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A "Woman in Combat" at a Coffee Shop

Yuma, AZ. It was a fresh winter day and a brisk ride to the coffee shop. The old boys were feelin' frisky, indeed. Not too many people get to experience this sort of pleasure, a special one, that comes from temporarily defying inevitability and mortality. Seventy-year-old men came into the coffee shop like a horde of Genghis's pony-riding barbarians. Why shouldn't an old man do what it takes to feel young, even if the same behavior would be immoral in ordinary circumstances? Let's sit at the coffee shop and feel macho and over-confident; and imagine ourselves as the sackers of cities and the despoilers of Civilization.

Our conversations are never particularly interesting by themselves, and that was true this morning, as well. Then something strange happened: one minute the old boys were enjoying typical banter, and the next minute the mood changed entirely. A cute little lass, about 3, with blue eyes and curly hair, approached my tribe of barbarians, perhaps because she and her mother thought we were funny-looking with our old-man heads sticking out of tight and bright cycling clothes.

What a change! Most of us have 30 gears on our bicycles, but never have we "switched gears" as deftly as at this moment. Suddenly all of these old boys were fawning over the lil' darlin' with such tenderness and obvious enjoyment; and why shouldn't they? Most are grandfathers and a couple are great-grandfathers. I have never had any children, but even I was swept away by the little girl's charm, or rather, by my tribe's reaction to her.

It was alarming to realize that this might have been the first time in my life that I enjoyed fawning over a human puppy. Does that make sense from an Evolutionary point of view? Is something wrong with me?

But never underestimate the human imagination when it's interested in self-exculpation and passing off the blame. I had enjoyed being around children in Mexico during two winters of RVing there. But American children seem like obnoxious, expensive, little nuisances to me. Why this should be so is perhaps the subject for another essay.

Riding with a bicycle club involves sweat, strenuous effort, pain, excitement, and risk -- all the components of a "band of brothers" type of experience. The phrase comes from Shakespeare's Henry V; viewers or readers of the play might be able to tie it to their own experiences:

KING. Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more;
Or close the wall up with our English dead.
In peace there's nothing so becomes a man

As modest stillness and humility; 
But when the blast of war blows in our ears,
Then imitate the action of the tiger: 
Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood, 
Disguise fair nature with hard-favour'd rage; 
Then lend the eye a terrible aspect;

Or we can tie the cycling club experience to something more modern.  I actually read a modern (!) book recently. Even more shameful than that, it was a New York Times bestseller. The book was "War" by Sebastian Junger, based on his experiences as an "embedded" journalist with American troops in one of the dodgiest valleys of eastern Afghanistan, close to the mountainous border with Pakistan. His object was to avoid politics and write about the experiences of the combat soldiers.
page 144:  War is a lot of things and it's useless to pretend that exciting isn't one of them...but the public will never hear about it. It's just not something that many people want acknowledged. War is supposed to feel bad because undeniably bad things happen in it...

...war is life multiplied by some number that no one has ever heard of. In some ways twenty minutes of combat is more life than you could scrape together in a lifetime of doing something else.
The soldiers who survived combat had a tough time going back to the "real" world:
Page 233: Civilians balk at recognizing that one of the most traumatic things about combat is having to give it up...To a combat vet, the civilian world can seem frivolous and dull, with very little at stake and all the wrong people in charge.

When men say they miss combat, it's not that they actually miss getting shot at... it's that they miss being in a world where everything is important and nothing is taken for granted. They miss being in a world where human relations are entirely governed by whether you can trust the other person with your life.
Page 265: The petty tyrannies of garrison life have returned, and the men do not react well to getting reprimanded by other men who have never been to war. O'Byrne gets yelled at for not sitting in an armchair properly...
All of these things exist in a milder form in a bicycle club. Don't think that I'm glamorizing risk: one of our riders made a mistake recently and got hit by a car going about 40 mph. The rider was 74 years old. He was flown off to the hospital in Phoenix. He survived.

To say that a certain amount of risk is unavoidable and necessary in order to have a non-dreary experience is a different thing from saying that "risk is inherently good and the more, the better."

Recently the American military announced that it will use women in combat situations. In order to protect your PC credentials, you are required to believe that this is progress.  Just think: our little darlin' back at the coffee shop will be old enough to be RPG-fodder in 15 years. Perhaps the war in Afghanistan will still be going on, on some level. (Officially it will be over of course, based on games with semantics.) 


edlfrey said…
"The petty tyrannies of garrison life have returned, and the men do not react well to getting reprimanded by other men who have never been to war."

That is as concise a summery of why I did not make the Army a career as I have ever read. I served in Dominican Republic and Viet Nam where living conditions were not the greatest but I wasn't being shot at so IF I could have avoided garrison life I would have stayed.

It is also difficult for Peace Corps Volunteers to return to the 'real' world. I got a lot of hand holding before, and while, serving in Bulgaria but there was not a lot of help when I returned. Culture shock works both ways!
As former combat infantry in Viet Nam, I would agree with Mr. Junger in everything you quoted.
Ed and Barney, there weren't many philosophical digressions in Junger's book. Most of it was purely descriptive. In some ways that was good, since it made it "reporting" rather than "spin."

Anyway, I'm glad I chose the juicy comments that you guys could relate to.
"Risk" is all about taking a chance. Without risk, life can be ordinary, to boring. I preach this all the time, "Get out of your chair." War, however, is indeed on another level. We need to risk "reaching out" to those who have been there.
Box Canyon Mark
XXXXX said…
Of course, little boys are just as sweet though grown-up men probably don't like to admit this vulnerability. It's just not manly. War does terrible things to people but there is just no stopping the leaders who cause it. Recent news has been more willing to divulge the truth to what Ed mentioned. After all, to admit that joining the Peace Corps, as just one example, could lead to some permanent trauma issues, just isn't patriotic now, is it? People may think twice before joining this band of heroes. Perhaps "trauma" is too strong of a word but there are cases where it is quite accurate.
Mark, I'd like to "reach out" to the victims on both sides of American Imperial policy.

George, You've run into different little boys than I have. I don't really understand Peace Corps trauma.