Hemingway said, "There is no hunting like the hunting of man, and those who have hunted armed men long enough and liked it, never care for anything else thereafter." A famous quote, particularly in certain circles. I have seen it typed on the chapter pages of old manuscripts and scrawled on the walls of an American drinking establishment in Kabul, next to the names and ranks of men who never got a book deal and don't feel cheated.
Now, Hemingway was more eloquent than I will ever be. He states it simply and unequivocally, and captures with great simplicity the spirit of the deep dissatisfaction that comes from completing another efficiency report, adjusting your tie, and quietly remembering time spent tearing complete ass on a heavily modified four wheeler in the enemy's mountains, with nothing but a rifle on your back and a set of NODs dangling from your eyebrows by a piece of stamped aluminum.
Wheels on the right side six inches from the edge of a crumbling rock face four hundred feet tall, and to the left another sheer rock face, echo of the engine noise in one ear and the horrifying silence of the yawning chasm in the other ear. The lurch deep in your guts as you kick down a gear to tilt crazily up another poorly dug switchback, the brief skid of the rear wheels always attended by the utter certainty that you're about to set a new peak to base record, and a hard lean to keep the CG right on the steep hill. To your right, now, as you steer around the ruts that want to shove you out into the silent air, is a night vision green view of a dead brown valley, blanketed by a sky so black that the NODs show crazy digital noise. Far in the distance, heat lightning and the eerie glow of illumination rounds floating God knows how far away.
How do I explain that it was terrifying up there without making it sound totally negative? Because it was amazing, too, in the rare air and thin warm wind, sulking in a quiet commune of men like me who killed with one hand and built with the other, a mug of tea sipped slowly while watching the nightly light show of some other poor bastard getting hammered on. Life was too precious to be adulterated with the magnification of petty concerns and affairs, the trifling over proper silverware and parking spaces and dress codes. Life was simply too thin to support the weight of very much bullshit.
Somewhere inside of me, there's a bear in a sideshow carriage pacing back and forth behind a set of bars. We don't like to think about it, we don't like to talk about it, we don't like to even look at it; so we throw a cover over the rattletrap cage and pretend it isn't there. The novelty of displaying it is long gone, so maybe if we forget about it, we'll get lucky enough that it quietly starves to death. I try to convince myself that updated insurance cards or shined shoes or shrink-wrapping the windows are truly top priorities. I try to convince myself that a nine to five leaves plenty of time for self enrichment, which is a perfect substitute for the thrill of jumping out of a helicopter into a patch of mountains last seen by Scythians doing a job much like my own.
I accuse myself of cherry picking, of forgetting the reality of it, of remembering, as people do, the good times and not the bad. But the accusations never stick; I vividly remember the suffering of it, and it comes as part and parcel. The lows were commensurate with the highs. I chose, though. I chose to give it up, and to make the choice to live beyond the moment. I banked against a future I knew was coming, and ended up with the one I was most afraid of.
What's the bottom line in all of this self indulgent homily?
I miss it.
I never woke up in screaming terrors when I was in the middle of it every day. I never worried about wet paws on the furniture or salting sidewalks or updating my fucking insurance information because I was living in a tumbling maelstrom of blood and rock dust where there was no furniture or sidewalk or copayment rate. I didn't have to worry about the unique personal preferences of my enemies or whether or not their subjective opinions on my marksmanship or radio etiquette would affect my long term plans or financial status. I stewed over the best way to live through the next day, week, and month. I did not stew over the number of words in my reports. I cared about the weather for more reasons than beating a school bus out of my neighborhood during a morning commute.
There's no denying that it was hard. It was hard on me, body and soul, and it was hard on everyone I loved who wasn't living in it with me. It was for them that I left it all, though I won't let myself turn into some kind of twisted martyr. I do wake up most mornings now, disgusted with school, disgusted with the ticket-punching inanity of it, the endlessly propagated webs of petty and arbitrary authority of trying to participate in the regularly scheduled program.
There is satisfaction in the ragged forward edges of war that is not to be had in real life. If you are incompetent, the mountains will kill you. You cannot change the weather with a properly filed form. Your sworn blood enemies do not recognize your authority as bursar or administrative executive or review board. The procedures that you invent from whole cloth as a contrivance of authority will be ignored.
If you are educated; if your plans are superior; if your reflexes and intellect are enough; if you have the fortitude and will to carry it through; if you have the barest edge of luck; you will succeed in war, but may still be arbitrarily crushed in real life.
As I fight through these transitions, I try to justify it in terms of long term benefit. Try to pack it in. Try to use the famous human faculties of rationalization and justification. And though some mornings I hope that one of these days, one of these days, the tarp stops rustling and the bear finally dies, other mornings I rattle the cage a little, to make sure it knows it hasn't been truly forgotten.