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Life After Wartime

Burned all my notebooks
What good are notebooks?
They won’t help me survive
My chest is aching
Burns like a furnace
The burning keeps me alive

–Talking Heads, “Life During Wartime

You haven’t been to war until you’ve learned to flinch at the sound of a traffic helicopter overhead, as your body waits for the pop of machine gun fire spattered on the crowds below.

You haven’t been to war until you fear having your back to the street as you turn your key in the lock of your own front door, because of how easy it would be to take you out from behind as you stand there.

You haven’t been to war until you look into the shit-filled toilet bowl before you flush and imagine a hand holding the back of your neck and forcing your head down into the filthy bowl. Holding it there until your lungs burst, and you gasp for air and swallow shit and piss instead. Until your fingers curl periodically with the sensation that someone is about to pull your nails out with a pair of pliers.

You haven’t been to war until you transpose any loud sound in your dreams to a pounding on your door as the troops storm in to drag you from your bed and fling you into a waiting van.

You haven’t been to war until you wait, behind the thud of distant fireworks at the ballpark, to hear the scream of the diving planes, the shriek of the guided missiles, the rumble and roar of the tanks as they roll in.

You haven’t been to war until you look around guardedly in a crowded street and know without a shadow of a doubt that anyone you see, anyone, could be about to kill you.

And because you haven’t been to war, you cower at the images on the TV screen and you say to everyone you know (all of whom, who haven’t been to war either, will nod supportively and say, yes, of course, that’s true): the police, the soldiers, they have to do whatever they must to protect us. Who are we to judge them? We are not in their place.

But if you have been to war, all of this is waiting for you, all day every day, lurking in the silence of the suburban streets where your neighbors are invisible hostiles, or the clangorous city streets where no one looks anyone else in the eye, where the suit on his phone bumps into you and moves on past without breaking his stride, in the plastic-coated food, and the gas-soaked pavement and the cheesy, piped-in music everywhere – so one day you flip out, you say no more terror, no more dread, no more waiting for the ax to fall. Not enough to go for a drive and blast the car stereo till your gut shakes. Not enough to drink yourself stupid and beat the wife or girlfriend bloody when the rage takes hold.

You plan your operation; you assemble your weaponry (so easy, that part!). Then you head for the highway, for the demonstration, for the shopping mall. You know what to do, because we gave you the best training in the world. We built you, we sent you out there. Ambush. That’s how we roll. Catch the enemy by surprise.

And because we taught you what justice is: it’s kill the other guy, the one who wants to kill you. It’s as simple as that, the justice we taught you, our military justice. You don’t have to ask why he wants to kill you, what made him that way. Just take him out. Make him pay for making you afraid for your life. It’s him or you. If you learned nothing else during your stint, you learned that.

You know it’s a hopeless mission, and you will probably die in the attempt. But what kind of life can you have anyway, now that the war is everywhere?

Others will come after you, and finish what you started.

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Christy Rodgers lives in San Francisco, where all that is solid melts into air. Her essays and reviews have appeared in CounterPunch Alternet, Upside Down World, Truthout, Dark Mountain Project, and Left Curve Magazine. Her blog is What If? Tales, Transformations, Possibilities.

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