Since childhood, I loved the tales of wars past and present. In my adolescence, I was obsessed with the fables of Vietnam beyond any other. I obsessed because of its duration, extensive catalog of fables, and parallels to my generation’s Global War on Terrorism. I was obsessed with almost every aspect of war, but I was consumed with the countless dilemmas of the Vietnam war. Did torture yield viable results? What did it mean to fight a war within the confines of political borders when your enemy did not? What did it mean to violate the sovereignty of these borders? Where are hamlets helpful or harmful? What was acceptable in warfare? What about drug use among soldiers? Why did society turn its backs on those forced into war?
The dilemmas are endless. They are the debates over what was, and is, “right” and “wrong.” No dilemma has consumed my thoughts more than what does it mean to be the enemy? In adolescence, it was a trivial question that never seemed to have an answer. As an adult, in the fury of war, it seemed to matter even less. In those moments, it didn’t matter what input had created the output. All that mattered were the bullets whizzing by. All that mattered was someone was trying to kill me and my fellow Rangers.
The dilemma of the enemy has consumed and destroyed countless warriors, past and present. It arrives when the dust settles, and the bodies are tallied. It arrives in the face of a dead child carrying a weapon of war. It arrives in those sacrificed for political gain. It arrives in the face of a fallen friend. It arrives when the fury of war becomes a memory that haunts the mind. The dilemma arrives when the warrior begins to ask why? Why did we go to war? Why did they fight? Why do they hate us? Do I hate them? Why do I hate them? What were we to them?
For me, the reasons why only matter so we might not repeat history. I cannot change the past. I can evaluate my own reasons and outcomes to help me better prepare for the future. I cannot change the reasons of others. Sadly, the young are sent to slaughter, fed by the fables of the old. The output is a result of the input. It is easy to box the enemy as ideologues fed by false realities and ideology, but what if we flip that notion on its head? What if we consider the perspective of our enemies? It creates a complexity of “right” and “wrong.”
What if we consider that we send our youth to die, fed by the ideology and realities of our old? Who might the enemy be then? Would it not be evil for a politician to create and fabricate a reality that did not exist in order to send our youth to die, for a false reality of an enemy? Would it not be evil to purposefully destabilize and perpetuate that reality only to justify that political aspiration of glory, fame, and/or whatever else one’s reasons might be? If we take a hard look at our past wars, can we not find the very things we hate in our own decision-makers? Would doing their bidding, fed only by their false reality and ideologies, make us the very thing we hate about our enemy?
What I can say is that we went to war. We did what we did for reasons so few would ever understand. We did things that made us proud, and, if we are being honest, most of us did things we would have done only in war. We did things that our family could never understand. Why do soldiers piss on dead bodies? Why do they collect war trophies? Why do they wear the ears of others like priceless necklaces? Well, because war is hell. War is where our nations ask us to do things they themselves would not. They ask us to villainize another human until their humanity is lost. Until they are nothing more than obstacles to achieving the goal. They are all these things until we stare down upon their bodies. They lie there, dead, having just tried to kill you. You triumphed. You won. Next, the warrior must take what is theirs, the spoils of war, of winning, of living.
When war becomes a memory, when it is history, we find our memories and actions have no place in the world of peace. Therein lies the friction, in juxtaposition–the understanding and reality of your humanity, of their humanity. The realization that the reality of war is crucified and ostracized in peace. These memories can become nightmares. They can become our greatest enemy. They can destroy us from within. They can force us to silence them the only way we think we can, the way we once silenced our enemies.
I do not know who the enemy is. I do not know who your enemies are. What I can say is that life, and war, are complex beyond our comprehension. I’m not sure what I want to say. From beginning to end, I feel as though these words transformed and shifted into a nebulous blob. I am proud of what I did in war, and the things I am not proud of, I am not ashamed of. They happened. I understand why I did them. I understand that they have no place in peace, but they have always existed in war, for better or worse.
It is justified, unjustified, written by losers and winners, perpetuated by the loudest voices, by those who triumph. The façade is created by the “official” stories while the realities are written by those who experienced it. They write their stories for war, against war, and/or to simply document war in its reality. I have given up on the “enemy.” War was what it was for me. I did what was asked of me. I did what I needed to so we could survive, physically and mentally. As the dust has settled, all I can do is reflect upon it all and seek to understand it all.
Jake Smith is a law enforcement officer and former Army Ranger with four deployments to Afghanistan.
As the Voice of the Veteran Community, The Havok Journal seeks to publish a variety of perspectives on a number of sensitive subjects. Unless specifically noted otherwise, nothing we publish is an official point of view of The Havok Journal or any part of the U.S. government.