The Want of War: Owen Sheers

Stories of frontline battle are increasingly told by those who have never taken part. Just how urgent are realistic narratives of current warfare and to whom should we look for these accounts?

Illustration by Tim McDonagh
Illustration by Tim McDonagh

Nostalgia. Melancholia. Wind Contusions. Soldier’s Heart. Abreaction. Effort Syndrome. Not Yet Diagnosed – Mental. Not Yet Diagnosed – Nervous. Exhaustion. Battle Exhaustion. Combat Exhaustion. Shell Shock. Neurasthenia. Traumatic Neurosis. Psychoneurosis. Fear Neurosis. Battle Neurosis. Lack of Moral Fibre. Old Sergeant Syndrome. War Syndrome. Combat Fatigue. Acute Stress Disorder. Acute Stress Reaction. Combat Stress Reaction. Post-Combat Disorder. Post-War Disorder. Post-Traumatic Illness. Post-Traumatic Disorder. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

These are just some of the phrases the military and medical community have used over the years in their attempt to diagnose and define the psychological effects of conflict. It’s a list that represents a potted linguistic history of their efforts to capture in words the long mental and emotional tremor of violence, most often committed and suffered far from home. It is also a list that begins with a word we use today with very different connotations – ‘Nostalgia’, first coined by a medical student in the 17th century to describe a psychological condition suffered by Swiss mercenaries when fighting far from their mountain landscapes of home. The word is rooted in this idea of longing for a homeland, comprised of the Greek Homeric word for ‘return home’ or ‘homecoming’, nostos and ‘pain’ or ‘ache’, algos.

I compiled this list of phrases for a scene in a play I wrote called The Two Worlds of Charlie F. The play was based upon the experiences of recently wounded service personnel, who also formed the majority of the cast, making the production a recovery project as well as a piece of theatre. But a recovery from what exactly?

For many of the frontline soldiers involved, their trauma, the ‘pain’ or ‘ache’ from which they were recovering was, like those Swiss mercenaries, associated with returning home and with a sense of longing. In working with the cast of Charlie F., however, I soon discovered that unlike their historic Swiss counterparts, the pain from which these contemporary soldiers most often suffered was not a pain of longing to return home, but rather a pain of returning home. Nostalgia – that desire to be somewhere else – still formed a crucial part of their condition. But now, in the 21st century, it tended to be no longer nostalgia for a distant homeland that haunted them, but rather a nostalgia for combat – for the very war and its experiences that had wounded them, either psychologically or physically, in the first place.

As we worked through the process of putting the play together I came to realise that the list of psychological and medical terms I’d written, although chronological and therefore linear, was actually a circle too: one in which the original meaning of its first condition, ‘Nostalgia’, had been inverted in the experience of its last, ‘Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder’. The pain of missing, if the contemporary soldier suffering from PTSD is anything to go by, is no longer a pain suffered in the field, but is now more a condition of returning home. And the longing at its heart is no longer for a place of safety where these soldiers once lived before the war, but rather for the war itself.

So what lies behind this inversion? And why is the mental condition of returning British soldiers today, whether diagnosed with PTSD or not, so marked by a desire to be away from home and back in combat?

Well, firstly we have a professional army of volunteers, many of them very young. And by young, I mean children really. Britain is the only country in the EU where a child of 16 can still join the Armed Services. With their parents’ permission they can begin the process of applying to join even earlier, at the age of 15. What this combination of youth and a professional army means is that every soldier I worked with wanted to go to war. Robert Harris once said “there is a hole in modern man where a war should be.” Well if you join the army that hole can be filled, and most soldiers want it filled. They want their war. As one young marine put it, if you don’t experience combat as a trained soldier, then it’s like “going to the fairground but staying off the rides.” When I asked these young men and women about their first reaction to being deployed overseas, the consistent answer was simply, “It was a chance to do our job. A chance to do what we’ve been trained for.”

In this respect these soldiers reminded me somewhat of actors. Actors train in their art, their craft, but can only practice it, can only ‘be actors’ after a series of hinge moments have swung their way – hearing about the audition, getting the audition, being cast in the role. Similarly all the soldiers I worked with felt, despite any amount of training, that they weren’t yet soldiers, they weren’t yet complete, without experience of ‘proper soldiering’. And by proper, they meant violent conflict. Being deployed overseas. Fire fights. Risks. Engaging the enemy. Kills.

Added to this professional desire to experience war is the fact that in Britain, as in many other countries, we recruit the majority of our infantry from the most disadvantaged areas of society. As such, many of the boys I spoke with weren’t so much joining the army as leaving their current lives – unemployment, difficult situations at home, trouble with the police, boredom or simply poverty and the lack of a regular pay packet. Once in the services, the desire to go to war is an extension of this leaving – a further progression away from everything that pushed them from their home life in the first place, and propelled them towards its polar opposite – the unusual, the foreign, the well-paid, the exciting.

Although the ethos of the professional soldier finally getting to put his training into practice might be sufficient to get a young man out to Afghanistan, once in the country, if he is a frontline fighter, then his motivation for performing his role often begins to alter, and at an accelerated pace once a soldier known to him is killed or wounded. From this point onwards fighting the enemy is no longer about ‘doing their job’, but becomes motivated by something altogether brighter and darker at once – love, and its rougher underside of grief and revenge.

To serve overseas in a hostile environment is, for the modern soldier, to experience an increasing compression of belonging – to your country, to your service, to your battalion, to your regiment, to your platoon, to your four-man fire team, all the way down to your ‘oppo’, the person with whom you form a partnership in the field, and whose back you watch because they watch yours. These are the people for whom the British soldier fights and this was another consistent answer from the soldiers I interviewed – At that moment, when the bullets and rockets are flying, for whom, I wanted to know, are they fighting? Every one of them said each other. “The soldier on your left and the soldier on your right.” What begins (and what is nurtured within the services) as a sense of belonging, under the pressure of these combat situations, becomes an attachment of much greater emotional depth. It becomes a form of love, and that is why when something happens to that soldier on your right or that soldier on your left, when they are wounded, killed, or blown up by an IED, it is love that defines your individual response, and love that fuels your killing of others. Loss, not politics, human rights or mission statements, becomes the reason for their fighting.

What starts out as mission objectives, tactical plans or ‘just doing your job’, becomes, for the individual frontline soldier, something much more personal. You want to kill the enemy because they hurt your friend. It’s as simple as that, and explains one young man’s definition of a “good day in Afghanistan” as being “when you see them drop”.

For many of those I spoke with the sense of attachment they had with their fellow soldiers was, beyond their families, the strongest emotional bond they had experienced. Similarly, other psychological hungers familiar to them at home were also satisfied in combat. The sense of doing something important – something that matters. Being valued. Being at the centre of things. Having a strong sense of identity and purpose. Laced with adrenalin and risk, life becomes sharper-edged, more precarious and therefore more precious.

And then they return home. Wounded or not, they return home, and with that return – especially if it coincides with leaving the services – those heightened qualities of life they discovered, and relished, while overseas, are lost to them. Taken away in a plane flight and the handing in of an identity card.

And this is what lies at the heart of that returning-home pain. The fact that life, for many of these soldiers, seemed simpler and better overseas in conflict than it does back home in peace. And sometimes not just better, but actually the best that it will ever get for them. Despite still only being in their early 20s, some of these young men, on returning home, live with a profound sense of aftermath – that the apex of their lives has been lived, and everything to come will pale in comparison.

There are multiple reasons why so many soldiers feel this way, many of them to do with what conflict provides and society does not – that sense of purpose, of belonging, of attachment and of feeling, in the face of physical danger, alive. But this contemporary returning-home pain is also born of two different kinds of distance. The first is of thousands of miles but breached easily and quickly (in around 13 hours in total) when a soldier flies home. The psychological journey back from war, however, lags far behind the speed of this physical transition, resulting in returning soldiers being physically back in their home environments, while still existing psychologically within a sphere of soldiering. Such a psychological disconnect with their immediate surroundings results in may of the issues associated with recent veterans, from feelings of distaste and disapproval for affluent Western living to homelessness and acts of violence, their internal scales having been tipped off-balance by their exposure to modern conflict. As one young marine said to me, “Punching someone and kicking them in the head isn’t violent to us. Firing a shoulder-held missile into a house. That’s violent.”

The second distance is harder to measure and, perhaps, harder to breach, but every returning soldier will tell you they are aware of it the moment they step off the plane, and continue to be so, sometimes for the rest of their lives. It is the distance of perception and knowledge between them and the society in whose name they have committed violence or suffered violence done to them. Again, this is largely the product of a professional army recruited mostly from the poorer and more disadvantaged regions of the country. As a society we have outsourced our violence to particular social groups, and in so doing have become adept at dislocating ourselves from the realities of conflict and its aftermath. The narratives of war are broadly confined to news channels and newspapers, or are harnessed in operationally specific ways by charities and interest groups. They are nearly always remarkably one-sided too. How often do we hear, in this age of asymmetric warfare, about how many enemy fighters or civilians our own soldiers kill and wound, or about the psychological effects of them having done so?

What is left, in this distance between a society and its soldiers, is a gulf of story. The personal stories of what war and conflict are like. The emotional and psychological details and consequences. The nuanced tones and textures of the shadows that organised and sanctioned violence casts. The concentric rings of damage that spread from one returning individual through his relationships, his children, his community.

In working with the cast of Charlie F., it was this gulf I found the soldiers and their families wanted breached by the play. They wanted general society to know what happens in Afghanistan: to British soldiers, Afghan fighters and civilians. They wanted an audience to be exposed to everything that those three letters – W A R – really mean, in as unflinching, uncompromised a way as possible. They wanted the full spectrum of their experiences to be presented – everything they felt they had gained because of their service, as well as everything they felt they had lost.

Having worked on Charlie F. and then drawn upon the same interviews to write a verse drama, Pink Mist, I have to say I’m convinced they are right in their desire for these stories to be told. As a writer I know it is the well-told personal story, the empathetic leap into the experience of the individual, that best cuts through bland public narratives and can most powerfully resonate in the universal consciousness. And this is why I believe that novels, poems, plays are best placed to shape and excavate those stories for meaning, resonance and emotional and psychological significance. But who, exactly, should be doing the telling?

I began this piece with a list of terms created by the medical and military communities in their attempt to capture in words the psychological effects of conflict. And I suppose I want to end it by asking the same question of the literary community. How best can writers today, if they should at all, go about trying to capture the stories of modern conflict? In the early wars of the last century the stories of those wars were often been best told in literature by those who’d fought or experienced them: Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, David Jones, Keith Douglas, Joseph Heller, Norman Mailer, Primo Levi. But in more recent conflicts, just as we’ve outsourced our violence to a professional army no longer including men who would always, perhaps, have been writers, so it seems the literary stories of those conflicts have increasingly been outsourced to professional writers. When those stories are told, it is now most often via a process of distillation, with writers becoming conduits for the voices of others – with those who’ve lived beyond the pressures that send boys to the army, ‘dropping in’ to report back, not from a foreign frontline, but from one at home, comprised of the experience of returned soldiers.

But should it be writers doing the telling at all? And in relying upon existing writers to tell these stories, are we in fact narrowing the scope of the stories told? Should we not be working harder to give those who directly experience conflict access to the means and skills to tell their own stories? And not just British veterans and their families, but also those exposed to conflict across the world, from the villager in the Democratic Republic of Congo to the Afghan fighter in Helmand Province. I know, from having watched the soldiers in Charlie F. perform, that being told about the truths of conflict directly by someone wounded in that conflict carries a unique charge that can never be replicated even in the most skilful piece of reported writing.

My last question, and to bring this piece back to its first word, is are we, as a society, guilty of a nostalgia for the relatively easy narratives of past wars rather than engaging fully with the more difficult and complex narratives of our current conflicts? When one contemporary poet read Pink Mist, my verse drama based on the interviews I’d conducted with wounded soldiers and their families, he remarked it all seemed “a bit exotic.” And it was. To him. Because although he was well versed in the stories of WWI and WWII, he had never come into contact with anyone who was fighting a war today. And nor had he felt the need to. Because he did not agree with the war in Afghanistan, he felt no need to know about it, despite the streets of his town being occupied by young men carrying and spreading its violence and damage every day.

But perhaps he is right? Perhaps the time has past when literature can realistically expect to be at the forefront of bringing the realities of conflict home, and that role is now better served by YouTube, films or blogs? And perhaps it isn’t our place to be trying to tell these stories at all, but rather we should allow them to naturally emerge, in time, from the conflicts that birthed them? I don’t pretend to have the answers. But what I do know is that, however they are told, and whoever tells them, and however desensitised we might appear to them, the stories of modern conflict do need to be heard. Because if they are not, then a society allowed to remain unfamiliar with every facet of conflict, allowed to think of the realities of war as ‘exotic’, will continue to allow its leaders to resort to it as a solution, and nothing will change.

This article was first published in issue 15 of PORT. To buy or subscribe to PORT, click here.