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The Dichotomy of War

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The Dichotomy of War
According to Freud our life is played out in two different, opposing forces. One of them, Eros, is the drive for sex, love, and self-preservation, whereas the other is known as Thanatos, the drive for death and self-destruction. It is the yin and yang of motivations and urges. Put simply, Eros wants us to live and struggle through and with pain and suffering; Thanatos prefers to end it all with death, the equalizer, the dark force, the state of constant peace, calm and rest.
My father, a 66 year old retired plumber, is a Vietnam vet seeking treatment for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder for the first time in his life. He has two purple hearts and a plethora of mal-adaptive coping skills which have come rather pronounced in his golden years. He lives on a 117 acre ranch in Ellensburg, Washington. His home is off-grid meaning he is not connected to any public utilities and produces his own energy and his home is completely self-sufficient. Most would say this is a remote way of living. Some would say it’s a form of isolation. With all of this privacy at his fingertips, my father still chooses to venture out into the wilderness for days at a time by himself, with his rifle. There is no question in my mind that war gave my father purpose and meaning that is still a part of his identity today but in ways he still doesn’t fully comprehend. As a result of his war experience, he felt pulled in both directions of Eros and Thanatos; the will to survive and the instinct toward destruction. He struggled to admit he was pulled between these two powerful forces during the war, and he is still in conflict with this reality today.
In his essay “Eros and Thanatos,” Chris Hedges discusses the power of war on self-deception. He states it “propels those in war forward. When it falls away, when we grasp war’s reality, a universe collapses.” (252) provides personal accounts of how love could act as an “antidote” to the destructive powers of war. He recalls that after disasters like the events of September 11th and family members immediately sought out loved ones. He explains that in such situations, love “fuses happiness and meaning” and that “love alone can fight the impulse that lures us toward self-destruction.” (249) Hedges also explains that when living in war-zones of Latin America, the Middle East, and the Balkans, he found “sanctuary” in the presence of loving couples. Hedges explains that in the presence of such love, he “found sanity and was reminded of what it means to be human.” (249)
There were many examples throughout Hedges excerpt that showed how war is like a narcotic. One example is of a reporter Hedges met named Kurt (pages 254-255). Kurt had traveled to many different locations at war, in search for "new highs" that war brought. Many reporters choose not to return and continue their line of work because of how war can be seen as, "fueled by fear, excitement, the pull of the crowd, and the godlike exhilaration of destroying, is often thrilling"(256). This narcotic sensation also affects the soldiers who are involved in the war. On page 261, it describes how veterans after an Iranian war went to the sea and just started at waves because they felt lost and as if life was not as thrilling or purposeful without war.
In his essay, Hedges is calling readers to acknowledge the attraction that draws people to participate in war while realizing that involvement in war rarely results in personal fulfillment. Hedges calls readers to reject the “faded clich that the battle under way against terrorism is a battle against evil,” and instead instructs readers to try to understand “the real injustices that have led many of those arrayed against us to their rage and despair.” (261) Hedges is challenging readers to avoid labeling wars as simple struggles between good and evil and advises the US to avoid entering a conflict without a “sense of humility and an acknowledgment of the sinfulness of our own cause.” (250)
Hedges’ explanation of the forces that draw soldiers to war and the mind altering effects it has on soldiers can also be seen in “The Casualty” by Dan Baum, another essay in the “Open Questions” collection. In this essay, Dan Baum offers an account of the effects the violence of the Iraq War on a young soldier named Michael Cain. After graduating from high school, Cain unreservedly enlisted in the army, seeing it as an opportunity to escape the dim prospects of his future in Wisconsin, where his only hope for a career was at Wal-Mart as a shelf stocker. Hedges explains this is the case for many soldiers. Hedges was also drawn to the idea of war filling the void of meaning and purpose in his life.
Dan Baum, the author telling Michael Cain’s story, explains that “Michael thrived under military discipline. The unity of purpose, the clarity of authority, and the hard physical work all gave him hope of becoming the man he wanted to be- serious, competent, respect.” (233) After spending several weeks in training, Michael Cain wrote to the military recruiter who had helped to convince him to join the military by showing exciting images of soldiers manning powerful helicopters and tanks in order to thank this recruiter for “‘helping him fulfill a lifelong dream, becoming AN AMERICAN SOLDIER!!!’” (233) As he fully embraced the possibility of experiencing violence in his new role as a soldier, Michael Cain even wrote to his mother that wished to return home with a Purple Heart Badge and another badge for spending at least 60 days under fire, which would in his mind represent that he had “experienced the essence of warfare.” (233) According to his superior officers, Cain was always “ready to grad an M249 machine gun and volunteer for dangerous missions.” (233)
However, his view of the violence as an exciting component of the noble cause of war was altered when his hemmit vehicle ran over a mine, causing the 22 year old Cain to lose a leg. The glory of violence was lost for Michael when he returned home to America. At home in Berlin, Wisconsin, “he was no longer Sergeant Cain, or a war hero, but a one-legged guy in a Barcalounger with little to fill his days beyond PlayStation 2 and thrice-weekly physical therapy appointments.” (243) Baum shows us through his experience returning home, that Cain is pulled between the forces of Eros and Thanatos as he misses his sense of purpose as a soldier.
As was explained in “Eros and Thanatos” the long term effects of war on the life of soldiers found by Cain is a common symptom of veterans as he found readjusting to normal life challenging after experiencing the life-and-death situations of Iraq. His experiences also affected his family’s mental state, and his distraught mother was prescribed anti-depressants because of her grief and stress over her son’s injury.
“When war falls away, when we grasp war’s reality, a universe collapses.” (252) This is what happened to my father and this is what happened to Cain.…...

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