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May 24, 2014 3:18 PM   Subscribe

Why Men Love War. "What people can't understand is how much fun Vietnam was. I loved it. I loved it, and I can't tell anybody."
posted by four panels (97 comments total) 40 users marked this as a favorite

 
This is a really fascinating piece.

In part we couldn't describe our feelings because the language failed us: the civilian-issue adjectives and nouns, verbs and adverbs, seemed made for a different universe. There were no metaphors that connected the war to everyday life. But we were also mute, I suspect, out of shame. Nothing in the way we are raised admits the possibility of loving war. It is at best a necessary evil, a patriotic duty to be discharged and then put behind us. To love war is to mock the very values we supposedly fight for. It is to be insensitive, reactionary, a brute.

How our culture has changed since 1984.
posted by clockzero at 3:26 PM on May 24 [1 favorite]


But I believe that most men who have been to war would have to admit, if they are honest, that somewhere inside themselves they loved it too, loved it as much as anything that has happened to them before or since.
I believe he's wrong. He and his buddy may have enjoyed it, but every single guy I served with was aching to go home.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 3:27 PM on May 24 [20 favorites]


I live with a bunch of anti-war Iraq war vets in Oakland. Including this guy. I see a glow in their eyes when the conversation switches to anything Iraq War related - the bases that they all had to go through and have in common in their story within the military industrial complex. Which is a paradox because they're anti-military, anti-war, anti-system.
posted by quirkyturky at 3:37 PM on May 24 [5 favorites]


I knew this was an Esquire article before I clicked on it. They frequently like to claim universals for men, or to try to define what makes a man a man. Fuck you, Esquire.
posted by benito.strauss at 3:38 PM on May 24 [74 favorites]


I believe he's wrong. He and his buddy may have enjoyed it, but every single guy I served with was aching to go home.

I have to admit, I just wanted to do my time and go home too, but there are occasions when I miss the good parts, achingly so.
posted by Etrigan at 3:39 PM on May 24 [6 favorites]


I think Robert E. Lee perfectly expressed the idea in one sentence when he said, "It is well that war is so terrible, otherwise we should grow too fond of it."

Slight correction. In Apocalypse Now the character played by Robert Duvall did not say "You know, someday this war's gonna be over.". His character, Lt. Colonel Kilgore, said "Someday this war's gonna end..."
posted by vapidave at 3:46 PM on May 24 [8 favorites]


I just wanted to do my time and go home too, but there are occasions when I miss the good parts, achingly so.

But did you love those good parts "as much as anything that has happened ...before or since?"
posted by Kirth Gerson at 3:47 PM on May 24


It comes and goes. I admit I was lucky to have some non-war things in my life that were better; I can't say that everyone has that kind of fortune.
posted by Etrigan at 3:54 PM on May 24 [2 favorites]


I believe he's wrong. He and his buddy may have enjoyed it, but every single guy I served with was aching to go home.

I don't know if it's war so much as being in the military, although perhaps it is war given those I know complaining about the peacetime Marine Corps, but it's certainly a common trope: the ex-military who has trouble adapting to civilian life, misses his friends and time spent.

I vaguely recall reading an article explaining this trope. Time spent during a war is time spent being long on adrenaline, which creates a sort of addiction that is hard to capture once out of the military.

The two ideas aren't contradictory either. People love to complain, and they really do wish they were at home, in comfort, and with their loved ones... but that doesn't mean they also can't enjoy or wish after the fact to be back where they were. Of course this is a much different experience, but you see the same phenomenon with people who do long thru-hikes, say on the Appalachian Trail. Of course everyone who hikes it will wish at night that they were back at home, on a mattress after a hot shower, or says they would... but they get higher satisfaction by being where they are, with all the difficulties there are.
posted by SollosQ at 4:12 PM on May 24 [5 favorites]


It makes sense to value that which was difficult and painful, or else what was the difficulty and pain for?
posted by mr_roboto at 4:28 PM on May 24 [11 favorites]


There's probably something to be said about how much human beings can get addicted to trauma and stress.
posted by Apocryphon at 4:31 PM on May 24 [10 favorites]


I've never been to war but I've had jobs that we're extremely compelling. They were demanding, high risk, with lots of esprit de corps. It's very easy to miss that and I regularly do.
posted by LastOfHisKind at 4:31 PM on May 24 [19 favorites]


There are men who thrive on it. In Bill Mauldin's Up Front he talks about a few of the rare ones who seemed to really enjoy it. He also talks about how rare such men are. But they do exist.

In one of Jim Dunnigan's books, he refers to such men as "super-soldiers", and says that they've been around as long as anyone knows. The Vikings called them "Berserkers" and made sure to put them in front when they were going into battle.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 4:33 PM on May 24 [6 favorites]


Point of contrast: My grandmother felt exactly this way about her work in WWII (in Australia, a long way from fields of battle); my father in law, a Vietnamese man who fought for the Americans feels precisely the opposite - it was the darkest chapter of his life that messed him up physically and mentally and he has spent decades getting away from.
posted by smoke at 4:39 PM on May 24 [3 favorites]


"War may be the only way in which most men touch the mythic domains in our soul. It is, for men, at some terrible level, the closest thing to what childbirth is for women."

Say, what?

Mythic domain?

I don't know much about war, but I've given birth three times and I can state that he definitely doesn't know anything about childbirth.
posted by Jane the Brown at 4:41 PM on May 24 [27 favorites]


Most people fear freedom

wtf?
posted by Wet Spot at 4:49 PM on May 24 [3 favorites]


I'm reminded of one the last times I spent time with my grandfather before he passed. I was 19 or so and we were sitting on the front porch of an old mountain farmhouse. I had been asking him questions about his time in the war, and he had grinned as he explained I was old enough to hear about the time he spent four days drinking on leave traveling home by train. He had been a Marine on detachment on the USS Montpelier, whose combat experience was restricted to overseeing a giant machine gun designed to shoot down Japanese bombers, and later, Kamikazees, while his ship engaged in general naval warfare. Later I learned that his best friend growing up had also enlisted with him in the Marines. Instead of a cruiser, he was sent to take the islands from the Japanese Imperial Army until finally on Okinawa, he was killed. It was probably on his mind, when he turned back to me, hi face grave, and told me he hoped I would never have to go to war, for it was a horrible thing. I know my grandad did have a fun time, be in port in Honolulu or on a train rattling across the nation, but I don't think he would hesitate to replace it all with a world where it never happened.
posted by Atreides at 5:04 PM on May 24 [11 favorites]


From Geoffrey Hosking's (excellent) Rulers and Victims: The Russians in the Soviet Union (p. 244):
The writer Emmanuil Kazakevich noted in his diary on May 9, 1950: "Victory Day ... I dropped into the bar (pivnuiu). Two handicapped veterans and a plumber . . . were drinking beer and remembering the war. One of them was weeping, and then he said 'If there's another war, I'll volunteer again."
I have read and heard varying degrees of sentiments from veterans ranging from "I'd do it again" to "It was the best time of my life"; I don't understand it, but not having been in a war I wouldn't expect to. I certainly wouldn't dream of making ex cathedra statements about such feelings. People are what they are.
posted by languagehat at 5:15 PM on May 24 [6 favorites]


Maybe this takeaway is a little mundane but it just makes me feel that traumatic events affect different people in different ways and we shouldn't necessarily assume that all veterans will react similar in ways.
posted by MoonOrb at 5:18 PM on May 24 [4 favorites]


Also, Broyles (the essay is by William Broyles, Jr.—I wish people would credit authors when they post) is one of the best of the writers who came out of Vietnam; he wrote superbly about the war, and this is a superb essay. I'm sorry some people can't seem to get past the pull quote.
posted by languagehat at 5:25 PM on May 24 [19 favorites]


What a crock of shit. That shame you feel is perhaps your finest feature.
posted by basicchannel at 5:25 PM on May 24 [1 favorite]


As much as I disagree with what the author says, I also must take him at his word that he believes what he is saying, and is describing his own opinions.

It's a nice reminder that my political agenda does not enable me to explain to people that their sense of self is incorrect.
posted by rebent at 5:31 PM on May 24 [25 favorites]


I knew this was an Esquire article before I clicked on it. They frequently like to claim universals for men, or to try to define what makes a man a man. Fuck you, Esquire.

The evil of banality
posted by thelonius at 5:41 PM on May 24 [2 favorites]


Vietnam Vet here. And no, I hated the whole thing. I was so happy when I was stationed stateside. War sucks and Vietnam sucked bigger.
posted by jgaiser at 6:00 PM on May 24 [10 favorites]


I'm as anti-war as it gets but I don't think it's hard to imagine why some people might miss being deployed or even love it. It's an adventure.

I've done a lot of very long distance cycling, months at a time every day, and you inevitably have points where you are sick and the weather, wind, and terrain are conspiring against you and you hate everything and everyone and wonder why you aren't on your couch watching TV like a normal person. Then I get home and think about that and even though it was terrible at the time I long for it because I will never feel anything that deeply in my day to day life going to work and buying groceries and all that bullshit. It felt good to be uncomfortable, to live one moment unfiltered, to have a real experience. There are not many opportunities for that. In our society, the only profitable adventures are military ones.
posted by bradbane at 6:26 PM on May 24 [17 favorites]


There are men who thrive on it. In Bill Mauldin's Up Front he talks about a few of the rare ones who seemed to really enjoy it. He also talks about how rare such men are. But they do exist.

I'm pretty certain that studies done by the American military during WWII found that between three and four percent of soldiers are the kinds of fellows who are like "A four-man bunker with a machine gun? I'm going to go correct those fools," while something like a quarter of soldiers (armed with the semi-auto M1) who saw combat didn't fire their rifles at all.
posted by mr. digits at 6:33 PM on May 24 [1 favorite]


This piece reminds me of something else I read about how deeply depressed many of the post 9-11 rescue and clean up workers became after the bulk of the work was done.

People need a purpose, desperately.
posted by jfwlucy at 6:43 PM on May 24 [15 favorites]


I think it's very easy for one's brain to turn a horrible, stressful time in one's life into something admirable, especially if it's something shared with a group of fellow sufferers.

A little nostalgia can go a very long way and do very weird things. We also put enormous, huge cultural weight on how honorable it was to serve one's country as a soldier, and I imagine that even men who internally know that it was terrible and awful and they would never, ever do it again, might feel some pressure to say good things about at least parts of it, like the camaraderie. We worship and ennoble war and those who fight it, so it shouldn't be that strange that many of those who are veterans of it do the same.
posted by rtha at 6:43 PM on May 24 [5 favorites]


And last year in Grenada American boys charged into battle playing Wagner, a new generation aping the movies of Vietnam the way we aped the movies of World War 11, learning nothing, remembering nothing.
It's a real shame how World Wars 3 through 11 have been written out of our history books, with most texts skipping right from 2 to Z.
posted by item at 6:43 PM on May 24 [12 favorites]


I've never been to war, but:

"Part of the love of war stems from its being an experience of great intensity; its lure is the fundamental human passion to witness, to see things, what the Bible calls the lust of the eye and the Marines in Vietnam called eye fucking.

War is an escape from the everyday into a special world where the bonds that hold us to our duties in daily life--the bonds of family, community, work, disappear."


I hate to sound all shallow and tacky about it, but this is pretty much how I feel about going on vacation. Life is more intense when you're not spending it trying to survive in a blue or white collar sort of way, doing the same fucking job you do every day, going to the grocery store once a week. You're seeing new things. You're not strapped down by boring reality. You're not in the routine. Of course you freaking love that.

"War is a brutal, deadly game, but a game, the best there is. And men love games."


Yeah, and also that, because gaming is another adrenaline rush and form of escapism.
posted by jenfullmoon at 6:48 PM on May 24


This is an excellent essay and touches some very important connections in the psyche, I believe. While, with Jane the Brown, I resist any man's pronouncement on childbirth, for me the analogy might be that childbirth is like a pitched battle where survival is by no means guaranteed and motherhood is more comparable to the slogging, sometimes strategic, often seemingly interminable war where, for a mother to win is to wind up with a beautiful, fully functioning adult human being. I guess that's one reason women are never thrilled about war for it is our victories which are taken away to fight those wars.
posted by Anitanola at 6:51 PM on May 24 [25 favorites]


what the Bible calls the lust of the eye and the Marines in Vietnam called eye fucking

You really get this from some of the people who worked on nuclear weapons in the early days, when above-ground testing was done; there was said to be a special induplicable thrill to being there when a nuclear weeapon exploded, close enough to feel the warmth and the shock wave but far enough away to survive.
posted by localroger at 6:54 PM on May 24 [2 favorites]


I have only known one war veteran who liked to talk about how great it was. Without exception every war veteran who I observed hearing the routine was quietly mortified during, and vocally mortified when he was gone. Their usual first point was it's no fun being scared for your life and limbs.
posted by bukvich at 7:02 PM on May 24 [1 favorite]


Adrenaline's a helluva drug.
posted by mstokes650 at 7:05 PM on May 24 [5 favorites]


Which is a paradox because they're anti-military, anti-war, anti-system.

Never went to war, and I am the above to a T, but I was enlisted and I do wax nostalgic sometimes. I loved that I could consistently drop an M203 round though the window of a house at 50 yards. I loved that I could shoot perfect with am M16 and that I could John Woo a .45 range when no one was looking (two handguns at once because I had ordinance to burn). I loved that I was good at blowing shit up. I fired LAW rockets, threw fragmentation grenades, and burned off incendiary grenades. I fired SAWs and held a run-away M60. I got to shoot a live TOW round into a tank shell and drop a mortar round. I did demolitions school and PLDC and NBC school. I've been tear gassed and tear gassed others.

Being hundreds of miles from any light pollution is amazing. It's only because of the military that I ever saw the milky-way spiral with the naked eye. Of course I ruined this when I was done admiring. Popping off a flare in the dessert is a thing of beauty.

Maybe it was just play. Maybe because I wasn't slated to go anywhere and there wasn't a war on was why I found it fun. The first Gulf War made me realize I might be called on to go shoot someone. This idea disturbed me greatly, but no where nearly as much as the idea of someone shooting at me. I did another two or three years (eating up my enlistment) dreading the whole time that I'd be called. I was asked repeatedly to volunteer to go. I refused. I was begged to reenlist. I refused.

I would have done it if someone had cut me orders, and I would have gone and shot and been shot at. I'm also fairly certain I would have enjoyed it. I was good at it. I could hump a pack and climb mountains and eat shit food and keep a sense of humor even when I was convinced I wasn't going to live. Again, I never went, but I know and worked with a lot who did. Some of them died there.

The military was a poor fit for me, but my work ethic and my personal sense of morals wouldn't let me quit. I did my time, took my discharged and seldom looked back, but I do sometimes miss it, and I know I would have enjoyed war. It's how I am built.
posted by cjorgensen at 7:08 PM on May 24 [19 favorites]


I don't know much about war, but I've given birth three times and I can state that he definitely doesn't know anything about childbirth.

Remembering Ariel Levy's story about her miscarriage, childbirth can dredge up some pretty raw, mythic, vital emotions.
posted by stoneandstar at 7:19 PM on May 24 [5 favorites]


Whether it's nuclear explosions, fireworks with the Boston Pops or John Candy there is something about destruction that seems to appeal more to boys and men than to girls and women. Not all, of course--I speak of my observations only--but noticeably enough.

I did want to add that the reference to the association of war with heightened sexuality struck me as a more universal reaction to death than particularly to war. Anyone who has been touched by death nearby--not too close, not overwhelmingly close, just close enough to confront us with our mortality--has probably experienced or witnessed that phenomenon. Perhaps, for those in war, it is something like that but sustained for a longer time. The first time I recognized this, I began to suspect that we are pretty vulnerable and frightened little animals for all our viciousness to one another and I began to feel a certain compassion for us.
posted by Anitanola at 7:21 PM on May 24 [1 favorite]


It was Dispatches, by Michael Herr, Esquire's correspondent during the Vietnam War, that first gave me an understanding of why it was that some of the soldiers who fought in it developed a, hmm, fondness or nostalgia or enjoyment of the shared experience there.
posted by gingerbeer at 7:22 PM on May 24 [5 favorites]


I had a history professor who would often point out that we will have war until we have the moral equivalent to replace it. Once I heard that, I saw it everywhere.

He said that war does something for people, with the danger, the intensity, the close proximity to what becomes a family, your lives depending on each other, and being relied upon, that isn't available anywhere else. You can be the best at something (or the only one in your group who can do it), and people rely on you for this skill. You are important, valued.

This war-as-a-bonding-experience is not true for everyone. But it is true enough, for enough people (who come home without PTSD), that they go into positions of power and say, let's declare war instead of let's find a way to use words.
posted by AllieTessKipp at 7:31 PM on May 24 [15 favorites]


“Compared to war, all other forms of human endeavor shrink to insignificance. God help me, I do love it so.”—George S. Patton Jr.

My great uncle was 17 when he signed up with the Navy during World War II. He made six Atlantic crossings, including one where his ship was the last inside the harbor before they had to close the submarine nets and he watched the rest of the convoy explode and sink one by one through the night. He has chased the adrenaline the rest of his life, becoming a firefighter and iron-worker.

I was talking about it with Dad tonight. We watched Vice Friday night and they had a story about "the many Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who have graduated from morphine to painkillers to heroin, and the systemic failures within the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) that have led them to do so." One thing we both think that changed dramatically between WWII and Vietnam, which continues through to today's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, is that there's no month long boat trip home for combat veterans. You can literally be taking fire one day and in a grocery store in the suburbs the next.

A very good book on this subject is What It Is Like to Go to War by Karl Marlantes.
posted by ob1quixote at 7:32 PM on May 24 [6 favorites]


How our culture has changed since 1984.

Human nature hasn't changed in thousands of years.
posted by mygoditsbob at 7:33 PM on May 24 [3 favorites]


Interesting essay. Thanks for the post.

I agree that it should be titled "Why I Love War" or "Why Some Men Love War". Actually, let's go with "Why Some People Love War".
posted by citizenoftheworld at 7:42 PM on May 24 [4 favorites]


One thing we both think that changed dramatically between WWII and Vietnam, which continues through to today's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, is that there's no month long boat trip home for combat veterans. You can literally be taking fire one day and in a grocery store in the suburbs the next.

That is not correct. Even without the boat, even active-duty servicemembers (who wouldn't be at suburban grocery stores) spend a minimum of two weeks between on-mission and out of post-deployment lockdown. Reservists spend closer to a month.
posted by Etrigan at 7:45 PM on May 24 [2 favorites]


[…) there is something about destruction that seems to appeal more to boys and men than to girls and women.

Not to have my Mark Cuban moment here, but I used to excuse some level of sexism (and more in the military) because it was always men who were doing the killing and the killed. I grew up and realized this was a false dichotomy (and not an a desirable goal of equality regardless. Few people say, "I wish more women were doing the killing and dying for this country!"). Again, not to invoke Cuban here, but I did revise these thoughts regarding race, and I do wish more white people were bearing the costs of war (notice I did not use an abstract here like freedom!).

I agree with few things that Charlie Rangel espouses, but I do think if we're going to have a military, and it's going to defend all people equally, then by all means, every group needs represented. In short, if you can't imagine your kid going to war, then don't expect some other asshole's kid to do it for yours. Again, back when I was enlisted I admired the women that wanted to do Ranger school. I admired the gay people who were fighting to enlist. I also resented it was all men in the ranks and tanks and on the battlefield. I also resented the whole idea of "Women and children first." By all mean, the kids, yeah, but why the women? Maybe, "Kids and defenders of of liberty first!" should be the moto. Then we don't consider sex or gender when deciding who gets on the boat. We select for those willing to die for an abstract.

Like I said, I grew up. But I carried a weapon when I was young enough to think this shit. I wore the uniform. I was the one out there risking deployment. I felt entitled to being an asshole and wanting to kill things and destroy things. Don't judge me. You didn't sign up.

This said, I do agree. Men (in general) love fights, smoking, drinking, destruction, killing, tormenting, and pain more than (most) women. But you've come a long way, baby!
posted by cjorgensen at 7:55 PM on May 24 [2 favorites]


The Vietnam war was in fucking Vietnam. What did he have to lose there but his own life?
posted by oceanjesse at 8:07 PM on May 24 [2 favorites]


I must recommend Ernst Jünger's memoir of his time on the Western Front in WWI, Storm Of Steel.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 8:20 PM on May 24 [4 favorites]


He said that war does something for people, with the danger, the intensity, the close proximity to what becomes a family, your lives depending on each other, and being relied upon, that isn't available anywhere else.

Meh, I just had to go backpacking for a year to touch the "mythic domain" as the author put it.

Regular life is mundane for the most people. There are much better easier and better ways to get the good stuff than murder. War is less than the sum of its parts, and this article is trash.
posted by MillMan at 8:32 PM on May 24


This far in and no mention of Chris Hedges' War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning?

Someone mentioned the 9/11 responders above, and I think that is key. During a crisis, adrenaline and the feeling of surety and determination, and community, that we feel is rather wonderful. That's why we love stories of rescues or Londoners during the Blitz. It's not surprising that it happens in war, too.

Re it being male-specific, I'm pretty convinced that if our society treated women's ability to be violent as acceptable as that of men that we'd have parity in the military. In other words, I don't think there is anything inherently less violent in women's makeup than in men's. What we do have is a lot of socialization against physically acting out that tends to suppress all but the most determined women. And also the fact that we are usually victims of violence more than men are, although that could also feed into a decision to become violent yourself.
posted by emjaybee at 8:41 PM on May 24 [8 favorites]


Regular life is mundane for the most people. There are much better easier and better ways to get the good stuff than murder. War is less than the sum of its parts, and this article is trash.

I suspect it isn't so much murder as also the chance of being murdered. To be in an environment where you have to kill or be killed, where life is reduced to the simplicity of survival, triggers something primeval.

"War replaces the difficult gray areas daily life with an eerie, serene clarity. In war you usually know who is your enemy and who is your friend, and are given means of dealing with both."

Maybe backpacking in a year through the most deadly of wartorn regions would be roughly equivalent.

But is this to be lauded? From a moral standpoint, it seems like a dodge. Human civilization should have progressed to no longer be dependent upon such atavistic, animalistic tendencies. The boardroom has replaced the battlefield; the election has replaced the sword.
posted by Apocryphon at 8:47 PM on May 24


"War may be the only way in which most men touch the mythic domains in our soul. It is, for men, at some terrible level, the closest thing to what childbirth is for women."

My eyes are lhiterally rolling so fast they're making a hard drive like whirring noise.

its' like, cmon, really. I realize i'm emptythought, oh pooper of essays and interviews, and i try my best not to be negative if i don't think i'm adding some kind of meaningful input... but this is just so self aggrandizing and full of shit that my drink almost sprayed out of my mouth all over my monitor.

Between that sort of prose and the title and other bits applying his experience to everyone it's just... really gross to me, i don't know. it's like a 7 layer dip of gross even. I don't even disagree with the concept of some people enjoying this sort of experience or find it off-putting, i find the projection and the analogies off-putting.
posted by emptythought at 8:54 PM on May 24 [5 favorites]


But is this to be lauded? From a moral standpoint, it seems like a dodge. Human civilization should have progressed to no longer be dependent upon such atavistic, animalistic tendencies.

Nope. We are still jumped-up apes, however many apps we may have on our smart devices.
posted by Sebmojo at 8:56 PM on May 24 [3 favorites]


If so, then it's pretty easy to understand why some veterans may continue to love war, despite its terribleness.
posted by Apocryphon at 9:02 PM on May 24


Not exactly a new concept:

From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remember'd;
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother;

posted by blue_beetle at 9:35 PM on May 24 [5 favorites]


Etrigan: “ [A]ctive-duty servicemembers (who wouldn't be at suburban grocery stores) spend a minimum of two weeks between on-mission and out of post-deployment lockdown. Reservists spend closer to a month.”
Thanks, Etrigan. Dad says, "Good. At least they learned one lesson between Vietnam and today then."

I won't quibble about the grocery stores except to say that an acquaintance of mine — perhaps home on leave rather than returning from deployment, it was long enough ago that I'm fuzzy on the details — told me how weird it was to go from being overseas to standing in Walmart in Columbus with his family with only a long plane ride in between.
posted by ob1quixote at 9:38 PM on May 24


I had a CO point out to me -- and I since found it to be true -- that people very rarely get in trouble on mid-tour leave. It's when they're back and they know they aren't going overseas any time soon that people get stupid. Obviously, it's not 100 percent, but I saw a lot more issues in "Month 13" of a 12-month deployment. I have to wonder whether some of that was "Now I'm done... What's next? Crap, I don't know..."
posted by Etrigan at 9:46 PM on May 24


I know that this is how some people experience war, because I've met them and I've read memoirs.

But I also sat with my grandfather and my great uncle while they talked about the horrible things they saw in WWII, and they weren't in any way wishing they were back there.

There was an author who talked about having a "good war," and I'm sure the people who had good wars will always have an itch to repeat that experience. But a lot of people don't have good wars, and for them this essay isn't quite so applicable.
posted by Dip Flash at 9:57 PM on May 24 [2 favorites]


I have only known one war veteran who liked to talk about how great it was. Without exception every war veteran who I observed hearing the routine was quietly mortified during, and vocally mortified when he was gone. Their usual first point was it's no fun being scared for your life and limbs.

I'm somewhat embarrassed and somewhat not to say that I'm in the first school. Say what you like, but it's quite a ride and it's easy to get addicted to it. It's the gambler's thrill. That moment of potential loss is when your senses sharpen to take in absolutely every detail around you and you feel completely alive and in tune with the world. I think it's easiest when you have a fatalistic expectation that you're already dead and might as well enjoy it; certainly the fact that I don't intend to live till I'm old has given me a freedom both in war and in general adventures that I'd very much miss if I started to be more afraid of my own death. The water is never so sweet as when you might never drink again, and that risk is a price that is not only reasonable to pay but one I constantly miss when I'm in a less intense situation.
posted by jaduncan at 12:28 AM on May 25 [4 favorites]


The great attraction that some men (and some women) have to war has perhaps something to do with the license granted for the expression and glorification of our most atavistic, tribal and violent urges (in addition to the adventure, the camaraderie and all the cool gear). Without the declaration of war, the hunting and killing of those you disagree with is considered a criminal offense.
posted by islander at 12:35 AM on May 25 [1 favorite]


I think I'd love a military career if it weren't for the killing people, and destroying/otherwise subjugating their countries. It's got all the elements I love: travel, problem solving, physical activity, a dash of danger, a demand for total competency.

I dunno, maybe people are just in it for the killing, but it's got some other elements that I find enticing.
posted by mantecol at 12:59 AM on May 25 [2 favorites]


I remember watching a documentary where a bunch of guys from a unit involved in the invasion of Saipan (IIRC), and the one guy talked about finding a squad that had been sent out the night before to find and kill Japanese who had attacked the base earlier that night. They eventually found the squad that had been ambushed when they were attempting to track down the Japanese who had conducted the attack. The guy said that they found the bodies of the squad of USA soldiers with their private parts in their mouths.

I remember the chill I felt when the US soldier said that, after finding the dead (and desecrated Americans), that they didn't take a single Japanese prisoner after that for the rest of the war. A waking nightmare (for both sides) if you ask me.
posted by InsertNiftyNameHere at 12:59 AM on May 25 [1 favorite]


It was Dispatches, by Michael Herr, Esquire's correspondent during the Vietnam War, that first gave me an understanding of why it was that some of the soldiers who fought in it developed a, hmm, fondness or nostalgia or enjoyment of the shared experience there.
posted by gingerbeer at 7:22 PM on May 24 [3 favorites +] [!]


One of the back page blurbs on my 1980 paperback edition of Despatches is taken from Time's review of the book: "Michael Herr dared to travel to that irrational place and to come back with the worst imaginable news: war thrives because enough men still love it."

That thought's stuck in my mind ever since.

The Australian songwriter Fred Smith came to a very similar conclusion after spending time with Western troops in Afghanistan. He wrote a song which gets to the heart of these matters, and called it Taliban Fighting Man.
posted by Paul Slade at 1:01 AM on May 25


To love war is to mock the very values we supposedly fight for. It is to be insensitive, reactionary, a brute.

Yep. That's exactly right, mate.
posted by Decani at 4:26 AM on May 25


"War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning" really is the book to read if you want some philosophical answers to the questions raised by this essay. "What is it Like To Go to War" is more like a book-length expansion of this essay.

I am a woman, and I've given birth, and I toyed as a teenager with the idea of joining the military (because travel and training and doing hard things and adventure and money for college.)

I agree that women feel these things too, but also agree that it's rarer. Especially among women who are mothers. Whether that's because we've already got some other source of primal love/sex/pain/death thrill, or because if the point about war taking away the children who are our victories, or just that testosterone is a hell of a drug...

Can't we just send people to Mars, for the same kind thrills, though?
posted by OnceUponATime at 5:57 AM on May 25 [5 favorites]


When I was I grad school, I briefly toyed with becoming a high school history teacher, which required me to take some undergraduate history courses in US History (I was a European History grad student). I remember that the teacher brought someone in who had fought in Viet Nam.

He was older even then, in his 50's. He described his first night near the DMZ from the First Indochina War. He said he crapped his pants a lot and was incredibly upset. Then he said they all "learned to love hunting humans." His exact words.

He then talked about how fucked up he became when he got back, cycling through depression, alcoholism and divorce.

One of my first professors in college taught a political behavior class and the first month was about his hypothesis that some periods in human evolution were driven by intra-species conflict and how much of our later social arrangements are the result of social and genetic evolution designed to increase group cohesion and out-group identification. That's why the men and women who engage in war often come to love it, as there is some level of programming to enjoy it.

But like most of our internal systems, it is far better at starting the issue than stopping it, so participation in actual combat has long-term, personally destructive after-effects.
posted by Ironmouth at 6:04 AM on May 25 [2 favorites]


I know that this is how some people experience war, because I've met them and I've read memoirs.

But I also sat with my grandfather and my great uncle while they talked about the horrible things they saw in WWII, and they weren't in any way wishing they were back there.


I would guess that many, many people who went away to war have ways of framing the experience to themselves in which the whole thing was appalling and ways, at other times, or even at the same time (people are complex), in which the whole thing was exhilarating.

My grandfather fought in WWI. He talked a lot about his service. There was clearly a part of him for which this was the most exciting, extraordinary, self-defining experience of his life. A young man from a small, rural town looking forward to a life spent largely in the same 10-20 mile radius of that small town or one just like it was suddenly whisked off on a grand adventure in which his life was full of strange and compelling incident. Suddenly he has all the intense cameraderie of bonding with men whose lives are all on the line together in the name of what was certainly portrayed to them as a Noble Cause. How could that not seem like being translated to a life simply of greater meaning and magnitude than ordinary life had to offer?

At the same time, this was WWI. Clearly he witnessed unspeakable horrors. People drowning in the muck and mire of the trenches, their bodies being eaten by rats, the civilian populations being brutalized by the armed forces etc. etc. etc. There's no doubt that when he looked back on his life he was proudest--by far--of the long years of work he'd done as a schoolteacher when he'd returned to that small country town and that if he'd had a magic wand to wave that would have made the war never happen he'd have used it. But that doesn't mean the powerful tug of nostalgia for his war experience wasn't there.
posted by yoink at 6:29 AM on May 25 [4 favorites]


I think people's enjoyment of war is in inverse proportion to the likelihood that they are going to get blown the fuck up.

Or more accurately there's a bell curve with a sweet spot centered at close enough to blow shit up but not so close you get your shit blown up. Too far away and it becomes a boring bureaucratic ordeal. Too close and you're living in constant fear and pressure and tension.
posted by atchafalaya at 6:48 AM on May 25 [4 favorites]


There was a great review of new war literature by George Packer in a recent issue of the New Yorker that fits perfectly with this FPP:

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan fully meet Fussell’s description of the ironic: they were worse than expected. Both began with hubris and false victories, turned into prolonged stalemates, and finally deserved the bitter name of defeat. The shorthand for Iraq, from “Mission Accomplished” to Falluja, Abu Ghraib, civil war, the surge, U.S. withdrawal, and the ongoing sectarian killing, is a story of exploded illusions. The first wave of literature by American combatants in these long, inconclusive wars has begun to appear—poems, memoirs, short stories, novels. Their concerns are the same as in all war writing: bravery and fear, the thin line between survival and brutality, the maddening unknowability of the enemy, tenderness, brotherhood, alienation from a former self, the ghosts of the past, the misfit of home.
posted by Dip Flash at 7:02 AM on May 25 [1 favorite]


Or more accurately there's a bell curve with a sweet spot centered at close enough to blow shit up but not so close you get your shit blown up.

The vast majority of American servicemembers who have served in Iraq or Afghanistan lived in the exact opposite of this sweet spot -- rocket attacks at random hours into our non-mobile bases from mobile attackers that we couldn't fire back against because they fired from busy neighborhoods, IEDs on our well-defined travel routes that were detonated remotely... even the people who got to shoot at people didn't do so nearly as often as they got rocketed or IEDed.
posted by Etrigan at 7:11 AM on May 25 [1 favorite]


I think people's enjoyment of war is in inverse proportion to the likelihood that they are going to get blown the fuck up.

I suspect that fear of getting blown up is part of what makes war exhilarating for many participants, in fact. Talk to people whose engagement in war zones is genuinely optional--war photographers and the like--and you can see that along with all the noble motives that impel them to go back and back and back into war zones ("the world needs to know" etc.) there is also a sense that life is never so real, so vivid, so intense as when you know you might lose it at any moment.
posted by yoink at 7:17 AM on May 25 [1 favorite]


"Most people fear freedom..." - Article.

"Is not this simpler? Is this not your natural state? It's the unspoken truth of humanity, that you crave subjugation. The bright lure of freedom diminishes your life's joy in a mad scramble for power, for identity." - Loki, Avengers.
posted by Atreides at 7:38 AM on May 25 [1 favorite]


Etrigan, which is why I think for many these wars won't be remembered as nostalgically as others. My experience was on a vast FOB, where the bureaucratic ordeal part came to the forefront. I'm sure if you're driving up and down Route Irish it's a different story.

What I'm trying to say is we make an unconscious calculation in our minds, that may not even be factual, because we have a hard time processing stats. If your likelihood of getting hit by an IED is one time out of five convoy runs on MSR Tampa, that's going to make for a shitty but still better experience than, say, getting overrun by the 1st SS Panzer Division in the Ardennes.

Maybe it's the degree of control over your situation. Like Yoink says, people whose participation is optional can often find it a vivid, compelling experience.
posted by atchafalaya at 7:40 AM on May 25


Great uncle had a bad WW1. In later years when fellow vets got sentimental, he went quiet and left the room.

YMMV.
posted by IndigoJones at 7:51 AM on May 25


I should note that my war was spent evacuating people rather than shooting at people, so no morally difficult killing of other mothers' sons and daughters. One of the benefits of that was being unambiguously the good guy, so it's perhaps unsurprising that I'm not morally conflicted about the thrill and view it in the same way as risky survival stuff.
posted by jaduncan at 8:32 AM on May 25 [3 favorites]


This American Life: Deep Dark Open Secret. (Start 3/4 of way down, where the sub heading starts "Act 4...".)

Adam:Every day, yes. Every day-- every mission we went out on, I was hoping I'd get to shoot somebody. This was actively talked about. Everybody wanted to get their first kill. Not everybody-- many people already had their first kill. But if you didn't have your first kill yet, everybody was talking about, OK, is this the day you're going to get your first kill?
posted by zoo at 8:36 AM on May 25 [3 favorites]


It may have seemed shameful to admit to liking or even loving war thirty years ago, when the debacle of Vietnam was still fresh in people's minds, but even back then you had the beginnings of the living-action-figure movie genre, in which Schwarzenegger and Stallone and Lundgren and Norris oiled up their pecs, strapped on ridiculously large guns, and mowed down ludicrous numbers of mostly non-white people without apology or much rationalization. (It's worth noting that in 1984, the original publication date of this piece, First Blood had come out, and Rambo was less than a year away, and the difference between the two films tells you pretty much everything you need to know about how the way America understood and coped with the legacy of Vietnam changed in the eighties.)

So it's thirty years later, and even as America deals with the legacies of its recent wars--the traumatic brain injuries, PTSD, the ongoing neglect of the VA, etc.--the most popular soldier to emerge from either Iraq or Afghanistan wasn't Jessica Lynch or Tammy Duckworth, seriously wounded vets who rebuilt their lives after the war; it was Chris Kyle, an unapologetically self-mythologizing SEAL sniper who styled himself both as a holy Crusader and the Punisher, who claimed many more kills than was confirmed, who told disturbing (and unverified, if not unverifiable) stories about vigilante murders after he came back to the States, and who died because he took a PTSD-afflicted veteran out shooting, something that no one who actually treats people with PTSD would recommend. And before people jump on me for criticizing a deceased veteran, I want to make the point that I'm not dragging this up to demonize Chris Kyle, merely to point out that, for a substantial chunk of America, this is the ideal soldier: someone for whom war was not only justifiable, but righteous. We are way past the point where someone admitting that war is or was a good thing for them should be even remotely shocking.
posted by Halloween Jack at 9:00 AM on May 25 [6 favorites]


A friend of mine is a former Navy Seal (pre 9/11) and spoke of how, as a soldier, you throw off many civilian rules, even in training (thou shall not blow things up, etc) so there's that, however the regimented military indoctrination (Bordieau) is a control.

Wes Moore's Ted Talk that I became aware of Friday is more reflective of the post 9/11 veterans I know.
posted by childofTethys at 9:01 AM on May 25


combat incidents during World War 11

Either I need new history books, or Esquire needs a copyeditor for its OCR program.
posted by cosmic.osmo at 9:49 AM on May 25 [4 favorites]


I thought this was a very good, honest essay and I'm a little surprised at how many people in this thread are so quick to dismiss it for various reasons. I mean, I'm a lifelong civilian and total wuss, but it makes sense to me that for a lot of people, the intensity and meaningfulness (albeit diluted with lot of boredom and meaninglessness) of war would be an experience they'd miss for the rest of their lives. And something they could never begin to describe to someone like me.
As I type, there's a Memorial Day parade happening right outside my window (one of the downsides of my apartment's location). Marching bands, people in uniform, lots of drumming, Shriners, muskets firing from time to time (there's the occasional regiment of Minutemen, although I doubt any of them are actual veterans of that war). It's a big happy party, and while I think it's great for people to enjoy a parade on a nice spring day, it makes me worry less about why men may or may not love war and more about why we as a country are always so ready to give them the chance to find out.
posted by uosuaq at 11:33 AM on May 25 [6 favorites]


it makes me worry less about why men may or may not love war and more about why we as a country are always so ready to give them the chance to find out

Very much agreed. I think people are too quick to send men to war. But I also understand how after that kind of heightened experience, it would be so impossible to go back to regular life, fully, right away.
posted by stoneandstar at 12:04 PM on May 25


A very good book on this subject is What It Is Like to Go to War by Karl Marlantes.

I read this recently. Marlantes does a great job of talking about the good and bad of his experiences in war. Most pointedly, he argues that our society harms our veterans by making them shut up about war -- both the bad and the good. You don't talk about killing people, because it's horrible, and we kind of expect people to not want to talk about it. But we're doubly bothered if a veteran talks about that like they're proud of it -- because oh my god, you killed people and you're proud?? And yet, everyone likes to be good at their job. Everyone likes to survive. Everyone likes to triumph in a bad situation.

And yet, Marlantes talks about this while also talking about the horrible, awful guilt he felt, and all the steps he had to take to address that guilt. He's not trying to advocate the notion that war is awesome, but he argues that we have to learn to accept that there's good and bad to all of these experiences, and if you can't talk about both, you can never really put it behind you.

I was bothered by the very, very gendered slant on the book, though. Admittedly, he fought in Vietnam, at a time when our culture and especially our military was much more gendered and sexually divided than it is now. But I can remember only once, toward the end of the book, where he acknowledged that women are getting into combat roles now, too. The vast majority of the book takes for granted that war is a masculine endeavor. And he also makes that same comparison that war is to men what child-bearing is to women... which, um... yeah. I don't know what to do with that.
posted by scaryblackdeath at 12:08 PM on May 25 [1 favorite]


I think I'd love a military career if it weren't for the killing people, and destroying/otherwise subjugating their countries. It's got all the elements I love: travel, problem solving, physical activity, a dash of danger, a demand for total competency.

I dunno, maybe people are just in it for the killing, but it's got some other elements that I find enticing.


I did four years & change in the Coast Guard (1994-1998), which included a humanitarian crisis (mass Cuban rafter exodus), the occupation of Haiti, search & rescue and drug interdiction. I was never shot at, but I can count quite a few genuine moments of life-threatening jeopardy. I didn't want war, didn't want to kill anyone, but beyond that I very much wanted a military experience to be a part of my life for numerous reasons and I accepted that war might well be a part of it before it was over. I'm exceptionally proud of my time, and I think quite highly of the Coast Guard. But as proud as I am, I can't even articulate how happy I was to get out.

That first year was awful. Morale on my boat was terrible. I was bullied, which was so bizarre that I couldn't even label it correctly until I became a teacher years later. Even at other stations, where people weren't assholes and even, in a great many cases, nice and decent people, it was very plain that I just did not fit in socially, and probably never would. Two of the happiest days of my life are the days that I left my boat in Key West (20 years ago this June), and the day I was discharged and drove home.

No more being told what to wear. No more being told where I'd live for years at a time. No more feeling like an outsider despite being among people who'd all signed up to do the same job, accept the same risks and rules and live the same way I did. There's a HUGE difference between pride and nostalgia for me... but, again, I was never shot at, nor did I ever have to shoot anyone.
posted by scaryblackdeath at 12:25 PM on May 25 [2 favorites]


Haven't read the comments, so someone else may have said this, but it seems like "fun" at the expense of a whole hell of a lot of other people.
posted by carping demon at 1:59 PM on May 25


Fascinating, thanks for posting that.
posted by Urtylug at 2:08 PM on May 25


> Haven't read the comments, so someone else may have said this, but it seems like "fun" at the expense of a whole hell of a lot of other people.

Deep, man. Did you even read the linked article?
posted by languagehat at 2:44 PM on May 25 [6 favorites]


This essay is not bad but I will suggest priest/anthropologist Teilhard de Chardin's WWI essay Nostalgia for the Front does a much better job explaining how such a brutal experience could leave positive memories.
posted by mr.ersatz at 3:07 PM on May 25 [1 favorite]


This article (and some of the comments above) is reminding me very much of William James's terrific piece The Moral Equivalent of War (setting aside some of its frustrating "national character" / "manliness" elements). James argues that the pleasures and virtues of military life that have been discussed here are worth saving, plus the social cohesion it can bring to a community, a people, a country. In the context of pre-WWI pacifism, one of the problems lay in having to jettison all the martial stuff wholesale -- James makes the case that there's a need for it, for the daring, discipline, and camaraderie, but directed against better challenges than killing fellow humans and enriching defense contractors. "To coal and iron mines, to freight trains, to fishing fleets in December, to dishwashing, clotheswashing, and windowwashing, to road-building and tunnel-making, to foundries and stoke-holes, and to the frames of skyscrapers, would our gilded youths be drafted off, according to their choice, to get the childishness knocked out of them, and to come back into society with healthier sympathies and soberer ideas. ... We should get toughness without callousness, authority with as little criminal cruelty as possible, and painful work done cheerily because the duty is temporary, and threatens not, as now, to degrade the whole remainder of one's life."
posted by deathmarch to epistemic closure at 3:13 PM on May 25 [5 favorites]


I know the childbirth simile was received unfavourably here, but I must say that after being present for the births of my three children, and being a veteran (from peacekeeping operations in the Balkans), I found some parallels between the experiences (I obviously can't speak to the experience of giving birth). There is something primal, something very basic and intense this-is-the-very-essence-of-being-human about both.
posted by Harald74 at 12:10 AM on May 26


“What It’s Like to Go to War”Moyers & company, 27 July 2012
Bill talks to Vietnam veteran and author Karl Marlantes about what we need to understand about the minds and hearts of our modern warriors.
posted by ob1quixote at 8:10 AM on May 26 [1 favorite]


The vast majority of the book takes for granted that war is a masculine endeavor.

You're suggesting that it isn't?

That said, I'd be curious to hear combat talk from women. I mean of the George Patton sort that acknowledges that it can be exhilarating. I think I would find it more unsettling than hearing such talk from men, but then, I'm a bit old fashioned.
posted by IndigoJones at 9:21 AM on May 26 [1 favorite]


Birth and death are primal experiences where other people are present, if not engaging in social rituals with the people involved...
posted by childofTethys at 3:28 AM on May 27


You're suggesting that it isn't?

Throughout history, women have experienced war in huge numbers, as civilians/victims of it.

I imagine there aren't many who secretly miss the experience (though maybe there are). We don't glorify the survival of civilians the way we do soldiers; their stories of bravery and sacrifice don't get mythologized in the same way, and I think culturally we treat them as cautionary tales (in a kind of "here's why war is bad: your grandmother lived through the Blitz and because of rationing had to make soup out of boots") and not as having qualities to strive for. A soldier who runs toward a machine gun nest is admired for bravery and sacrifice; the civilian who dodges snipers on her way to the well for water, well, that's not a state of being anyone is encouraged to move toward, is it?
posted by rtha at 6:32 AM on May 27 [1 favorite]


That reminds me: Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate (which I reviewed here) is not only one of the very greatest war novels, it's the only one I know of in which women and their experiences are given at least as much weight as men and theirs. The single most heroic act that comes to mind when I think of heroic acts in novels is performed by a woman, nowhere near any combat. I highly recommend it to anyone who feels up to a novel with heavy emotional burdens that doesn't shrink from confronting Nazi atrocities.
posted by languagehat at 7:44 AM on May 27 [2 favorites]


The vast majority of the book takes for granted that war is a masculine endeavor.

You're suggesting that it isn't?

That said, I'd be curious to hear combat talk from women. I mean of the George Patton sort that acknowledges that it can be exhilarating. I think I would find it more unsettling than hearing such talk from men, but then, I'm a bit old fashioned.


Great Soviet Women Snipers (top 45 only).
posted by Ironmouth at 9:49 AM on May 27 [1 favorite]


Dip Flash, the book by Studs Terkel called "The Good War": An Oral History of World War II has a title that's in finger-quotes because the author himself wanted to make clear that it wasn't good at all. Check it out, he even included a lot of first-person quotes to that effect in the book.
posted by wenestvedt at 11:07 AM on May 27


In the huge thread about Friday's killing in California, someone made a point that there's no meaningful, widespread ceremony for recognizing adulthood or manhood in America. But joining up and heading to Basic do provide a very clear-cut marker between youth and adulthood -- if not maturity -- and would easily be understood in this way by far more people than will actually try it themselves.
posted by wenestvedt at 11:17 AM on May 27


Tthe civilian who dodges snipers on her way to the well for water, well, that's not a state of being anyone is encouraged to move toward, is it?

I don't know about that. I've heard plenty of WW2 era Europeans discuss their war time experiences (some of which involved dodging gunfire, not always successfully), I've always found them pretty humbling and awe-inspiring, showcases for how to get on when the going gets tough.

Thanks, Ironmouth. Not a lot of quoting, unfortunately, and what there is seems ideological and propagandistic. I'm curious about barroom banter, not bond raising speechifying.
posted by IndigoJones at 11:36 AM on May 27


Well, a barroom encounter is the only time I've had a war vet tell me he enjoyed the experience. I met this guy I went to High School with in a bar, and when it came out that we'd both served in Vietnam, his immediate reaction was "Wasn't it great?" In HS, he was somebody I steered clear of - a bull-necked tough guy. I have no doubt that the experience of being so free of normal social restraints probably was great, to him. Me? I hated it, and do not miss it. One of my deepest fears was that Bush would get so far into his Iraq stupidity that they'd reinstate the draft, and my son would be sucked in. I think the number of vets who would approve of that happening to their kids is going to be much smaller than the number who are nostalgic for their own war experience.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 12:20 PM on May 27 [2 favorites]


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