April 12, 2010
Posting date: 4/12/10
Returned from: Afghanistan
When I walked off the CH-47 onto FOB Bermel (now FOB Boris) nearly two years ago, I was filled with the all the excitement and anxiety one might imagine in a man -- more of a boy, really, in retrospect -- who'd spent most of his formative years reading and re-reading histories of the wars that criss-crossed Europe from Odysseus' time on. This was it! Finally, I was doing what I'd read about for so long.
I was come to the place of battle, where the best warriors are put to the trial. The empty sporting contests of high school, the impotent, uselessly channeled savagery of martial arts or boxing, the increasingly hollow aesthetic consideration of professional sports -- all preludes to that one great contest of wills that ends in the death of the enemy, or of yourself. I was full, in other words, of childish nonsense.
But times, they change, and I endured a grueling 15-month deployment. Now, on the cusp of another 12 months in Afghanistan (from what I can tell, under substantially more austere conditions), with the salient experiences of the last looming prominently in my memory, I recall a passage, one of the most wretched and moving in Shakespeare:
Titinius is enclosed round about
With horsemen, that make to him on the spur;
Yet he spurs on. Now they are almost on him.
Now, Titinius! now some 'light: O, he 'lights too.
He's ta'en; and, hark! they shout for joy.
Come down, behold no more.
O, coward that I am, to live so long,
To see my best friend ta'en before my face!
It is an awful thing, to have to watch helpless as death reaches out and takes a man you know. And even if you don't love the man like a brother, there's still a shiver -- a knowledge that death's about -- that penetrates to your core. That passage from Julius Caesar captures such an episode in excruciating agony, seen from afar, experienced without a say. But it's always like that, even when you're an arm's length away.
Even worse than that unavoidable moment -- much worse -- is the waiting. I think the training is not so much to condition you to be used to it, but to weed out those who absolutely, simply cannot stand having to wait for things. It does enrage a certain personality type.These people are generally quite meticulous about organizing themselves, usually quite fit, very disciplined -- save when it comes to standing around waiting for something to happen. It drives them bonkers. We had two people like that drop in Basic, one in OCS. It's an inability to let go, or turn off.
Which is a bummer, because one suspects they'd do great in combat, if they could just get there. Well, for me, I just try to stay enthusiastic about whatever my mission is. I thought I was going to Iraq -- I'm excited to go to Iraq. Change of Mission to Afghanistan -- Great! I'm going back to Afghanistan! I can fight there! Now it's January -- It'll be tough, but I can make the necessary preparations. I'll be ready. Now it's February -- No problem. Sounds like a really fun, flexible mission. Now it's March -- My bags are packed, tell me which flight. Now it's April -- Doesn't matter. I know it's coming, and when it happens, I'll be ready to go. It just means I'll be coming home a little later than expected. So long as I don't miss my 15-year high school reunion in May 2011!
It seems like such a silly, trivial thing to be concerned about; high school. I missed my five-year reunion because I was knee deep in finals and papers. The 10-year hit just after I got back from Ranger School, and it was a near thing, a very near thing. I really thought I was going to go. Actually that was a minor, selfish motivation for me getting through it all -- to be able to bask in the attention. Well, one thing led to another and when the weekend rolled around, I was just dog tired and horribly out of shape, still 10 pounds under weight. Couldn't do it. Stayed back and, in doing so, opened up the opportunity to go to a Reconnaissance Course.
That's how it ends up working. Everything happens more or less the way it's supposed to, I'm convinced. It doesn't make tragedy any easier to deal with, practically speaking, but there is some comfort when you consider that there is a momentum to life that one sees only in retrospect. So, feeling like going to a high school reunion -- that the time is right to finally show my face again -- well, it'll happen when it happens. High school was an excellent example of something that seemed tedious and excruciating while it was happening, but laid the groundwork for any academic success I had in college.
A reunion will be the perfect bookend for my Army / War experience, as I begin thinking about reentering the world of family, and career, and children.
But that's all ideas. Now, there's a plane waiting, in the not too distant future, to wing me back to Afghanistan. The North. I can barely contain myself.