“Truth is like fire. . . It either heals or it destroys. But it never – never – leaves what it touches unchanged.” --Robert R. McCammon, Wolf’s Hour
An inner demon finally caught up to me, after trying to get my attention for years. Looking back, I see that it rode the increasing wisdom that comes with age (if you’re paying attention) through a series of dreams to a discovery that birthed a conclusion that led to a responsibility . . . You get the picture.
This is the conclusion, which I share with a nod to Pogo: I have met the enemy of the world, and he is us.
On the TV news I watch our soldiers return from the current Gulf wars to cheering families and tears of relief and gratitude. While I share the joy and relief, another feeling taints the joy. I grieve for a future many of those soldiers will be unable to avoid. The military is just now catching up with this concern, as they realize their mental health services are woefully inadequate to the tide of troubled soldiers returning from the Middle East.
I’m a veteran of the Cold War. I never saw real combat as a young man in the Air force. But something happened to me. I was shown the terrible price men pay, no matter on which side in which war, for doing what we ask of them. (Women pay their own price, of course, and their story deserves telling. Today, however, I speak as a man, of men.) Only a few people get this; you only get it when you go to the bottom of the well of spirit and soul, as our soldiers have. And nobody goes there on purpose.
But we sent those soldiers there, and we owe them an effort to understand their sacrifice. So I must tell you the story of my own trip to the well, which changed the trajectory of my life and pushed me into the man I am today.
Circa 1970, fifty miles from Tucson, Arizona: Deep underground I wait. Ten megatons of nuclear destruction wait with me, brooding and patient. At the age of twenty-eight I command the complex and four-man crew of a Titan II intercontinental ballistic missile. We – the missile, I, and my crew – wait for the message to launch.
The nightmare waits too, in the underground of sleep. I don’t look forward to my sleep shift, because I know it will meet me there. It has another message, of far greater import than the launch message, that it’s trying – and at this time, failing – to force into consciousness.
I’m on alert with my crew. The order to launch comes. I obey it, calling its progress: “. . . Ignition . . . Liftoff . . . Missile Away.” I’ve done my job, accomplished my mission. I turn from the launch console and run 150 vertical feet up the stairs, emerging topside into bright desert sunlight, to watch my missile take off. I see it rising slowly in fire and smoke from its protective womb, a monster to which Mother Earth never intended to give birth. I feel nothing until my gaze drifts up, above of my missile. There I see three Russian missiles arrowing across the cloudless blue Arizona sky, small siblings of the giant rising next to me, headed for Tucson. One each for my wife and two children, who live there. I know – the way you “know” things in dreams – they will die.
My rage is instant, consuming, murderous; psychic twin to the firestorm my missile will create. It becomes my personal weapon, my avenger. I scream and shake my fist at it, imploring it to deliver horrible, fiery death to all those other killers and their families.
I wake up, shaking and crying, whether from the rage or the grief I cannot tell. The nightmare is over. But it will return, repeating itself exactly, haunting my sleep often over forty months and 300-plus alerts.
I leave the Air Force in July 1971. The nightmare stops dead.
December 8, 2000, in the woods near Hendersonville, North Carolina: As a psychotherapist in an intensive training workshop, I've begun my turn in the hot seat by telling a recent dream. I have no idea that the dream is really a shovel intended to exhume something I didn’t know I’d buried in 1971.
With great tenderness but without mercy, Barry, coleading the group with Paula, probes my soul for the dream’s secret message. A dialogue, a few questions, and the old silo nightmare rises in answer. I don’t know why. Compliant, I tell it aloud, as I have several times over the decades, and in my mind’s eye I see it again as I tell it. But after my last words the dream continues with a life of its own. Awake, speechless, and blind, I see a vision of the silo nightmare’s end, the end I had avoided for thirty years:
Men, women, and children, screaming in closeup agony, incinerating in an exploded slow-motion instant of time as my nightmare missile, waiting suspended in my unconscious these thirty years, completes the mission of vengeance I gave it. I am stunned, horrified, but I’m given no time to recover. Without pause my atrocity morphs into an eternal momentary collage of ancient and contemporary horrors in progress: I – I – am thrusting the spear into Christ’s side, torturing heretics, slaughtering Indians, whipping slaves, gassing Jews, raping women, napalming Vietnamese, cleansing Serbs . . . I am assaulted by emotion: not guilt, but deep, heartbreaking grief. It has waited these decades and centuries, compressed and unconscious in my soul and body, because those other men, my brothers, the original perpetrators, failed either to feel it or to express it as they carried out their awful work. Here, now, it erupts, washing over and through me, crushing, cleansing.
Unable to bear the weight of sorrow over so much carnage, I collapse, sobbing. None of the fifty people present knows why, though it is their presence that has created a container safe and strong enough for it to happen. I am mindless, senseless, forever. When it’s over, Barry and Paula help me find myself in all this grief, so I can tell the story – this story, Everyman’s story.
The nightmare is, after all, not mine alone.
Everyman’s story, then and now: Deep in our souls, in that shadow place no good man wants to believe he can go, a Dark Warrior waits, brooding and patient like my missile, ready to relish death. He represents the dark side of the masculine spirit. This Darth Vader of the psyche lies potential in every man, whether he kills for Hitler or the Allies, the Iraqi and Afghani insurgents or the Coalition, alone like Timothy McVeigh, for his own alienated ego like Harris and Klebold, or only in his dreams like me.
Make no mistake: I know I was on the right side in the Cold War. And I know I tell this story without the sacrifice demanded by literal combat. Facing these truths, I am humbled. Yet I am unable to refuse the unwelcome mission I’ve been given so late in life. I’ve now been involuntarily joined – how remains a mystery to me to this day – with all men at a level far below politics, religion, and race, where we are all alike. I was given a glimpse of the massive, ancient, unexpressed, collective grief of men for the pain and death we deal. The glimpse became a message that made me its messenger. In this essay, I try to deliver it.
So I must tell you the message: Nature, or God if you prefer, gave us the capacity to kill, and then a way to balance it. Our grief is the only balance there is for the violence we commit. We must show up for this duty. Personally, grief heals; collectively, it balances. If it remains unlived, then in a desperately paradoxical effort to right the imbalance by offering us another chance, it spawns the symbolic twin of the violence that caused it. Like this:
Flashback: Circa 1970, Tucson, Arizona: In lieu of my grief, I have brought my anger home from alert, and directed it at my daughter Robin, who is four. My anger, vented in the angry, rejecting growl that I’ve uttered, has terrorized her. This is not right, says a desperate but impotent voice inside. I stare at her, struggling in the DMZ between my love for her and this anger neither of us understands. She stares back, blankey to her lips, afraid of me.
Afraid of me.
Though I neither intend it nor realize it now, over the next ten years this repressed anger, which keeps my grief at bay, will make my daughter the victim of her own father’s inner terrorist, because she can’t know who will show up at a given time – the loving father, or Darth Vader. It will help kill a marriage, which in turn will cost my children the intact home that is their birthright.
The damage I did to Robin forty years ago has had consequences that persist to this day, in the form of an alienation that has so far been impossible to repair.
This is the experience that dampens my joy for those returning soldiers. Our warriors return from the killing fields wounded, some in body and most in spirit, to a culture that still won’t let big boys cry, so they must delay their grief indefinitely. Men usually block grief with anger, Vader’s favorite food, which must erupt somewhere – in a sociopathic killing rage on the battlefield, or later, at an innocent wife or child or coworker, or internally, in soul-devouring guilt or self-destructive addictions.
Rage, guilt, addictions, or grief? These choices face the returning veteran. The healthiest is least available to men, and the others are toxic. Delayed grief pools in the heart, poisoning the spirit. Medically it shows up as “PTSD,” the malady that makes so many veterans eventually mentally ill, addicted, homeless, violent, and/or suicidal. (As of May, 2012, eighteen veterans were committing suicide every day.) From the soldiers themselves to their families and communities to the Oval Office, we do not comprehend the depth of individual sacrifice, nor of the collective debt that’s accumulating, for their service on our behalf.
My message to my brothers-in-arms and those who love us is this: Whether our killing fields were Anzio or Heartbreak Ridge, Khe Sanh or Baghdad, a silo or a computer, we must find a way to grieve for the years and friends and wounds we gave to war, for the anguish and sorrow of our families, and for those we killed and wounded and their families as well.
The price to be paid if we can’t is high, and we will not pay it alone. Grief is love that faces loss and pain, so grief denied is love lost forever to both lover and loved. I know. It took me thirty years to get to the bottom of the well. When I finally, on December 8, 2000, faced the truth of my silo nightmare, I got it. I submitted to my grief. Following my disintegration, I became more whole, a better man, father, stepfather, husband, therapist – messenger. I am grateful.
And to my dying day, I will regret the price exacted for the delay.
So my personal journey to this point in my life has taken me through many passages that embedded two major themes: grief and aging. They are paradoxical. We grieve pain and loss, which brings us to love. We get old, tired, and sick, eventually unto death, which brings us to wisdom. Love and wisdom bring with them responsibility, which brings us to peace. If we can manage that well enough, Darth Vader remains mostly dormant, leaving the intrapsychic battlefield to his more honorable twin, Obi-Wan Kenobi. He, Spiritual Warrior for the Light, can save us – and the world. If reading this helps you with that shape-shifting task, I’ve done my job as messenger.
“May The Force Be With You.”
Columbia, South Carolina
June 12, 2013