30 I found my way to boot camp blocked by a little hiccup from my past. In 2012 I ran my mouth at length about my violent ideation to people who listened, seriously jeopardizing my freedom. Several doctors logged some unfortunate phrases in my medical record.

More recently my wife told me that she doesn’t like to hear veterans talking about military life. She said one of her internet friends (who flew a helicopter in Vietnam, and in an odd moment of impulse shot himself to death sometime in January of 2017) would often complain about veterans who talked excessively about their experiences. War stories tend to get political. Listeners project their prejudice on tails of chaos, misery, triumph and defeat. The facts can get lost in torrents of emotion, so often war stories about pride and valor make it hard to understand what went wrong, what went right and why all this happened. Everything in the extreme can sound like bullshit.

The conceit of the military is that only the best rise to the top. In the process of creating a professional fighting force a lot of folks fail, get injured, or otherwise skate along into a mediocre retirement. Maximizing human potential should be the work of government, but rigorous focus on military heroism and conquest seems to me to be a dim way forward.

Doug Stanhope, a Libertarian trying to wrangle a crowd at a comedy club during an incident with Alex Jones in Austin in 2004 (still searchable on YouTube), responded unkindly to a lady asking, “What about the boys in Iraq?” He said he likes war because it clears out some assholes. “Like that peanut-head in Killeen Texas that wanted to hammer my head in, he’s not fighting for your freedom. He’s fighting because he found a way he could go and kill people without getting jail time. He could get a pat on the back.” There are other ways to get college money. There are other ways to get a green card. Military service in America is a choice, so if not victims, OEF Veterans are suspects.

In the midst of the War on Terror, in the gritty atmosphere of a Texas bar, Stanhope’s idea that war abroad could be manageable and fine resonated. “The point is war is good,” he said. “As long as people who kind of want to go and kill other people are going to kill other people who want to kill other people, you’re killing all the right people, and opening up some pretty important parking spaces.”

Of course, you can’t control who dies and who lives in war. Civilians, innocents, semi-innocents, invariably kids get killed. These endeavors in unnatural selection through violence and identity politics (who’s a true Muslim or American, or who’s Black, or who’s a Veteran) seem to gather us into irrelevant clusters of opposition. When we form our opinions based on group identity, we can get into fights over things we don’t even really understand, believe or care about.

Trying to write about warfare, or the consequences of warfare, or anything really about veterans or my own brief experience in the U.S. Navy makes me feel stiff and awkward. Once enlisted I decided I’d rather do anything (flip burgers) than invest my life in what appeared to me to be another misguided attempt to violently cleans the world of riffraff. Now out, I fantasize about going back. The toys the government gave me to play with, damn. It wasn’t all bad.

Running along the estuaries of the Neponset River recently I found myself at the Vietnam memorial, reading the names of several young people who died in service in that large struggle fifty years ago over concepts too vast and obscene for the tiny clump of fat and nerves between my ears to contain. I wonder if it’s worth memorializing war. Do these names just call more people to the glance over the abyss? Is war how society chastens proud and violent people? Is it so bad to enjoy a good fight?