So it’s Monday afternoon, and I’ve set some time aside to write. And as is usual when I do this, the words have decided to hide themselves beneath my keys and they refuse to come out. Classic case of writer’s block. So this is my attempt to coax the words out, to try to charm grammar back into my good graces. This piece has been started without any title, and with no clear idea of where it is headed. Because, as my writer friends tell me, the best way to cure writer’s block is to just write.
One reason that I’ve been hesitant to tap at the keys is that it seems as though there are just too many words out there as it is. I was recently on a two week training mission in eastern Europe that disconnected me from the internet and most news. Days were spent training with the partnered nation’s soldiers, often in landscapes of stunning beauty and pure subsistence economy. Locals survived by farming, or raising livestock, or cutting wood, or anything that they could do to make some money for their families. Subsistence living. Quite a glaring perspective shift from the land of consumerism and shrill talking heads that is much of America these days.
I returned to find myself in no mood to write. Words seem to have little meaning these days, as everyone claims to have the hottest of hot takes, and every hour holds some fresh new outrage. Every single idea from the national security realm is dug up, brushed off, and peddled as the “new way forward.” Tactics and strategy are given the same treatment; over-analyzed to death. Applying Jomini to cyber. Clausewitz to the Middle East. Every single part of the profession is dissected by a ever-growing crowd of voices – and for what purpose? What do we seek? Are we actually trying to improve our systems and ways of doing business, or are we just all trying to carve out some niche as national security voices, jostling for a better foothold on the proverbial soap-box?
At what point does one run out of words? Or, when do words cease to carry a fascination, and instead only bring a dull dread? And are my words simply for myself or are they for you? Who is it that I am writing for?
The part of my brain that usually answers such questions lights a cigarette, pours a whiskey, shuts the door, and tells me to sod off.
The problem is, my brain is experiencing the faint afterglow and let-down of a good Army mission. This often comes with bad Army missions as well, but the effects are both the same. Let me explain. When you have a good Army mission, one where you feel like you made a difference in a positive way, its almost like your brain engages a pleasure center. You get the feelings of, “Oh yeah, this is why I joined up,” and “I can effect change in the world, no way!” You brushed up against a world larger than your own – a reality different from the one you were used to. And it can feel good. You feel empowered.
The flip side is coming home. Coming home is always great, because we love home. We spend most of our lives trying to get home, whether from work or from awkward social interactions, for those of us who are socially awkward. But home is where the routine is. And the routine is not what we just experienced. The routine is antithetical to effecting change in the world. It is not exciting, per se. We influence our world, yes, but taking out the trash and doing laundry is hardly the same as building a partner nation’s military or engaging in combat operations. Home feels small. Routine feels entrapping. Multiply this feeling exponentially for combat missions. Throw in some guilt for good measure. Guilt for actually missing some of the bad stuff. Guilt for sometimes feeling trapped at home. Guilt for constantly feeling like the people around you have no idea of the larger world, have no realization of the consequences that are out there, have no thoughts outside their own little insignificant worlds…and then guilt for imagining that we can understand the lives of the people around us.
And if it was an Army mission that went badly, then there’s a lot more guilt that is much harder to live with. I won’t pretend to have lived that, so I don’t know how it feels. I can’t imagine it goes away easily at all, or that it’s easy to square with the experiences of everyday life. But I’d hazard it also sort of dwarfs day-to-day life.
So I guess what I’m moving towards here is that I’m in that afterglow. It was a great training mission – albeit short. There’s nothing like working with partnered soldiers and seeing a concept or an idea click in their minds, and then to see them put it into action. I made some friends, had some laughs, saw some amazing sights. Hopefully I lived up to the expectations of the U.S. Army and was a positive example of what it is to be an American. And now I’m home, and am wondering what exactly my words are for.
Perhaps, in the end, it is not for me to have a purpose for words. Perhaps it is enough for them to exist, and then we’ll figure out the purpose later. Either way, I seem to have put a dent in my writer’s block. Thanks for helping out.
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Feature image courtesy Bill Watterson’s “Calvin and Hobbes,” one of the guiding forces in my intellectual development.
About the Author: Angry Staff Officer is an Army engineer officer who is adrift in a sea of doctrine and staff operations and uses writing as a means to retain his sanity. He also collaborates on a podcast with Adin Dobkin entitled War Stories, which examines key moments in the history of warfare.