Tempe, AZ. “Why do soldiers miss war?” This is the provocative question at the heart of Scott Beauchamp’s essay collection Did You Kill Anyone?: Reunderstanding My Military Experience as a Critique of Modern Culture. It’s what he wishes the bleary-eyed hipsters who quietly sidled up to him at Brooklyn rooftop parties (and elsewhere) in the years after his military deployment would have asked him instead of the book’s titular question. It’s a question he asks himself with some frequency. He knows firsthand that war is hell. And the memories of the drudgery and boredom that make up so much of Army life—even during wartime—are still palpable. So why would anyone miss it? And why, specifically, do Scott’s memories of his time in uniform, which coincided with the Iraq War, continue to serve as a sort of moral anchor?
Each essay in the collection grapples with these questions from a different angle. Sometimes the titles provide partial answers: “Community”; “Tradition”; “Honor.” In “Boredom” and “Smoking,” surface-level negatives are recast as transcendent positives. The bored soldier is given no recourse but to go inward and grapple with the elasticity of time and the vexing questions of existence. And … smoking? Beauchamp weaves such a spell that your reviewer, a lifelong nonsmoker, felt the twitching urge to buy a pack and light up in solidarity with Scott, his grandpa Joe (ball-turret gunner in World War II), and his “laughing aunt flicking her long, skinny cigarette into a heavy glass ash tray.”
“I didn’t fully acknowledge how invasive and sweeping the connections formed by cigarettes actually are,” Beauchamp writes.
The circuit is majestic. I don’t know where it begins or ends (does anyone?), but it moves from indigenous myths of tobacco gods, into the sublime symbolism of Baudelaire, across factory floors, hovers above the head of Sartre, filters through my grandfather’s lungs in his ball turret …, is expelled in Kerouac’s ebullient breath, is crushed onto canvases, seared into cells of film, moves through the houses of my relatives and into my own lungs in Iraq before connecting to the words on this page and moving into you.
Well damn, a few more sentences like that and I’m missing smoking too—and war. It is during these freewheeling riffs that Beauchamp’s writing is at its most electric. And the linkages—between his experiences and those of other writers, family members, and soldiers—provide a partial answer to that central question. The military is not just a martial organization, it is a state of mind—a sort of “place” that exists outside of location and time. The men and women who enlist in military service find themselves, briefly or for an extended period, inhabiting that place. Beauchamp again:
This might be difficult for a secular civilian to understand, how one could feel connected to individuals they’ve never met through membership of an organization that exists through multiple life spans. The further out you move from identification with your own day-to-day experiences, the more your expression of a collective identity resists articulation and takes on reverential, almost mystical tones. Suffice to say that we sang “The Big Red One Song,” written in 1943 by then Captain Donald Kellet as he convalesced in Algeria, while we marched along German streets that the unit had helped to liberate. We felt the past inside of us. Our past. And we knew it was ours not only because we wore the same colors and carried the same guidon as the ones who had come before us, but because we remembered them and their sacrifices as we understood that ours would be remembered by subsequent generations.
Beauchamp is speaking, of course, of tradition—in some of the most poetic and stirring language in which I have heard it addressed. If you are lucky enough to recognize some aspect of what he describes in your own life, you must also be aware of its relative absence in our contemporary world, which seems to run on wheels of perpetual revolution. Tradition is the yin to the yang of the revolutionary impulse, and it took the staid institution of the military—and specifically service in that legendary Army unit—to bring tradition in all its majesty into Beauchamp’s life. The experience proved transformative: a liberation from the transient into the realm of the permanent things.
The military provides other types of anchoring that are not quite so poetic as the unbroken line of martial spirit described above. If we continue on with this idea of the military as a place (which is never stated overtly in Scott’s book, but, I believe, clearly implied), and we think of the geography of that place—specifically, the permanent military bases where soldiers spend so much of their time—it’s an admittedly odd place to pine for. Bases are typically flat and drab (though there are some notable exceptions.) As a rule, functionality takes priority over aesthetics. But within these unassuming villages no effort is spared in addressing the needs of the soldiers and their families. Healthcare, housing, clothing, food, exercise, and leisure are all addressed. This is the sense of community Beauchamp writes of, a palpable connectedness not just in the thick of combat or the gruel of training, but in the spaces between. It’s also the virtue of honor embodied in a massive organization taking care of its own with startling effectiveness. It’s the reason that my grandfather, even though he retired from the US Marine Corps in the early 1970s, remained in close proximity to Air Station Cherry Point, in Havelock, North Carolina, for the rest of his long life. He did much of his shopping there, occasionally dined there, got haircuts there, went to movies there, and found validation in the respect he received from the active-duty Marines. Cherry Point doesn’t look like much, but it is as tangible a place as I’ve ever been. And it boasts a much stronger community than anything to be found outside its gates for miles.
But back to that central question: Why do soldiers miss war? Although Beauchamp touches on base life and the perks of the military and writes movingly of the dislocation he felt when cut loose from this world, his primary focus and the lens through which the qualities of ritual, tradition, honor, community, and hierarchy are most acutely observed is the crucible of wartime service. Actual combat may comprise only a small percentage of a soldier’s deployment, but one of the reasons honor and hierarchy are stressed so heavily in training is so there will be no question of how to act when lives depend on it. Something about this shared endeavor—and the knowledge that this random assortment of people with whom the soldier finds himself sharing his life during this compressed period of time must be relied upon in potentially extreme circumstances—creates a heightened camaraderie and sense of awareness that is unlikely to appear at any other point in life.
This presents a quandary for those of us who have not donned the uniform. Absent military service, or a sustained collective effort such as the World War II homefront, or the off chance of finding ourselves on an NFL team going into a Super Bowl, how can we break through the walls of our individualities to deeply connect with community and a cause greater than ourselves? Each of us might manage it to a degree, perhaps by committing wholeheartedly to our faith community or a social cause or a local volunteer organization. But short of giving oneself over to the priesthood it’s difficult to imagine achieving the total immersion that can happen when participating in the military.
Beauchamp offers no easy answers. Something like hierarchy—which the civilian population seems ever inclined to resist because it smacks of power and elitism—may be impossible to replicate in its military shape, and perhaps it is not advisable to do so. Nonetheless, Beauchamp makes a compelling case for the clarity of thought and action brought about by a solid grasp of the chain of command.
Ritual, tradition, and honor, on the other hand, may be more easily transferable, even if they are largely absent from civilian culture at present. Beauchamp implicitly challenges the reader to consider ways in which these virtues might be cultivated. One surprising revelation: martial life—despite or perhaps because of its stringent demands on personal conduct—may in some ways be more forgiving than life in the civilian world; for martial life allows for—expects, even—transformation. Beauchamp offers as an example his own loss of honor: a highly publicized incident in which he was “unmasked” and severely reprimanded for pseudonymously publishing a series of dispatches detailing his experiences in Iraq while the war was still unfolding. It is indicative of the values explored in this book (and their scarcity in the non-military world) that Beauchamp devotes no ink to the humiliation he experienced in having his veracity and motives scrutinized by civilian pundits. Wholly absent are the soaring defenses of the First Amendment and the Fourth Estate we would expect in any comparable situation. Instead, his chief regret is how the unmasking created difficulties within his unit, and how the unwanted attention from outside stirred chaos and distraction at precisely the time when the opposite was needed during the group’s wartime deployment.
The Army acted swiftly. “Most likely to an outsider, my punishment was not commensurate with my infractions,” Beauchamp writes.
I was put on a work detail where I was made to work 20 hours a day (4 hours of sleep being the absolute minimum the Army is required to give a soldier.) During the long work days I would fill sandbags and move scrap from one end of our combat outpost to another. A noncommissioned officer accompanied me wherever I was, so that I could never have a moment alone and to enforce the strict “no talking to Beauchamp” rule that my platoon sergeant had implemented. And as the ultimate symbol of dishonor, my rifle was taken from me. It was, by no stretch of the imagination, the most difficult experience I faced during the war. And it came at the hands of my fellow soldiers, my brothers.
It got worse. Beauchamp contracted typhoid during the ordeal and was hospitalized. “Slipping out of consciousness while lying in a field hospital with a temperature of 103F, my body flirted with permanent brain damage,” he writes.
Yet on the other end of this draconian punishment lay an unequivocal redemption that seems unimaginable in the civilian world. By the time of Beauchamp’s second deployment, he had regained his rank and become a team leader. The soldier who had been humiliatingly shorn of his rifle became the company armorer: “a position of responsibility far above my rank.” If there is any lingering resentment over the hospitalization or the endless wrestling with sandbags and scrap, Beauchamp doesn’t show it. Instead, he says, “I’m grateful that such a process exists whereby I was able to be shriven and redeemed.” No one who reads his book in full will doubt his sincerity.
Did You Kill Anyone? is a vital book. Its only shortcoming is, in a way, a testament to the strength of its author’s voice. Beauchamp has an occasional tendency, in bolstering his arguments, to cede precious real estate to other writers—people like David Foster Wallace, Sebastian Junger, Alexis de Tocqueville, and Robert Nisbet. In many instances their excerpts open a welcome dialog with Beauchamp’s ideas, demonstrating literature’s beguiling ability to bridge time and space to forge connections between like minds. But I am jealous of about 1/3 of this material—jealous because of the original prose we are missing out on in order to hear more from Wallace, et al. As great as these other writers are—and it’s easy to understand why Wallace, with his kaleidoscopic style, exerts such a strong influence—I don’t know that they have anything to say on the subjects of war and the martial virtues that I wouldn’t rather hear from Beauchamp directly.
One might expect to encounter in such a deeply philosophical work ruminations on the rightness or wrongness of the Iraq War, or of war itself. But that is not Beauchamp’s focus and probably never will be. From the hints he gives, one gets the sense that his feelings are mixed. But that is the terrain of another sort of writer. Beauchamp is less concerned with the questions of why we fight and whether we should—perhaps understanding that these are unanswerable—and more with how fighting teaches us something about how to live. This is a subject of surprisingly widespread relevance, and Did You Kill Anyone? is a sophisticated and soulful exploration of it from a writer who I suspect will be worth listening to for many years to come.