My grandfather and I never talked about war.
The day we could have, we stared at two enormous cottonwood trees in his backyard. With every gust of wind, cotton would fall like snowflakes, peppering his vibrant Colorado grass. As we watched the cotton fall, I tried to find the peace and serenity of the moment, but found myself tormented. I turned to stare at my grandfather in an attempt to have him to read my mind, given that we were the only two outside. The rest of my family had retreated inside for a drink refill. Prior to their departure, we’d been talking some about my recent deployment to Afghanistan. Mainly about the gifts my grandparents sent. Yes, Grandma. That REI undershirt kept me warm during the bitter winters. Thank you.
My grandfather was a fellow veteran and a paratrooper with the 82nd Airborne during World War II. When I enlisted in 1999, our paths crossed. He went to Ft. Benning, Ft. Bragg, and Camp Mackall before shipping overseas. So did I. He served with the 82nd in combat. So did I. The day I received authorization to wear an 82nd Airborne combat patch, I couldn’t wait to tell him. He and I were now members of a brotherhood. I guess that was part of the problem, though. Without knowing, I’d joined the silent brotherhood of combat veterans.
Grandpa never talked about his time overseas, save for the funny stories about him ending up as General Patton’s scotch supplier. Even my grandmother remained aloof, and I’ve asked about his time overseas frequently. I wouldn’t be surprised if the carnage he might have endured was an indicator of why he drank. I know it’s why I did (and on rare occasion still do). He wasn’t a drunk, but more a social drinker. There were, however, a few times when my mom called him out. Once, he claimed to have been “following the grooves in the road” while driving us home after some drinks at the Country Club. My brother and I told our mom, and she went ballastic. I suppose that’s why I figured we could talk about our experiences over some drinks once I returned home. We would be our own secret club none of the rest of the family was invited into. A brotherhood forged in explosions and blood. But we never talked. Instead, he stared right back at me, sipped his vodka gimlet, and said, “now you’re a man.” I nodded, and we continued to stare at the cotton trees. Nothing more was ever said.
Grandpa died on the way to my wedding a year later. He flipped his car end over end when he took too long fiddling with an audiobook. When my mom got the news, she wailed. I remained stoic. I’m sure everyone else assumed I was internalizing the grief due to the way I handled the news. Oh, he’s being strong so they can move forward with the wedding. But in reality, I observed his death like one would examine a work of art, detached but contemplative. My distance from his death weirded out my family after a few days, but they knew why. They had become acutely aware the day I returned home from war and one of them tried to wake me from a nap.
I remember the moment the switch flipped in the way I handled life and death. It was in Afghanistan, and the sky was a pastel blue with a few wisps of clouds. I approached the scene curiously, rifle in hand. The men scattered at the base of the mountain had their faces caved in from bullet holes. The one I was drawn to most, however, was the man in a blue Toyota Hilux. He appeared to have half-fallen out of the front seat while his guts spilled out like worms. I paused, soaking in the scene in that same contemplative manner I would come to know when Grandpa died. Then I raised my camera and snapped a photo for the report we’d turn in. I didn’t vomit, but the smell was putrid in the summer sun, so I hurried away. Standing next to my Humvee, I reviewed the digital photo and absorbed more details. So. This was death.
Not a few months later, our convoy got hit by a complex attack. Before the zips and shrieks tore through the air, we spotted the attack. Taliban fighters took positions between two ridge lines as we traveled through a dry creek bed. This put us at a strategic disadvantage, because the enemy held the high ground. I was lucky enough to be at the end of the column of vehicles and around a corner, so no bullets struck close. Instead, the enemy focused their gunfire on the front column of Humvees and pickup trucks. Several trees obscured my shots, so as I posted up behind a fallen log, I felt useless holding a rifle with nothing to do. Then the mortar team began dragging out their tubes. A fellow teammate and I began helping them set up and then started firing into the ridge line. Any time we’d see a head pop up like a gopher, we’d launch mortars. The whole situation became a game of whack-a-mole for close to an hour until an Apache helicopter arrived and ended the fight.
When I trudged up the mountain after the fight, a small homestead stood nearby the place where the attack began. We flex cuffed all the men, and I began interrogating them. One man spit at my feet, while another smiled in defiance. I raved like a lunatic, all adrenaline and anger — threats, fury, and hatred bleeding out like a man demon possessed. When someone tries to kill you, most of us would like to pretend that we’d be the bigger man and remain calm, but 18-year-old boys given unlimited ammo and taught to crush their opponent rarely act serene.
The firefight isn’t what I remember most. What I remember is an older man with a white beard and a red-stained bottom half (a cultural practice). He was waving frantically and pushing back against the men detaining him. Once subdued, the other soldiers called for an interpreter. I motioned for my interpreter to follow and we started questioning the man, but he only wanted information about his teenage son. With wild gesticulation, he jabbed toward a ridge line where he’d last seen his son. The man’s boney finger pointed to the exact area we’d dumped mortars into. I walked away, not sure what to say, when another soldier stopped me. “Hey Sarge,” he said in a southern drawl. “His son’s dead.” When I inquired how he knew, the soldier told me he’d been firing a MK-19 grenade launcher into the area too. He stated parts flew everywhere, because there was also a goat herd he’d managed to hit. Everything behind the ridgeline was now ash and rubble.
I thanked the soldier, and relied the information to my interpreter, leaving him to do the dirty work. The old man’s shriek and wailing pierced the air, which caused me to stop and turn my head in his direction. The wail of loss always sounds like a wounded animal. Though I didn’t know it that day, I would make the same sound when my best friend was killed in action. Then, as more and more people I knew died, my wailing stopped and silent tears fell instead. Eventually, the tears almost came to a stop, because death became as normal as life. Someone I knew was always dying. Even the priest I had become friends with on a deployment to Iraq jumped off a bridge once he returned home. When you have the grim reaper constantly loom over your shoulder, I suppose the stench of his breath loses its impact.
People across the globe began dying in bulk last week. As Coronavirus snaked its way from China to Europe and abroad, I watched the national mood change from caution to outright panic. As the Pale Rider began escorting men and women across the river Styx, that old vacancy returned. When you were one bullet away from a dirt nap for several years, you become a death connoisseur. A critic, even. In war, you don’t want to die, and hope you don’t, but you’ve become so adjusted to the idea that it becomes a baseline. In honesty, I suppose my indifference never left.
To me, death — like taxes — is a certainty. We all have to die sometime and no one gets to choose how they go; hail of gunfire, fighting an alligator, or texting while driving. The result is the same: you’re six feet under. Granted, I’ve always preferred a soldier’s death. Even Maximus from the movie Gladiator asks for “a clean death. A soldier’s death.” I know this view of death and the way I’d like to go isn’t particularly normal, but I can’t seem to think any differently either. I imagine many first responders or those who’ve lived through their fair share of death respond the same. My veteran friends and I joke about how we’ll meet one another at the gates of Valhalla, the mythical Norse hall where warriors go once they die. We never dwell on the fact we’ll die one day, but expect it. Perhaps we even welcome it. We have become sommeliers of death, drinking in the many ways one can go, but searching for an elusive bottle only found on the battlefield.
Despite my warped feelings, everyone — soldiers included — try their damnedest to avoid death, despite its inevitability. Even science and technology are looking for the proverbial Holy Grail to make death optional. I think deep down we’d all like to live forever and is why — like the poet Dylan Thomas said — we “rage against the dying of the light.” This paradox has become the largest indicator for why I believe human beings weren’t meant to die. Say what you will, but there is something sacred about the human soul. We instinctively know that the most mentally handicapped person is more valuable than a prize winning horse, and yet no one can empirically prove that. Or suppose we were we to take the model of survival of the fittest from nature during this Coronavirus pandemic? Let’s say we allow those with weak immune systems to die while the strong survive? Most all of us would outright reject a government that practiced these concepts. And yet, here we are. Surrounded by global death in a pandemic, each of us trying to “not go gentle into that good night.”
Perhaps this is why my grandfather and I didn’t talk about war. War involves death and all the conflicting emotions that go along with it. I think this was probably the case, given that the one story he recorded was of death. He lost a close friend in the war. Prior to Grandpa’s death, he’d taken a creative writing course and wrote out his life story. In his memoir, there’s nothing about combat, just his struggle over a friend’s death. He lost other friends, several I’m sure over the span of his life, but there’s nothing aside from the brief mention of his dead Army buddy. I fear he, too, made friends with the Reaper. That’s why when he died, I viewed his death as… normal? Most of us assume we’ll fade away in our sleep or in a hospital bed. My grandfather did die in a hospital bed after the wreck, so I suppose he would have thought his death normal — even bland — having made it through WWII. He didn’t die like our friends had, holding their guts, spitting blood, and asking us to take care of their family. That’s not necessarily a clean death, but it’s a soldier’s death, nonetheless. Funny that we call it clean when it’s all guts and viscera.
I suppose that’s why I’m the worst person to talk to about death. I have to force emotion I rarely feel because I view death so bland and passé compared to combat. This became apparent when my wife lost her grandfather. I tried to comfort the family, but became far more interested in a Japanese sword her grandad brought home from his time in the Pacific. I even asked if I could have it, because I wasn’t thinking about the way they viewed death and family heirlooms. Instead, I was dwelling on the clean death. The soldier’s death. I wonder if her grandfather thought about it too as he grew older, creeping closer to natural causes than a Japanese pill box.
My wife’s grandfather and I bonded over our wartime service when we first met. Sometimes we’d speak in private, dancing around anything of substance in our war stories before his mind slowly ebbed away. I like to think he thought about a warrior’s death too. In ancient cultures and in the military, a warrior’s death is an honor. You die for a cause larger than yourself. That cause ends up being the men you serve with, and not — as most people think — your country. Nobody really gives a rip about their country. We say we do, but it’s only because we love the men we bleed next to who live in the same country. Thus, any death after what you’ve experienced seems so stupid and meaningless. Cancer. A car wreck. A new strain of the flu that wrecks your lungs, all because some dude ate a bat.
In the biblical Gospel of Matthew, Jesus reminds the Apostle Peter that “those who live by the sword, die by the sword.” Perhaps this is the curse of those who’ve wielded a weapon; we prefer to die by what we once held in our hands. Even our minds remain at war. Though we deeply long for peace and wish to spare our children and future generations the horrors of war, when death calls, we hope we’ll still be holding a sword. We morbidly want it to be glorious, chivalrous, and grandiosely stupid. That way when we enter Valhalla, we can claim the clean death.
A soldier’s death.