I'm sure many of my readers are also readers of Captain Tightpants. He's been AWOL from the blogosphere for a few months, but returned yesterday with a post I wish I'd been able to write. He and I are both combat veterans, and we've identified with each others' views in the past, particularly concerning the SEAL movie 'Act Of Valor' (see my review here, and his here). I guess he's struggled to explain what being a combat vet does to his outlook on life, just as I've found the same difficulty. He found words during a recent group therapy session.
We somehow got into discussing tools in terms of mental/emotional/physical responses - what the individual is capable of in terms of dealing with a particular stimulus/event/incident. And, I'll preface this with noting [the psychologist] had fallen into the mistake that it seems a lot of people do of equating certain backgrounds with ignorance or a lack of intelligence - even though she was bubbly she definitely talked down to people. Which didn't help my mood. So I told her about tools.
The point I made was this. I asked her what she might do if one of us made her mad - mad her so angry she couldn't see straight, hit at the core of her being, just straight out pissed her off beyond words? Then I explained oh yes, she might yell, she might throw something, she might even hit someone if she got pissed off enough. That she could throw a great little tantrum at the injustice of it all and truly vent.
Well, I'd sunk the bait, but then I set the hook.
In a very calm voice I explained to her that every person in that room had moved past that. We didn't "hold in our emotions because we were afraid of what we might do." We held them in because we knew what we could do. Big difference. Because everyone in that group knew how to take a life. I don't mean some theoretically concept, I mean we knew the sights and the sounds and the smells involved in a person's final moments. We knew that, if pushed to the wrong point, we could do what was needed. I told her I had a tool in my toolbox that I hoped she never, ever would - that I could kill a person. That my toolbox extended beyond anger, beyond even seeing the person as themselves, and moved into targets and options and reactions. And, that unless you are completely broken, once you've used that tool for good or bad you are forever changed. It doesn't mean you're broken, or evil, or wrong, or any of that other bullshit. But once you realize how easy it is to deal with mortality, you never look at life the same. And that's why so many combat veterans have that distance - because it's not that we're afraid we might snap, or somehow lose it - it's just that we know what happens on that edge, and we know to avoid it unless need be.
It was a strange thing saying it. Because it was almost like I could see my words hitting her like punches - I don't think she'd ever thought of it that way. Again, I'm not saying she's a bad person, and I know she means well - but to her death and killing are an amorphous concept. The actors get up after the directors call cut, and brush off the dust. The video game hits a save point and you end it. You close the book and move to another. She has never, ever conceptualized the fact that there are men and women in this world who have lived this as a part of their day to day existence, and then have to deal with the ways it changes you for good and bad in the aftermath. I could see and sense the reactions of the other vets in the room, and knew without asking that they agreed.
And parts of it reminded me of comments from my wife and others over the years. How it's not just my lack of extreme emotions, but that when I get angry, really upset it's not that I yell or rage or anything - it's that I go to a very cold, distant place where "I" am no longer there. Because I recognize this as the place I work from in these situations, where everything is based with dealing with the threats of the moment as opposed to the emotions of the "normal" world.
There's more at the link. Go read the whole thing. Please. It's important to me. Captain Tightpants has put into words exactly what I've tried - and failed - to say over the past I don't know how many years. I fully endorse what he says, and I confirm it from my own experience.
Miss D. has half-jokingly complained sometimes that when she's getting all worked up about things going wrong (such as our truck's transmission losing its fluid and stranding her on the side of the road) she wants to start yelling, but I'm quite relaxed - which she finds frustrating, to say the least! (That morning I said to her, when I arrived in the other car, "Don't worry, love - it's not like you drove over a landmine." I meant it, too. A truck's just a truck. We can always buy another. I can't buy another Miss D.) On the other hand, I've warned her more than once that if she sees or hears me go very quiet and ice-cold, she needs to get ready to duck for cover right now. That reaction will mean I've identified something or someone that appears to be a threat to her and/or I, and I'm getting ready to do something drastic about it (or them) if necessary. I've seen similar reactions in many other combat veterans. We know that it's dangerous to let an enemy start a fight on his terms; we're more than capable of taking the initiative away from him; and we know the value of those who are dear to us. If it comes to a choice between the threat and our loved ones, guess who's going down? (Miss D.'s had some experience of that reaction in me when a stimulus has drawn forth a response based on events from the past, most recently a couple of months ago.)
That's a reality shared by a lot of us - more than you might suspect. It colors our reactions to the world around us. We know that the veneer of civilization runs relatively thin in almost any society, and is almost non-existent among the worst of the criminal element and some other individuals. If others make it necessary, we stand ready to shed our own veneer of civilization in response. That makes some people uncomfortable . . . but it's the way it is. As George Orwell put it:
People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.
Thanks, Cap'n Tightpants, for saying what needed to be said. You did well, buddy.