“Where is it that we were together? Who were you that I lived with? The brother. The friend. Darkness, light. Strife and love.” [From the Thin Red Line].
Powerful words that speak to intimate bonds between soldiers provided through shared struggle. But, these words also alert us to the profound emptiness that many feel but cannot put into words when they return home from deployments. Soldiers often tell me that they miss it, that they did not want it to end. This can easily be confused as a lust for war but what these men and women are referring to is the loss of intimate, yet unspoken, connection and love for other people without ever having to risk being mushy or sentimental. And, sometimes soldiers even wonder whether something is wrong with them to miss the terrible things of war. It can be incredibly empty for men and women to return to normal life that does not provide this level of unity with other people. They come home and feel let down, alone – isolated from other people, including their families and even from their military brothers and sisters.
The accepted ‘masculinity’ we learn in the military does not provide other ways to truly connect - loneliness and the pain of separation are kept to oneself. Words like intimacy or love for one’s brothers and sisters become so easily confused with sexuality that they cannot be said out loud. To be emotional, caring, or compassionate are realities of the human experience and without them life can be empty. To fill this void, many people I know – the warriors - do the adrenaline chase until they eventually crash. To be a strong man or woman is not clear cut - we are social creatures and we seek connection with other people - we do feel things like loneliness, tenderness, and vulnerability. Taking care of one’s ‘mental health’ may require military men and women to risk stepping outside the expected norm and to put these things into words and actions with somebody.
John J. Whelan
John J. Whelan, Ph.D., is the author of Going Crazy in the Green Machine, available now on FriesenPress.