Last week on the Twittersphere, a discussion began on the impact of sensory perception on memory. It was started with this tweet:
You can see the tweet he was referring to, and the subsequent discussion, by clicking on the link, but in short, it was a photo of a dead Taliban commander in Herat. @combatcavscout is, as his handle belies, a combat veteran. His memories were jarred by the sight of blood, and the follow-on sensory reactions, namely, smell. The smell of the body odor of Afghan fighters, the smell of blood, the smell of death. These were all triggered by viewing this picture, which he eloquently and painfully describes. His reaction shows him to be familiar with death, and thereby a man who grew accustomed to violence and combat. His was a personal war.
My reactions were different. I saw merely a dead man. When @combatcavscout mentioned the scent of Afghan body odor, it summoned up in me the musky, spicy scent of the workers at the Bagram Air Field laundry facility, not Afghan fighters. As an engineer staff officer, my interactions with the locals were limited to those in the chow hall or laundry facility, or through the slats of RPG netting on the side of an MRAP. A very impersonal war, as a “fobbit.”
Smells can bring back a few memories with me, but most are related to the ever-present fecal dust that seemed to hang over Bagram. Sounds are what bring me back. A distant siren or truck horn, just on the edge of my hearing, will jolt my senses into overdrive and suddenly I’m laying in the dirt, hearing the faint yelpings of the incoming siren, smelling the dust of millenia, and feeling the earth “crump” with the impact of the rockets. A very impersonal war.
Smells, sights, sounds, even taste, can all bring back memories for veterans. Some can cause immediate physical reactions (there’s a whole generation that isn’t crazy about fireworks) while others cause mental reactions, which can linger. How we confront these reactions is often based on our surroundings, our upbringing, the severity of the events we experienced, and how close our support network is. Our memories, good and bad, tell us who we are. It’s up to us to decide what to do with that information and how to engage those memories.
The military terminology used in the phrase “engage those memories” was not an accident. Memories can be the enemy. They can attack out of nowhere, leaving you shaken. This is why many people decide to put up blocks to their memories, refusing to talk about past experiences lest the old enemy come over the wall again. This is perfectly natural, given the horrific nature of many memories. But it is my belief that we are stronger than our memories. To let our memories control our lives is to give in to the evil that is in the world. Engaging our memories is like transitioning from target to target with a rifle; it is hard at first, but we improve through practice.
For myself, I enjoy writing as an outlet and as a way to engage my memories. I do not have traumatic memories, but I have reactions induced by habits. Talking with other writers and other veterans helps to reassure me that my occasional moment of panic or string of nightmares is normal. Others engage their memories through running, hiking, volunteering, painting, or making music. The common theme among these methods is creativity, which counters the destructive nature of war.
There also those who engage their memories with drinking or other destructive habits. I cannot judge these people, because I have not lived in their shoes. But this type of behavior is not creative, nor is it taking the fight to the enemy. It is delaying the enemy, or disguising the enemy, or making a new enemy so as not to confront the old ones of memory, or simply trying to escape the memories altogether. In reality, it is not an escape. It may temporarily delay the enemy, but we all have to confront it. We are losing far too many of our brothers and sisters in arms to the ultimate escape attempt: suicide.
We are far stronger than our memories, especially when banded together. We cannot stop fighting; we cannot stop creating.