A New Yorker “Talk of the Town” piece by Rebecca Mead entitled “Theatre of War” grabbed me by the throat and still hasn’t fully let go, two weeks later. The meat of the piece, a mini-interview with a former professional soldier named Jason Everman after an “antiwar” play about the Iraq War (it was “pay for a vet” night) pissed me off enough that I spent the last two weeks stewing about it.
Here’s Mead describing Everman’s reaction to “Black Watch”, a play about the famed Scottish regiment of the same name’s Iraq deployment:
At least one veteran declared himself a conscientious objector to the general approval of the play. “I didn’t join the Army because I didn’t want to work the deli counter at a convenience store,” Jason Everman, a heavily tattooed, bearded veteran of the Army Rangers and the Special Forces, who served in Afghanistan and Iraq, said, referring to the play’s depiction of soldiers as having been motivated to enlist by the lack of alternatives. “I joined the Army because I had a specific agenda: to develop the warrior aspect of my persona.”
As a teen-ager living in Washington state, Everman explained, he had been inspired by the “Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini.” “He was the quintessential Renaissance man: an accomplished warrior, an artist, a philosopher,” he said. Everman had already taken care of the artistic aspect of his persona, a friend who was with him said, at which Everman admitted that he had been a guitarist. (No kidding: post-encounter intelligence reveals that in the early nineties he played with Nirvana and Soundgarden.) Having left the military in 2006, he is now studying philosophy at Columbia University. “It’s the Platonic ideal of the tripartite soul,” he said. “Wisdom, courage, and temperance. Those are Plato’s words, not mine.” When pressed, he took issue with the antiwar sentiment that the play ultimately expresses. (“This is nay fucking fighting,” one soldier says, while watching a four-hour assault by American forces. “This is just plain old-fashioned bullying like.”) “War sucks—I can say that with empirical knowledge—but there are alternatives that are worse in the world,” Everman said, and added that he had done nothing as a soldier that compromised his ethics. It was suggested that perhaps the playwright, Gregory Burke, was developing the artistic aspect of his persona, and had yet to progress to the warrior aspect. “If he did that, he might have written a different story,” Everman replied, in an answer that was both philosophical and artful, and which deployed the very special force of tact.
The parts that got my panties in a bunch are Everman’s assertion that he joined the Army specifically “to develop the warrior aspect of [his] persona”, and the whole thousand-year-old-plus renaissance man Warrior/Artist/Philosopher bit, which seemed to me so much like a turd garnished with rose petals. I think I stopped reading and said aloud, “what a fucking asshole.” I thought of the thousands of vets coming home with scrambled eggs for brains, with missing limbs, with hideous scars or burns, and the one’s coming home in flag-draped boxes; I thought of those men and women and their families coping with disabilities for the rest of their lives, of mothers and fathers, wives and husbands, sons and daughters mourning the loss of their loved ones; I thought of the men and women doing two, three, four, five tours in Iraq or Afghanistan, and especially of one soldier to whom we’d sent care packages who’s whole family (Father, Mother, and Wife) had all done at least one tour in either or both countries. I thought of all that and hated Jason Everman and his preciously-gained warrior persona.
That’s where I was off and on for the last two weeks, with the article and the perception of the man from the article marinating in my head. I thought of how my view of war has and continues to evolve, and specifically about two books I’ve recently read on the subject: Chris Hedges “War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning” (buy it) and David Livingstone Smith’s “The Most Dangerous Animal: Human Nature and the Origins of War” (buy it). I still haven’t finished Smith’s book, but the gist of both is that war is a part of our DNA–woven into our nature over millions of years of evolution. From “savages” we evolved, and more often than not from the largest and most powerful and most warlike tribes–those that decimated their rivals. No matter how pointless, barbaric and destructive war often is in the modern era, no matter how toxic its aftereffects are to our minds, bodies, and planet, the capacity for war and warfare exists and will persist in us until we as a species attain mastery over our minds and emotions. That time, unfortunately, will not come for millions of years more, if ever.
As a child I dreamed of battles but I am no warrior. I served four years in the US Navy, during a period of relative peace for our country, from 1996 to 2000. I enlisted, in descending order of importance, most to least: to learn a trade, to serve my country, to get away from home, and to get some money for college. Since being discharged in the Spring of 2000, I’ve thought about going back in off and on. Unlike many, 9/11 angered me, but didn’t motivate me to reenlist–I figured “we’d” get bin Laden fast and easy and that would be that. I hated the Iraq War since 1997, when it was just bombs and sanctions, but nonetheless for about five years I’ve fought a small but nagging voice in my head which has urged me to rejoin the Armed Forces, and not the relatively-safe US Navy, but the rifle and pack and patrols Armed Forces. Again, I’m no warrior, but I feel the pull to go to war–to participate in the epic conflict of my time. My rational side (my chickenshit side?) has so far prevailed, and as a father of one young child with another on the way I’ve got many reasons not to go–but I’d be lying if I said not going didn’t make me feel like a shit.
And there it is: I’m not pissed at Everman, I’m pissed at myself. I don’t even know Jason Everman. The guy in the Rebecca Mead’s New Yorker sketch isn’t him, but just a snapshot of him gleaned from a few minutes of interview after a play. Everman went to war for his reasons, I may have thought those reasons made him an ass, but it was his own ass he put on the line every step of the way, and he did everything the Army Rangers asked him to do and then came home. He told the truth to Recebba Mead: he didn’t go to war for a sixpence, or to learn how to fix computers, he went for the experience and because he wanted to understand the warrior instinct inside of us all that urges us to fight, to conquer, and to kill if necessary. He is the warrior he set out to become, and a very honorable man to boot.