“A Perfect War”
I have never seen war, but it fascinated me when I was young. I suppose that being a child of the ‘80s, I was raised amongst the cultural saturation of Ronald Reagan’s Hollywood. I grew up playing “Guns”, and I seemed to be obsessed with all things military for the majority of my childhood. This led to a short stint in Sea Cadets. Which was odd I guess, because I grew up in a mountain town a thousand miles from the nearest ocean. Our branch failed shortly after being stood up, because of some reason involving the leadership, but I learned how to stand at attention, march, and salute. Altogether a positive experience. My interest lasted until the age of 13 or 14, when I hit puberty and life became more about following than leading. I discovered drugs and alcohol early and by my late teens, I had long forgotten any ambitions I had ever had as a kid. Unbeknownst to me, I had entered a slow, downward spiral that would almost be a short line to a quick end.
When war came to the continental shores of the United States on September 11th, 2001 I was a young wanna-be musician seeking my pipe dream future. I had long traded in my childhood dreams of service for the dream of rock stardom and that quickly devolved into a dead end cycle of dismal jobs and constant substance abuse.
My memory from that unforgettable day was working as a survey chainman far out in the wilderness of Northern Alberta. When we drove out to our work site in the morning, we had a few phone calls about what was happening, but soon we were too far out for cell service, or radio. We spent the day wondering if the world was ending and what we might find when we returned. I remember we finished up early and drove the 2 hours back to town. I walked into the government subsidized duplex that I shared with my mom and younger sister and watched the footage of planes hitting the Twin Towers play out over and over. Planes smashed into the buildings in bright balls of fire and debris. Desperate people jumped from the burning towers. New Yorkers ran screaming through the streets, as the towers collapsed in an all enveloping cloud of grey dust. This was all hours old footage, but the images played continuously in a macabre loop of death and destruction.
This was in the days before the internet was ubiquitous. I was the lead singer in a band with some friends and we played some off and on local shows. We were really going nowhere, but we were huge fans of music. There was a local music store we used to orders CD’s through, and on that fateful Tuesday, which coincidentally was the day that latest music hit the shelves, I had a pre-order in for the latest album from thrash-metal gods, Slayer. After sitting stunned in front of the television for a few minutes, taking in the apocalyptic images from New York, I headed down to Soundwaves music and picked up my copy of Slayer’s new album. When I held it in my hands, I didn’t know what to think. There are moments in life where the synergistic threads that bind reality together all snap taut for one brief moment and point in a single direction. The album cover was an edited version, as the official cover was banned in Canada under censorship laws. The cover depicted four golden crosses, each arranged pointing in the cardinal compass directions; North, South, East, and west. The text on the CD read, “God Hates Us All.”
For a lot of young people of my generation, September 11th was their call to arms. It filled people with resolve and purpose and the military in Canada saw requests for recruitment increase to numbers not seen in decades. For me though, this was a dark time of drug abuse and nihilism. While other young men my age were joining up to go to what would become the longest running conflict in modern history, I was mired in depression, purposelessness, and self destruction. I used to feel guilty about that, but I have learned that the choices we make, make us who we are. I am too old to feel bad about it anymore. I lived through those dark times and now, my life is something much better than I could have ever imagined back in my early twenties.
I supposed it might have been late 2015, early 2016, but a friend of mine recommended to me a podcast he was listening to that had really captured his attention. “The Jocko Podcast” is hosted by retired Navy Seal, Jocko Willink and his producer “Echo Charles”. I was curious, so I gave it a listen and was immediately captivated by not only Jocko’s low, gravel crushing voice and slow cadence of speech, but also the intimate and reverential way he related stories of war and conflict. From famous battles from history, to the leaders and warriors that fought the battles that shaped the world. Episode after episode of analysis and introspection of both historical and modern warfare is described in agonizing detail. I was hooked. I listened to every episode. Over time, other veteran podcasters began to enter the space and share their stories from their careers in the military and experiences overseas. Andy Stumpf, with the “Cleared Hot Podcast” and the “Mike Drop” podcast hosted by Mike Ritland both produce excellent interview style shows that detail the firsthand experiences of war, armed conflict, and the aftermath.
The stories that are shared on these podcasts by the men and women who chose to join up in wartime and fight the “Global War on Terror” are gripping to say the least, but it wasn’t their experiences down range that seemed to stick with me the most. While it is always a privilege to have someone share their first hand tales of bravery and sacrifice in combat, it was the stories of the struggles after coming home once each soldier had ended their time in the military, that seemed to speak directly to me. So many stories of being lost and the suffering that followed. So much trauma suffered in silence, and so many who never found their way out of the darkness that followed them home.
The suicide rate of military veterans is beyond astonishing. The stories of drug abuse, of hopelessness, lost purpose and endless spirals of depression made me recollect my days in the early 2000’s when I nearly lost those battles myself. As I said, I have no analog for war, but, I have known what it is to stare into the void and to have to void stare back. I have felt my life, my sanity, my existence, hanging on a razor’s edge, and I have lived through it. There is a common result of trauma and addiction. It is either death, or recovery. So many of these veteran podcasters speak about finding a new purpose, a new mission, to break free of the darkness that consumes so many. They are correct, I believe, in their assessment.
“A Perfect War” was written in October of 2017. Like many of my pieces, it is written in an almost subconscious flow state. I start writing, not really having an idea of what the piece will be, letting the words come organically and what I end up with is whatever I end up with. Many times, I complete the piece and turn the page without reading it. The next day I repeat the process and the work never gets read at all, until it is time to edit it and publish it to this website on the weekend. I remember when I first read “A Perfect War.” I knew immediately that the energy in it was interpreted from the stories of those soldiers who had returned from war and their struggles. I felt, as I edited it, some echoes of my own experience with trauma, fear, and loss, but this piece is not about me.
This piece is about those who volunteered to do the thing that all men fear. It is for whose who went and fought the dragon and returned, not to a hero’s welcome, but to a society and a system that disregarded their services and their sacrifice, when it did not actively denigrate it altogether. It is a piece about surviving the dark night and my eternal hope that all who struggle with the demons in their heads live to see the sunrise each and every day. It is for those who live with thoughts, experiences, and emotions inside them that can only be understood by those who were there and lived it first hand. A precious few, whose pain is mercifully inconceivable to the rest of us.
I’d like to thank Jocko Willink, Andy Stumpf, and Mike Ritland for their work on their podcasts that shed so much light on the plight of our service men and women returning home from conflict. If you’re into podcasts, I’d recommend giving them a listen.
To all who have served, continued to serve, and to those who will serve our communities and our nations in the future, I say “Thank you.” Please continue to share your stories, as they are voices that must be heard, lest we forget.
To those who have returned and found that the world they knew is gone. To those who have lost purpose and perspective and who are struggling with the depths of depression and suffering; I ask you for one thing: Stay. We need everyone. No one knows what the future holds and I can speak from experience when I say that a life exists for you that you cannot possibly imagine, but we need you to stay here and live it. Day by day, you can get there.
Thank you for reading.
I appreciate comments and feedback on these reblogs. I find there to be value in revisiting these old pieces and putting some context to them. This one is obviously the longest yet, but here we are.