I’m lucky enough to have a friend with a boat. Sitting at the stern, I watch the boat create its wake, then as we speed away the wake fades just as quick. Thinking about the war doesn’t work that way. About the best I can hope for in real life is to be able to put what happened in a box. The box stays closed most of the time.
Some guys try and keep it shut by making life meaningless—liquor for the old ones, drugs for the young ones, a little of both for the handlestache Vietnam vets in the middle. The Friday nights drinking with the boys become Wednesday mornings drinking alone in the bathroom with the door shut. Some let that run its course and just tap out.
But absent a few orange plastic containers next to the bathroom sink, for me, I took my neighbor’s grandson out to the zoo, made dinner, went to work, all the time the curator of some secret museum. The memories don’t go away like the people do.
If the box pops open, some people try to push such thoughts away, stopping with just their toes in the water, thinking they’ve gone swimming. But after a while I knew I had to go into the deep end, because only there could I confront the real monster: the essence of war is not men dying, the essence of war is killing. War isn’t a place that makes men better. Flawed men turn bad, then bad men turn evil. So the darkest secret of my war wasn’t the visceral knowledge that people can be filthy and horrible. It was the visceral knowledge that I could be filthy and horrible.
The part of Hawaii I retired to is peaceful. Some tourists, but not too many, little of the tawdry spank of Waikiki. Sometimes I get lonely for some noise though, and find myself over there, enjoying a little ice cream and a walk.
For me the war is like a shirt I always know is there in my closet but don’t wear often. I’ll be absently out and step onto an unfamiliar path and it’ll be just the right crunch of gravel under my feet. My eyes will involuntarily lose focus for a second, and if I’m with someone they might ask, “Nate, everything okay?” and I’ll lie and smile, “Oh you know, just a senior moment.” But memory slaps me just the same way stirring up the ashes of barbecue coals turns them red. I’ve failed many times to remember a time when I had nothing particular on my mind.
The Honolulu end of Waikiki beach is anchored by a Department of Defense hotel, run on taxpayer money as a low-cost vacation destination just for service people. The military is comical about telling them to “keep a low profile,” supposedly so they don’t become targets of the terrorists presumed to haunt these beautiful beaches. But of course you can tell. The buff bodies stand out against the fleshy look of the regular tourists. The odd-patterned tans—all dark brown faces with pale white everywhere else—betray a recent trip to the Middle East.
I’ll sometimes nod to them, mostly out of politeness. I generally keep to myself the fact that we know a lot about each other. A few will nod back, maybe say a few words and leave you to fill in the silence, but I find the ones who talk too easily are generally part of what I call professional veterans, guys with little dirt under their nails who get a lot of free drinks and airline upgrades in a September 12 world. I’m grateful after meeting them for those portions of my stroll when there’s less time for my thoughts.
Once in a while someone who fought some of the same kind of war I did is obvious—a missing hand on a 20-year-old, some thick pink scars. It could’ve been a car wreck or a factory fire, I guess, but I know that wasn’t what it was. I wonder what his friends thought the first time they saw him, or what his ex-girlfriend said, or what he thought being as scared to come home as he was scared to go to war. This is the guy who, after Wolf Blitzer moves on to the next story, cries trying to touch his daughter’s hair, and knows just because he changed from cammies to beach shorts that’s not a shortcut back into normal life. If you see these guys on TV, you always see them young and still strong, showing courage learning to use their new robo-prosthetics. You never see anything that shows what their life is like ten or forty years down the road.
Out on the beach, some people won’t stop looking, like a 10-year-old’s focus on a a pile of Legos, and some won’t look at all, but either way this is all happening, like the wars did, simultaneously while other people are eating at Applebee’s and going shopping. It gets hard to keep it all in the same world. And you, sure, go ahead, you go on and use the term “unbearable pain” the next time you hit your thumb with a hammer.
Of course, there are also those you don’t see, the boys and girls who bought the long zipper, the one that closes a body bag. Yes, Mrs. Mom, we took your son, but look, we gave you back a neatly folded flag. See, it’s in a triangle shape, representing the hats of American Revolutionary War soldiers, isn’t that interesting. And if you have a second child, and you call now, we’ll double your order.
Me, we, they, you, I don’t know the right word to ever use, because it wasn’t just our side. I’d seen something on PBS saying that during the 1950s and early 1960s you could still see a few Japanese soldiers around the train stations, wearing bits of their old uniforms, some with crude prosthetics, begging, failed in the end by disregard. Young people, dressed in the latest western styles, passed by, eyes on the ground, embarrassed about men humiliating themselves in the midst of the post-war economic miracle. What if a visiting foreigner saw them, what would he think of Japan? Older people would slip the soldiers small bills, hoping if they had some money they would go away.
A few guys ended worse off than the physically wounded, spending the weekends with their regular companions Samuel Adams, Johnnie Walker, and the cops. Get some sleep and have a drink, they were told, only don’t let it turn into too much of either one. Each bad thought seemed like a page that needed a twelve-ounce can of paperweight to hold it down. All we ever thought about was coming home; “If the army doesn’t kill me, I’ve got it made for life,” we said. We were naive; too many of us survived the war only to come back wanting to die every day.
You learn to be alone in crowded places, deep in your own head. Imagine being on this beautiful beach and not caring to even look up and watch a father try to make his way across the hot sand balancing four dripping ice cream cones.
They’d lost things whose importance they only recognized when they weren’t there. They’ve come to think today means nothing, tomorrow means nothing, and develop a sense that only things that already happened matter. Nothing has taste or color.
My generation had no counselors, no clinics, no support groups. In my Ohio hometown, before the wife and I retired to Hawaii, every Memorial Day there’d be little flags first made in Iowa, then Hong Kong, then Japan, then Korea and now China and Vietnam—Vietnam, for gawds sake—on every porch. Half the people my age watching the parade then were vets in wheelchairs. I had a nice welcome home party when I came back, and plenty of good Veteran’s Days to try and use to subtract things from the parts of the fight I dragged along with me. But the underlying message was the same as in every war, whether delivered nicely or crudely: deal with the real stuff in private, we don’t want to know. You pack out your own gear, trooper.
Drinking hurt, but for some it hurt less. Everyone learns it just sends your pain off to wait for you, but still it was something to look forward to, the first fizzy beer of the day tickling your nose, or the throat-burning shot of something stronger biting into an ulcer. Drinking wiped away hours when someone had too many of them, all the way back to 1945 sometimes. Pain can be patient, waiting for that one guy who had a little too much wine at a wedding and started talking about blood and brains in some alcoholic dialect until a couple of other vets walked him outside where he told stories from his knees for an hour which they alone could understand.
A lot of this festers not out of what you saw and did, but the realization that what you saw and did really didn’t matter in any bigger picture and you had to make up some smaller picture to justify whatever. It should’ve had a reason. People say, “whatever you have to tell yourself,” but they forget you can’t lie to yourself alone at night. Imagine what it’s like to be my age and scared of the dark.
I came to think of it like taking apart a jigsaw puzzle. You couldn’t say exactly when, but at some point you couldn’t see the picture anymore. It’s the last drop of water hanging swollen on the end of a faucet. You want to know what it’s like to have a breakdown in the meat aisle at Safeway? We can tell you. Even so, we don’t want to be called victims and disabled out, and we’re not seeking some third party’s moral redemption. We just want to get this crap out of our heads.
Peter Van Buren blew the whistle on State Department waste and mismanagement during Iraqi reconstruction in his first book, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People. His latest book is Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan. Reprinted from the his blog with permission.