The effects of combat on the psyche (part 5)
by, 04-02-2011 at 08:30 AM (238 Views)
The face of death was now everywhere. Nowhere was safe. My life could end at any time. This was made painfully aware on the way to the shower when we were the most vulnerable. Many of the people in the platoon surprisingly shared this discomfort. Walking across the compound wearing shower-shoes with shaving bag in hand and a towel draped over the shoulder, quite a few soldiers pondered the all too real possibility of getting hit head-on by a mortar in their weakest moment.
Like good soldiers, we responded to this common threat with laughter. It got to be a joke after a while. Something inside the compound would explode and we’d just cheer. This was half in the spirit of the loud noises at your average Fourth of July celebration and half a celebration of the round not landing on our position. Either way, it was a way to deal with the sporadic reminders that life can end at any given instant. First you’re here and then you’re gone. Where’s the value in the life that’s just been obliterated by an incoming mortar? Where did it come from and where did it go? I began to realize that it was never there to begin with.
A third interpretation of our reaction to indirect fire is that our minds had begun to internalize the chaos that was all around us. If our world was chaotic, why not encourage it? I remember sitting in a guard tower near the perimeter when we were in the Baghdad International AirPort (BIAP) and listening to mortar tubes outside the perimeter fire. This sound actually got me excited in a very odd way. I felt like the kind of person who would slowdown to look at a grisly car crash. I was anxious to see what carnage this incoming volley would reap. The “thoomps” of the tubes were followed by “bangs” inside the perimeter a good deal away from our location. This was followed by the “ka-chunks” of the counter artillery battery and the corresponding “blammo” outside the wire. The chaos was invigorating and enlivening. What is it in human nature that is drawn to chaos and suffering? I do not profess to understand it, but I am intimately aware of its existence.
In the last four months of our deployment, we finally receive a few creature comforts, like a ceiling and a floor to sleep under and upon. One night, I was with my friend who just had his wife ship his Play Station 2 over from The States. We were relaxing and pretending we weren’t in Iraq when we heard what sounded like a miniature jet race over our building. Moments later, a tremendous explosion erupted from across post. We found out later that the PX’s storage area had been hit. This explosion was far greater than some puny mortar. We later found out that it was a large rocket that we heard roaring across our roof and its explosion was powerful enough to make the Play Station skip. This attack was obviously serious, so we put on our protective gear and re-booted the game. Others were gathering outside, so we dropped the game and went to join the platoon. Everyone was gathered outside in their body armor nervously talking and joking about the experience when Bob stepped out. Bob was a good soldier but more importantly he regularly offered well-needed comic relief for our platoon, and he could always be counted on for a laugh. Bob sauntered outside wearing unlaced combat boots and body armor with the chin strap of his Kevlar hanging down freely, wearing nothing but his underwear and a blank look on his face with a cigarette casually protruding from his mouth. Seeing Bob, everyone erupted in laughter. This moment was burned into my mind. Bob had become the ideal representation of the soldier. He didn’t care about anything (including his health) and wasn’t going to let a silly rocket attack keep him from doing what he does. He was pretending to be an empty husk of a man who just didn’t care anymore. Was that our ideal? Sadly enough, I think that it is. I’m reminded of the weathered Marlboro Man, who is so stoic and unconcerned with the unpleasant aspects of life. This emptiness only becomes real when compassion is withdrawn from the world. In this environment where tomorrow was never taken for granted, the emptiness inside became all too real. I believe that this emptiness is the basis of human existence and it is a void that can only be filled though the manifestation of compassion.
As bothersome as mortar and rocket attacks were, the greatest fear came from improvised explosive devices, or IEDs. The more common name given to these from the news media is the roadside bomb. These were and still are the greatest killers of U.S. troops. They are often undetectable and there is no way to anticipate their detonation. Everyone knew that if an IED went off next to a vehicle, the occupants had slim chances for survival.