Culture Military

When you miss the war

When you listen to someone tell stories of their time in the service, sometimes they laugh about the funny moments, sometimes they ruffle their brow as they speak of the more harrowing moments, and yet they almost always speak with some level of nostalgia. That makes sense when you’re talking about parties in the barracks or sneaking candy bars in basic training, but how does it make sense when it comes to fighting in a war?

A lot of guys don’t know the answer to that question. They don’t know why they look at some of the hardest moments of their lives with a level of nostalgia. They don’t know why they miss being in a place where their lives and limbs were threatened daily, as were the lives and limbs of their brothers and sisters in arms. Some of them make up stories for this discrepancy, stories for the benefit of those listening and probably for the benefit of themselves.

They might say they miss the camaraderie — but what exactly does that mean? They like having friends? Don’t we all?

It often winds up being a mix of a whole bunch of things. They miss feeling like they were a part of something bigger. They miss banding together with some close friends and accomplishing goals that matter to the world at large. They miss that connection with those friends that, to many, runs even deeper than blood family. They miss knowing that — no matter what — those friends will have your back in the worst of times, and the worst of times always seemed to be around the corner. They miss the simplicity of combat and how easy it was to be completely, 100% present.

When you’re sitting in your recliner, sipping on your beer and thinking of these things, you realize that some pain and suffering was, in fact, a small price to pay for these incredible experiences. You realize that living a couple days like that brings an immeasurable amount of life to your days. That living for two days in combat might make you feel more alive than two years in an office in the civilian world.

“How little we know of what there is to know. I wish that I were going to live a long time instead of going to die today because I have learned much about life in these four days; more, I think than in all other time. I’d like to be an old man to really know. I wonder if you keep on learning or if there is only a certain amount each man can understand. I thought I knew so many things that I know nothing of. I wish there was more time.” 
― Ernest Hemingway, For Whom the Bell Tolls

Hemingway captures these feelings here, articulating them in a way I haven’t seen in other works of fiction.

And in this sense, combat is easy. For all its grit and roughness, for all the scars it brings, and for all the profound heartbreak it incurs, it gives you a sense of purpose and brotherhood that can’t be replicated.

That’s not to say that those people wish the circumstances of war upon anyone, but it’s hard not to miss those specific facets of the thing. Among the worst of humanity, they were also privileged to see the best of humanity right alongside it.

Then comes the big question: now what? Unless they are killed in combat, it’s a question that is going to be asked by every warrior at one point or another. One day you’ll leave the warrior lifestyle behind, whether it’s after your first four-year stint, or after thirty years and a retirement.

And yet the answer is there, just as it always has been. Remember that first day as a private or lieutenant, when you walked through the company doors, or into your barracks, or to your CO’s office. Remember what they would have said if you were to go on about your “glory days” in high school, about how you were a star football player, cross country runner, or just all-around popular guy.

What would they say back to you? “Cool, but what are you going to do now?”

Well, they may have not say it that nicely, but you get my point. You often hear the words or phrases “the next objective,” or “the next mission,” or “moving forward.” And whoever is saying these things probably knows what they’re talking about.

It may not be as clear-cut and purpose-driven as combat was. But if you find something to latch onto, some new purpose, some reason to drive forward, then all of a sudden your military service won’t be your glory days, they’ll be an invaluable experience that helps you be successful in your next endeavor. Your service will go from being a memory in the past to a tool for the future.

Some find that sense of purpose again in raising a family. Many find it through service to others, others in art or refining a new trade. And yet many more find themselves looking back toward their military service like a long-lost treasure, wondering if they ever should have left in the first place. Or even if they are happy that they left, still lamenting the fact that their lives don’t feel like they matter as much as they used to.

If your life needs purpose, you have to go out and grab it yourself. No team leaders or commanders are going to make you do it, you have to make it happen yourself. You might find that it’s harder to do than succeeding in the military was. Or you might actually find that the warrior lifestyle is a fundamental part of your being, but it’s not the only part that matters. Either way, you’ll never find another sense of purpose if you don’t pursue it.

~ ~ ~ ~

If you’re interested in this subject, I can’t recommend Sebastian Junger’s book “Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging” enough. If you’re into audio books, Junger does the narration himself and does an excellent job, and it’s only around three hours long. In my opinion, it’s a book that should be read by any American struggling with existential thoughts, or who might wonder why they only get more depressed as their lives get more comfortable.

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2 years ago

Master Luke, Some answers are simple. The comradeship of men at the “sharp end” is often what is missed the most. But the whole subject is complex. I remember November 10, 2005 when I attended a Marine Corps Birthday bash at Quinn’s (watering hole… Quinn a Korean War Marine…) Company of Marine Corps Reservists (armor) just back from Iraq… no time to decompress… present… along with others going back to WWII (in 1997 oldest an “Old China Hand” from the late 1920s…) Many wives of Reservists… first time at such a bash. Much alcohol consumed and acres of tobacco. “Songs… Read more »

2 years ago
Reply to  yankeepapausmc

YP, I can’t believe I missed this. I’m so glad I found it eventually – what a marvellous comment. Thank you. And thank you for including the wonderful piece from Jerry Pournelle.

2 years ago

Luke, great article and the Sebastian Junger books are fantastic. I think YankeePapa made some great insights too. I’ll look for his book recommendation too. Cheers!!

2 years ago

Great article Luke. You and YP have recommended so many interesting books I hope I can get the time to read them all.

2 years ago

Yeah, Luke… so I get you.
geo sends

2 years ago

Great article, Luke. As usual, you bring your own special insights into your subject rather than just someone else’s. I recently heard Jordan Petersen’s podcast on how our culture is working to emasculate our men. He brings his years and years of practicing and teaching of clinical psychology to his lecture. It makes powerful sense that we are stigmatizing all those things that make man “special” and neutering his role in society while lifting feminism to masculine heights. It makes for interesting reading/listening. I mention that because it seems that, as servicemen in combat/war zones, you are using those specialized… Read more »

2 years ago
Reply to  susanb01

Susanb, brilliant comment. Thank you.

2 years ago

Luke, great article; one of the best I’ve read on this subject. Thank you.

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