We cannot choose who we love. True. Yet, we choose trust, stability, warmth, mutuality and respect. Not many would choose war. Or would we?
Last week I attended a discussion at The Frontline Club, a London club set up to honor those who died on the front in pursuit of journalism. It was a discussion between Jake Wood and Charles Glass. Jake spoke about the battle he faced upon his return from Afganistan and Iraq when diagnosed with chronic post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and Charles Glass, whose latest book Deserter explores the widely untold stories of the British and American deserters in the Second World War.
Jake’s story, his personality, his shaking hands, the way he crumbled his speaking notes in his hands and the way he spoke openly about his condition captured the audience and me.
Jake started his story by connecting his life as a business analyst in Canary Wharf to his time on the frontline. He told about the many times he felt isolated and alone at his desk analysing numbers, the questioning of the futility of it all. He told us how he fell in love before going to Afganistan. The relationship did not survive the war. The next one didn’t survive the war in Iraq.
We cannot choose who we love.
Desert warfare, the eastern front, the western front in the Second World War. I read survivor testimonies of the Armenian genocide, of the Rwandese genocide. I cried when I read the letters of students from the Somme or Verdun during the First World War. I analysed why the Kenyan homeguards in the Mau Mau uprising killed their own people on behalf of the British. I wanted to know whether there is a difference in the scale of violence between men and women. I read court transcripts of the process against female guards in the concentration camp Bergen Belsen and Ravensbrueck. The colonial wars, the rubber trade and torture in King Leopold’s Congo. The Germans sending the Herero into the desert to wither away. I read accounts of child soldiers in Sierra Leone and those who got away in Sudan. The lost boys. I visited the American War Crimes Museum in Vietnam and went to Hue to see the destroyed citadel. I watched the Killing Fields and how learned how everyone with glasses got slaughtered by Pol Pot. No one was safe in state orchestrated terror under Stalin, Honecker, Mao… And two years ago I went to Hama to look for evidence for Assad’s (the older) slaughter of thousands of Syrians. The news about the Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo, Tibet, Mali, the Southern edge of Thailand, Syria. And all the time why why why.
Of course I found some answers:
I know now why genocides happen (historical hatred of some sort + propaganda + fear + feeling of injustice + state apparatus that supports and enables large scale killing)
I know why some wars have been fought (nationalism, ideology, oil, border, power, economics).
I know why some people go to war (duty, indoctrination, force, eagerness, power).
I know why some of us are fascinated by it (longing for an experience outside the realm of normality, finding the raw emotions of love, hate, death, camaraderie, heroism)
But I haven’t quite found a solution to stop it.
A prison of our own making
I once met a soldier. 26 years. An American who joined the army at the age of 16. An ex-medivac surviving two tours of Afghanistan. A chance encounter after he came back without a scratch on his face but with a soul to drown in. A long beard almost growing up to his piercing blue eyes. A spirit trying to break free after years of duty. Two years later a reunion in New York. Tales about the difficult attempt to fit back into ‘society’, about being the oldest in college, about two impossible reactions: No admiration please and no hate please. My friend started to write.
And so did Jake Brown: Among You. The extraordinary true story of a soldier broken by war was published last year. He described how he wanted to go to the battlefield how he longed to kill. He described PTSD as a prison of his own making. He said: “The words are my last attempt out of this darkness. I want to know what love is.”
Someone in the audience asked him, what he wants to do next. He said: “I am doing this now. Just this.”