Sunday, April 20, 2014

Captain Tightpants nails it

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.



trailbee said...

Oh, MY God, Peter. Thank you so much. Happy Easter sounds so trite at this point, but I truly appreciate who and what you are and why you are here for us. Yes, Happy Easter to you and Miss D.

Old NFO said...

That he did. Well done sir, and Happy Easter to you and Wing!

Anonymous said...

Wonderful piece. It helps a bit to understand the thoughts of my medically discharged military son.
Not to steal your thunder or wisdom; I just had a tug in the ol' cortex that maybe this is what I'm feeling. I spent 11 years on our local ambulance squad and 10 years as an ER nurse. And I often have those "quiet" moments that scare my wife. Your prose has triggered something that will make me ponder your wisdom for a few days.


Coconut said...

Civilisation, you mean, being shrugged off before a fight like an expensive coat to keep it from damage?

Rolf said...

Coconut - yup, kind'a like that. I've hunted deer for many years, watched animals go from alive and vibrant to cooling meat in a moment, then dealt with the proceeds. These days I get get calm when getting ready to pull the trigger, and the brain is on a "relaxed full speed" taking in all the relevant details or range, motion, conditions, legality (three-point minimum buck, for example).

The only time I've come close to clearing leather on someone in self defense I had the same sort of cool, detached feeling of heightened awareness, running the checklist of backstop, articulateable threat ratios, distances, times and speeds, planning likely movements, shot placements, possibility of assistance, and all the rest. The punk was getting off the motorbike saying he was going to mess me up (paraphrased), and he suddenly had an epiphany when I said that "it could be messy." I'm sure I wasn't yelling, or moving fast, or flashing a gun cinimatically - I was motionless, and the forest nearly silent, gun well concealed but easily drawn. But that calm, quiet assurance communicating "I am living through this" shut him right down. I have no way of knowing, of course, if that calm would stay with me once the trigger was being pulled, and dealing with the aftermath of shooting a human, but I have at least some vague notion of how the body and brain can react to such an event.

Hopefully I'll never find out for sure.

FishStyx said...

*Peter...please relay this comment to Captain Tightpants, if possible.
Was unable to leave an anonymous comment on his site.*

He put into words what I've been trying to explain to my family (and myself!) for years.
For almost 30 years I've thought there was something "wrong" with me.
Strange relief to find that there are others with the same reactions.

Peter said...

@FishStyx: Done. I've left a comment there pointing to yours over here.

Bart Noir said...

While Orwell certainly did write words containing the intent of that quote, he didn't do it in those words. Go to and move down about one-quarter page to learn more.

I mean to be informative to somebody who puts great value on words and writing, not to be a prissy critic!