'Because it's all relative'

by Rich Moniak, Voices in Wartime Staff

“You’re pinned down in some filthy hellhole of a paddy, getting your ass delivered to kingdom come, but then for a few seconds everything goes quiet and you look up and see the sun and a few puffy white clouds, and the immense serenity flashes against your eyeballs – the whole world gets rearranged – and even though you’re pinned down by a war you never felt more at peace.”  … Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried (pp 35-36)

Although I’ve never been pinned down like that, the sky’s poetic portraits can still deliver a calm that approaches an ultimate peace like O’Brien describes. Or can it? Does having too much time among the beauty around my home dilute the serenity into pieces instead of peace? Is it only in the life and death struggle of war that a human soul glimpses eternity?

This morning I am on the opposite side of relativity’s psychological dimensions. I’ve just returned home from a benefit concert for Voices in Wartime and Soldier’s Heart. The cloud gray urban landscape of Seattle gave way to soft fluffy snow resting on the boughs of spruce and hemlock trees as far my eyes need to see. I’m pinned down among the beauty of Alaska. But war is peeking through the peace just as O’Brien explains: “those odd little fragments that have no beginning and no end” are stuck in my memory.

This time it’s the voice of Army Reserve Capt. Ashleigh Fortier. Her brief role at the concert was to read a quote from among the world’s most famous believers in peace. First though she introduced herself, and her voice cracked as she explained to the audience the way peace is trying to elude her life now that she’s home. Her pain is real. Her world away from the war has been rearranged the wrong way.

Relativity speaks. I’m a zillion miles from understanding Fortier’s Iraq experience and O’Brien’s never ending remembering of Vietnam. But her voice becomes my reminder of other fragments through my son. I know Michael doesn’t want to go back to Iraq, but his voice never sounds like Fortier’s did. The two ideas don’t mix well alone, and they stir the pot of past confusions that will always force me to wonder how the war has disrupted his world.  

I think back two years and remember the voices in playwright Simon Levy’s “What I Heard About Iraq”. There was a short segment where soldiers, young men like Michael, described killing with excitement bordering on pleasure. Later that same night I found Michael online and he told me about an IED that hit his Stryker vehicle a few days earlier in Mosul. Not much damage was done, and he shrugged it off quickly, too quickly, leaving me to wonder whether the event was all too common. What else had he seen? Could he become so disturbed by the war that he might sound like the soldiers from the play?

Less than a week later he was home on leave and we discussed that scene from the play. He assured me that he was working hard not to reach a breaking point that could become the wrong kind of rage. I trusted him completely, but he had to go back, and then was redeployed to Baghdad, the belly of the beast, for four more months. He came home in one piece physically, but Fortier reminds me how deep the other wounds can go. How much can any soldier be exposed to before they break one way or the other?

Should I feel relieved that Michael hasn’t exhibited the symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder when we’ve talked? Or is he so hardened by the war that he can hide it from me? Do I hope he’s haunted by the horror he’s seen because I don’t want to imagine he’s indifferent to it? Or maybe it’s my peace activist persona that wants an undisputable truth that war ruins the lives of all who are sent to fight it. But I don’t want his life ruined.

I wonder why I’m reading O’Brien. Is it to understand the effects of war on a human being who fought it so I can understand Michael better? Or am I being selective in choosing the stories I read, looking for new evidence to strengthen a belief that war isn’t the answer.

The trees catch a breeze and momentarily toss the snow as if the flakes are becoming impatient because I’m not listening to something. Then they settle back to a dominantly peaceful scene. “It’s all relative” O’Brien says.

Every human being should feel the nature of such beauty for more than the time between explosions and fear. It's not mine because I’m lucky. It’s too big for just me. Like the breeze, Fortier’s voice and O’Brien’s stories aren’t a disruption but a necessity. I need to imagine the meaning of their truths to better understand the purpose of the beauty in my life.