Thursday, January 17, 2008

The Drug of Combat

War is a Drug

In account after account from the trenches of Vimy, the front lines of the liberation of Holland and outside the wire in Afghanistan, we struggle -- soldiers struggle -- with how to convey the real reality. Sometimes even with what is the real reality.

In Afghanistan, experiencing the intensity of battle; being the cause of the destruction of villages; being able to do little to address the extreme poverty and deprivation of the children; witnessing the burden and abuse of women in this male-dominated social order; hearing the suffering and cries of the wounded, civilian and military alike; seeing the cold and cruel face of death on your enemy as well as on your comrade: These are some of the realities veterans carry back to Canada.

When they arrive home, other realities may shock them: the unseemly opulence of our country; the debates and posturing of politicians wanting to grab the next headline without knowing much about the war; the air of security that envelops civilians as they go so earnestly about their daily routines, detached from any sense of the threat encountered daily by their nation's representatives abroad; the consuming fervour and stress generated by our keen work ethic in this industrialized society; being able to hit the off switch on the remote when the tube projects too much hurt and agony. Is this the mindset the veterans of Afghanistan, and so many of their predecessors, are expected to slip into once again?

The reality of combat in Afghanistan or the reality of life back home -- which one does the young warrior most have to grapple with? Which actually comforts him most? Which one does the doctor cling to as she faces the passage of wounded through the Kandahar military hospital? Which does the battlefield humanitarian clutch to his breast to weather the moral and ethical dilemmas of service?

As the adrenalin high of the war zone recedes ever so slowly, the hurt rises in your stomach and buckles your shoulders under the weight of grief and sorrow. You're surprised to feel the deep ache of lonesomeness as you sit once again at your family dinner table -- where you longed to be. Though you deny it to the people who love you, the people in your home life who rely on you, you long for extreme emotions: the pounding of your heart in your throat so strong you nearly choke; the perverse exhilaration of defying death time and time again; the intoxicating spasm of raw power you experience among the explosive lights of bursting projectiles, with their acrid smell and deafening blasts; the climax of battle, which leaves you drowning in sweat and relieved to be alive.

How can we -- how can they -- stay off that drug of combat, that rush into temporary oblivion that has absolutely no equal in the human experience?

I can think of no civilian equivalent where one's job is to offer up life and limb for a mission, a cause, a buddy, another human being who is just as human and vulnerable as you. In the aftermath of combat, forever burnt into the wiring of a combatant's brain is another reality, which invades everyday life with a clarity and speed that can surprise, disillusion, depress and elate all at once. In my experience, no amount of time can dampen this impact on a soldier's psyche.

Aptly, some of the writings in this revealing explode and pierce the reader with an unbridled energy and clarity that pulls at the heart and drives right to the soul. Reading these pages is like hearing voices from the beyond, like seeing ghosts wandering the recesses of all the world's battlefields.

A reader will also encounter the kind of soldiers' stories that wars always produce but that often remain unheard, unread: statements that come out so spontaneously and so to the point. In the field hospital at Kandahar airbase, young Corporal Ryan Pagnacco, having been severely wounded in action, wakes up from his drug-induced torpor to the sound of rocket and mortar fire nearby. As he lies helpless in his bed, the nurse throws a blast blanket over him, and he asks: "Are we being attacked?" The reply comes immediately with calm and serious intent: "Yes … go back to sleep." Can one imagine a more suitable response from a caregiver to an anxious patient fresh from the front?

Many serve and so few are recognized or even receive a word of thanks. Often the intensity of the battle prevents its leaders from noticing a fait d'armes of heroic proportions. At other times, the leaders themselves are wounded or killed and are not there to pass word up the line of a warrior's feat committed by a private. At other times, the cohesiveness of the group brings about a victorious outcome or a disciplined withdrawal under fire: All are truly heroes, yet all simply feel that they just did their jobs.

It is only when the tired, dirty, hungry and thirsty combatants find a moment of rest that the vividness, the adrenalin rush and the steady vise-grip on their stomachs catches them by surprise, replaying in slow motion the rage, fear, sorrow and extraordinary high of facing death head-on and surviving.

The anecdotes and jokes, the technical and emotional descriptions, the blood-curdling and sad exposes: All are present in these letters home from the battlefield in a far-off land. The human dignity and sorrow, as well as the elation of victory and the emptiness of loss, are laid out in the participants' own innocent, lively and clear prose-- the richness of which is incalculable.

-Romeo Antonius Dallaire is a Canadian senator. In 1993 and 1994, he served as Force Commander for the UN peacekeeping force in Rwanda. Excerpted from Outside the Wire. Copyright © 2007 Kevin Patterson and Jane Warren. Reproduced by arrangement with Random House Canada. All rights reserved. This foreword copyright © 2007 Romeo A. Dallaire.


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