A poet died recently. The late David Berman was the founding member and lead songwriter of the band Silver Jews, as well as a drug-addled hypersensitive the likes of which the English language hasn’t seen since Lionel Johnson.
He seems at first glance like a particularly unlikely candidate to teach me something about my own experiences as a combat veteran, but that he actually did only proves the force and clarity of his vision. Our best poets, Gary Saul Morson recently pointed out, are sensitive enough to intuit truths they might not have rational, intellectual, access to. Berman, who died in August, was able to intuit the bittersweet sense of a veteran’s return home. In “Candy Jail,” he sings about the sad ambivalence one feels in that tectonic shift of going from being a soldier to primarily a consumer:
Living in a candy jail
With peppermint bars
Peanut brittle bunk beds
And marshmallow walls
Where the guards are gracious
And the grounds are grand
And the warden really listens
And he understands
After four plus years serving out my contract as an enlisted infantryman, I “separated,” as they call it, from the Army and moved to Brooklyn. With a combined income from the GI Bill and working odd jobs, life was pretty, well, like Berman’s jail, sweet. I had a lot of free time and a lot of disposable income. What’s more, I had control over my own time. And without much external structure, my days all sort of blended together in a louche, quasi-bohemian fugue. A museum. A party. A restaurant. A park. A movie.
When I was in Iraq, I swam in one of Saddam Hussein’s private pools. The occasion was something called either a “Warrior’s Weekend” or an “Eagle Weekend,” and it was 48 hours of rest and relaxation in one of Saddam’s repurposed palaces within the Green Zone. It was only two days in what turned out to be a nearly 15 month deployment, but spending hours reading “Whom The Bell Tolls” poolside and using the free phone to make outgoing calls to my family stands out among the various other memories of the war as being uncharacteristically pleasurable. Fulfilling, even. The weekend wasn’t all that substantively different from much of what I did when I eventually moved to Brooklyn, but it meant more. Why would swimming in Saddam Hussein’s pool feel qualitatively different, more substantial, than swimming on a beach in Brooklyn? Does the context of war actually make pleasure more pleasurable, or perhaps give it more heft? (RELATED: Veteran Suicides Continue To Increase As The 18th Anniversary Of The War In Afghanistan Arrives)
Larry Darryl, protagonist of the original W. Somerset Maugham novel and subsequent film adaptations of “The Razor’s Edge,” a carefree and playfully charming Midwestern boy, shaken and set adrift by his experiences as an ambulance driver in the War to End All Wars, would say that it does. His development as a character illustrates both how combat experience creates a hunger for deeper meaning as well as a lens through which the everyday doesn’t seem to quite appear to measure up. In what has to be one of the most underrated pool scenes in American cinema, Bill Murray as Darryl in the 1984 adaptation of the novel, meanders across his girlfriend’s pool towards a tiny platoon of empty martini glasses. “I think we need to talk,” she demands, kicking Darryl’s single remaining full martini glass into the pool as he reaches for it. The drinking and lounging have apparently been going on for weeks. He’s had time enough to loaf around. “Isn’t it time to get back on your feet again?” But Darryl doesn’t want to come back, get married, and start working the job in finance that the man who would become his father-in-law has offered him. “I just want to think,” he says. “I need to think.”
Darryl’s need to think takes him far afield from his native Illinois. He becomes a bohemian in a Parisian garret. A coal miner who reads the Upanishads. A searcher in India. And, finally, a Buddhist monastic in the hyperborean climes of Tibet. It’s an adventurous and wild journey, but it shouldn’t come as a shock to anyone who has even a passing familiarity with all the ways in which combat changes someone. On the battlefields of northern France, Darryl was confronted with the stark contrast between meaning and nihilism.
Was there meaning in combat? Darryl found it there. One moment he was watching fireworks and sneaking kisses in the soft Midwestern night, and the next he was holding friends in his arms as they died staring into each other’s eyes. Death was sudden and final, and next to it the beauty of everything that composes one’s life shined in contrast. Combat itself is so often made to be synonymous with nihilism. Loss and depravity are highlighted, and not without good reason. So much of war is shocking. Disgusting. I could of course tell lurid stories about my own combat experiences, but those kinds of colorful descriptions never quite live up to the sad reality of carnage and human loss. A corpse isn’t evocative. It’s silent. A dead body, particularly one that was tortured and murdered, isn’t entertaining. It’s a scandal. And it makes you despair. In her masterful “The Iliad, Or a Poem of Force,” the French mystic/philosopher Simone Weil quotes Homer:
… the horses Rattled the empty chariots through the files of battle,
Longing for their noble drivers. But they on the ground Lay, dearer to the vultures than to their wives.
Weil explains that “To define force — it is that x that turns anybody who is subjected to it into a thing. Exercised to the limit, it turns man into a thing in the most literal sense: it makes a corpse out of him. Somebody was here, and the next minute there is nobody here at all.” It’s this force, nihilism in the full action of transforming a man into “a thing dragged behind a chariot in the dust,” which people are referencing when they talk about the futility of war. Daryll saw it in France. Weil discerned it on the dusty plains of Troy. I saw it with my own eyes in the trash-blown streets of Baghdad. How can someone learn anything about human flourishing in an environment whose major characteristic is that it’s a place where force crushes being and turns subjects into objects? (RELATED: Air Force Veteran Would Have Been Buried Alone — But St. Louis Had Other Ideas)
There are two reasons, I’d say, with one more hidden than the other. The first reason is thumatic. In combat, unlike during the course of your day-to-day life as a civilian in America, you’re given the opportunity to actually feel more and more deeply. Homer occasionally uses the word thumos, but the most cogent and widely accepted definition comes from Plato’s notion of the tripartite soul. In the Phaedrus, Plato explains this mapping of human psyche with the metaphor of a charioteer: logos (located in the head) is the driver, while the two-winged horses that pull the chariot are eros (located in the stomach), or base desires, and thumos (located in the chest), righteous anger. Parallels with Freud’s Id, Ego, Superego are difficult not to acknowledge and act as a useful, albeit imperfect, way of explaining what Plato might mean in more contemporary therapeutic language. But what’s most important to keep in mind here is that Plato considered thumos necessary to being fully human. It’s not just some phantom limb which occasionally causes us twinges of pain and which we can, with hard work, convince our brains doesn’t actually exist. The thumotic drive is already there. And how well can a charioteer actually drive his equipage if he’s in denial about how many horses are pulling it?
Thumos in war can manifest in a variety of different forms. There’s the obvious mortal combat, of course, the gun play and bombs and hand to hand fighting. But then there’s also everything else which war requires, the logistics and day-to-day machinations that are mostly invisible to civilians that make up the vast bulk of the enterprise. Sweeping might not strike one as a particularly obvious way of conjuring the blood-boiling thumatic chest-heaving which happened at Troy, but in the strange contours of contemporary war, it can simply because so much affects so much else in a kind of martial gestalt. What happens if you don’t clean the floor and a firefight occurs and some poor grunt carrying armloads of ammunition slips and cracks his skull open? The result could be multiple casualties. And so really, because every little action reverberates with potentially mortal consequences, there’s a kind of thumatic sheen which overlays all of combat. Because everything you do or don’t do might lead to the death of your comrades, everything you do or don’t do is charged with a strange and insistent energy.
But there’s another way in which war gives us meaning, a method that might be more subtle as it is more profound: meaning is sussed out and manifested by dreaming of home. I have a number of examples in my own experience to draw from, and each begins with the key ingredient of the vast amount of slow, meandering time punctuated by brief moments of violence and action. I specifically remember a firefight in Baghdad in 2007, my first significant combat experience. I was a 240B gunner at the time, perched precariously behind the glass and armor of a Humvee turret. The details of the firefight are still strong in my mind. The rows of dark, busted-out windows along the building from which we drew fire. The radio tower on top of the building, which looked more like a chthonic excretion than a man-made object. The muzzle flashes. The way my body twisted and sweat and the way my weight was distributed to the balls of my feet rather than the sling that I sat on. Some moments seem to loom so large that they protrude out of the past and maintain a terrifying and permanent purchase on the present.
But before the fight, and for a long time after, I cleaned my weapon and dreamed of home. It was a specific kind of nostalgia, a soldier’s nostalgia. Home is never as sweet, the food never as delicious and the neighbors never so kind, as when you’re thousands of miles away in a combat zone. The truth is that, amid the squalor of war, you construct an idea of home in your mind that is imbued with more meaning, more purpose, than it actually provides in real life. Contrast it with the corpses you encounter, “dearer to the vultures,” and it becomes the Big Other. The place out there, for me being from Missouri, was the tiny twinkling lights of a Midwestern town, where meaning resides. You forget the minor dissatisfactions of home and the major dissatisfactions of the larger culture, the candy jail, where even your most profound longings for purpose and vitality are only available as commodities to be sold back to you. (RELATED: President Trump Is Deploying An Additional 2,100 Troops To The Border)
This sense of longing, possibly similar to or even the same as the hunger that St. Augustine writes of in his “Confessions,” and it can only really be cultivated within the kind of experience of time whicch war provides. Unfortunately. The rhythms of combat, the long periods of time to “think,” as Larry Darryl terms it (contemplation or prayer might well be more accurate descriptions), punctuated by moments, sometimes only seconds in brevity, which are weighted by mortality, aren’t necessarily available or encouraged in the contemporary civilian world. The former, especially. My time in Iraq contoured to the rhythms of the military. There was a cycle of preparation, deployment, training, missions, packing, and redeployment. And all of this, even the interstitial time on details or cleaning weapons or resting (the bulk of the experience), thrummed with thumatic meaning and was touched by a kind of sacrificial energy.
If that sounds like a quasi-spiritual experience, that’s because it is. The British painter and poet David Jones, perhaps the most underrated Modernist, based the formal structure of his work “In Parenthesis” on this sense of the complexity and richness of combat time. Inspired in large part by his experiences in the First World War, Jones writes a poem which at times feels as if it’s trying to become the literary vortex in which all wars are being experienced at once. In what might be one of the greatest speeches in war literature (no small claim), Jones has his old soldier Dai Greatcoat make a thumotic boast to end all boasts, a speech that weaves itself through time and epoch alike:
My fathers were with the Black Prinse of Wales
at the passion of the blind Bohemian king.
They served in these fields,
it is in the histories that you can read it, Corporal – boys
Gower, they were – it is writ down- yes.
Wot about Methuselum, Taffy?
I was with Abel when his brother found him,
under the green tree.
I built a shit-house for Artaxerxes.
I was the spear in Balin’s hand
that made waste King Pellam’s land.
The rich allusions and sedimentary layers of meter and syntax of course imply a central connecting thread that runs through all wars — a string of meaning to grope around for and follow out of the labyrinth of nihilism. But most importantly, it isn’t a way of experience the past, of living through time, that is necessarily unique only to war. I’d argue that, as avant garde as Jones’ writing might appear, it is a very traditional way of experiencing your own culture and of imbuing your day-to-day life with meaning. Much of modernism does this. Pound said to “Make it new!,” and Faulkner reminded us that the past isn’t over, “it’s not even the past.” And what this notion of a very real connective tissue to time teaches us is to recognize the stillness beyond all the varied moments. The silence in which they’re all gathered in, and the eternity from which they issue forth. (RELATED: Deployed Dad Gives Son The Surprise Of A Lifetime During Taekwondo Practice)
This is the exact inverse of how time is typically experienced in the strip malls and drive-throughs of the civilian world. The German-Korean philosopher Byung-Chul Han does a wonderful job of describing exactly what time has become in his book “The Scent of Time.” The culprit, in a word, Han tells us, is “quantification.” In a bid to make everything mesh into a system where everything can just as easily be replaced by another thing, we’ve traded vast tracts of narrative expanse for isolated facts, figures, and, ultimately, products. What we’ve lost, Han writes, is “duration” — the feeling of having enough time to “linger.” But, “It is not the total number of events, but the experience of duration which makes life more fulfilling. Where one event follows close on the heels of another, nothing enduring comes about.” Not happiness. Not flourishing. Not memory. Not thought.
So ultimately, for better or worse, combat provides one of the few chances for humans to experience both the hardship and time necessary to conjure in us a hunger for meaning. In war, we’re exposed to squalor that makes us dream of fulfillment. To nihilism, which makes us philosophers of meaning. And we’re given the chance to experience the slow duration of time, to feel its gritty contour, and to think within its duration. Ultimately, all these things orient us towards a deeper meaning and help us to see that to live in a candy jail is still to live incarcerated.
Scott Beauchamp is the author of “Did You Kill Anyone?” and the novel “Meatyard: 77 Photographs.” His work has appeared in The Paris Review Daily, American Affairs, and The Dublin Review of Books, among other places. He lives in Maine.
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