I love war but I’m not “in love” with war. It’s like a relationship that went bad.
It started slow, built into love, then slowly deteriorated. Both of us wanted to be together, war and I, but ultimately realized the relationship was unsalvageable as we clung to it hoping things would change. We both promised change. I promised to be a better steward of the war effort in Iraq in 2005, attempting to help build the country I had no emotional investment in. In turn, war promised to be thankful for the sacrifice of U.S. soldiers and families, and create a better life for the people of Iraq. Neither of us could deliver on our promises, and we ultimately had, as Gwyneth Paltrow would say, a “conscious uncoupling.”
War created the life I have. I joined the Air National Guard out of high school to get out of Small Town USA and get college money. It was 1999, and there were no wars on the horizon. Going to war never crossed my mind. I attended basic training and advanced individual training, where I learned about cool war stuff like small unit tactics and automatic M60 machine guns (The Pig), and came home dreaming of war but knowing I’d never experience it outside going to the range and shooting paper targets twice a year—budget dependent. I used my GI Bill to start college.
As I sat at a small desk in a strip-mall community college Sociology 102 class on a random Tuesday, my pager went off. Yes, I had a pager. It showed the number of my National Guard unit. I abruptly left the class, went to the nearest payphone, and called. The nation was under attack and I was being summoned. It was Sept. 11, 2001, and I had one-week orders under Operation Infinite Justice (later changed to Operation Enduring Freedom) under Force Protection Condition Delta—maximum security measures during or directly after a terrorist attack.
I arrived at my base and was issued my M16, a full combat load of ammunition, and binoculars. My job was to sit on a water cooler in the scorching heat of Phoenix, Arizona, and look through a fence at an empty riverbed. Within 20 minutes, the back of my neck was scorched from the sun. I called in to the tactical operations command center asking for sunscreen.
War is hell.
Within three days our orders had been extended for a year and I started to get settled into the routine of watching KC-130 planes sit idle on the tarmac for 12 hours, driving to a hotel, and sleeping. Rinse and repeat. My first deployment was to Oman in September 2002 for 90 days, where we could get two beers a day and had a private beach. Every fourth day, we’d check out boogie boards, go to the beach, and find dead jellyfish floating in the water. I would throw the dead slime at my buddy and he’d attempt to hit it with the boogie board: jellyfish baseball. Slime flew through the air on impact, and, if I had a lucky throw, I’d hit him with the creature, its stinger would impale him, and he’d dance around like a drugged-up hippie as the pain shot through his nervous system.
The United States built up troops on the border between Iraq and Kuwait, but that was of little concern to me on my beach.
We got a tasker to conduct security for a team that would start the first air base in Iraq should the war start. I immediately volunteered. I landed at Tallil Air Base in March of 2003. The first night, we could hear the bombs explode north of us in Al Nasiriyah. Within hours of arrival, Iraqi enemy prisoners of war were escorted off a C-47 Chinook with sandbags over their heads and hands zip-tied in front of them. We lined them up in columns and rows, approximately five feet apart, on a dirt patch and told them to sit quietly. We set a bottle of water next to each one as if they could drink it through sandbag-covered mouths with zip-tied hands. Some held Qurans in their laps and cried.
One started to moan, so I walked to him to render aid. He said “toilet” through his sandbag mask. We had no bathrooms, so I helped him stand and walk 15 meters from the group. With his hands zip-tied, I helped him unbutton his pants. He pushed them down with his cuffed wrists. They dropped to the ground to reveal zebra-striped underwear. I laughed and looked for a hidden camera. No way this was real.
The war was north of us within days, and I spent my remaining time asking people not to drive on our active flight line as planes landed, knowing I’d missed my generation’s war.
I was presented the opportunity to protect diplomats by working for Blackwater in 2004 and leaped at the chance to experience the war I’d missed. The $550-a-day pay was nice also. With almost no supervision, we consistently went outside the wire, conducting well-planned missions for an undefined strategy. I received incoming rocket and mortar fire, which transformed from exhilarating to mundane in a matter of weeks. War was not as sexy as I’d hoped, but the pay was good.
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Over the next 18 months, I went from wanting to help the war effort to disdaining it. This was the effect of combat. I lost friends and alienated relationships at a rate only war could provide. Mundane activities filled 95% of my time, but I lived for the 5%: car bombs exploding at the gate, shooting out car radiators, lying in bed while rockets impacted because I was too lazy or numb to care. It was toxic yet intoxicating. I couldn’t get enough of war even if it could never live up to my expectations.
I left Blackwater in January 2006, and used the GI Bill and money I’d saved with Blackwater to get my college degree. I joined the Army ROTC to be around others who were volunteering to serve knowing they’d be sent to war. It was comforting to know these men and women, even if they had no idea what they had volunteered for.
I commissioned in 2007 and was sent back to Baghdad in 2009 for half the pay and double the restrictions. My days consisted of intelligence reports, PowerPoints, and training on proper usage of wearing a physical training reflective belt at night.
It wasn’t the same.
It was ending and so was our relationship. In the three years we had together, war had changed and yet, nothing had actually changed—it started off a mess and ultimately ended the same.
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I miss combat. It lessens with time, but I still miss the adrenaline, the endorphins, the feeling of invincibility coursing through my body. It’s a potent drug, and I long for the high. I feel bad for those who never experienced it.
We continue to find ourselves in wars we can’t win regardless of how much we spend. The strategic benefit is minimal compared to the human toll. I’ve seen how war affects people, myself included. It leaves deep, irradicable scars on the people who fight it. We are just now coming to grips with the total impact it makes on our military members. Not the least of which is a desire to return to it.