Some people do their best thinking in the shower. I do my best thinking in a helicopter.
There's a certain peace in knowing that your life is entirely in the hands of others; and that those others are superb professionals, trained for every eventuality. It is what I would imagine going under for major surgery would be like for a person who has worked and trained with the best surgeons in the world.
So, staring out the side door beyond the silhouette of a gunner and his M240, I know that I am in exactly the place I should be, doing exactly the thing I should be doing.
I am clipped onto the frame of the machine, and I am doing nothing.
Oh, each generation has had its wars and its poetry, and its warrior poets. A thousand carefully crafted timeworn pieces take the tender and the morbidly curious to the brink of understanding.
Hemingway gave us one of his best, a snippet to lead the most boringly domestic to a truth so ugly that it must be rejected as hyperbole more often than not:
"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."
And still uglier, the purple prose of a broken Vietnam Marine, and later, a film legend:
"These are great days we're living, bros. We are jolly green giants, walking the Earth with guns. These people we wasted here today are the finest human beings we will ever know. After we rotate back to the world, we're gonna miss not having anyone around that's worth shooting."
And each rings its truth. There is a primal satisfaction in risking all and taking all from others who've done the same.
To respect one's enemies, knowing they have been born hard and honed, to know that for them, the only rules are those of physics and of Darwin; And then, to have bested them. To have measured up against them and found them to be wanting.
To smile at Death, and not be afraid when Death smiles back.
The door gunner scans in a practiced pattern. Beyond him, flashes of heat lightning and a bright moon confuse the sophisticated electronics in my $20,000 wonder goggles, so I flip them up and use natural light.
After hours of 64 precisely delineated shades of green, the night seems garishly colored. Heat lightning flashing, flashing; clouds between gunner and the moon, strobing awkwardly.
Flashing, flashing; but from below, now. We are taking fire, and the TAKTAKTAKTAKTAK of the outgoing 240 on the starboard side is all I can hear.
All I can do is check my tether, check my rifle, and check my helmet. Around me, the others are doing the same. On the intercom, the crew is coordinating, and we mere mannequins in the back are for the moment nothing more than a dozen additional pieces moving in formation with the thousand other parts that constitute a rotary wing aircraft. We are about as useful as a dog sitting in the passenger seat during a car accident.
I mentally review the procedures for a hard landing, a crash landing; remind myself where the kits are fastened to the interior of the bird; mentally rehearse what my tasks will be should we go down; review the commo plan and pat my radio; and wonder what's for dinner tonight.
If we're forced to land in Indian country, the dogs will become werewolves. We all feel fur starting to grow, and claws lengthening; but as we climb, the shooting stops.
We continue with exactly as many holes in the aircraft as we started with. We are mannequins again.
For most, there is a peace that grows with age. Between the awkward teenage years that carry a fierce need to prove oneself, and the golden years where one can find peace in hindsight over the decades spent or wasted, there is a lifetime of experience to knock down the hard edges and tame the raised-hackles hissing and growling that we all must act out to establish a sense of self and standing.
War years, I think, are like dog years. This is truest in the physical sense, of course. A year spent in the Hell-brew whiplash between boredom and terror will age a body ten. But there is, too, the artificial aging of a person's soul that you see in those who have been through the fire and the fear.
When you go home, or at least back to the place called home, what do you have left to prove to yourself except for perhaps that you aren't any longer the dangerous animal you had to be?
Even an illiterate hill savage can communicate at the speed of light these days. The handheld radio and the AK-47 are the great Democratizers of combat, and warzones now and for the indefinite future will be awash in both. So, while news of our presence was propagating through the atmosphere at just shy of 671,000,000 miles per hour, our gross physical bodies were limited to a paltry 180.
The long and short of it is, they were waiting for us. In fact, they'd been waiting around all week to throw us a surprise party, and when we arrived, they wasted no time in throwing on the lights, shouting "SURPRISE!", and popping the champagne.
So-called authorities on the topic will argue about whether or not killing each other comes naturally to our species, or whether man has to be bludgeoned by circumstance or methodical training into bludgeoning his fellow. If nothing else, our history of violence should tell you everything you need to know.
You can certainly second guess the politics and motivations for me being where I was; I have a thousand times, and have found the ethics of the powers that be to be wanting. You can follow the money and complain about corruption and the military industrial complex; you would be in the excellent company of President Eisenhower, who is also the highest ranking person in the history of our military next to George Washington.
But the fact remains that the reasons for which I was sent to war, and the reasons for which I killed while I was there are two very separate sets of things.
Despite my complete opposition to the idea that we ought to use our military as a diplomatic tool, despite my utter horror at the money spent on a war machine very possibly more powerful than the combined forces of the rest of the Earth, and despite my firm conviction that we ought to have left Afghanistan seven years ago, I do not regret being given the opportunity to kill people who sleep soundly at night after locking the students of a girls' school inside the building while it burns down.
I absolutely do not regret calling down airstrikes, artillery, and HIMARS onto positions manned by people who have forgone every hallmark of civilization and cast aside every redeeming human value in order to drag a destitute and ignorant country down into a never ending, Hobbesian nightmare.
The body count was initially higher than seemed probable, but after finding the women and children in separate piles elsewhere in the village, and the livestock all dead and mutilated, it was clear that at least half of what we had initially thought were dead fighters had just been the men and boys from the village. It was also obvious that they had been dead longer than the fallen militants.
The local Taliban and associated militants had killed every man, woman, child, and chattel in the village after their village elders had decided that the Taliban were no longer welcome.
There was, in fact, a period of about a year there where the Taliban started massacring huge numbers of innocent people in preparation for ambushing US forces and blaming us for the civilian casualties. The rest of the world, America included, was happy to believe their perfectly timed propaganda releases.
Their downfall, as is often the case, was not due to a lack of dedication or sincerity. It was due to simple, preventable, stupid error. As we started catching on, and our lumbering machine started responding to their propaganda with something resembling agility, they started releasing their reports of US atrocities earlier and earlier, eventually reporting the indiscriminate killings of noncombatants before the patrols even left the wire.
So I find myself, now, feeling decidedly non-competitive in most social venues. The peacocking and huffing and scratching that goes with being a typical American man are curiosities at best. Where I once saw alpha males, I now see insecurity; men reduced to hollow plastic lawn gnomes. Where once I think I would have felt the need to posture, I'm just too tired to bother.
I've raised my voice and thumped my chest enough, I think, to ever have to do it again.