Archive for April, 2009

Combat, Futility, Stoicism


Combat, Futility, Stoicism

By Philip Forrest

April 22, 2009

   Socrates said that “To fear death… is no other than to think oneself wise when one is not, to think one knows what one does not know.” A Marine sitting in an abandoned Iraqi house with his back against a wall, just below a window during a lull in a firefight often thinks the converse. The warrior doesn’t know per-se what is on the other side of death, but that he is ready to find out if only to escape the present horror. This way of thinking and way of life sticks with most people who have seen combat. It creates pacifists from people filled with hate; it destroys one’s own faith and creates a new one predicated on basic questions of what it is to be human.

   The Epic of Gilgamesh showed the futility of struggle against what is inevitable. Wandering the wilderness in a search for everlasting life, Gilgamesh finds the key, has his hand upon it only to have it stolen by a serpent. Combat-induced Post Traumatic Stress Disorder has the power to take away that desire to struggle, even to stay alive. The vilified serpent of Gilgamesh and the Old Testament always lurks in the mind of the warrior who suffers from PTSD, not to steal everlasting life, but to just steal life itself.

   The modern warrior suffering from PTSD has a host of tools to aid in recovery of their life. The questions and feelings are timeless though. Surrounded by death and destruction, warriors throughout history share basic philosophies which bring up the same questions. “Why do we fight?” “Why am I here, now?” “Why did I survive?” These mull about in the mind to the point of obsession in some. Termed as “Survivor’s Guilt” the last question often leads to what Freud would describe as Thanatos, the “death wish.” PTSD suffering veterans have one of the highest suicide rates of any group and this question is one factor in that decision to take one’s own life.

   Along with the “death wish” is the nagging, ever-present feeling that there is no future. Conditioned by months or even years of constant anxiety and the imminent threat of death at any time during the conflict, the warrior returns home to believe that there is no life beyond this moment. This “truth” of the veteran warrior is their very state of existence. That the inevitable death will come soon and when it does, the veteran will be ready.

   As a veteran of the current conflict in Iraq, covering what many have described as the fiercest battle the military has fought since Hue City in Vietnam, I suffer from combat PTSD. The questions of my very existence and my place in the world run through my head constantly. I am on guard against every conceivable threat but feel that death is soon to come. This anxiety is a natural defense mechanism during conflict and when it doesn’t abate afterwards it becomes PTSD.

   My personal rhetoric towards several of the writings covered in this course is one with a thought of futility. Gilgamesh, Socrates, Hamlet and the DuBois essays read with an all-encompassing theme of futility in spite of great hardship and struggle. This futility I see the most in The Epic of Gilgamesh and Plato’s Dialogues.

   Gilgamesh toils after the death of Enkidu on order to find everlasting life. In spite of his struggle, he fails. This drama plays out every day in Iraq and is driven home by funeral after funeral. The death of friends becomes a grim lottery and we all wonder when we will be released of the anxiety by having our number chosen. With the siege of Fallujah now 4½ years in the past, that anxiety still stays with me every minute. The edgy, restless thoughts have now been replaced by a grim malaise. Like Socrates in a jail cell, I’m condemned to death. When, I don’t know, but it looms in the near future for me as it does for so many combat vets. This is not a desire to die or suicidal ideation, but a greater knowledge that as death is inevitable, it may be immediate. It may be now.

   As Gilgamesh went on after having the root of eternal life stolen from him, I’ve moved on. Not to become a king in the cradle of civilization, but to realize and know that life is precious. To have empathy and compassion for everyone and everything. Resigning myself to the thought that if my life is to be taken from me in the near future, I must do what I can to make life better for those around me. From the people I cherish dearly to the people I disdain, I interact with when possible, forgive when possible and take photos of everything always. Combat PTSD has shown me a different way to look at life and through this lens I’ve read futility into these readings but with that futility comes a greater stoicism and sense of purpose.

   Socrates can be called a father of philosophy and his teachings were a paradigm shift for the whole world. Socrates made his mark on the world before his trial, not afterwards as did Gilgamesh following his trek through the wilderness. His principles of piety and justice overrode any sense of personal preservation. I’ve incorporated this into my own life somewhat, putting myself last often for the benefit of others. This self-sacrifice ethos comes from the thought that if I’m to only live for a short amount of time more then I should help to better the world in any way I can.

   While reading these two sources, among the others, I’ve tempered my fatalistic attitude a bit and resigned myself to a life of struggle, not for everlasting life but just to live a good one.


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