Sunday, September 6, 2009

I Can't Help You

Whenever I’m stateside, I’m still fielding my favorite question: “What’s it like over there?” And, despite being here in 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, and now 2009 (as a writer), I still can’t answer to my own satisfaction. It’s too broad. It means too much. It’s still emotions that haven’t yet found their way to words. While the listener may be happy with the response, I am not.

Take a collage of 100,000 photographs and ask me to find the ONE that best summarizes them all. I can’t do that. Ask me in the morning when I’ve just risen and I’ll tell you it was absolutely stupid. Ask me when I’m alert, I’ll give a more measured response. Ask me when I’m drunk, I’ll tell you about the friends I lost and what I think about the creation of widows for the sake of a foreign policy I’m not entirely certain I understand or support. Ask me right now and I’m at a loss for words. Most of us are.

But all the same, folks, go ahead and ask. Ask me. Ask your fathers who served in another war. Ask your uncles who were in a “conflict” that never was even considered a war. Ask your grandfathers…if they’re alive, and if they’ll even talk about it. It’s a wave of emotions. But if you want, don’t ask. In fact, don’t say anything. You’ll still get your answer. Watch faces. Watch body language. Watch THEM.

Watch the old guys that essentially live in VFW halls and refer to themselves as professional drunks. Watch how they never actually talk about anything. They keep the conversation firmly focused on trivialities. Watch how much they drink, or how many packs of smokes they burn through in a night. Glance at their tattoos and try to figure out what the original image was before their skin went to leather.

Watch the old men when they’re at the local parade. When the flag goes by, watch them stand up straighter than you were aware they could muster at their age and in their condition.

Watch the hats that dutifully come off at baseball games when the National Anthem plays. See how many old men have tears in their eyes. Take note of how many don’t care if people see them anymore. Why hide how tragedy, pride and memories move them?

Peek into a loved one’s closet and you’ll find old boots, or old uniforms, or beautifully-framed medals hidden in a box on a shelf. They still know it’s all there, and they still look at it, too. It’s probably just not when you’re around.

You’ll also find photographs in there – guys or girls you’ve never met and have never been told about either. If the photograph has been saved, chances are they’re not alive anymore. You are unlikely to hear the story, though. It seems an insult to transform them into stories. It’s too much like entertainment; not a brother or sister who was cut down in the prime of life.

Watch a vet at a car accident scene or a crime scene. See how they’re not really flinching? Well, they’ve seen worse. At least there aren’t body parts of friends everywhere this time. They’ll live.

Watch two men who have never met share a “Semper Fidelis, buy one another beers, and walk out the best of friends. You’ll hear them ask, “who were you with?” You might overhear some interesting stories, too.

Watch young and old men alike walk out of movies like “Saving Private Ryan,” or “Blackhawk Down.” It’s not a movie to them. It’s too real, and people died out there. These men knew their names.

Listen to them summarize an entire tour in a few short words. “It could have been disastrous.” “We got blown up a lot.” “It sucked.” “I hate that damn country. They can go to hell.” “It smelled like dead bodies and shit.” “Ask somebody else.” You’ll be frustrated that there are unexplained “gaps” in their lives. Months, if not years that you know little about and they would rather not explain. For the better part of nine months, I have tried to “put” people here with my writing. I feel I’m no closer to success than I was the day I started this. I fear I’ve raised more questions than I’ve answered.

Look around on a city block and see who flies a flag most often. See who reads the news the most. See who stays the calmest in long lines. See who carries a gun. See who talks the least. Observe who knows the Constitution and can still recite the oath he or she took to it. See who’s the most stubborn, persistent bastard you’ve ever met. See who treats their bodies most abusively.

See who can be the angriest. See who takes their own lives more than any other population in the country. See who’s the calmest but can become the most dangerous. See who fights the hardest but who fights the least often. Watch who will also drop everything to help a virtual stranger whose “done his time,” too.

Watch the dysfunction. Watch the peace. Watch the hope, and the total loss of innocence. Wait for the faraway look and come to their faces and wish you were there, too.

So what’s it like? What’s war like? What’s Iraq like? It depends on the day. It sucked. It was boring. It was stupid. It was dangerous. It was the adventure of a lifetime. I hated it. I loved it. I wanted to come back. I wanted to go home. I hoped the country sank into the sand. It was grotesque. It was ballet of rifles, boots, and ferocity. It was fear. It was invincibility. I’m a victim. I’m a victor. It was overrated. It was underplayed. It was something I wish lasted longer. It was something that robbed me of 53 months of my life. It was good. It was evil. I needed to do it. I didn’t do enough. I didn’t kill enough. I killed too many. I made it worse. I made it better. I don’t know.

I can go on and on, but you’re still not going to get it. I’m not sure that I even do, actually. Honestly, I also doubt I ever will. That’s why we’re all in our own little world, because we were birthed of the same mother. It’s complicated. Some of us attempt to explain it; some of us never bothered to try. We can’t even explain it to ourselves.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved


  1. Good honest analysis.

  2. There is a way out of that funk.