« Senator Lamb Chop Product of Lab Experiment Gone Awry? | Main | Coffee Snorters: Downward Dog Edition »

March 26, 2007

The Beast Within

“It is well that war is so terrible
or we should grow too fond of it.”

A few months ago, I found a Web site loaded with pictures and videos from Iraq, the sort that usually aren't seen on the news. I watched insurgent snipers shoot American soldiers and car bombs disintegrate markets, accompanied by tinny music and loud, rhythmic chanting, the soundtrack of the propaganda campaigns. Video cameras focused on empty stretches of road, building anticipation. Humvees rolled into view and the explosions brought mushroom clouds of dirt and smoke and chunks of metal spinning through the air. Other videos and pictures showed insurgents shot dead while planting roadside bombs or killed in firefights and the remains of suicide bombers, people how they're not meant to be seen, no longer whole. The images sickened me, but their familiarity pulled me in, giving comfort, and I couldn't stop. I clicked through more frames, hungry for it. This must be what a shot of dope feels like after a long stretch of sobriety. Soothing and nauseating and colored by everything that has come before. My body tingled and my stomach ached, hollow. I stood on weak legs and walked into the kitchen to make dinner. I sliced half an onion before putting the knife down and watching slight tremors run through my hand. The shakiness lingered. I drank a beer. And as I leaned against this kitchen counter, in this house, in America, my life felt very foreign.

I've been home from Iraq for more than a year, long enough for my time there to become a memory best forgotten for those who worried every day that I was gone. I could see their relief when I returned. Life could continue, with futures not so uncertain. But in quiet moments, their relief brought me guilt. Maybe they assume I was as overjoyed to be home as they were to have me home. Maybe they assume if I could do it over, I never would have gone. And maybe I wouldn't have. But I miss Iraq. I miss the war. I miss war. And I have a very hard time understanding why.

The condemnation was swift, as though a raw nerve ending had been untimely exposed: "You're sick, twisted, perverse." "I don't believe you ever served." "You're a disgrace to the uniform." From whence did this sudden anger spring, this harsh judgment from the protected?

Not all were so eager to condemn. They too had felt that strange tug. Others, less inclined to judge what they could not understand, felt only regret mixed with a a sense of indebtedness:

There are many reasons I'm so serious about supporting our military men and women, why I feel it's a moral obligation. It's not just a sense of "they have suffered for me," though that is certainly part of it. What really pulls on me and compels a response is the warfighter's loss of innocence due to actions taken on my behalf.

...One former Marine friend has told me that he still habitually runs mental threat assessments (and plans countermeasures) on every person he encounters. He also once described his training and wartime experience as discovering, harnessing and ultimately mastering the beast inside him that we all have, one that lies dormant unless awakened by experience or intent. And Lex has written of the strange obsession the pilot finds in the violence of bombing runs. More recently, a soldier still on the ground in Iraq wrote of "war cocaine."

Mockenhaupt continues:

At a party several years ago, long before the Army, I listened to a friend who had served several years in the Marines tell a woman that if she carried a pistol for a day, just tucked in her waistband and out of sight, she would feel different. She would see the world differently, for better or worse. Guns empower. She disagreed and he shrugged. No use arguing the point; he was just offering a little piece of truth. He was right, of course. And that's just the beginning.

... One reason I feel compelled to support our veterans is the gift they give of themselves; in many ways, they lose their innocence so that I can keep mine.

But of what does that innocence consist; how real is it? I can't help but think the ire Mockenhaupt's words aroused was really no more than anger at having one's pretentions exposed for all to see. He spoke of something we prefer to keep hidden, awakened the ever present fear of our true nature, smoothed over with a too fragile layer of civilization.

I have never been to war. For a woman, perhaps the closest analogous experience is childbirth. But even here society displays the same almost primal fear of something they cannot control, of a process older than time.

Having a child is about as different from going to war as two experiences can possibly be. The first gives life, the second rips it away. And yet, like war, carrying another life within you for nine months and nursing it yourself changes a person in ways someone who has never done these things cannot fully appreciate. I tend to think even being fully awake and aware during childbirth does this. Pain is not something anyone looks forward to, and yet there is something to be said for facing and overcoming it; for learning that neither fear nor pain has the power to turn you into a quivering jellyfish. And there is nothing to compare with that exhausted yet triumphant moment when they place your son over your heart and you feel him move, and know that you did this. For a moment, time seems to stop and the world shrinks to a tiny, light-filled space encompassing only the three of you. And nothing will ever be that perfect, or that peaceful, again.

The other thing which amazed me about motherhood was how exquisitely attuned I became to my small sons, how alert I was to the tiniest differences in their cries that meant they were hungry as opposed to merely tired or overstimulated or lonely or coming down with a virus. How they would wake just as I fell asleep each night, though we were never on the same schedule. Articles on parenting almost invariably cautioned me not to "lose" myself in this new experience. I always thought this unutterably stupid. How could I "lose" me? If anything, something had been added and not subtracted from who I had been. This heightened sensitivity served a purpose. It allowed me to empathize with and care for a totally dependent infant unable to articulate his own needs. What kind of responsible adult repudiated such a tool? When it was no longer needed, it would go away.

And I was not made "less" because I temporarily cared for someone weaker than myself, because I performed somewhat menial tasks. These jobs still needed to be done and it required my judgment to do them well. I always wondered at the insecurity and fear which made so many of my sex recoil from motherhood, from survival skills ingrained as deeply in their natures as their DNA. I wonder if it is not that same insecurity and fear that drove those readers to condemn Brian Mockenhaupt; the knowledge that deep down inside, they are no different, no better, than he:

Armed Liberal wrote about the problem of those who 'keep their hands clean,' never hunting, buying meat prepackaged and without an awareness of the moral cost. I disagree: there is no moral cost. We are monsters, who butcher though it creates mounds of gore: who sever heads, and find it moves us though we know not why.

But it isn't killing that makes us monsters. We are exactly that same kind of creature, whether we have ever killed or not.

The moral problem of 'the clean hands' is that it is an illusion. It makes people believe they are better than they are, and therefore that others can also be better than they can be. It creates a class of people who feel clean, because they have never felt blood on their hands.

Yet all these things arise from things buried deep in the genetic code. You cannot walk away from them. The failure to experience these things does not mean you would not react to them in just the same way as everyone else: it only means that you cannot understand how you would react, and how others do.

The man with clean hands is just the same as the hunter. It is only that he does not know it. He does not understand that part of his soul, as it lurks beyond his experience. He comes to believe that there is a kind of human that is and can be clean: perhaps that sweet, aged lady on the corner, who in her youth broke necks every night before dinner.

Failing to understand what Man really is, he opens himself more than is wise, and defends himself less. The man with the clean hands believes in diplomacy but not the force that makes diplomacy viable. He believes in staying clean, because he believes it makes him better than you. He does not understand that it only makes him blind.

This is not a call to amoralism, but precisely the opposite. It is a call for true morality, which can only begin with awareness of sin. It can only come from a recognition of how deep-set, how permanent, how personal sin is in each of us.

It is only in that way that we can begin to put real chains on sin: by recognizing the truth about it. We must learn to face the truth about ourselves, so that we can better ourselves: we must learn to face the truth about others, so we will recognize when murder is in their hearts.

We have the capacity to be devils or angels; what lies beneath is neither innately good nor innately evil. It is, rather, the choices we make which drive us toward heaven or hell. If we fear anything, it ought to be the cloying moral paralysis that leads to a denial of the darkness in human nature: both that in other men, and in our own hearts.

Posted by Cassandra at March 26, 2007 11:07 AM

Trackback Pings

TrackBack URL for this entry:


Another beautiful and thought-provoking post, Cassandra.

And for readers who may not click through to my full post: I speak of innocence in terms of "lack of knowledge," not in the definition of "purity or lack of evil." Like those readers who condemned Mockenhaupt, I recoil from my own knowledge of that part of myself. But unlike them, I am aware of that and am grateful for those made of sterner mental fibre than I.

Posted by: FbL at March 26, 2007 10:24 PM

Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain: [quoting Hamlet] "What a piece of work is man, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god."
Sergeant 'Buster' Kilrain: Well, man may be an angel. But he damn well must be a killer angel.

Well, we can accept that, or the peace of the slave, or the peace of the dead. Take your pick.

Funny, I'd imagine a lot of the 'Jihadis' feel similar. The difference is that our military is fighting to give the Iraqis a chance to live in freedom and be part of the 21st century, and Jihadis want to shackle them into a medieval tyranny.

And it is no more complex than that. Nuance is for the hapless intellectual, looking for a clever excuse to keep his 'hands clean', and sustain his make-believe world, where 'history has ended', just one more day.

It's late, and the way has grown dark.

Posted by: Don Brouhaha at March 26, 2007 11:02 PM

Two Wolves: A Cherokee Legend

An old Cherokee is teaching his grandson about life. "A fight is going on inside me," he said to the boy.

"It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil - he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego." He continued, "The other is good - he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you - and inside every other person, too."

The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, "Which wolf will win?"

The old Cherokee simply replied, "The one you feed."

Posted by: camojack (¼ Cherokee) at March 27, 2007 12:46 AM

I'm glad you put that clarification in, Fbl. I originally had a bit more of your post excerpted but it just didn't scan well. This was one of my rare posts that got rewritten. Usually I just throw things up there without really reviewing them at all - I rarely have time for editing, though I know my writing could really use it. This one was half written yesterday, then I sort of hit a fork where I wasn't sure which direction I wanted to take it in, which almost never happens with me. So I decided to sleep on it. Usually when that happens I end up not posting it at all.

But I thought the piece was compelling so I decided to try again even though I didn't really have the time to spend on it that I would have liked. But sometimes 80% is better than nothing - for those who might not have seen it otherwise I thought it was better to just put something up, even if it missed the mark I had in mind.

Boy... I'm really learning to be happy with a lot less these days. I don't know whether that's good or bad :p

Posted by: Cassandra at March 27, 2007 05:55 AM

Thanks for trying again. Excellent, just excellent.

Posted by: bthun at March 27, 2007 10:50 AM

A very compelling piece, Cass. Very excellent.

Those experiences that are described are among a list of things for myself that ask... have I truly lived yet? Meaning, have I reached those life experiences that define me as a person, bad and good?

Sadly... no. Not yet. I don't know if ever. But, I still shiver when I read about them, and can imagine when they might be.

Posted by: Kevin L at March 27, 2007 02:53 PM


I agree with the wolf story, too-- folks are violent, although there are lots of forms of how we fight. Why we fight and how we fight matter, not those few who are truly innocent of any sort of violence.

Do you suppose the folks who hate folks that wear fur are kinda like those stars who hate guns but have bodyguard who go armed?

Posted by: Sailorette/Foxfier at March 28, 2007 04:42 PM

Post a comment

Remember Me?

(you may use HTML tags for style)