Politics & Policy

The Roller Coaster of War

Inside the combat experience.

Combat is like an amphetaminic drug: Thrilling at first, residual effects always, highly addictive, emotionally destructive, and physically dangerous. It’s also difficult to explain why the experience is anything more than the latter two. But it is.

My experience with combat began in low doses, 12 years ago, as a journalist covering the last days of the Bosnian War, and then two years later during clashes between Israeli soldiers and Palestinians on the West Bank.

Those who have been following my recent entries at National Review Online’s new military blog, “The Tank,” have read about some of the fighting I’ve experienced in Iraq: Fighting — from gun battles to bombings — that swirled around me day and night for about a week as I covered only a fraction of the war from Baghdad to points south, never once setting foot behind the relatively secure walls of the Green Zone.

Though it is difficult to explain why, I did not want to leave Iraq: I felt so grafted to the war, and the world beyond it seemed so insignificant.

I remember a similar feeling as I left no man’s land between the Croatian and Serb armies back in 1995. But it was nothing compared with what I felt when my plane began the steep, groundfire-evasive, climb-out over Baghdad International Airport last week.

Hours later in Kuwait City, I was riding in the passenger side of my friend Tammy Geldenhuy’s little sedan when we were suddenly albeit briefly stopped in traffic. The rational side of me knew it was simply a traffic jam, but the war had unbeknownst to me heightened my sensitivity to stopping anywhere. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was still jacked on adrenaline. I felt this overwhelming compulsion to get out of the traffic, even if it meant we needed to drive up on the sidewalk or push other cars out of the way to do so. After all, we never stopped for anything on the Iraqi highways. To do so would increase our chances of ambush. So, even though I was safe in Kuwait, I momentarily felt the unconscious triggering of some odd sense of ambush awareness.

That night a similar sense was triggered when, with the windows open in Tammy’s villa, I heard the noise of a dropped dish or a plate somewhere else in the neighborhood. It wasn’t particularly loud. But instantly, I felt the same feeling that I felt when a bomb exploded or automatic-weapons fire began crackling in Iraq.

This is not to suggest I was jittery or jumping out of my skin. I was neither. No one looking at me would have sensed anything unusual. In fact, I felt as relaxed as if sitting in a hot tub. Though for a split second, an unusual sense of situational awareness was triggered. It brought home to me just what war does to ones psyche even after only a week. And some of our soldiers and Marines go through it for months at a time.

Some, like my uncles who were exposed to almost continuous combat for more than a year at a stretch during World War II, returned home wound so tight they could barely tolerate the sound of a child’s cap pistol or an aircraft buzzing overhead.

There is also the rollercoasteresque addiction to combat.

When I arrived in Kuwait after being in Iraq, a Navy SEAL friend who has experienced quite a bit of combat action over the years, e-mailed me: “I know you would like to stay up there for a long time,” he wrote. “But people playing Russian roulette wish they had a couple more pulls of the trigger as well. You got to witness a lot and experience something most never will — and never will even begin to — imagine.”

I responded, “You know exactly what I am feeling. It truly is such a let down being back here. I cannot explain it, but I love the feeling of that environment up there. I’m ashamed to admit it, but it’s true.”

His response: “You will never replace that feeling, not as long as you live. That is the most basic instinct of man. We live with fleeing or fighting and you have gone right in to the eyes of the fight. You will hear from so many that you are ‘out of your mind’ and ‘why did you go there?’ But only you will know why you did and why you miss it, because it is impossible to explain. It is something more than just adrenaline. There is a plaque in the training area of the [SEAL] teams that says, ‘Once man has hunted man, he will always hunger for it.’ Read whatever you want into that, but you are closer to understanding that than most will ever be.”

Col. John W. Ripley (U.S. Marine Corps, ret.), an expert on the subject of ground combat who has testified before Congress on the same, once explained to me, “[Combat is an] aggressive, violent behavior that begets satisfaction, actual enjoyment, a good feeling from having located, engaged and crushed the enemy. Nobody seems to talk about it, but we true combat veterans actually experience a good feeling, a feeling of victory, a wash of emotion; indeed, significant pleasure when we take the fight to the enemy and destroy him in the process. I will tell you that every true combat veteran, certainly every Marine, feels this way. I would challenge the combat experiences of any veteran who does not feel this way.”

George Washington himself once wrote, “I have heard the bullets whistle; and believe me, there is something charming in the sound.” And Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee said, “It is well that war is so terrible, lest we grow too fond of it.”

Then there is fear in combat: The fear level is often high in the days prior to moving into a combat zone for the first time. It is often less in the moments just before moving into action for the first time and even after initial contact. Then for many, the fear increases after the novelty of combat wears off, and the horror of losses and danger set in.

As I explained on “The Tank,” everyone is afraid of something at some time, but fear in combat may be managed and channeled into battlefield effectiveness, enabling soldiers to maintain focus and a greater sense of operational security.

It is interesting, however, when we realize the things that frighten us most in the most dangerous circumstances, are often not the physical dangers we are actually facing at the moment.

War correspondent Janine Di Giovanni described to me her greatest fears while covering the February 2000 fall of Grozny during the war in Chechnya: “I was sure I was going to die, and I was not yet a mother,” she said. “I remember saying my prayers that night. I knew I had lived a good life, so I was fine with that. My only concern was that I was not going to be able to get my story out. No one would actually know the evil things that had happened in that village.”

As for me, my single greatest fear in Iraq was that I would lose my Internet signal, and like Di Giovanni, not be able to get my story out.

A former U.S. Marine infantry leader, W. Thomas Smith Jr. writes about military issues and has covered war in the Balkans, on the West Bank, and in Iraq. He is the author of six books, and his articles appear in a variety of publications.

A former U.S. Marine infantry leader, W. Thomas Smith Jr. writes about military issues. He has covered war in the Balkans, on the West Bank, in Iraq, and in Lebanon. ...


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