Not wanting to talk about it

Thursday, January 9, 2003

Jan. 9, 2003

Dear Julie,

Why do we love war? I know it's politically correct to say we don't, that going to war is what we do only when we don't have any other choice. But we love our war movies ("Gone With the Wind," "Saving Private Ryan," the list has no end) and we love our war heroes. They fought and sometimes died to protect our freedoms. At least they did in World War I and World War II. We're still not sure what Korea and Vietnam and the Persian Gulf War were really all about.

We pay our respects to teachers of nonviolence like Gandhi and Martin Luther King, but in our hearts we would respect them more if they had kicked the Brits' and the rednecks' butts.

In "I Don't Want to Talk About It," Terrence Real outlines the ways boys are taught to love war. Boys who cry are heaped with shame. Boys are taught that toughness leads to success, so they ignore the violence and pain inflicted on them and by them. In the most violent athletic contests, boys are taught to view opponents as enemies or worse -- things that are just in your way.

Football is our war game. We love it.

Real calls this "conditioning out of empathy." It makes war possible.

What eventually happens is that we not only become numb to our feelings, we can't identify then anymore. Except anger. It's allowed to feel anger.

One thing that comes of this disconnection from our emotions is a kind of grandiosity in younger men, Real writes, a mask of false superiority and invulnerability that hides the pain that can't be experienced. To be vulnerable is the nightmare. Age seems to soften the face but does not prevent older men from passing on the legacy of violence to their sons.

Another result is depression, both overt and covert. The overt kind makes it almost impossible to lift the head from the pillow in the morning. The covert sort is harder to discern but covertly debilitating. We don't want to talk about almost anything real because we don't really know anymore how we feel.

We become frustrated at not being understood, but we are not understood because we are intimate with no one, least of all ourselves.

The we and the us in all this is men, of course. Women don't love war. They feel too much to ignore the reality soldiers must in order to do their job.

Tim O'Brien writes in "The Things They Carried" how "It's easier to cope with a kicked bucket than a corpse; if it isn't human it doesn't much matter if it's dead. And so a VC nurse, fried by napalm, was a crispy critter. A Vietnamese baby, which lay nearby, was a roasted peanut. 'Just a crunchie munchie,' Rat Riley said as he stepped over the body."

Imagine how dead you must be inside to feel that way about a baby.

We know war dehumanizes, but the loss of relation with other human beings has occurred before a shot is fired.

Some days DC and I have household wars, tiny disagreements usually over how something should be done: the glasses stacked in the dishwasher, for instance. Both of us like things done our way.

After spending much of last Saturday failing to find a new computer desk for DC's office, I gave up in frustration and walked out of the office. Waiting in the car, minutes turned into half an hour. If she wasn't coming out, I wasn't going back in. I was getting angry.

When DC finally did emerge from the office, she was smiling. She didn't expect to see me, she said. She thought I had left her there.

I would never do such a thing, I said, ironically astounded that she did not know me better.

Love, Sam

Sam Blackwell is a staff writer for the Southeast Missourian.

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