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The dynamics of war

Watching the last episode Ken Burns’ Civil War I noticed that many of the men who had fought in the Civil War spent the rest of their lives wishing they could relive the experience. To somehow relive what must have been the most horrendous experience. I have always wondered why.

Near the end of the last episode of Ken Burns’ The War Quentin Aanenson, a World War II pilot, in his eighties at the time of his interview for the film, reflects on the allure of combat. about the lure of war.

“The dynamics of war are so absolutely intense, the drama of war is so absolutely emotionally spellbinding that it’s hard for you to go on with a normal life without feeling something is missing.  Now, I have had a wonderful life. I have a family that just is ideal, and I’ve enjoyed my life.  But I find there are times when I am pulled back into the whirlpool. I find that the intensity of that experience was so overwhelming, and almost intimidating, that you can’t quite let go of it.”

I have never been in combat so I can’t really understand it. But I think, at least intellectually, I can imagine why someone who has experienced combat would be unable to let go of it — would keep returning to it. The imminent possibility of death removes the dread of it from the equation. All deliberation aside, one just plunges into action. It is an act of complete sacrifice, whether the outcome is life or death. The actor is never more fully alive. Few things can match the intensity of the experience.

And I think, particularly in war, this sacrifice is a gift of oneself to something one feels is of greater importance than life. Country, ideology, family. Often in accounts of war it is loyalty to one’s fellows. But it is one of the few times a human being is offered the opportunity to be completely selfless. It may be, in fact, the greatest expression of love a human can make.

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