War Is Hell and Such Good Fun
From an outpost in Afghanistan an Army officer tries to come to terms with the dual legacies of war—that something so awful could be the best time of a young man’s life.
Early last year, when we were all transfixed with commemorating the ten year anniversary of the Iraq invasion, before ISIS became the chief discussion concerning Iraq, I came across an article written by ex-British Army officer James Jeffrey about his shame for having enjoyed fighting there. He felt shame because despite the terrible consequences of the war; the innumerable deaths, the monetary cost, and the immeasurable loss of international clout, he still enjoyed the experience. It was the best thing he had ever done. He felt joy, because, in his words, how could you not?
“I defy anyone in a Challenger 2 tank, looking back over the commander’s cupola at 20 armored vehicles kicking up curtains of sand, speeding across the smooth desert while enveloped in warm winds as the gunner traverses the turret to test fire the coaxially mounted machine gun, and then claim not to have enjoyed themselves.”
That essay captured something unique that I hadn’t seen in military writing before. I remember thinking, “this is it” as I finished reading. Feeling brave, I got in touch with the author who happened to be working in Austin, Texas at the time, not too far from Fort Hood where I was stationed as an Infantry officer. We agreed to meet for breakfast at a Mexican restaurant.
There, we clumsily met up. Me, with my short, stocky frame and bald head, him tall and lanky, with wild, greying hair and thick rimmed glasses, looking more like a mad-scientist than an ex-soldier in her highness’ Armed Forces. We sat and discussed his article and the odd feeling of both loving and reviling war, while local Hispanic families enjoyed a Saturday morning breakfast. He ordered his food first, and I watched and hoped he would order a drink with alcohol in it to loosen things up, even though it was ten in the morning. He didn’t.
As we discussed the article and Iraq, caffeine surging through me from a never-ending coffee cup, he asked if I had read William Broyles’ ‘Why Men Love War.’ He quoted it in his essay, but I admitted I hadn’t read it. He implored me to do so with the zeal of someone who had just found God, emphatically praising the article. I nodded and said that I would read it. Broyles, who served in Vietnam, later went on to become a Hollywood screenwriter, working on the films Apollo 13 and Cast Away.
We finished our breakfast. Before we parted, he reminded me once again as I was walking to my car to read ‘Why Men Love War.’
Once home, I said a quick hello to my wife and went straight to the computer, pulling up the article. It was there, in small type, hosted on some dot-edu domain, looking the way websites did in the mid-1990s. White screen, black text. I sat and read.
War is beautiful. There is something about a firefight at night, something about the mechanical elegance of an M-60 machine gun. They are everything they should be, perfect examples of their form. When you are firing out at night, the red tracers go out into the blackness as if you were drawing with a light pen. Then little dots of light start winking back, and green tracers from the AK-47s begin to weave in with the red to form brilliant patterns that seem, given their great speeds, oddly timeless, as if they had been etched on the night. And then perhaps the gunships called Spooky come in and fire their incredible guns like huge hoses washing down from the sky, like something God would do when He was really ticked off. And then the flares pop, casting eerie shadows as they float down on their little parachutes, swinging in the breeze, and anyone who moves, in their light seems a ghost escaped from hell.
It is the most perfect piece of military writing on the subject of ‘why’ that I have ever come across. It is for me, the ‘big bang’ theory of why we fight.
Broyles’ takes the reader through a fantastically descriptive journey of what war feels like and he gets it down better than anything I’ve ever read or even anything I’ve even seen in film. It’s a long form piece that he wrote more than fifteen years after returning from Vietnam. He had the time to reflect on his experience and the space in the magazine to get it all down. In 6,588 words, he paints the thoughts in his head and the feelings in his heart.
That’s why men in their sixties and seventies sit in their dens and recreation rooms around America and know that nothing in their life will equal the day they parachuted into St. Lo or charged the bunker on Okinawa. That’s why veterans’ reunions are invariably filled with boozy awkwardness, forced camaraderie ending in sadness and tears: you are together again, these are the men who were your brothers, but it’s not the same, can never be the same. That’s why when we returned from Vietnam we moped around, listless, not interested in anything or anyone. Something had gone out of our lives forever, and our behavior on returning was inexplicable except as the behavior of men who had lost a great – perhaps the great – love of their lives, and had no way to tell anyone about it.
For over a year, I’ve thought about the article. I’ve read it dozens of times and let the words roll around in my mind.
I bought a copy of the November 1984 Esquire on eBay. On the cover: a beautiful model wearing an olive drab military shirt, bright blue eyes beneath her helmet staring pathetically at the reader. I read the article again as it was first printed in the magazine.
Most men who have been to war, and most women who have been around it, remember that never in their lives did they have so heightened a sexuality. War is, in short, a turn-on. War cloaks men in a coat that conceals the limits and inadequacies of their separate natures. It gives them all aura, a collective power, an almost animal force. They aren’t just Billy or Johnny or Bobby, they are soldiers! But there’s a price for all that: the agonizing loneliness of war, the way a soldier is cut off from everything that defines him as an individual–he is the true rootless man.
Thirty years have passed since Broyles wrote the piece, and much has been written on the subject - especially by new veterans, like James Jeffrey, returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. I’ve shared the article aggressively on social media with veteran friends and any time the subject of ‘why’ comes up. Why do they do it, why do men go to war? Because they love it. We love it.
Knowing the article was coming up on its thirty year anniversary, and with Veteran’s day around the corner, I spent a lot of time thinking about how I could add to the canon. What had Broyles missed? Where did he leave off? Was there anything new about war in the deserts and cities of Iraq, the tribal valleys of Afghanistan, that he hadn’t seen in Vietnam?
At first, I thought maybe I could challenge the assumption in the title that loving war is a man’s domain. In the essay, Broyles compares the act of going to war (or not going) for men with the act of giving birth (or not) for women. But Broyles is too good here, and admits that women too feel the pull of war by being exposed to it, even as a non-combatant. The story might be the same if Broyles wrote it today but the well attuned modern editor would likely drop the gendered title and call it something like “Why We Love War.” So it couldn’t just be that, Broyles had already covered the way that war seduced women along with men. I had to look elsewhere.
So, I revisited James Jeffrey’s piece and the thing that struck me about the two pieces in concert, is that they were both written by men who fought in modern unpopular wars, wars of choice.
Maybe there is something to fighting in an unpopular war, enjoying it, and then having to try to reconcile that difference through thought and prose. For both Jeffrey and Broyles, it was the mechanical and physiological aspects of war that they enjoyed; the sights, sounds, and feelings - not the geo-political nonsense. Perhaps, for a returning World War II veteran, he could rest assured that what he did was “good” and if he so chose, get on with his life without trying to figure out what it all means. He liberated Europe and defeated imperial Japan. When people make movies about him, he’s the lionhearted champion. He was victorious, the conquering hero. He fought for the world not just for himself and his buddies.
Maybe there is something to that, but I suspect that it’s not really new. There’s nothing truly modern about the romance of combat. The moral changes with the centuries – one writer agonizes and laments another celebrates the glories of the battlefield – but there’s always someone scavenging the carnage, looking for poetics.
This month marks the thirty-year anniversary of the publication of ‘Why Men Love War.’ It’s no less true today than it was then. I hope that it will be widely read, especially among today’s newest generation of veterans, to give them the peace of mind that what they’re experiencing is not new. If they read with an open mind, they might even come closer to reconciling their feelings on war, and recognize that there is no great answer but the terrible truth. We love war because it’s fun. It’s terrible, reviling, and true. The dirty, nasty thing was a blast, and we know we’re not supposed to think that. We’re especially not supposed to feel that. But we do.