A Tramp and a Marine; they aren’t so different.
“Well it certainly sounds like you are glamourising war”. This statement was delivered to me in the trendy surroundings of a Manhattan bar; it was followed up, over the noise of funk, by the lady’s partner saying “Sounds like you actually miss it?”
At the time it didn’t really register as something to be aggrieved about, in fact they had hit the nail on the head, in essence. It was only days later, whilst sat with a pint at JFK Airport, that the manner and delivery of their response resonated with me. I felt a surge of anger and shook my head furiously; I mouthed to myself through clenched teeth, ‘How dare they!’
This couple had been introduced to me by my New York friend and they had asked about my tour of Afghanistan, that I was now enjoying a break of leave from. They showed real interest to hear about it and initiated that American reflex of thanking me for my service. Their enthusiasm soon dwindled when I relayed some honest and emotive accounts of my time at war. I guess Hollywood paints a quite a different picture to the unfiltered daily routine of a Royal Marines Commando. I was extremely frustrated by their reaction, it was a delayed reaction but it hit me hard… not too different to the realities of the stories I’d told them.
I decided to write about it while sat at the airport bar, and released some energy in a passage. I couldn’t accept that they’d been so carefree and positive when they thought that the account was going to be what they expected and then recoiled in horror when I’d passionately explained my view on the events. What did they want me to do, say it was like a day out at laser tag?
You see the reason that I may have seemed overly enthusiastic about the story was because the male of the pair was right, I did miss it – a lot. The hard times, the unspeakable horrors don’t seem too bad in the face of nostalgia; the emotion of lost belonging. War is hard, men miss it. And after my time living homeless I can see why the homeless community miss the streets. I can see why it’s so hard for people to understand them.
So, you are probably thinking “What the hell do you miss about war? Most men long to come home, long to be rid of the arduous drain of war.”
Yes we do, we dream daily of the luxuries of home and our family and friends. If you speak to most homeless people they say the same of their desire for a home life, the comfort and normality. But, it’s the normality that kills you. The ‘complicated normality’ as I call it.
War is simple, in terms of ground theory. It’s brutally violent beyond most people’s comprehension but it’s unquestionably straightforward; to the foot soldier. The infantry mission is quite simply “To defeat the enemy through close combat.” Do not confuse straightforward with easy, the physical implementation of the warriors actions remains extremely difficult.
At war a man knows his focus for the day and absolutely nothing else matters. Stay alive, keep your mates alive; hopefully remove some enemy. And he is extremely good at it; unlike anything else.
When he arrives home and settles down from his nights out on the spree, he slips back into life – the boring, grinding, overplayed, mundane life. His life is no longer simple. It should be, as compared to war paying bills is nothing; just like cancelling memberships, deciding whether to go to your aunt-in-laws house party, what to get your mother for Christmas, if you should throw your old tee shirts out, what movie to watch, am I going to miss out if I don’t go to the pub with the lads, what I spend my war money on are all minor and insignificant things. But now they aren’t so minor, they are now major and an unexpected weight. He starts getting angry with himself for quibbling over these insignificant things. He can’t understand why they matter, but they do… “Why can’t it just be like Helmand? I knew what I had to do out there, I didn’t have all these options.” It’s all so trivial but he’s unable to cope with it. He tries to deal with them but they are all peeling into an ambush against him, one which will yield the dreaded response “Why can’t I just go back, I want to go back”.
The homeless man experiences a level of this. On the streets he meets hardship, a real actual battle. But again it’s straightforward. Find food and money (maybe for the addiction), find somewhere to sleep. Around those things he can share stories with his friends, enjoy small graces that we take for granted… an act of kindness, shelter from a downpour, a warm meal and shower. These things, like the man at war, take on a whole new level of happiness than when they are readily available. Therefore when they are experienced on a regular basis it leaves the man wanting, like he’s missing something. Why isn’t it the same, why don’t I feel fulfilled??
For both Tramp and Marine, he was understood when around his mates in the same hell. They had patience, support and love for each other. If they needed help when having a bad day, it was OK, it was accepted. The assistant at the Post Office who rolls their eyes at him because he needs help with a form only reminds him of his protection of closed ranks. He has learned to survive in crippling conditions, but is now reduced to being scorned at for requiring assistance with an admin task.
The Tramp and Marine both see the darker side of humanity, they learn that the human can be a ruthless and unforgiving soul; this makes him cynical. He loses the ability to easily trust other people, he reserves his faith for the people that have seen what he has seen; he takes comfort in their shared understanding. In contrast he also sees the best of humanity; the kindness of strangers buying a beggar food and the pure joy of a young Afghan boy turning on the radio you have just given him. It touches him, he treasures it.
When the daily responsibilities weigh down on the man, he seeks refuge; he longs to withdraw to the black and white hardship of his past. His experience at war or on the streets was special, it isn’t something most people could cope with, or excel at… survive even. He feels a pride inside about his handling of it. Normal life doesn’t give him the same reward, it doesn’t inspire him and give him the sense of value and accomplishment. So, his fight of days gone by has taken on a new front; and this one he isn’t prepared for. This isn’t an emotion unique to these men, we all experience the human response of ‘You weren’t there’… from telling the story of getting your sandwich pinched by a seagull, to feeling smug about being the only person in the office at 7am; it is constantly around us. Think about the poor person you mocked for missing a winning football match, or when Debbie broke her wrist on a hen doo.
We need to understand that this man of conflict can no longer be satisfied by materialistic things alone; if you give him a house, extra money and a job then it doesn’t appeal to him like it once did. He needs stimulation and a purpose, one outside of the rewards that regular society would normally revel in. He needs his friends, he needs to learn how to trust again, and he needs to learn the hard lesson of adapting once more to a deadly situation; one which will kill him in a far more drawn out fashion than gunfire or hypothermia will.
My experiences of living homeless and of going to war have both left voids to be filled. Sitting in an empty house does not fill it. That void needs to be filled and we need to help the man choose what it’ll be. For the time being, writing filled my void and as I sat with my pint at JFK, struggling with the echo of being called a war glamorist, I soothed my soul:
War, but Glory?
To accuse a man, of glorifying war? A man of war, for his words or his actions? Know that they both portray his thoughts, his reasoning and terms….for what he has seen and done. They will deceive, for the way you receive them, often, will defy the roots of where they lie within him, how he perceives them. How is man to describe war? To the non-combatant? How is it to be received? War is everything….war is everything, every emotion; squeezed of its very last drop. Is he to blandly describe a dropless emotion felt at war, when it is stronger than it’s felt in any other situation?
His despair was glorious, his pride also….his rage and his will……glorious. All, he will not tell, some is his, to remain gloriously his. Some he will tell, with the justice that he can, that he is devoted to.
War is everything,
In word and action,
War is everything; but,
Not for everyone.
New York City